By Mark Gutgueck
The preliminary hearing for Alex Opmanis extended into its second week on Monday and this morning, as prosecutor David Starr Rabb continued to seek traction in his effort to convince Superior Court Judge Charles Umeda to bind Opmanis over for trial for murder in the killing of Sammy Davis on July 11, 2019.
The case is playing out against a backdrop of recurrent suggestions, elements of which have been confirmed during the preliminary hearing, that a central piece of evidence in the case had been tampered with as part of an effort to prevent Opmanis’s legal team from presenting a credible self-defense claim.
Sheriff’s department investigators initially reached the conclusion that Opmanis had acted in self-defense after his encounter with Davis and two of Davis’s companions, Robert Shuey and Shane Codman, on the evening of the second Thursday of last July. Davis, Shuey and Codman, all of whom have criminal records, had surrounded Opmanis, who was standing to the side of his vehicle in the parking lot of Goodwin’s Market in Crestline. Davis’s and Shuey’s criminal records were extensive, and Shuey roughly six months previous to the shooting had assaulted Opmanis in an incident that required Opmanis’s hospitalization, required facial reconstructive surgery and permanently damaged his vision in his left eye. After Davis, 29, and Shuey, 29, initiated a physical attack on Opmanis, 27, Opmanis accessed a gun inside his vehicle and fired it, striking Davis once. The shooting took place at 9:14 p.m. Opmanis used a cellphone to summon both the sheriff’s department and paramedics, remaining in place until the sheriff’s department arrived. Codman left the scene within three minutes of the shooting, and after Shuey retrieved at least two items from the ground near where Davis was lying, he too remounted his motorcycle and fled.
After the fire department responded to the scene, paramedics loaded Davis into an ambulance and transported him to Saint Bernardine Hospital in San Bernardino, where he was pronounced dead at 10:12 p.m.
In its initial public release of information with regard to the incident, the sheriff’s department did not release Opmanis’s name, providing only his age and identifying him as a resident of Crestline while referring to him as the “victim.” The release referred to Davis as the “suspect.”
Opmanis was arrested by the sheriff’s department on August 9, 2019, after he met with homicide detectives at their request to provide them with additional information relating to the shooting, and the detectives heard what they believed were statements from Opmanis that were inconsistent with his previous statements and evidence gathered since the shooting.
Opmanis has been charged with with PC 187, murder; PC12022.53(B), unlawful use of a firearm; PC12022.53(C), unlawful discharge of a firearm; and PC12022.53(D), unlawful discharge of a firearm causing death.
The case has garnered attention and controversy because Goodwin’s Market has security apparatus entailing a video system utilizing multiple cameras, including one which captured moving images of the events leading up to the shooting, the shooting itself and the events following the shooting. It was a viewing and auditing of the action and sounds captured on that video, which was purportedly unaltered and unedited from its original continuously-running state at that time, that convinced the sheriff’s department investigators initially assigned to the case that the shooting occurred in self-defense. At some subsequent point the video was altered, however, and chopped up into a series of irregularly staggered segments. At least three versions of the video exist, with inconsistencies between each. In at least two of those three versions, a crucial 12-second segment that occurs just prior to the shooting has gone missing. It was those two versions of the video that were provided to the defense. Footage from the video just prior to and just after the missing 12 seconds suggests that the physical assault on Opmanis being administered to him by Davis and Shuey was excised before the evidence was provided to the defense. There are other deletions from the video, including audio passages during which Opmanis claims Shuey and Davis were taunting him.
After a series of delays and continuances, Opmanis’s preliminary hearing began on Friday, January 31. Testifying that afternoon were detectives Gerardo Moreno and Kevin McCurdy, as well as Deputy Victor Ruiz.
Because Opmanis’s attorney, Deputy Public Defender David Spiker, is currently involved in another trial which is being played out before a jury Monday through Thursday, the preliminary hearing for Opmanis is being held in fits and starts on Fridays, though there was a brief hearing on Monday, February 3 before Judge Umeda relating to the provision of discovery material to the defense, during a break in the trial Spiker is involved in. That discovery material involved a police report relating to the arrest of one of the investigators on the Opmanis case, Eric Dyberg. Dyberg’s credibility as a witness could prove crucial, as he was involved at some level in securing the video of the shooting. Spiker was provided access to the arrest report on Dyberg, subject to a protective order by Judge Umeda which prohibited him from disclosing any of the information contained within it to the press or anyone not immediately involved in the preparation of Opmanis’s defense.
The first witness put on the stand by Rabb this afternoon was Detective Michael Cleary of the sheriff’s department’s homicide division, who testified that he had been present at the post mortem done on Davis’s body starting at 9 am on August 9. Cleary confirmed Davis’s birth date of August 20, 1989 and the tracking number for the body bag containing Davis’s corpse, which matched that testified to by Detective Gerardo Moreno last week as the one he witnessed Davis’s lifeless body having been sealed into for transportation to the coroner’s office. Moreno last week testified he had arrived at Saint Bernardine Hospital late in the evening of July 11 following the pronouncement of Davis’s death, after which he had made his own perusal of the body prior to it being dispatched to the coroner’s office.
Cleary identified a photo of Davis’s body taken during the post mortem. He said forensic pathologist Brian Hutchins had performed the autopsy, and that he himself had taken notes as the examination proceeded.
Rabb asked what Hutchins had related to Cleary during the autopsy, and Cleary said that there was an entrance wound above the left nipple and that the bullet had passed through the area of the sixth rib, then the lung, struck the aorta and exited at a location on Davis’s back. There was a metal endo-tube yet in Davis’s mouth and nasal passages, as well as an intravenous clip near his left elbow, and an incision on the left side of his chest, Cleary stated.
Rabb asked Cleary if Hutchins had made a determination as to the cause and manner of death. Cleary stated that Hutchins’ finding was that the cause of death “was a single gunshot wound and the manner of death was determined to have been homicide.”
On cross examination, Spiker asked Cleary if the single gunshot wound in the chest moving from the front to back and from the left side to the right side of Davis’s body in a downward trajectory was “consistent with Mr. Davis being shot from the front?”
“Yes,” Cleary said.
Spiker in his cross examination dwelt on the manner of death being homicide, seeking to elicit from Cleary clarification that homicide being the cause of death did not preclude the conclusion that the fatal gunshot had been fired in self-defense. This brought objections from Rabb that Spiker was asking Cleary to provide a legal conclusion he was not qualified to give.
Judge Umeda overruled the objection, which allowed Striker to ask Cleary if “someone shot someone one time in lawful self defense and the cause of death was a gunshot wound, would the manner of death be homicide just as it was in this case?”
“Yes, as far as it being consistent with the coroner’s conclusion,” Cleary responded.
Cleary also stated that his involvement in the case went no further than attending the autopsy performed by the coroner.
Thereafter, Davis’ death certificate was introduced by Rabb and entered into evidence.
The next witness was Detective Eric Ogaz, who led the investigation into the shooting under the supervision of Sergeant Angelo Gibilterra after the initial examination of the matter by Detective McCurdy had concluded the day after the shooting with a finding that there were plausible grounds to demonstrate Opmanis had acted in self-defense.
After he was assigned to investigate the shooting that took place in the parking lot at Goodwin’s Market, Ogaz testified, he had interviewed Shane Codman in the interview room at the sheriff’s station on July 25, 2019. Present for the interview, Ogaz said, was Codman and his attorney, Michael Fadin, and Detective Moreno. He said that Codman was not in custody. Codman told him that he had attended a motorcycle event put on by Harley Davidson in Riverside on July 11 and had ridden up the mountain in the company of Davis and Shuey to Twin Peaks, and went to Goodwin’s market to pick up hamburger meat so they could barbecue it, Ogaz said. Codman told Ogaz they had arrived at Goodwin’s Market at approximately 9 pm and parked in front of the market by the propane tanks. When he, Shuey and Davis were leaving the store, they were approached by a woman who asked if she could take pictures of them by their motorcycles, Ogaz testified Codman told him. When the bikers were leaving, Ogaz said, Codman indicated they were traveling at under five miles an hour as they headed out of the parking lot, and that Codman was wearing a helmet. As Codman was driving away, Ogaz said, he spotted someone standing on the railing of his vehicle waving his arms at him, and that he did not know who it was, so he turned around before leaving the parking lot and came back, at which point he recognized the person who had waved to him was Opmanis. According to Ogaz, Codman said he had known Opmanis for about four years and that prior to this incident he said they were friends, but that as he approached Opmanis “he appeared to be hostile and angry.”
Rabb asked if Shuey had also returned to the parking lot, and Ogaz indicated Shuey on his motorcycle had likewise approached Opmanis at his vehicle. Ogaz, relaying to the court what he had been told by Codman, said Opmanis was getting angrier, and had an exchange with Shuey “and stated something like ‘You jumped me.’ Robert told him he never jumped him and just wanted to be friends with him.”
Rabb asked Ogaz if he had questioned Codman about whether he was aware of an incident involving Shuey and Opmanis in January 2019.
Ogaz related that Codman had been present at the Dogwood Bar, which preceded the fight between Opmanis and Shuey that later took place at Shuey’s home. Codman did not witness the fight, according to Ogaz.
With regard to the night of July 11, according to Ogaz, Codman had said that while Opmanis was angry and accusing Shuey of jumping him, he was wearing a hoodie [a hooded sweatshirt], and had his right hand inside the hoodie. Ogaz said that Codman told him “He felt Alex [Opmanis] had a gun in his hoodie and was acting more brave than he normally does.”
In this fashion, Rabb endeavored to suggest to Judge Umeda by Ogaz’s testimony that the shooting was not one that spontaneously arose out of Davis’s assault on Opmanis.
Rabb then asked Ogaz what Codman had said about Davis’s presence at the scene of the shooting before it took place.
“Mr Davis was just kind of standing in the background,” Ogaz said Codman had told him. At some point, according to Ogaz, Codman said that Davis said something to the effect of “‘Do you want to get down,’ and started to approach Alex.”
Ogaz said that Codman stated that Davis did not place his hands on Opmanis and that he was not close enough to place hands on Opmanis or hit him, and that he did not witness Davis or Shuey point weapons toward Opmanis. It was while Davis was yet approaching Opmanis that Codman said Opmanis shot Davis five times, Ogaz testified.
When Davis fell to the ground, Codman told Ogaz, he and Shuey ran over to Davis, at which point, Codman related that Davis said, “You shot me in the heart. I’m dying.” Ogaz said that Codman told him he and Shuey moved Davis toward the back of Opmanis’s vehicle, away from Opmanis. After people started to come out of the store, Codman told Ogaz he told Davis, “I love you,” and then mounted his motorcycle and left.
Rabb asked Ogaz if Codman had gone to the sheriff’s station on July 12 to make a statement about what had occurred the previous night. Ogaz said that Codman did go to the station but had not made a statement.
Rabb asked Ogaz about Codman’s statement that Opmanis had fired five shots. Ogaz said it is not uncommon for a witness’s recollection of the number of gunshots fired to deviate from the actual number of shots.
Ogaz further testified that he interviewed Shuey on July 29, 2019, and that also present at the interview was Shuey’s attorney, Gary Smith, as well as Detective Moreno.
Rabb questioned Ogaz about what Shuey told him about the physical altercation Shuey had with Opmanis in January 2019. Ogaz said that Shuey told him he and Opmanis were together at the Dogwood Bar, which is walking distance from Shuey’s residence, that Shuey met a girl there who then returned with Shuey to his home, and that he had told Opmanis not to drink and drive, and to spend the night at his house. At some point, Shuey told Ogaz, he awakened that evening when Opmanis threw up on him, at which point he noticed there were several other subjects in his home drinking his alcohol. There ensued a physical altercation in which Shuey claimed that both he and Opmanis had hit each other with closed fists. According to Ogaz, Shuey claimed that Opmanis had given him a black eye and had loosened one of his teeth, and he had given Opmanis a black eye and a bloody nose.
Shuey told him during the July 29 interview, Ogaz said, that he had not seen Opmanis between the January 2019 and July 2019 incidents.
Shuey said in his July 29 statement, Ogaz testified, that on July 11 he, Davis and Codman had been at the Bike Night in Riverside earlier in the evening, whereafter they went up into the mountains to Goodwin’s Market to get hamburger meat and some beer. In leaving the parking lot, Shuey said that he led, with Davis and Codman behind him. Shuey had further stated that he had poor vision, indicating he had not seen Opmanis while they were in the market, in the parking lot or when initially leaving. After leaving the parking lot, he had seen in his side mirror that neither Codman nor Davis were behind him, and since Davis had a mechanical problem with his bike earlier, he thought Davis’s motorcycle might have broken down. When he returned to the parking lot, he told Ogaz during the July 29 interview, he saw Codman and Davis talking to someone near a dark SUV. As he approached the vehicle, Shuey said he could tell that Codman and the subject near the vehicle were in an argument, but it wasn’t until he walked up to them that he recognized Opmanis.
“What happened next?” Rabb asked
“Alex accused him [Shuey] of jumping him,” Ogaz said.
Opmanis was wearing a black hoodie and had his hand inside the hoodie, said Shuey, who told Ogaz that he thought Opmanis had a gun. When Shuey attempted to shake hands with Opmanis and say that he wanted to “just be friends,” Opmanis would not extend his hand to reciprocate, and Opmanis was “angry and hostile,” according to Shuey as related to the court through Ogaz’s testimony.
According to Ogaz, Shuey did not see Davis hit Opmanis.
Shortly thereafter, according to what Shuey told Ogaz, when Davis began to approach Opmanis, without warning Opmanis shot Davis.
After Davis fell to the ground, according to Shuey’s statement, he and Codman dragged Davis behind Opmanis’s SUV.
Shuey told Ogaz he left the scene because he was scared.
Rabb drew out from Ogaz that Shuey had said that prior to pulling out of the parking lot and then returning, he had not seen Opmanis.
Ogaz also testified that Shuey had come to the Twin Peaks sheriff’s office substation on July 12 to make a statement, but did not make a statement to him or other members of the department that day.
Rabb questioned Ogaz about the surveillance video, including referencing the critical gap in the footage just prior to the shooting. Ogaz acknowledged that there were sequences missing from the video. He said he had spoken with Detective Eric Dyberg and another sheriff’s department employee, Matt Meyer, about “why there were gaps in the video.”
Rabb examined Ogaz with regard to the detective’s interview with Opmanis.
Rabb asked Ogaz if he had shown Opmanis the video and had asked the defendant why he did not just leave the parking lot prior to the shooting taking place.
In response, Ogaz related that Opmanis said he could not remember what he was doing when he was in the parking lot.
Ogaz testified that he had interviewed Opmanis on August 13, 2019, beginning at 3:43 p.m. at sheriff’s headquarters in the homicide office. He said Opmanis was accompanied by his lawyer, whom he misidentified as Jeffrey Morse, the lawyer’s actual name being Jeffrey Lawrence. He said Opmanis was not in custody at the time, was voluntarily participating in the interview and was free to leave had he chosen to do so. He said Opmanis was calm during the interview.
When asked if he was under the influence on July 11, Opmanis said he was not, according to Ogaz. Opmanis had met two friends and got groceries, he told Ogaz, and put the groceries away into his vehicle.
“According to Mr. Opmanis, he was by his vehicle when three motorcyclists came by, revving their engines, trying to intimidate him,” Ogaz said. The motorcyclists surrounded him, Ogaz said Opmanis claimed. Ogaz said that the three were trying to talk to him in a friendly manner but that he didn’t trust Shuey. When someone struck him in the head, Opmanis said he had reached into his vehicle and that he had fired the gun “backwards, under his arm” indicating he almost shot himself in doing so. After Davis, whose name he did not know, fell to the ground, Opmanis told Ogaz, he told the others to back off, and he called the police.
Ogaz testified that he had shown Opmanis the surveillance video during the interview, pointing out that he had put his groceries away well before the encounter with Davis, Shuey and Codman and that there was thus a discrepancy in Opmanis’s version of events and the timing of the events leading up to the shooting. Ogaz also referenced interaction between Opmanis and whom Ogaz referred to as Opmanis’s “two friends,” whom the Sentinel has identified as Johnny, whose last name has not been specified in any court documents available to the Sentinel and Osvaldo Nuno.
The testimony Ogaz gave this afternoon was somewhat inexact in that he was providing his recollection of what was depicted on the video without the video being played.
“While playing the surveillance footage, did he point out his vehicle and [that] he was in the surveillance video?” Rabb asked Ogaz.
“Yes,” Ogaz replied. “Did he identify his two friends?” Rabb asked.
“Yes, he did,” Ogaz said. Ogaz also said that Opmanis was able to identify Shuey, Codman and Davis on the video.
In his questioning of Ogaz, Rabb angled at illustrating to Judge Umeda that Opmanis was in some fashion loitering in the parking lot prior to Shuey, Codman and Davis leaving, to suggest that Opmanis was lying in wait.
Ogaz at one point in his testimony indicated that Johnny and Nuno had left the parking lot.
Asked by Rabb if they had returned, Ogaz responded, “I don’t believe so.”
That however, is belied by one of the videos of the activity taking place in the parking lot both prior to, during and after the shooting, which shows that roughly six minutes prior to the shooting Johnny and Nuno are assisting Opmanis in loading groceries into his car, followed two minutes later, just about four minutes before the shooting, with them getting into their vehicle and leaving. The video, obtained by the Sentinel, shows the two returning in their vehicle to a position in the parking lot directly behind Opmanis’s vehicle roughly two minutes later. They were still there when the shooting took place, but left within seconds after the shooting.
Thus, in his questioning of Ogaz, Rabb comes across as emphasizing, as does Ogaz in his answers, that Opmanis was lurking in place.
Ogaz testified that when he asked what Opmanis was doing in the parking lot around the time Shuey, Davis and Codman emerged from the store several minutes after he had, Opmanis indicated he was putting his groceries away. Ogaz, however, who had already indicated that Opmanis’s friends had driven way, said that the groceries had already been stowed in Opmanis’s vehicle.
“Did you point that out?” Rabb asked Ogaz.
“Yes, I did,” said Ogaz.
“What did he say in response to that?” Rabb asked.
Ogaz indicated that in trying to get Opmanis to respond on that score, he made a point of the video showing Opmanis standing on the floorboard of his car, looking in the direction of Shuey, Davis and Codman as they were heading toward, and then at, their motorcycles.
Pregnant in that part of Ogaz’s testimony was that Opmanis had not taken the opportunity to leave in the minutes ahead of the shooting.
Moreover, Ogaz suggested, Opmanis honked his horn several times “until he got their attention by honking.”
In this way, Ogaz’s testimony implied, Opmanis was seeking a confrontation with the trio.
Ogaz said that Opmanis had explained his honking of the horn by saying he was “trying to get everyone’s attention just in case they attacked him.”
The video, however, Ogaz said, shows that as the bikers passed in front of Opmanis as they were purposed to leave the parking lot, the defendant reached into his vehicle to honk his horn “three or four times, which seemed to catch Shane Codman’s attention.”
It was Codman who turned around to then drive up to Opmanis, quickly followed by Davis and then later by Shuey. This element of Ogaz’s testimony underscored the prosecution’s theory that Opmanis had invited the confrontation that led to the shooting.
Rabb asked Ogaz what Opmanis’s response was when he asked him why he didn’t simply leave. The detective said that Opmanis said “he wanted to stay in the parking lot because he knew it had cameras and if Robert Shuey assaulted him the cameras would be his evidence.”
Rabb asked, “During the course of the interview, did Mr. Opmanis change his story?”
Responded Ogaz, “He changed his story a bunch.”
In his cross examination of Ogaz, Opmanis’s defense attorney, David Striker, succeeded in getting the detective to acknowledge that Davis and Shuey were childhood friends, that the interviews with Codman and Shuey did not take place until two weeks and more after the shooting, and that when Codman and Shuey were interviewed they were accompanied by attorneys, and that they had likely spoken with one another before their respective interviews took place to coordinate their narratives. Striker pushed Ogaz with regard to whether he frequently encountered witnesses represented by an attorney, and Ogaz stated that it was uncommon.
In an effort to undercut the prosecution’s suggestion that Opmanis had been lying in wait outside the market, Striker questioned Ogaz about whether Opmanis had seen Shuey, Codman and Davis inside the store and whether they saw him, and Ogaz stated that “apparently” they didn’t see each other.
Striker also wrung from Ogaz that Opmanis was not in violation of any law by simply being in the parking lot.
“Mr. Opmanis has the right to be where he is?” Strike said in an assertive question.
“Absolutely,” Ogaz responded.
Striker was also able to get Ogaz to acknowledge that Davis, Shuey and Codman had been drinking that evening, asking if Codman had said whether they had consumed alcohol at the motorcycling event in Riverside.
“I believe he stated they had been drinking,” Ogaz said. To a follow-up question, Ogaz said he had not determined how much the three had been drinking or if they were intoxicated. Striker asked if the intoxicative effect of alcohol “could affect one’s perception of events?”
“Yes,” said Ogaz.
Striker asked if Ogaz had verified Shuey’s claim of having been injured by Opmanis during the January 2019 incident between the two men. Ogaz indicated he had not. He then acknowledged that there was a police report and photographs that documented Opmanis’s injuries in the January 2019 fight, though he indicated he had not pulled the report himself.
In response to one of Striker’s questions in which the defense attorney characterized the three bikers as surrounding Opmanis, Ogaz corrected the defense attorney to say that they had “parked by him.”
Ogaz further confirmed that according to Codman, Davis had said to Opmanis “Do you want to get down [i.e., fight]?”
Ogaz also stated that Opmanis did not reciprocate Davis’s threat, at which point Striker zeroed in on Codman’s description of Davis’s aggressive demeanor after Davis got off of his motorcycle. Striker referenced Codman’s statement that “Mr. Davis quickly approached him and came in hot and confrontational and ready to fight. Is that the essence of what he said?” Striker asked.
“Yes,” said Ogaz.
Striker referenced Ogaz’s statement that the video did not show Opmanis being hit by Davis, but then stated that on at least one of the versions of the video “Mr. Davis is walking toward Mr. Opmanis and then 12 seconds is missing.”
Ogaz acknowledged there was a segment of the video missing.
Striker also asked if Opmanis had, after the shooting, “put the gun back in the car immediately?”
“Correct,” Ogaz responded.
Ogaz also confirmed, in response to Striker, that Codman and Shuey left the scene shortly after the shooting when Opmanis and others were summoning the authorities.
Striker noted that when Codman was interviewed on July 25, Ogaz had asked him why he had left so rapidly after the shooting, while his friend was on the ground dying. “You asked the obvious question: ‘Why did you leave the scene?’ That is when his lawyer objects and you never got that answer. You do believe that’s an important question?” Striker asked.
Ogaz acknowledged it was.
On Friday, February 14 at 1:30 a.m. in Judge Umeda’s courtroom on the second floor of the San Bernardino Justice Center, Opmanis’s preliminary hearing is set to resume, with Ogaz scheduled to return to the witness stand.
By Mark Gutgueck