Prosecutor: Gas can, duffel bag are key in attempted murder trial

Prosecutor Dave McEachran asked a jury to focus on a few key pieces of evidence — a gas can, a duffel bag, two gallons of bleach — in his closing argument during an attempted murder trial Tuesday afternoon, Feb. 10, in Whatcom County Superior Court.

Two weeks before Chad C. Horne broke into a Ferndale home armed with a gun and a knife to slash a woman’s throat, his girlfriend, Lesley Alexandra Villatoro, stopped by the Bellingham Walmart on a Wednesday afternoon.

“R u getting the other stuff? Or no,” Horne, 34, messaged her via Facebook around 1 p.m. April 23, 2014.

She replied, “Yep might as well.”

“Can u get it now while you wait for the rx,” he asked.

“Well technically I’m waiting in line now,” she wrote. “I’m next.”

“Oh ok gotcha.”

Minutes later she wrote: “Gas can $17 for 5 gallons.”

“Awesome,” Horne replied, within 15 seconds.

That’s a key piece of evidence, McEachran argued, that Villatoro, 29, was working with Horne to plan a murder, a getaway, and a dramatic diversion, by lighting the victim’s stolen car on fire.

Her attorney, Thomas Fryer, gave an alternate, far more mundane theory about the shopping trip: Horne and Villatoro, of Birch Bay, planned to move back to Arizona in June. So they needed a gas can in case their Honda broke down. The gas can was later found in the back of Villatoro’s car in Birch Bay, beside a backpack holding a police scanner and a change of men’s clothes.

That April afternoon, at the checkout counter, Villatoro also bought bananas, two gallons of milk, Crayola markers and a black duffel bag.

A duffel bag for the move, Fryer said.

A duffel bag for the murder, McEachran said.

Police asked Villatoro if she or Horne owned any duffel bags. She mentioned one but neglected to mentioned the black bag used in the crime, which she had bought.

“Why would she — look, it’s something that’s so innocuous. It’s not like buying a gun, it’s not like buying a knife, when you don’t want to admit that. It’s a duffel bag. Why would she not be honest, with the officers, about the duffel bag?” McEachran asked the jury. “We know how this duffel bag was used. Why would she not be honest about that?”

On the day of the attack Villatoro drove her gray 2012 Honda Civic to a neighborhood southeast of Ferndale. She’d been there once before, she told detectives, to look at houses, because they’d been looking to move out of the garage they lived in. According to Villatoro, Horne told her he wanted to meet up with a friend, John, who wanted to belatedly celebrate Horne’s birthday by smoking marijuana. Horne, dressed in all black, sat next to her, their twin toddler daughters were in the back seat, with Horne’s nephew in the middle. As Horne got out around 9:55 a.m., near the dead-end of Patriot Place, he told her to pop the trunk.

That evening detectives asked Villatoro if she saw Horne take anything to the house.

“Um, himself?” she answered.

Horne had taken the duffel bag to the doorstep. A 39-year-old woman answered the door. As he turned to face her, he aimed a silver .45-caliber revolver at her.

He forced his way in and told her he only wanted to steal her car, a black Chevy Tahoe. She started the car for him and came back in.

Horne took her phone, looked at its digital clock, and said he still had “some time,” as if he were working on a timeline, McEachran said. (Earlier in the trial McEachran suggested yet another accomplice, a man who possibly had a motive to want the woman dead, placed a hoax call to 911 at 10:05 a.m. However nine months later, there has been a lack of hard evidence to prove that man was involved, the lead detective in the case, Sue Howell, said on the witness stand.)

Horne made the mother get down on the floor and tied her hands with zip ties. More zip ties, linked together like handcuffs, were in the duffel bag. Then he slashed her throat. He fired one shot at her, but missed. She survived and, when Horne drove off in the Tahoe, ran outside bleeding to get help.

“The thing that really unraveled this whole situation,” McEachran said, “is that (the victim) lived. That isn’t something they banked on.”

After dropping off Horne, Villatoro had taken two left turns out of the neighborhood to Michael Moore Park, a very small park off West Smith Road. She waited. Horne couldn’t call her because his iPhone only used Wi-Fi, she said. Horne didn’t show up. She heard ambulance sirens just before she drove home with the kids.

She got onto her phone around 11:15 a.m. and looked at Arizona homes on Craigslist. She started reading stories on The Bellingham Herald’s website around noon. She read about marijuana licenses, a school lockdown, and a man who led police on a car chase down Smith Road. The chase had gone from Ferndale, down Smith Road, and past Michael Moore Park — “not a coincidence,” McEachran said in his closing argument. He suggested Horne tried one last time to meet up with Villatoro to get away. In the end police tapped the back corner of the Tahoe to make it crash, and the man shot himself in the head. Walmart-brand bleach and a bloody knife were found in the Tahoe, though that didn’t become public until much later.

Villatoro checked the Herald site and blogs again at 12:50 p.m., 3:26 p.m., and 5:11 p.m. Police checked her phone records for the past month and found she hadn’t read the Herald online in April.

Fryer said Villatoro didn’t know she’d been reading about Horne until police came knocking and, in a tearful interview that lasted about an hour, asked her if she’d been reading the news.

Fryer asked Superior Court Judge Charles Snyder to dismiss the case for lack of evidence Tuesday morning, before closing arguments. Snyder said he’d let the jury decide if Villatoro is guilty, or not, of the six crimes she’s charged with: attempted murder, robbery, burglary, and three counts of kidnapping, all in the first degree.

Fryer will make his closing argument around 9 a.m. Wednesday.