Crime

Rape-murder trial opens

Joanna Aparicio hung out at a bowling alley the night she was murdered, but the last her friends saw of the 19-year-old Reedley College student was when she drove off in her car with a man she had just met.

Now that man, 21-year-old Carlos Rocha, is on trial for allegedly raping Aparicio and strangling her to death a year and a half ago. Prosecutors say Rocha later drove Aparicio's Toyota Solara over her body and then torched the car.

In his opening statements Tuesday in Fresno County Superior Court, prosecutor Jon Skiles flung the cover off a presentation board to reveal a blown-up photo of Aparicio's bloody, bruised and naked body. It was found lying in an orange grove a few miles east of Sanger.

"This [trial] will not be long, this will not be complicated," he told the jury. "His DNA — his sperm — is all over this woman who he claims he never had sex with."

When Skiles drew the jury's attention to the picture of Aparicio's body, some of the dead woman's family members winced.

Later, about a dozen members of Aparicio's family watched as a handful of witnesses recounted their last hours with Aparicio, a Parlier High School graduate.

Rocha, dressed in a gray shirt and plaid tie, showed little emotion. The Sanger resident has pleaded not guilty.

If convicted, he could face the death penalty. Rocha's Fresno attorney, Mark Broughton, told jurors they have many reasons to suspect someone other than Rocha committed the crime.

He suggested that more than one person may have killed Aparicio.

"There is no direct evidence that Mr. Rocha either raped or killed Ms. Aparicio," Broughton said. "The entire case is based on circumstantial evidence."

Rocha's attorney said autopsies show there is no proof Aparicio was raped. He didn't address Skiles' assertion that Rocha's DNA was found on Aparicio's body.

Asked during a break in the trial if he would question the results of that DNA evidence, Broughton replied, "I expect to challenge the entire case of the prosecution."

Aparicio's friends testified that they usually didn't hang out with Rocha, but that on the night Aparicio was killed they saw him walking down a street near Sanger on their way to go bowling in Clovis.

Some of the friends knew Rocha from school, so they invited him to come along.

But once the friends realized the next day that Aparicio had offered to give Rocha a ride home after bowling and that she was nowhere to be found, they grilled Rocha for information about what had happened to their friend.

Witnesses said Rocha denied killing Aparicio and instead said that "those fools" — apparently a reference to gang members — got into a fight with him and nabbed Aparicio.

But Aparicio's friends didn't buy the story. Instead, they said they roughed him up, tied his hands behind his back and called the police.

The police, Broughton said, jumped to conclusions and used strong-arm interviewing tactics on Rocha.

Law enforcement officials who investigated the case are expected to take the witness stand later this week.

Skiles said Rocha can't be trusted and that he gave differing accounts to officers of what happened to Aparicio.

He has not said why he thinks Rocha killed Aparicio, but one witness testified that Rocha appeared drunk the night Aparicio was murdered. Another said he believed Rocha had used methamphetamine.

Witnesses also said Rocha asked one of Aparicio's friends for a knife shortly before he rode off with Aparicio.

Aparicio's only misstep, Skiles said, was that she drove home with a stranger. "What did she do? She was kind to this defendant," Skiles said.

"She offered to give him a ride home. That offer led to the rape and death of Joanna."

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