During opening statements Tuesday in the trial of two former Hancock College athletes charged with murder and robbery, the prosecution claimed the basketball stars lured a drug dealer to their apartment before robbing and killing Terence Richardson, 23, while the defense argued the authorities had accused the wrong men and that a football star may be to blame.
Lavell Calvin White, and Ali Mohammed, who played basketball in different areas before coming to Hancock College, were charged with special circumstances murder during the commission of robbery, two counts of robbery and four counts of residential burglary in November and December 2014.
In her opening Tuesday at the Lompoc Superior Court, prosecutor Stephanie Savrnoch maintained that White lured pot dealer Ryan DePalma into the area under a guise of a drug deal but with the intent to rob him.
When DePalma arrived at 11:22 p.m., a black male allegedly entered the car, sat right behind Richardson, (who was in the passenger seat,) pulled out a gun and demanded to give him everything they had, Savrnoch said. Richardson turned and began fighting him, when DePalma saw another black male, armed, approaching the driver’s side.
DePalma drove off, “then heard a pop," and pulled over, continued Savrnoch. The male in the back allegedly jumped out of the car, while Richardson slumped in his seat with a single gunshot wound to the abdomen. Richardson died just past midnight Dec. 31, at Marian Regional Medical Center.
Later, police officials found a 9 mm Hornady bullet casing wedged into the door handle of the backseat passenger door of DePalma's car, according to Savrnoch.
Hancock football player Gentry Oden watched the entire incident unfold from the window of their College Gardens apartment, where he lived with White and Mohammed. After the incident, the pair went back into the apartment, and "Oden overheard Mohammed say he had no choice, and that he had to do it," Savrnoch said. The pair also told Oden he needed to get a new phone, as they had used Oden's phone to call DePalma that night, according to Savrnoch.
White called another friend around 11:29 p.m., telling him, "something went down, I need your help.”
Later, with more friends, he pulled out a gun from his sweater, when acquaintance Justin Armwood took photos of the gun and White reportedly tried to sell it days later.
When White and Mohammed were arrested Jan. 10, 2015, a search warrant was served at the College Gardens apartments, where an AK-47 replica was recovered in the corner of the dining room, according to Savrnoch.
White and Mohammed also have been charged with burglarizing Brandon Burton and David Deleon's apartment on South Rubel Way on Nov. 28, 2014, allegedly stealing a laptop and computer, a Smith and Wesson 9mm gun and some jewelry. The laptop was later sold to Gold Coast Jewelry owner Frank Arreola, according to Savrnoch.
The 9mm gun was later recovered in Kern County in an unrelated matter, and the casing matched the same one found in DePalma’s car, she added.
In his opening statements, White's attorney Michael Scott reminded jurors that not a single police officer witnessed any of the crimes and that multiple witnesses, former athletes and drug dealers involved changed their stories when threatened by detectives.
"The football players have appeared to have circled their wagons to protect themselves by implicating basketball players," he said.
The people's star witness, Oden, changed his statements several times before pinning the crime on White, Scott argued, accusing White of using his phone to lure DePalma to the apartments Dec. 30.
However, Oden's "involvement was much more sinister; he was one of the men who approached DePalma in his car," Scott said.
Also, Oden’s phone unlike others’ phones, is password protected; no one else but Oden could have accessed his own phone to call DePalma, Scott claimed.
DePalma couldn't give officers a detailed description of the two black men who approached his car that night, and said they were between 5 feet 7 inches tall and to 5 feet 10 inches tall. White and Mohammed are both 6 feet 6 inches tall, Scott noted.
Scott also argued DePalma made up a story about two different men who robbed him that night, as he was afraid he would be arrested for dealing drugs.
Furthermore, White couldn't be the second person in the robbery, Scott said, as the timeline doesn't make sense. The entire event took about three minutes, between Oden texting DePalma "where are you," to White asking another friend to pick him up from his house. About two minutes passed before the first man entered DePalma's car, which leaves one minute -- not enough time for entry, altercation, then fleeing to safety, Scott said.
As to the burglaries, evidence will show that Oden testified that he participated in those crimes, and lied to police to protect his fellow football player friend LaVelle Griffin, Scott said. No stolen items were recovered by White or Mohammed's apartments, backpacks or college lockers, he added. No burglary was ever witnessed.
Mohammed's attorney Lori Pedego in her opening statements also maintained the case against the defendants "relies primarily upon the testimony of the only confessed murderer in the case -- and that is Gentry Oden."
"The number of lies Oden gave to police is too long to list," Pedego began.
She maintained he first denied knowing anything about a shooting and said someone had borrowed his phone to text DePalma. Then, he told officers he watched the incident unfold from his apartment kitchen and window. Oden also stated he didn't hear any gunshots, but later said he heard one shot, then two shots by the fourth interview, Pedego said.
"We know he confessed to luring DePalma to 715 S. Bradley on Dec. 30 to rob him," Pedego said.
He also admitted to police that he had burglarized two homes that netted some jewelry and a laptop, Pedego said.
DePalma changed his story to police multiple times as well, she argued, as he first accused two black men he met through a man named Sean who robbed him and shot Richardson.
A Marian Regional Medical Center security officer also testified that when DePalma arrived with Richardson in his car, Richardson was in the backseat, not the front passenger, as DePalma first said.
"Keep an open mind on motives and credibility, and you'll return verdicts of not guilty," Pedego added.
Testimony resumes Wednesday morning.