RUTLAND — Frank Caraballo told a federal jury Monday that he couldn’t have killed Melissa Barratt because he wasn’t in Vermont when she was shot on a back road in Dummerston.
On the ninth day of his trial, facing charges of killing the 31-year-old Brattleboro woman while operating a major cocaine, heroin and crack cocaine ring in southeastern Vermont, Caraballo said he was driving to Massachusetts with his girlfriend around the time prosecutors say Barratt was executed with a single gunshot to the back of the head in the woods off East West Road.
“I met Pam at the P&C (in Brattleboro) to drive back to Mass,” Caraballo testified, estimating that he departed at just after 2 p.m.
Federal prosecutors spent eight days presenting evidence they say shows that the Holyoke, Mass., man killed Barratt after she stole $10,000 worth of illegal drugs from him.
But on Monday, when defense attorneys presented their case, Caraballo took the stand to give his own account of what happened July 28, 2011.
He was one of three witnesses called by the defense which rested by midafternoon.
Jurors are expected to hear closing arguments and begin deliberations today.
Caraballo said he began the day by realizing his safe, which contained the drugs, was missing from his Brattleboro motel room.
After his partner, Joshua Makhanda-Lopez, denied taking them, he said suspicion fell on Barratt, a drug user and seller whom he had an intimate relationship with, according to prior testimony.
Caraballo said when he couldn’t reach Barratt on her phone, he tracked down her roommate, Danielle Clemons and asked her to let him into her apartment where he believed Barratt was hiding.
Clemons testified that Caraballo was “screaming he was so mad” when he came to see her at work, but Caraballo said he had a “regular demeanor” when he went to see her about the missing drugs.
“You weren’t upset with her?” defense attorney Mark Kaplan asked.
“No. For what?” Caraballo replied.
He said he was also calm when he confronted Barratt in the apartment.
While Clemons and Makhanda-Lopez testified that Caraballo threatened everyone in the room with a gun, Caraballo said he made no threats and wasn’t armed during the discussion.
Caraballo said he asked Barratt, Makhanda-Lopez and Clemons for help paying back his drug supplier in Holyoke, Mass., who he owed $10,000 for the drugs he had been fronted.
“I told everyone in the house ‘Listen, I’m gonna need help to move all these drugs,’” he said. “Melissa said ‘Yeah, I got no problem doing that.’”
After the meeting in the apartment, Caraballo said, Lopez drove him to the P&C where he got a ride to Massachusetts.
The next day, he said he drove back to Vermont with Makhanda-Lopez. Their first stop, he said was at Clemons apartment where he said he learned later that Makhanda-Lopez put some of Barratt’s possessions, including her television and laptop computer, into the car.
“(Clemons) came out and Josh and her went to the back of the car. I didn’t get out of the car. I wasn’t dealing with the transaction. I didn’t even know it had to do with Melissa’s stuff,” he said.
He also said he didn’t know what became of Barratt until later July 29 when he was arrested and interviewed by Vermont State Police.
“At first, I thought the cops were mixing her up with someone else,” he said about learning of Barratt’s death. “I lied about where I’d been because I thought I was being implicated in something.”
Caraballo never said who he believes killed Barratt, but Kaplan said at the start of the trial that Makhanda-Lopez, who cut a deal with prosecutors in exchange for a prison sentence capped at 13 years on federal drug and gun charges that could have sent him to jail for up to 60 years, could have killed her.
But during cross-examination, Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Van de Graaf attacked Caraballo’s account on a number of points, including conflicts with other witnesses who testified about events on the day of Barratt’s death and the months leading up to it when Caraballo was allegedly selling large amounts of illegal drugs in the Brattleboro area.
The prosecutor also played a jailhouse telephone recording from a conversation Caraballo had with his incarcerated half-brother on the morning of Barratt’s death.
During the conversation, Caraballo can be heard saying “I don’t know which one of them to bust off,” referring to Barratt and Makhanda-Lopez — both of whom he suspected of stealing the drugs.
Caraballo denied that the phrase “bust off” meant he intended to kill someone. He said the phrase described hitting or slapping someone.
His half-brother can be heard telling him to take the loss and walk away.
“He means, I shouldn’t do something to get into real trouble,” Caraballo said.
“Slapping someone wouldn’t get you into that much trouble would it?” Van de Graaf replied.
The prosecutor also questioned Caraballo’s contention that Makhanda-Lopez was an equal partner in the drug operation with decision making power.
“He was your employee. You ordered him around didn’t you? You called him ‘Jeeves’ didn’t you? And that’s because he was like you’re butler wasn’t it?” Van de Graaf said, drawing denials from Caraballo.
He also denied leading Barratt into the woods and using a handgun that Makhanda-Lopez brought to him to execute the woman.
“You’re lying today to protect yourself, isn’t that right?” Van de Graaf said. “You’ve got nothing to lose if you lie today do you?”
“I’ve got everything to lose,” Caraballo responded.
The final defense witness called in the case was Eugene McNair, a Vermont inmate who said he met Makhanda-Lopez last year while they were incarcerated together at the St. Albans jail.
After learning what Makhanda-Lopez was in jail for, McNair, who remains jailed on a federal gun conviction, said he asked him if he did the shooting.
“He said he wasn’t gonna say ‘no’ but he wasn’t gonna say ‘yes,’” McNair said.
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