Alleged getaway driver ordered to stand trial for 2001 Utah murder
Witnesses to a 2001 drive-by shooting described the car from which bullets flew as a gray Chevrolet.
But Raymond Daniel Benally, 32, who has been charged with first-degree felony murder for allegedly driving the car used in the 12-year-old shooting, drove a gold Chevy.
It couldn't have been him, argued his attorneys at a Thursday preliminary hearing. Instead, defense attorneys asserted that Benally's co-defendant, Vincent James Thomas single-handedly committed the murder of 25-year-old Leonel Perales.
Third District Judge Vernice Trease disagreed, and ordered Benally to stand trial on the murder charge.
"A witness saw the defendant driving a Chevy Celebrity whose color was yellow or gray, as in primer," the judge said. "The alternate theory does not rise to the level of credibility [as the state's case.]"
Prosecutors allege that Benally was regularly the chauffeur for Thomas, his fellow gang-member. They pointed to conversations Benally allegedly had with other gangsters in which he bragged about his involvement in the murder and the logistics of one man doing the driving and the shooting.
"You have a driver going 90 mph or more, trying to get up on the side of [the other car]," said prosecutor Vincent Meister. "Being able to do that and shoot at someone accurately at the same time is highly unlikely."
Thomas, 32, has been charged with first-degree felony murder as the alleged triggerman in the shooting. He is scheduled to appear in court Tuesday for the first time in this case.
Prosecutors charged the pair after getting witnesses to cooperate and identify Benally as driving his Chevy Celebrity near the time and place of the shooting, and to say that he and Thomas had boasted about the killing.
Prosecutors dismissed the defense's issue with car color as a product of poor lighting during the assault, which happened under the cover of darkness.
"It's no surprise the color is different," Meister said. "Car colors look different in different light. ... But the type stays the same a Chevy Celebrity. And that matches the car that this defendant had access to."
According to testimony and charging documents, several witnesses saw a Chevy Celebrity following a Honda Accord near 300 E and 700 South on Sept. 28, 2001. Four blocks later, a male in the Celebrity fired several times at the Accord. A Salt Lake City police officer saw the Accord and Celebrity speeding south through the intersection of 700 E. and followed them.
The officer found the Accord stopped near 680 E. Coatsville Ave. (1790 South) with Perales inside, wounded from gunshots. The back window of the Accord was shattered and two bullets had gone through the rear passenger seats.
Perales was rushed to LDS Hospital but died from a gunshot wound to the chest.
Perales was a member of a rival gang, officers testified Wednesday. It was not immediately clear whether the shooting was drug or gang-related.
The weapon in this case was linked to Thomas after police received information that Thomas had fired several rounds of his .32-caliber handgun at a BMW shortly before the homicide.
On Oct. 6, 2001, Thomas was at a party at 436 E. Van Ness Place (850 South) when he got into a fight and fired a gun at a guest, according to court documents. That day, police say they found a .32-caliber handgun at the house which the state crime lab eventually matched to the six shell casings that police found in the southbound lanes of 700 East during the drive-by investigation.
Thomas was convicted for the assault at the party. He was also convicted for attempted aggravated assault in 2009, as well as several other felony crimes dating back to 1998. He used to live in Salt Lake City, but is now serving time in a federal prison in Forrest City, Ark.
Benally was convicted in 2008 on three counts of firing a gun from a vehicle, near a highway or in the direction of any person, building or vehicle, and has prior convictions for assault and theft going back to 2000. He is currently residing at the Utah State Prison.
Wearing glasses and taking notes, Benally showed little response to the judge's ruling Wednesday.
He will be arraigned Dec. 2 before Judge Elizabeth Hruby-Mills.