Just before lunch Friday, the prosecution called one of the four co-defendants, Alex Gil Jr., to the stand.
One year and three days ago, Gil had accepted a plea agreement in exchange for his plea of guilt to murder and a prison sentence of 40 years.
In August, Efrain Castillo III also accepted a plea agreement, with the same consequences.
A third co-defendant, Pedro Rocha Jr., had been found guilty of capital murder by a jury in November.
Matthew Navarro, the final defendant, is currently being tried in 35th District Court.
Before Gil was called, the prosecution and the defense each went through two rounds of questioning Brownwood Police officer Bruce Spruill, who had been called to the witness stand at approximately 4:20 p.m. Thursday. At the time of the reopening of the Philen murder case, Spruill was acting in the capacity of detective for BPD.
Friday morning, Assistant District Attorney Sam Moss continued his direct examination and appeared to start by doing some damage control in advance of defense questioning, regarding the previous investigation that resulted in the arrest and conviction of Philen’s brother, Randall.
“Is any investigation perfect?” Moss asked.
Spruill acknowledged in the affirmative.
“Could things have been done differently?” Moss followed up.
“Yes,” Spruill answered.
As Moss attempted to clarify whether or not the four defendants’ names had been known during the initial investigation, Navarro’s attorney, Evan Pierce-Jones, made several objections.
Moving on, Moss closed out his direct examination by confirming, through questioning of Spruill, that the original statement Randall Philen had made to investigators was consistent with the statements made by both Castillo and Gil. Moss then asked about several details of the statements, individually, confirming their consistency.
Jones began cross examination by asking Spruill if the weapon in the murder had been located and Spruill acknowledged that it had not.
Jones extensively questioned Spruill about a person named Geronimo “Mo” Elizondo, who was identified as “a large quantity marijuana dealer.” Spruill confirmed his knowledge of Elizondo, apparently a local resident.
Jones also had Spruill acknowledge Elizondo has connections to the Los Zetas, a violent drug cartel in Mexico. Specifically, Jones brought out that Elizondo’s brother had been killed in Mexico, presumably by the Zetas. Jones then asked Spruill, “Is there a straight line link from Ronnie Philen (the victim in this case) through Elizondo to drug cartel activity in Mexico?”
Spruill acknowledged such a link did exist.
Jones continued on that line of questioning, leaving the impression of an alternative hypothesis for Philen’s murder, that Philen owed Elizondo for a large quantity of marijuana.
“What is the street value of 40 pounds of marijuana?” Jones asked.
“The street value of 40 pounds of marijuana is approximately $20,000,” Spruill replied.
“If Elizondo were missing $20,000 of marijuana, he would be trying to get it or the money, wouldn’t he?” Jones followed up.
On redirect, Moss flatly asked Spruill in three consecutive questions,
“Does this look like a Zeta hit? Would Randall Philen be alive if this were a Zeta hit? Do they leave witnesses?”
Spruill replied no to each.
Moss went on to ask Spruill if it was uncommon for low-level marijuana dealers to attempt to rob other dealers of large quantities, to sell themselves, and Spruill acknowledged that it was not.
At 10 a.m., the prosecution asked that the judge remove the jury from the courtroom, in order to have a hearing on the admissibility of additional specific testimony from Spruill.
During that hearing, Jones asked for a two-month continuance, in order to prepare for expert testimony and examination of evidence he believed the prosecution was just bringing to light. Judge Steve Ellis denied the request.
Gil’s testimony was what he had presented during the Rocha trial, explaining the details of the sequence of events on the night of the murder.
Briefly, Gil stated the four had met at Navarro’s residence where all had armed themselves, drove to the Philens’ home, disguised themselves, and broke into the home with the intent to steal a large quantity of marijuana.
Gil stated he and Castillo had been in a separate room with Randall Philen, when he heard the gunshots in the room where Navarro and Rocha had gone to find Ronald Philen.
Gil said he had gone to the room where the body of Ronald Philen lay “in the corner” and he believed that he was dead.
Again removing the jury from the room, at Jones’s request, Judge Ellis heard arguments by the defense and the prosecution regarding the admissibility of hearsay evidence from Gil about what Navarro had said to him and the others, after their return to his apartment.
The trial is scheduled to continue on Monday.