Phillip Medina says when he met Paul David Vara at The Road Home shelter in Salt Lake City two years ago, the two instantly clicked.
Both men were homeless, trying to build a life for themselves through finding employment and leaving dangerous circles of friends behind, Medina said.
What’s next?Paul David Vara is next scheduled to appear in 3rd District Court on Jan. 10 before Judge Randall Skanchy.The aggravated murder charge filed against Vara is punishable by 20 years to life in prison, life in prison without parole, or up to life in prison with parole. Prosecutors could also seek to elevate the charge to a capital offense.
Charges are also pending against Vara in a second case, in which he was named a suspect in a Dec. 14 aggravated sexual assault at Pioneer Park.
So when Medina — who now lives in New Mexico — heard Vara was arrested in connection with two rapes and a grisly homicide at Fairmont Park in Sugar House this month, he struggled to believe it.
"To rape somebody? I know Paul wouldn’t do that," said Medina. "He despises people who hurt women. On the streets, we [have] seen people beat up their girlfriends and we’d go help them."
But Medina’s description of Vara is a stark contrast to charging documents filed in 3rd District Court detailing the murder and rape that left 45-year-old Kristine Gable dead on the floor of a park restroom on Dec. 18.
Vara, 30, is charged with aggravated murder, object rape and forcible sexual abuse — all first-degree felonies — for the slaying. Police say Vara confessed to killing Gable, who was found disembowled and mutilated. An autopsy determined she died of multiple causes, including strangulation and extensive blood loss.
Vara made his first appearance before Judge Robert Hilder on Thursday, when his bail was set at $5 million. Vara is being held in the mental health unit of the Salt Lake County Jail, but jail officials declined to specify whether that is for medical or security reasons.
Vara arrived in Utah about two years ago, according to Medina, who befriended Vara and his girlfriend, Cassandra.
Cassandra spoke briefly to The Salt Lake Tribune on Thursday. The woman, whom The Tribune is only identifying by her first name as she fears for her safety, said she is struggling to comprehend the allegations against her boyfriend. The two share a child.
"Right now, I’m having so many problems," she said in a telephone interview. "I’m having a hard time believing he did it."
Medina said Vara told him that he had come to Utah to escape the Latin Kings gang in San Antonio. Medina, 40, said he left MS-13, a gang he had joined at age 11 and the two men bonded over their mutual hope to leave gangs behind.
"He wanted to change his life," said Medina.
Whether Vara was truly a gang member or if he made up a story about his past in Texas once arriving in Utah is unknown.
Salt Lake City police have not documented Vara as a gang member and found no evidence of gang-related tattoos when questioning Vara on numerous occasions related to petty crimes, said Salt Lake City police spokeswoman Lisa Pascadlo.
He was charged in 3rd District Court in March with second-degree felony aggravated assault, for pushing a man against a vehicle and breaking a mirror connected to the car. Vara punched and kicked the man repeatedly, according to court documents. The case was dismissed in July.
The Bexar County District Attorney’s Office in San Antonio shows a lengthy criminal history for Vara, with 20 arrests and charges dating back to 1998. Three felonies were among those charges, including an aggravated assault case with a deadly weapon in 2004, a criminal mischief case in 2001 and burglary of a building in 2001, said First Assistant District Attorney Cliff Herberg.
Court documents show that in the 2004 assault case, Vara’s brother called 911 after his brother was chasing him around the house with a knife trying to stab him. When police arrived at the scene a weapon wasn’t recovered and the case was later dismissed due to a lack of evidence, Herberg said.
Vara spent a year in prison for burglarizing a building in 2001, Herberg said. He was also in and out of jail for various stints after convictions on misdemeanors including trespassing, family violence assault, evading arrest, failing to identify himself to a Texas peace officer, and possession of marijuana.
Medina said his friend did have a drinking problem. But the Vara he knew, he said, got drunk in his home and did not leave it.
Medina last spoke to Vara about a month ago, he said. The two kept in touch over the phone after Medina moved to New Mexico in February to be closer to his girlfriend’s family.
"He told me he was going fine," Medina said. "That’s why, when I heard about it, I thought ‘No, not Paul.’ "
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