By Jill Harmacinski
---- — LAWRENCE — Thomas Castro, the first of five men scheduled to be tried for the 2009 minivan murder of Robert Gonzalez, was acquitted yesterday by a Lawrence Superior Court jury.
Jurors handed down the not guilty verdict at 2:40 p.m., after a week-long trial that included testimony from numerous Lawrence police officers, state troopers and a FBI video forensics expert from Quantico, Va. Castro testified on Tuesday.
Castro, 30, of Lawrence, faced life in prison without the possibility of parole had he been convicted of first-degree murder. He was the first of five men charged with the execution-style murder of 20-year-old Gonzalez in a minivan on the evening of Jan. 10, 2009.
Gonzalez was killed after a group gathered outside a Broadway restaurant early that morning. An argument erupted and another man charged with Gonzalez’s murder, Joel Javier, 27, lost a tooth. Gonzalez’s murder later that day around 6 p.m. was believed to be revenge exacted over the loss of the tooth, prosecutor Jean Curran said in her opening argument.
That evening, Gonzalez was initially driving a minivan that was found at 486 Haverhill St. He dove into the passenger seat that evening, trying to avoid two gunmen who opened fire on the vehicle. Gonzalez was unable to shield himself from the fatal spray of bullets and was later pronounced dead at Lawrence General Hospital, police said.
When Gonzalez died, his girlfriend Taisha Lara told The Eagle-Tribune she had two young boys with Gonzalez and had recently found out she was pregnant again. She also said Gonzalez was a dealer who sold drugs, including crack cocaine.
On Monday, Peter J. Smith, an FBI video forensics expert, testified for the prosecution. Smith, a 24-year FBI civilian employee, analyzed minivan pictures taken from a residential surveillance camera against those taken by detectives of what they believed to be the same minivan.
Using specialized software, Smith created an overlay of the pictures and determined they were “similar in size, style, light configuration and some trim work,” he said. However, under questioning by Debra Dewitt, Castro’s defense attorney, Smith admitted he could not positively identify or eliminate the photos as being the same. Under redirect from Curran, Smith said he couldn’t exclude them either.
Dewitt could not be reached for comment after yesterday’s verdict.
Also facing first-degree murder charges in Gonzalez’s death are: Francis Wyatt, 30, of 12 Woodland Ct., Lawrence; Cauris Gonzalez, 23, of 9 Tower St., Methuen; Yoshio Stackerman, 27, of Joel Javier, of 121 Saratoga St., Lawrence.
Maribel Villafane, 26, of 114 Ames St., Lawrence, was also charged with being an accessory after the fact.
Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter under the screenname EagleTribJill.