Crime

Prosecutor: Thief should have known stealing truck would lead to Biola farmer’s death

A memorial, including a cross with an inscription to “George Jr.,” at the site where George Salwasser Jr. was fatally shot in May 2014 after he found two men stripping a stolen pickup along Howard Avenue south of the tiny town of Biola.
A memorial, including a cross with an inscription to “George Jr.,” at the site where George Salwasser Jr. was fatally shot in May 2014 after he found two men stripping a stolen pickup along Howard Avenue south of the tiny town of Biola. ezamora@fresnobee.com

A Fresno County prosecutor asked a jury Monday to convict a man of murder in the killing of Biola raisin farmer George Salwasser Jr., even though a store surveillance camera shows the defendant was a mile away when the fatal shots were fired.

In opening statements of the trial, William Lacy told a Fresno County Superior Court jury that Fabian Mansanalez was as guilty as the person who actually shot Salwasser on his property in May 2014.

That’s because the prosecution contends Mansanalez should have known that stealing a pickup and stripping it on Salwasser’s property would lead to Salwasser’s death.

Ridiculous, said Fresno lawyer Mark Siegel, who is defending Mansanalez.

Mansanalez may be a car thief, but he had no clue Salwasser was going to be shot, Siegel said.

In addition, Mansanalez and his sister were at a store a mile away when the killing happened, he said.

“You will see why he is charged with a stolen vehicle, but you won’t have any idea why he is charged with murder,” Siegel told the jury.

After nearly a week of jury selection, the trial in Judge Hilary Chittick’s courtroom will now focus on an interesting legal issue called the “natural and probable consequences” doctrine. To get a murder conviction, Lacy has to prove that Mansanalez assisted in a crime in which murder was a “natural and probable consequence” or likely to happen.

Mansanalez, 25, also is charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm and burglary in connection with the stolen truck. If convicted of murder, he faces at least 15 years to life in prison.

A key issue is whether Mansanalez’s criminal record as a car thief will sway jurors to convict him of murder. In one of his convictions, he was caught with a knife, which illustrates that stealing vehicles can result in violence, Lacy said. But Siegel said there is no evidence that he ever used a knife to steal a car.

You will see why he is charged with a stolen vehicle, but you won’t have any idea why he is charged with murder

Defense lawyer Mark Siegel in his opening statement to the jury

In opening statements, both sides agreed that Salwasser, 38, was killed around 6 p.m. on May 8, 2014, after he confronted Adrian Aceves and Jose Canas stripping a stolen pickup in an open field near Howard and Shields avenues, south of the tiny town of Biola.

Siegel and Lacy said Canas was the lone gunman who shot Salwasser in the neck and in the shoulder. He died within four to seven minutes of being shot, Lacy said.

In setting up the key issue, both sides agreed that Mansanalez had stolen a truck earlier that day in Fresno. He then drove the stolen truck to his sister’s home to enlist her husband, Aceves, to help him sell the tires and rims. Aceves called his friend Canas, and they arranged to meet in an isolated area at Howard and Shields avenues.

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

At Salwasser’s property, “Fabian never leaves his sister’s car,” Siegel told the jury. “And he doesn’t strip the truck.”

In fact, Fabian Mansanalez doesn’t even know Canas. “It was the first time he has ever seen him,” Siegel said.

While the truck was being stripped, Maria and Fabian Mansanalez were at a store buying soda and snacks. A store surveillance camera has verified the pair were at the store when Salwasser was shot, Siegel told the jury.

According to Lacy and Siegel, Salwasser pulled up to the crime scene in his pickup. He had a .380 Ruger in one hand and a cellphone in his other hand. He told Aceves and Canas he was calling authorities.

When Aceves started to walk away, Salwasser told him to stop. Once Salwasser took his attention off Canas, Canas pulled a .38-caliber revolver from his pants pocket and shot Salwasser two times, the lawyers said.

Fabian Mansanalez first learned something went wrong when he answered his sister’s cellphone. On the other end was Aceves.

Returning to the crime scene, Maria and Fabian Mansanalez found Aceves on the roadway. He jumped into the SUV and told them that Canas “went crazy and killed the guy,” Siegel said.

Shortly after the shooting, deputies arrested Aceves and Maria Mansanalez after she crashed her SUV in a nearby orchard. Fabian Mansanalez and Canas were arrested the next day.

Lacy said the murder weapon was never found. But Salwasser’s .380 Ruger was found months later in Merced County. An associate of Canas had it, Lacy told the jury.

After turning himself in, Fabian Mansanalez helped sheriff’s detectives find a gun that he took from his sister’s car after it crashed, Siegel said. The gun, a .25-caliber Beretta, belonged to Aceves, Siegel said, noting the weapon was tested and found not to be the murder weapon.

Maria Mansanalez, 23, and Aceves, 24, have accepted plea agreements to testify against Fabian Mansanalez and Canas. Because of legal issues, Canas, 33, will be tried at a later date.

Pablo Lopez: 559-441-6434, @beecourts

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