New details surface in Atwater homicide; defense claims "strong arm" tactics by deputies

08/29/2014 8:25 PM

08/30/2014 9:07 AM

The arrest last month of Ethan B. Morse on a murder charge was based on statements from three witnesses who said they were inside the vehicle during the alleged drive-by shooting in 2013, according to documents obtained exclusively by the Merced Sun-Star.

However, Morse’s attorney, Kirk McAllister, told the Sun-Star the Merced County sheriff’s detectives used “strong-arm tactics,” including “screaming” and “handcuffing the young people to get the statements (the detectives) wanted.”

Morse, 18, is the son of Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II. The younger Morse was arrested July 25 and charged with murder in connection with the deaths of three teenagers who were shot and killed at the house party March 30, 2013. The victims, Samantha Parreira, 16; Bernabed Hernandez-Canela, 18; and Matthew Fisher, 19, died at the party in the 9200 block of Westside Boulevard near Atwater.

Morse has been charged as the alleged driver in connection with the death of Hernandez-Canela.

The man who allegedly shot Hernandez while sitting in Morse’s vehicle, Jacob Tellez, 18, of Merced, has pleaded not guilty to charges of murder, shooting from a vehicle, possession of a firearm by a minor and street terrorism, as well as allegations of criminal street gang participation.

Jose L. Botello, 19, and Jose M. Carballido, both 19-year-old Atwater residents, are accused of killing Fisher and Parreira.

The cases against the four defendants are being prosecuted by the California Attorney General’s Office because of the allegations against the Merced County district attorney’s son.

McAllister has adamantly denied Morse played any role in the violence and said Morse “cooperated with the sheriff’s office to try and straighten this all out.” McAllister has consistently criticized the investigation that led to Morse’s arrest.

“We will prove that Ethan is absolutely innocent,” McAllister said Friday.

Merced County Sheriff Tom Cavallero said he could not comment on the specifics of the investigation because it remains an open court case. Cavallero also brushed off McAllister’s claims of “strong-arm” tactics being used in the investigation, saying he continues to stand by the work done by detectives in the case, and again noted the California Attorney General’s Office believed in the evidence and filed the case.

The Attorney General’s Office declined to comment Friday.

According to an affidavit for Morse’s arrest filed in Merced Superior Court, three people told detectives they were inside the vehicle Morse was driving on the night of the deadly party. The names of those witnesses were redacted from the copy of the affidavit obtained by the Sun-Star.

At least one witness said that, before the party, “they met at Ethan’s house and while at his house they had a plan to change everyone’s names so nobody would remember any names while at the party,” the affidavit says. All three witnesses said that as the vehicle was speeding away from the party once the shooting started, someone inside said, “You gonna do it? You gonna do it? You gonna do it?” the affidavit says.

One of the witnesses attributed the statement directly to Morse. All three witnesses said the statement was made three times.

All three said Tellez showed them he was carrying a firearm earlier that evening. Two of the witnesses described it as a “black revolver.” Tellez also told investigators he was carrying a weapon, which he described as a “silver revolver with a wood handle,” but denied ever firing it, the affidavit says.

Two of the witnesses told detectives that Tellez fired from the vehicle, while the third said “she knew Tellez had been armed with a gun on that day, however was not sure if he had fired it.”

The affidavit says the vehicle slowed down and Tellez allegedly opened fire at a man who was running in the opposite direction from the vehicle and the man fell to the ground. One of the witnesses said “Tellez tells Morse ‘I think I hit somebody! Let’s dip! Let’s dip!’ ” the affidavit says.

The vehicle then went to a home on East Donna Drive in Merced and Tellez gave a man there a gun. Tellez and another person inside the vehicle apparently stayed on Donna Drive, while others went back to Morse’s home, the affidavit says.

One of the witnesses told investigators “they all met back at Morse’s house where they talked about a story to tell just in case any one (sic) found out,” the affidavit says.

McAllister was critical of the affidavit for Morse’s arrest, saying it showed only “a one-sided version of the events.” McAllister also noted the affidavit makes “no mention of the fact that Tellez was arrested a year ago in this case, but released for a lack of evidence.”

Tellez was identified as a suspect shortly after the incident when, according to detectives, he accidentally pocket-dialed 911 on his cellphone and was heard discussing shootings.

Detectives believe Tellez was specifically discussing shooting Hernandez-Canela, though Tellez denied firing any weapons when questioned by deputies, according to reports from investigators obtained by the Sun-Star.

Tellez was released April 15, 2013, a little more than two weeks after the party, the report says.

The information reported in the affidavit regarding Morse was developed by detectives in July of this year.

Several of the detectives who originally worked on the case are no longer part of the investigation. Some have transferred to other agencies or other assignments within the Sheriff’s Department, and the Major Crimes Unit changed leadership earlier this year, officials have previously said.

Botello’s attorney, Ty Kharazi, on Friday said his client adamantly denies any role in the homicides. “Mr. Botello denies any wrongdoing or even being at the scene,” Kharazi said Friday. “He believes this is a case of mistaken identity and denies any participation or affiliation with any gangs.”

Kharazi said he is working to confirm exactly where his client was on the night of the party. “Had these arrests been made closer to the time of the incident, it would be much easier to track down where he was,” he said.

According to the affidavit filed for Carballido’s arrest, witnesses identified Botello as the man who shot Fisher and Parreira. Witnesses said Carballido was standing close to Botello when the shooting started and that the men came to the party together.

Attorneys representing Tellez and Carballido could not be reached for comment.

Morse and Tellez are due back in court Sept. 11. Botello and Carballido appear again Sept. 26.


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