Caraballo murder trial opens with question of gunman’s identity
RUTLAND — Federal prosecutors say they have recordings, witnesses, phone records and a key witness that shows Frank Caraballo killed Melissa Barratt over $10,000 worth of illegal drugs he believed the Brattleboro woman had stolen.
“He confronted her with a gun at her apartment and then he took her to the woods,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Van de Graaf said at the start of Caraballo’s trial in U.S. District Court in Rutland on Monday.
“He pointed the gun at her and demanded to know what happened to his drugs. She denied knowing again and he pulled the trigger,” Van de Graaf said.
Barratt’s body was found in Dummerston on July 29, 2011 — a day after prosecutors said she was killed.
Prosecutors have said they plan to call dozens of witnesses during the two-week trial to show that the 31-year-old Holyoke, Mass., man ran a sizable drug operation, traded in guns and killed Barratt in furtherance of his drug trade operation.
But in his opening statement to the jury, defense attorney Mark Kaplan argued that the case against his client was flawed by a lack of forensic evidence and a reliance on testimony from a man who Kaplan argued could be the real killer.
Prosecutors say Joshua Makhanda-Lopez was Caraballo’s business partner in a drug operation that brought crack cocaine, powder cocaine and heroin from Holyoke, Mass., to Brattleboro and they say he drove Caraballo and Barratt to East West Road where the killing took place.
In August 2012, Makhanda-Lopez pleaded guilty to federal drug and gun charges in exchange for a plea deal that Kaplan said would protect him from facing charges in a federal or Vermont court for Barratt’s killing.
After he was arrested with Caraballo on July 29, 2011, Makhanda-Lopez was focused on reaching a deal with the prosecution, Kaplan said.
“From that moment forward, Josh would do whatever he had to do to get out of this mess so he wouldn’t have to spend the rest of his life in jail,” he said.
The plea agreement was sealed by the court, but Kaplan said it called for a maximum of 13 years in jail for Makhanda-Lopez who was 21 years old at the time of the killing.
Kaplan also said that Makhanda-Lopez told people that he expects to serve far less than the 13-year maximum.
“He was promised a five-year sentence — (that) was his understanding when he signed the plea agreement,” he said.
Other statements that Makhanda-Lopez made through text messages suggest that he played a more active role than being a driver in Barratt’s death, Kaplan said.
“She stole our drugs. I didn’t want to do it but I had to,” Kaplan said Makhanda-Lopez wrote in one text message.
When told he shouldn’t have done it by the person he was texting with, Makhanda-Lopez allegedly responded with the words “I know. Damn.”
“When he was being interviewed, the detectives asked him, ‘How do we know you’re not the one who pulled the trigger?’” Kaplan told the jury. “I submit to you, ladies and gentlemen, as you listen to the evidence you should keep that question in mind.”
While the defense focused mostly on Makhanda-Lopez, prosecutors pointed at evidence gathered July 28 when Caraballo allegedly woke up and found a safe containing $10,000 worth of crack, cocaine and heroin missing from his motel room.
Suspicion immediately fell on Barratt who had visited the newly rented room the night before and who was staying with a friend at the Colonial Motel in Brattleboro, just hundreds of yards from the motel.
Prosecutors said Caraballo hunted Barratt down and threatened her at gunpoint. He then spent the next three hours calling customers who owed him money in an attempt to buy more drugs.
Caraballo also allegedly called his half-brother, who was in jail at the time, and told him about the theft.
“He said in the call who he suspected and that thousands of dollars worth of drugs were lost,” Van de Graaf said. “He was told to just take it as a loss and move on but the defendant disagreed and says how mad he is that the drugs have been stolen.”
During a call to one man, Caraballo asked “Where can I go to make a lot of noise,” Van de Graaf said.
The prosecutor then said Caraballo drove with Makhanda-Lopez and Barratt to West Dummerston where the Brattleboro woman was shot as she sat with her back against a tree.
Photographs from the crime scene, including the placement of Barratt’s body and her wounds, were shown to the jury and on television monitors set up in front of the public benches.
No family or friends of either Caraballo or Barratt were on-hand for the start of the trial Monday.
Prosecutors say after the killing, Caraballo and Makhanda-Lopez drove back to Massachusetts where they made arrangements to concentrate their drug supply in that state.
On July 29, the pair allegedly returned to Vermont where they stopped at Barratt’s apartment to take her flat screen television and her laptop computer.
The pair were arrested later that day when Vermont State Police stopped the car they were driving in on Route 10 in Chester. Van de Graaf said they were on their way to Ludlow to sell drugs.
Despite the mountain of evidence prosecutors plan to present, Kaplan said they lacked a forensic smoking gun — including the handgun used to kill Barratt.
Moreover, he told the jury he has evidence that shows his client wasn’t in Vermont when Barratt was killed.
While the state’s chief medical examiner’s office couldn’t provide an exact time that Barratt was killed, Kaplan said that Makhanda-Lopez told police that it took place at 5 p.m.
“Frank Caraballo was purchasing a phone at 4:15 in Holyoke, Mass., that day,” Kaplan said, adding that surveillance video at the store proved he was there. “It’s physically impossible that he could have been back in Vermont at 5 p.m.”
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