SALEM — The murder trial starts today for Latin Kings gang member Christian Almonte of North Andover, who is charged with stabbing his secret male lover more than 20 times in February 2008 — three months after getting out of prison.

Prosecutors allege that Almonte and Willie Escobar, of Methuen, had been seeing each other before Almonte went to prison for four years for stabbing a Lawrence youth, and continued the relationship when he got out in December 2007.

They will argue that Almonte had a lot to lose if his fellow gang members ever found out about the trysts.

But Almonte told police he ended the relationship when he came back from prison and was only friends with Escobar at the time he was killed, and suggested that Escobar had similar arrangements with other men.

"There was a code of silence that existed," prosecutor A.J. Camelio told the judge yesterday as attorneys filed last-minute motions before trial. Camelio said the code "could have been a reason for the victim's murder."

Opening statements begin this morning in Essex Superior Court in Salem, and then the jury will be bused to crime scenes, one of them Escobar's 175 Haverhill St. apartment. Jury selection took two days.

Almonte, 26, appeared calm while in court yesterday, eating handfuls of Mike and Ike gummy fruit candies his attorney brought him during breaks — even offering some to prosecutors and court officers.

Almonte, who goes by "King Joker," was clean shaven and bald, a noticeable difference from his past appearances when he sported a goatee and short black hair. He wore a white button-down shirt and dress pants and sat with his hands folded much of the time.

He has been held in jail since his arrest last year.

Prosecutors want to use Almonte's previous four-year prison term in testimony to explain why his relationship with Escobar stopped so abruptly and picked up again after so long a break. Almonte's attorney, Edward Hayden, argued that they did not have to bring up the prison sentence to tell the story, saying it will prejudice the jury.

Superior Court Judge David Lowy has yet to make a decision on whether the prison term is admissible.

Camelio told Lowy he will tell jurors of the blood police found on Almonte's hands and his clothing three days after Escobar's death.

On Sunday, Feb. 24, 2008, Escobar's roommate came home and found him clad in only socks and a bloody T-shirt on the floor of his bedroom. He had been stabbed more than 20 times.

After speaking with Methuen and state police on Feb. 27, 2008, Almonte was arrested by Lawrence police in connection with an unrelated violent carjacking that occurred less than 48 hours before Escobar's slaying.

Investigators seized the clothing he was wearing and went to his apartment, where they served a search warrant and seized various items that were tested for DNA.

Escobar's blood was found on Almonte's jacket and on socks found on Almonte's bed. Human blood also was detected on Almonte's hands, belt buckle and boots, but the sample was not of sufficient quantity or quality to determine whether the blood was Escobar's.

Almonte also was charged with stealing Escobar's car and giving it to another man.

That man and two women were arrested in Haverhill the following night when police spotted the car. One of the girls, who had formerly dated Almonte, told police Almonte had told her he was going to "terminate Willie." She told police she believed Almonte was going to beat Escobar up over issues related to the Latin Kings gang.

Escobar, 41, a warehouse and delivery employee at a Salem, N.H., computer firm, also was living another life. He allegedly kept his affairs with Almonte and other men secret because his family would not approve. He was a parishioner at St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Lawrence. One of the questions jurors were asked yesterday was whether they could hear testimony about Escobar's and Almonte's relationships with men and remain impartial.

One juror, an older man, admitted that homosexuality made him feel "squeamish."

"I don't have a moral thing against homosexuality," the juror went on to say. He was chosen to sit on the jury.

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