Trial begins for accused shooter in killing of Biola raisin farmer George Salwasser Jr.

Farmer George Salwasser Jr., 38, shot to death on his property near Biola in May 2014.
Farmer George Salwasser Jr., 38, shot to death on his property near Biola in May 2014. Special to the Bee

In a murder trial that began Monday, both sides agree that Biola raisin farmer George Salwasser Jr. was fatally shot in May 2014 while making a 911 call to report two men stripping a stolen pickup on his property.

At issue is who pulled the trigger: Jose Canas, who is on trial for murder, or Adrian Aceves, who already has pleaded guilty to manslaughter in connection with Salwasser’s death.

If convicted of murder, Canas, 34, faces a minimum of 40 years to life in prison.

In opening statements, prosecutor William Lacy told a Fresno County Superior Court jury that Canas initially denied shooting Salwasser, but then confessed to it.

Fresno attorney Ralph Torres, who is defending Canas, said the evidence will show that Aceves – not Canas – shot Salwasser in an open field near Howard and Shields avenues, south of the tiny town of Biola.

Canas, Aceves and siblings Fabian and Maria Mansanalez were arrested following the killing.

In July 2015, Aceves and his wife, Maria Mansanalez, accepted plea deals to testify against Fabian Mansanalez and Canas. Aceves pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and possession of a stolen pickup. In exchange for his plea, he faces 11 years and eight months in prison. Maria Mansanalez pleaded guilty to being an accessory after the killing of Salwasser and possession of a stolen pickup. She faces up to three years and eight months in prison.

In October 2015, Fabian Mansanalez was sentenced to seven years in prison after a jury rejected a murder charge against him but found him guilty of possession of a stolen vehicle and being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Much of the evidence is not in dispute.

On the morning of May 8, 2014, Fabian Mansanalez stole a truck in Fresno. He drove the stolen truck to his sister’s home, where he asked Aceves to help him sell the truck’s tires and rims. Aceves called his friend Canas, and they arranged to meet in an isolated area near Howard and Shields avenues.

Maria Mansanalez and Aceves drove to the area in her SUV, and Fabian Mansanalez drove there in the stolen truck. But before getting to Salwasser’s property, Aceves traded places with Fabian Mansanalez. Aceves drove the stolen pickup to Salwasser’s property, and Mansanalez and his sister followed him. There, they met with Canas.

Fabian Mansanalez gave Aceves and Canas a jack before he and his sister drove to a store a mile away to buy soda and snacks. A store surveillance camera verified the pair was at the store and left around 6 p.m.

Meantime, one of Salwasser’s employees saw two men stripping the pickup. The employee called George Salwasser Sr., who called his son.

When Salwasser Jr. pulled up to where the two men were stripping the truck, he had a .380 Ruger in one hand and a cellphone in the other.

According to Lacy, Salwasser told Aceves and Canas he was calling police. When Aceves started to walk away, Salwasser took his attention off Canas. That’s when Canas pulled a .38-caliber revolver from his pants pocket and shot Salwasser two times – in the neck and upper back, Lacy told the jury.

Jurors heard Salwasser’s 911 tape in which he is shot while on his cellphone to a dispatch operator. His words are inaudible. He died within four to seven minutes of being shot.

According to Lacy, Aceves called Maria Mansanalez’s cellphone in order to get a ride from the crime scene. When he jumped into the SUV, he told Fabian and Maria Mansanalez that Canas “shot and killed someone,” Lacy told the jury.

A motorist called 911 after seeing Aceves jump into the SUV and Salwasser’s body. Deputies later arrested Aceves and Maria Mansanalez after she crashed her SUV in a nearby field. Fabian Mansanalez and Canas were arrested the next day.

Pablo Lopez: 559-441-6434, @beecourts