Loss of witness testimony derails Modesto murder trial

A 23-year-old Modesto man won’t face trial for murder after key witnesses refused to testify against him, a prosecutor said Wednesday.

Deputy District Attorney Tom Brennan said he had to dismiss the case against Jose Nunez on Tuesday, the day the trial was set to begin.

Nunez was accused of shooting to death 19-year-old Barkho Slefo in April 2009, in what authorities called “a classic case of gang warfare.”

Brennan said reluctant witnesses are a frequent problem in gang-related cases. He said those who were to testify against Nunez were “heartless cowards who value the gang culture more than human life.”

“The entire community suffers when witnesses to gang violence refuse to cooperate with law enforcement efforts to keep our streets safe,” Brennan said. “(They) refused to step up to bring justice to the grief-stricken family.”

It took investigators more than a year to arrest Nunez in connection with Slefo’s slaying. Slefo was found inside his car in southeast Modesto near Japonica Way and Lincoln Avenue, off Yosemite Boulevard on April 13, 2009.

According to court testimony at Nunez’s preliminary hearing:

Before he died, Slefo told an officer that a green minivan drove by with two Sureño occupants. The front passenger, later identified by authorities as Nunez, pointed a pistol out of the window and fired two rounds.

But defense attorney Martin Baker said Nunez passed a polygraph test during police interviews to prove he wasn’t involved.

“Jose Nunez has maintained from the beginning that he wasn’t there at the time of the shooting,” Baker said.

Police learned the violence began earlier in the evening at a nearby Taco Bell.

Sureño gang members in a black Mazda tried to go through the drive-thru when rival Norteños noticed an “RIP Casper” sticker in their back window, referring to a Sureño named Lucio Lopez who had been murdered a month earlier.

The Norteño gang members tried to pull the passengers from the black Mazda before its driver backed up and drove away, according to testimony.

A short time later, some of the same Sureño gang members involved in the Taco Bell confrontation returned to the area in the green minivan.

Slefo was with Norteño gang members when he was shot.

Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at 578-2337. Follow her at

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