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Death penalty trial commences for Ignacio Vergara

Defendant accused of ordering double homicide

POSTED: August 25, 2008 5:00 a.m.
SCOTT ROGERS/ The Times

Ignacio Vergara listens to opening remarks through headphones interpreted by Norma Hernandez, left, Wednesday afternoon during the first day of Vergara's death penalty trial.

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Ignacio "Nacho" Vergara didn’t fire the hail of gunshots that took the lives of two drug traffickers on a gravel road in South Hall, his lawyer told a jury Wednesday in his death penalty trial.

It doesn’t matter, a prosecutor said, because the March 13, 2002, killings were planned, facilitated and ordered by Vergara.

"The court is going to tell you it doesn’t matter if he pulled the trigger," Assistant District Attorney Alison Toller told a jury of 12 men and four women, including alternates, in her opening statement. "If he directed another to shoot, or helped, counseled or encouraged (the gunman) to do the shooting, he’s just as guilty."

Vergara, charged with two counts each of murder and felony murder as well as trafficking in cocaine, armed robbery and other charges, faces the possibility of the death sentence if convicted. The trial is the first death penalty case brought by Hall County prosecutors in nine years and was delayed by numerous pre-trial appeals, some of which reached the Georgia Supreme Court.

A jury empaneled Wednesday morning will be sequestered in a local hotel without access to telephones, newspapers, radio or the Internet until the trial’s conclusion.

Toller said Alejandro "Nino" Santana and Francisco "Chico Pancho" Saucedo died violent deaths inside a Mitsubishi Eclipse for one reason: greed.

"The evidence will show (Vergara) got greedy," she said. "He wanted quick money."

Toller told the jury that Vergara ordered a delivery of two kilograms — about four pounds — of cocaine with the intention of robbing the delivery men. He enlisted Brigado "Topo" Soto in his scheme, supplied the gun and ordered Soto to shoot the men, Toller said. Vergara then took the cocaine, she said.

Soto pleaded guilty last year to murder and is expected to testify against Vergara with the expectation of a prison sentence of life without parole.

Vergara, Toller said, "is just as culpable as (Soto); in fact he is more culpable. It’s because of his greed and his plan that we are here today."

Defense attorney Raymond George kept his opening statement short and simple, holding a piece of paper in front of the jury with five words that he said would be the theme of the trial: "Vergara did not shoot anybody."

"There’s going to be a lot of witnesses," George said. "Absolutely nobody will be able to testify in this trial to anything other than that Vergara did not shoot anybody."

Several members of Vergara’s family looked on from the courtroom gallery while he sat stoically at the defense table, headphones over his ears as an interpreter translated the proceedings from English to Spanish.

The trial’s initial witnesses were those who were among the first at the scene of the midday shooting on Bragg Road, an isolated dirt and gravel strip between Capitola Farm Road and Blackjack Road near Flowery Branch. Real estate worker Darren Wayne was scouting land at about 3:30 p.m. when he rolled up on the Mitsubishi, its doors open and engine still running.

Wayne was stunned when he saw the driver reclined and covered in blood.

"I expected it to be a couple of guys smoking pot," Wayne said. He called 911.

Hall County paramedic Danny Speaks said the condition of the bodies "was pretty gruesome. There was a lot of blood."

Speaks said the victims’ bodies were still warm and the car radio "was playing pretty loud" when medical workers arrived.

Jurors heard from the girlfriends of both victims.

Lucia Gonzalez, 25, lived with Santana in Duluth. She choked up on the witness stand while telling District Attorney Lee Darragh that the daughter she had with Santana will turn 7 in November.

Gonzalez testified that on the day of the murders, Santana told her "he was going to take two kilos of cocaine somewhere."

She said she did not approve of his drug dealing.

"We would always get in arguments, and I didn’t agree with what he was doing," Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez said Santana ate in a hurry and left in his Mitsubishi. She never saw him again.

Saucedo’s girlfriend, Suzanne Johnson, tearfully identified a photograph of his lifeless, blood-spattered face.

Johnson said she had no knowledge that Saucedo, who fathered her son, was involved in drug trafficking.

She testified that on the day he was killed, she overheard him talking with an unknown person on the phone before he left in her BMW "to go meet a friend and take care of something."

"He was telling whoever he was talking to on the phone that he wasn’t worried," Johnson said.

Testimony in the trial continues this morning.



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