EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

April 30, 2013

FBI expert testifies in minivan murder trial

By Jill Harmacinski
jharmacinski@eagletribune.com

---- — LAWRENCE – The surveillance camera attached to a home on Forest Street, captured a minivan in the street when Robert Gonzalez, 20, was murdered on Jan. 10, 2009. A state trooper later drove what’s believed to be the same minivan as detectives took their own pictures on the same street at the same camera angle.

Both sets of pictures were then sent to an FBI lab in Quantico, Va. where they were analyzed and compared for likeness by expert Peter J. Smith. Smith yesterday described to a jury how he created an “overlay” of both sets of pictures using specialized software.

Showing jurors how he could fade from one picture to the other, in his search for likenesses, Smith said he determined the minivans were “similar.”

“The vehicles are similar in size, style, light configuration and some trim work,” Smith testified as Thomas Castro’s first-degree murder trial continued in Lawrence Superior Court.

Castro, 30, of Lawrence, is the first of five people to go on trial for Gonzalez’s execution style murder in a minivan. Castro is accused of killing Gonzalez in a joint venture with others.

Police said Gonzalez was initially driving a minivan found a 486 Haverhill St. But 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.

A prosecutor said Gonzalez was killed after a group gathered a Broadway restaurant earlier that day, an argument erupted and another man Joel Javier, 27, lost a tooth. Gonzalez’s murder is believed to be revenge exacted over the loss of the tooth, prosecutor Jean Curran said in her opening statement.

Yesterday, Smith, a 24-year FBI civilian employee, was among the latest to testify in Castro’s trial, which opened last Wednesday and is expected to go to the jury for deliberations later this week.

Smith is a supervisor in the Quantico-based forensic audio, video and image analysis unit. His work requires him to analyze images to determine everything from how tall a bank robber might be or “how long was the sawed off shot gun?” he said, speaking of hypothetical cases.

He said also examines video to determine if its an actual image of whether it’s “computer generated or digitally manipulated,” he said.

At Curran’s direction, jurors were shown a series of slides indicating how Smith used the overlay software and was able to contrast back and forth between the images taken from the residential surveillance camera and those recreated by detectives.

Under brief questioning by Castro’s defense attorney Debra Dewitt, Smith admitted he couldn’t positively identify or eliminate the photos as being the same. However, under redirect from Curran, Smith said he couldn’t exclude them either.

Smith, who has a master’s degree in forensics from George Washington University, said he has testified approximately 50 times at trials in state, federal and military courts throughout the United States.

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.

Several police officers, including Trooper Joshua Ulrich and Lawrence Detective Capt. Denis Pierce, have already testified in the trial.

Also facing first degree murder charges for Gonzalez’s death are: Francis Wyatt, 30, of 12 Woodland Ct., Lawrence; Cauris Gonzalez, 23, of 9 Tower St., Methuen; Yoshio Stackerman, 27, and Javier, 27, 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.