Cell phone records of a Gwinnett county man gunned down for 2 kilograms of cocaine helped investigators unravel the mystery of who killed him, according to testimony Saturday in Hall County Superior Court.
Jurors in the death penalty trial of Ignacio "Nacho" Vergara watched the defendant’s videotaped police interview and learned that his number in the phone records of one of two shooting victims led detectives to his door.
Hall County Sheriff’s Lt. Gerald Couch, the lead investigator in the shooting deaths of Alejandro "Nino" Santana and Francesco "Chico Pancho" Saucedo, testified that Saucedo’s phone records showed at least six phone conversations between the victim and the defendant in the hours leading up to the March 13, 2002, murders on a dirt and gravel road in South Hall.
When detectives showed up at the Carriage Crossing apartments in Flowery Branch to talk to Vergara nearly two weeks later, they immediately took note of a white Pontiac Grand Prix parked at a neighbor’s apartment, according to testimony. A witness earlier told investigators he saw a white car in the area around the time of the killings.
Authorities learned that Vergara’s neighbor loaned him the car on March 13. He told the woman he was going to get milk and diapers but was gone for about five hours, she said.
After Vergara agreed to speak with investigators, he admitted to being at the murder scene but disavowed any direct involvement.
Vergara’s friend Brigido "Topo" Soto has admitted to shooting the victims and is expected to get two life sentences without parole in a plea bargain. Prosecutors say Vergara planned the murders, provided Soto with the gun and ordered him to shoot the men.
Vergara, in the police interview, told a starkly different version of events than what Soto testified to on Thursday.
He said Soto arranged the drug deal and unexpectedly pulled a gun while Vergara was away from Santana’s car.
"... I heard the gunshots," Vergara told detectives. "I got scared. I said, ‘what did you do?’"
Vergara told detectives that Soto aimed the gun at him, directed him to find the cocaine, then ordered him to drive from the murder scene.
Later, he said, Soto threatened him.
"He say, ‘you say something, I kill your wife, your babies and your mother,’" Vergara said.
Detectives assured Vergara during the interview that he had nothing to fear by talking to them.
"If this goes to court, no one is going to know that Ignacio said anything," Investigator Ivan Spindola said.
Under cross-examination by Vergara’s lawyer Saturday, Spindola said at the time he made the promise, he considered Vergara a witness, not a murder suspect.
The hourlong interview, and the defense’s efforts to suppress it, contributed to the lengthy delay in getting the 6-year-old murder case to trial. The Georgia Supreme Court ruled in February that the promise made by authorities was that Vergara would be protected from physical danger and that he gave his statements voluntarily.
After the interview, Vergara agreed to place a phone call to Soto that resulted in an awkward exchange as detectives recorded the conversation.
"I need some change," Vergara said, an apparent coded reference.
"What change? And where would I get change from?" Soto responded in Spanish.
Later, as Vergara continued to speak cryptically, Soto said, "I don’t know what’s up with you ... man, what’s going on?"
Detectives later went to Soto’s home, where he confessed to killing the two men and implicated Vergara as the one who planned the murders.
Jurors also heard how the murder weapon, a .45-caliber Colt handgun, was recovered. Vergara entrusted the gun with a friend, wrapping it in a sock, then green cellophane, then a plastic grocery bag. He later told detectives where he stashed it.
When investigators arrived at the house, the resident knew why they were there, former Hall County Deputy Juan Gonzalez testified. He took sheriff’s officials upstairs and pointed to a dresser, where the bag containing the gun was stored.
Nearly 20 friends and family of Vergara were in court Saturday to watch portions of the proceedings. Five friends of the victims also observed.
Vergara faces the possibility of death by lethal injection if convicted of murder. The case is the first locally prosecuted death penalty trial in Hall County in nine years.
The jury of 12 men and four women, including alternates, has been sequestered in an area hotel without access to phones or the Internet. Jurors were expected to be allowed visits from family members today. Court testimony resumes Monday.