Kori Ali Muhammad was ordered Thursday to stand trial on murder and attempted murder charges after 10 police officers and detectives testified in chilling detail about his confession to the killing of four people last April, his fascination with voodoo, and the racism he experienced as a child growing up in Fresno that led to his resentment of white people.
But a key piece of evidence was revealed during the hearing in Fresno County Superior Court that could save the 39-year-old Muhammad from the death penalty, should the District Attorney’s Office decide to seek it.
Muhammad has a long documented history of schizophrenia, delusions and hearing voices, said Fresno attorney Richard Beshwate Jr., who is defending Muhammad.
In court Thursday, Fresno police detective Miguel Alvarez said he spoke with Muhammad about his mental illness during his confession to the shootings. Alvarez testified that Muhammad told him he tried for six months to get Seroquel, anti-psychotic medication used to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and to decrease hallucinations, from the Fresno County Department of Behavior Science Health but couldn’t obtain it.
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After Judge Jonathan Conklin made his ruling for Muhammad to stand trial, Beshwate said Alvarez’s testimony might convince prosecutors not to seek the death penalty since Muhammad had been unable to get medicine to control his mental illness symptoms.
Thursday’s hearing offered new details about the killing spree and what led to it.
Prosecutor Brian Hutchins said the decision whether to seek the death penalty has not been made. But he said Beshwate will have the opportunity before then to state his case to the District Attorney’s Office as to why Muhammad’s life should be spared.
A criminal complaint charges Muhammad with murdering Mark Gassett, David Jackson and Zackary Randalls on April 18 near downtown Fresno. He also faces attempted murder charges for allegedly shooting at Stephen Walter, Michael Flores and Mark Greer during the spree. In addition, he is charged with the murder of Motel 6 security guard Carl Allen Williams III, who was shot while working on April 13, and the attempted murder of security guard Oscar Menjivar, who witnessed Williams’ killing.
At the conclusion of a three-hour preliminary hearing, Conklin ruled Thursday there was enough evidence for Muhammad to stand trial on the charges. Conklin then ordered Muhammad, who is being being held in the Fresno County Jail without bail, to return to court for his arraignment on Feb. 21.
Muhammad grew up in Fresno and also lived in Sacramento. He is a follower of the Nation of Islam.
Court records say two court-appointed doctors contend Muhammad is mentally incompetent to stand trial because of his documented history of schizophrenia, and his belief that he is 66 trillion years old and can control the weather, and that UFOs are real. But on Jan. 22, Conklin ruled Muhammad was competent to stand trial after hearing testimony from jailers who said Muhammad is polite and able to follow rules. Conklin also heard jail telephone calls between Muhammad and family and friends in which he was able to carry on a conversation.
Thursday’s hearing offered new details about the killing spree and what led to it. Detectives also testified that Muhammad used a black Colt Python .357 revolver to shoot the victims, but the gun has never been found. A witness told police that Muhammad laid the gun on the ground and a Hispanic man with a Bulldogs tattoo on his hand grabbed it and ran.
Muhammad remained silent throughout the proceedings, except at the end when he shouted about the mistreatment of blacks and warned about the weather and natural disasters.
He had been drinking, but he knew what he was doing.
Fresno detective Victor Miranda
During the hearing, Fresno detective Victor Miranda testified that Muhammad told him that he killed Williams because the security guard disrespected Muhammad and his friend, Lisa Martin, who had a room at Motel 6 at Blackstone and Ashlan avenues. Miranda gave this account of what Muhammad told him:
Muhammad had finished working at a construction job when he decided to visit Martin. Once he got there, Williams and Menjivar, who goes by Oscar Esparza, informed Muhammad and Martin about a motel policy that says guests must register and pay $6 to stay.
Muhammad agreed, but when Muhammad went to register, a motel clerk told him to leave because she believe he belonged to a notorious street gang. Muhammad threatened the clerk and got into an argument with Williams and Esparza. Martin also joined in the argument.
“He had been drinking, but he knew what he was doing,” Miranda said of Muhammad. “He snapped and decided to shoot Carl Williams.”
The killing was captured by the motel’s security system. It also shows Muhammad pointing a gun at Esparza, but not firing his weapon, Miranda testified. Muhammad was able to escape, but he left his backpack with four speed loaders filled with bullets.
Prosecutor Brian Hutchins said the decision whether to seek the death penalty has not been made.
Muhammad said he hid in a nearby neighborhood before taking a morning bus to northwest Fresno near Herndon and Polk avenues. He cut his hair and hid out for a few days at a water basin. He then hiked to the nearby San Joaquin River, where he stayed awhile and “burned pieces of his hair in a voodoo spiritual ritual,” Miranda testified.
On the morning of April 18, Muhammad made his way to the Tower District, where he hooked into free Wi-Fi at a coffee shop and learned from a television report that he was wanted for Williams’ murder. Alvarez testified that Muhammad gave this account to him:
Once he learned he was wanted by police, he decided to go on a killing spree in a neighborhood on Fulton Street, north of Divisadero Street, and target white men. Muhammad said his hatred of whites stemmed from growing up in a world where Hispanics, blacks and Asians are targets of racism.
Muhammad said he first killed Randalls, a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. employee. Muhammad said his father worked at PG&E and was subjected to racism and was subsequently fired. Alvarez said Muhammad told him: “That ruined his family.”
He said he then shot at a car because he thought a white man was driving. But he stopped shooting after he determined the driver was a Hispanic woman. He also recalled shooting at man with light completion. The victim was later determined to be Flores.
He said he then crossed Fulton Street and almost got hit by a car before he shot and shot and killed Gassett, who was walking at a leisurely pace along the sidewalk. Muhammad said he then unloaded his gun while shooting at people near a bus stop near Catholic Charities. He recalled running after three men and ended up shooting the slowest one. That was Jackson, who was killed in front of his stepson, Greer, who told police that his stepfather had tried to reason with Muhammad before being shot in the head.
Once he heard police sirens, Muhammad took off his black jacket, white hat and orange shirt. He said he put the gun on top of his clothing. He said he laid on the ground so police would not shoot him.
Patrol officer Frank Borrego took Muhammad in custody. According to Alvarez, Muhammad shouted: “Free black people” and “Ali Akbar.”
In one of Muhammad’s hands was a stone wrapped with copper wire, Borrego testified. The officer said Muhammad told him: “I did it. I shot them.”