La Placita homicide trial on monitor to start this week

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The trial for the final remaining defendant accused in the deadly 2017 robbery of La Placita market remains on schedule to begin Tuesday.

Jorge Santos Caballero-Melgar, 36, of Nashville, is charged with murder through use of a firearm during a crime of violence, interference with commerce by robbery, conspiracy to interfere with commerce by robbery, conspiracy to carry or possess a firearm during a crime of violence and illegal re-entry after deportation.

The charges stem from the death of Jose Cruz, 31, of Bowling Green, who was shot March 17, 2017, at the store on Morgantown Road.

Federal prosecutors assert that Cruz was killed while attempting to intervene in the robbery.

Investigation by the FBI and the Bowling Green Police Department led to the arrest of five people for various crimes in connection with the robbery.

Authorities alleged that Jonny Alexander Reyes-Martinez and Jose Adan Mejia Varela actually entered the store and carried out the robbery, while Caballero-Melgar waited outside and drove them away from the scene.

Reyes-Martinez and Varela have each pleaded guilty to charges of murder through use of a firearm during a crime of violence, interference with commerce by robbery, conspiracy to interfere with commerce by robbery, conspiracy to carry or possess a firearm during a crime of violence and illegal possession of a firearm.

The gunshot that killed Cruz was discharged by a weapon held by Reyes-Martinez, according to federal court records.

Both men await sentencing.

Two other people, Lilian Duron and Estrellita Soto, have pleaded guilty to robbery charges in connection with the La Placita incident.

Court records show that the two went to the store prior to the robbery to conduct surveillance and send a money order that was eventually stolen back by their co-defendants.

Duron was sentenced to four years in prison while Soto was given a prison sentence of five years and 10 months.

The group is accused of being part of a conspiracy of 13 co-defendants based in Nashville who carried out a total of 15 robberies mostly at Hispanic-owned businesses in Kentucky, Indiana, Tennessee and North Carolina over several months in 2016-17.

One of the last things taken up in Caballero-Melgar’s case before trial was a motion to have his attorneys removed from the case.

On April 9, Caballero-Melgar filed a motion on his own behalf in which he requested a dismissal of the counts charging him with murder and conspiring to possess a firearm during a crime of violence.

Caballero-Melgar claimed that the government lacks evidence to prove he was involved in Cruz’s death.

While he admitted in the motion to traveling to a robbery in Kentucky, Caballero-Melgar claimed that he could not “see the robbery location from where he waited” and learned of the shooting afterward when he overheard Reyes-Martinez discuss it over the phone with someone.

Caballero-Melgar requested a dismissal of the murder charge on the grounds that it is “an ambitious charge misrepresenting the actual facts constituting the murder of the victim.”

Caballero-Melgar’s motion was met with an April 13 order from U.S. District Court Chief Judge Greg Stivers directing him not to file any more of his own motions unless they relate to his defense team’s representation.

His defense team of Bryce Caldwell and Jeffrey Darling went on to research the requests Caballero-Melgar made in his motion and determined there were “no legal grounds to provide a good-faith belief” in going before the court and arguing for Caballero-Melgar’s requests.

Caldwell and Darling said they communicated their findings with Caballero-Melgar through an interpreter, which led Caballero-Melgar to say that he was no longer comfortable with having the lawyers on his defense team and wanted different attorneys to be appointed.

On Monday, the attorneys filed a motion to be removed from the case and new attorneys appointed to replace them.

The attorneys say Caballero-Melgar then discussed “other areas of concern” with their legal representation that prompted the request for new lawyers.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Marisa Ford and Alicia Gomez filed a response Friday opposing the motion.

The prosecutors argued that the nature of Caballero-Melgar’s dispute with his attorneys is based on his “fundamental misapprehension of the law” and is not a cause for appointing new attorneys.

“Caballero’s dissatisfaction with his attorneys is because they will not file a frivolous motion drafted by a jailhouse lawyer,” the response from Ford and Gomez said.

A closed hearing was held Friday in U.S. District Court on the matter.

– Follow courts reporter Justin Story on Twitter @jstorydailynews or visit bgdailynews.com.