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Trial begins in Atwater machete killing

Carlos Belmonte’s hands trembled holding a machete on Wednesday as he demonstrated how it was used to kill a 61-year-old Atwater man last year during an alcohol-fueled argument, apparently over a pair of boots.

Belmonte told Merced Superior Court jurors he witnessed the defendant, Antonio Cruz Guzman, 31, attack Joseph L. McDonald with the machete April 28 in the backyard of a home on Valencia Way in Atwater.

Opening statements in the case were heard Wednesday before Judge Marc A. Garcia.

Guzman has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder in connection with McDonald’s death.

Belmonte testified Guzman swung the long, hooked, Spanish-style cleaver first at McDonald’s left side, hacking his neck. Then, Belmonte said, Guzman swung the blade several more times while McDonald covered his head in self-defense. “I don’t want to hold this no more,” Belmonte said, handing the alleged murder weapon to the bailiff.

Witnesses told jurors several people gathered at the home the day of the homicide for a barbecue. Guzman and McDonald were both drinking, one witness testified, and they were bickering “off and on” all day. “They argued over Antonio’s boots,” witness Bonnie Aguilar testified.

McDonald began drinking early in the day, perhaps some time shortly after 8 a.m. Guzman arrived some time around noon and was also drinking, witnesses said.

McDonald and Guzman were headed to the backyard, according to witnesses, possibly to have a fistfight, when Guzman stopped at his pickup truck in the driveway and appeared to retrieve something from the cab.

Guzman then approached McDonald and swung the machete without a word, Belmonte said.

Deputy District Attorney Thomas Min played an audio recording of the 911 call made by Aguilar’s adult daughter, Christyn.

On the recording, Christyn Aguilar is heard telling emergency dispatchers that someone stabbed her friend in the neck. “He’s dying right now,” she told dispatchers. “He just died.”

Deputy Public Defender Kim Boortz on Wednesday appeared to be laying the foundation for a self-defense claim, though she hasn’t confirmed that will be her strategy.

Under questioning from the defense, Bonnie Aguilar described the defendant as typically quiet, polite and peaceful, “even when drinking.” Witnesses also testified Guzman appeared calm during the argument and described McDonald as louder and more animated.

Those questions came after one eyewitness, Rachel Sanchez, apparently told both attorneys during Wednesday’s lunch break she intends to change her testimony. Before jurors came back into the courtroom, Boortz and Min informed the judge that Sanchez told them she witnessed the attack, which she had previously denied to investigators.

Sanchez told the attorneys she initially lied about the attack because she was afraid, Min said.

Both attorneys acknowledged it appears several other key witnesses in the case may have privately promised Sanchez they would keep her name out of their testimony. “They all cooked up this scenario to exclude her,” Boortz told the judge.

Judge Garcia indicated Sanchez’s sudden and unexpected reversal may create issues for both sides of the case, particularly for the prosecution.

“I see some credibility issues with your witnesses,” Garcia told Min.

It remained unclear Wednesday how much, if any, of Sanchez’s new testimony the jury may hear. She is scheduled to take the stand today.