The first witnesses were called Wednesday in the federal trial of a man accused of taking part in the deadly robbery of La Placita market.
Jorge Santos Caballero-Melgar, 36, of Nashville, is on trial on 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 re-entry after deportation.
La Placita was robbed March 17, 2017, and Jose Cruz, 31, of Bowling Green, was shot and killed while attempting to intervene.
Four co-defendants have pleaded guilty, and one of them testified Wednesday.
Prosecutors are attempting to prove that Caballero-Melgar orchestrated the robbery of the Morgantown Road store as well as robberies in other states.
“There was a combination of (Caballero-Melgar’s) team present at each robbery but always at the direction of the defendant,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Alicia Gomez said during her opening statement in U.S. District Court.
Jurors were shown surveillance video footage of the robbery at La Placita.
The footage shows two men, Jose Adan Mejia Varela and Jonny Alexander Reyes-Martinez, in hooded sweatshirts entering the store, binding two employees’ wrists with duct tape and taking money from the store.
Cruz’s car can be seen arriving at the store, and Varela leaves the store, walking past Cruz, who had gone there to pick up his son.
Seconds later, Cruz appears to realize a robbery is in progress and attempts to intervene, and Varela runs back into the store.
Varela and Reyes-Martinez are seen struggling with Cruz for a moment, and then they flee the business.
Rosio Lucero, who worked at La Placita and is the mother of Cruz’s son, testified about being ordered at gunpoint to be quiet and get down on her knees.
As she was being restrained by one robber, the other was at the cash register stealing money, Lucero said.
Lucero testified that she believed the robbers were Honduran due to their accents, and she could hear one talking on a cellphone with another man.
“I heard a voice on the phone saying, ‘You’re taking too long,’ ” Lucero said.
When Cruz entered the store, Lucero said she also tried to intervene.
“I tried to stop them from hitting him and I got hit in the head,” Lucero said, testifying that she later heard a pop, with Cruz telling her to call an ambulance.
On the witness stand, Varela admitted to his role in the robbery, along with another robbery at a Nashville business.
Testifying through an interpreter, Varela said he wore gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints, and he remembered rushing back into La Placita when he saw Reyes-Martinez and Cruz fighting over Reyes-Martinez’s gun.
“I dropped my gun, when I picked it up the guy pushed Jonny and they separated. ... I saw the guy fell,” Varela said through an interpreter.
Varela was hit in the elbow by a bullet, which then entered Cruz’s lower back. He said he did not see Reyes-Martinez fire the gun, but he heard the shot.
Varela said Caballero-Melgar was in touch with Reyes-Martinez over the phone throughout the robbery, that the three of them had traveled to Bowling Green together to carry out the robbery and returned to Tennessee afterward to split the money.
Varela said he was not aware that Cruz died until he was arrested later in 2017.
Caballero-Melgar’s attorney, Bryce Caldwell, questioned Varela about the plea agreement he reached with prosecutors.
Originally facing a life sentence, Varela pleaded guilty, accepting an agreement recommending a punishment between 168 and 293 months in exchange for his cooperation with the government.
Caldwell asked whether Varela was desperate for a plea agreement and a sentence he “could live with.”
“Your desperation to get away from La Placita in Bowling Green is the same desperation you have here today, correct?” Caldwell asked.
“I’m not testifying about anything I didn’t do,” Varela responded through an interpreter.
Detective Mike Nade of the Bowling Green Police Department testified about his role in the investigation.
He arrived at the store about two or three hours after the robbery, where officers processed the crime scene.
A cellphone was found among merchandise scattered on the floor and seized by police.
Nade said police were able to analyze the times of calls and text messages to and from the phone and examine the phone for possible fingerprints and DNA.
The phone provided the strongest lead in the early stages of the investigation, allowing officers to analyze activity at cell towers between La Placita and Nashville along Interstate 65 in the hours just before and after the robbery.
Nade testified that he attempted to identify one of the robbers through the logo of a Brentwood, Tenn., landscaping company that appeared on the back of his sweatshirt in surveillance footage, but employees at the company did not recognize the man.
Other Hispanic-owned businesses in the city were contacted as well, but employees did not recognize the robbers, Nade said.
Police looked at the possibility of a group coming from Nashville to rob the business, selecting La Placita after looking at the setup of various stores to see which could be most easily targeted.
Nade said city police worked with the FBI to look for connections to similar robberies elsewhere, in which armed suspects targeted Hispanic-owned businesses and used duct tape to restrain employees.
“This was a well-executed robbery, the behavior of the suspects in the store led me to believe this was not their first time,” Nade said. “We tried to search for other robberies that might be related.”
– Follow courts reporter Justin Story on Twitter @jstorydailynews or visit bgdailynews.com.