EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

April 25, 2013

First 'minivan murder' trial starts

By Jill Harmacinski

---- — LAWRENCE — Robert Gonzalez was allegedly among a group that gathered near a Broadway restaurant on a cold January morning more than three years ago. An argument ensued and one young man, Joel Javier, lost a tooth in the brawl, a prosecutor said yesterday.

By 6 p.m. that same night, Gonzalez, 20, of Lawrence, was shot to death — “revenge that was exacted over the loss of a tooth,” said Jean Curran, assistant district attorney, during her opening statement in Lawrence Superior Court yesterday morning.

Thomas Castro, 30, of Lawrence, is the first of five people to go on trial for the first degree murder of Gonzalez on Jan. 10, 2009. Castro is accused of killing Gonzalez in a joint venture with others, including Javier, 27, according to prosecutors.

Fourteen jurors, 7 men and 7 women, were selected to hear the murder trial. Judge Richard Welch explained the charge Castro faces does not necessarily mean that he shot and killed Gonzalez but “that the Commonwealth is claiming the defendant participated in the offense with others.”

Gonzalez was initially driving a minivan found at 486 Haverhill St. on Jan. 10, 2009. But police said he dove into the passenger’s seat that evening, desperately trying to avoid two “execution style” gunmen who opened fire on the vehicle that night. Gonzalez was unable to shield himself from the fatal spray of bullets and was later pronounced dead at Lawrence General Hospital.

A passenger who’d been in the minivan with Gonzalez provided police with details of the shooting.

In July 2011, five men, including Castro, were indicted by the Essex County Grand Jury for Gonzalez’s murder and a woman was charged with being an accessory after the fact. First degree murder carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Curran, in her opening statement, said Gonzalez had been riding around with a friend in a Dodge minivan that morning. They picked up two other young men, who had just left city nightclubs, and headed to the Big-N-Beefy, at 415 Broadway, a late-night restaurant where roast beef sandwiches are served, she said.

An argument erupted, “words were exchanged,” and Gonzalez punched Joel Javier, causing him to lose a front tooth, Curran said.

Some 16 hours later, police were called to a pizza shop near Hampton and Haverhill streets, where they found Gonzalez in the minivan, dying of two gunshot wounds to his back. Girlfriend Taisha Lara went to Lawrence General Hospital to find her boyfriend had died, Curran said.

When he died, 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.

Curran said she intended to call several Lawrence police officers to testify, including Detective Capt. Denis Pierce who processed surveillance video taken near Hampton and Haverhill streets.

Castro’s defense attorney Debra Dewitt of Lowell declined to make an opening statement to the jury yesterday.

The murder trial is expected to run into next week.

Also indicted on first degree murder charges 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. When they were indicted in Essex County, Castro and Stackerman were serving state prison sentences on other charges. Maribel Villafane, 26, of 114 Ames St., Lawrence, was charged with being an accessory after the fact to murder.