Crime

Jury deciding girlfriend’s role, if any, in Ferndale ‘murder-for-hire’ trial

Did Lesley Villatoro know what her boyfriend was about to do — break into a woman’s house, hold her at gunpoint, slash her throat, fire a .45-caliber revolver at her and steal her Chevy Tahoe — when she dropped him off on the morning of May 2, 2014, in a neighborhood southeast of Ferndale?

Jurors started deliberating at noon Wednesday, Feb. 11, to answer that question, as an attempted murder trial nears its conclusion in Whatcom County Superior Court.

Throughout the trial, Prosecutor Dave McEachran has argued Lesley Villatoro knowingly helped to equip Chad C. Horne, 34, with a “murder kit” so he could break into the Patriot Place home to kill a mother of two. Horne cut the woman’s throat open, but she escaped and survived the attack.

Defense Attorney Thomas Fryer opened court proceedings Wednesday with a two-hour argument recapping evidence to show his client was oblivious to a murder-for-hire plot.

Villatoro, 29, drove Horne to the neighborhood a bit before 10 o’clock that morning, while their twins and Horne’s nephew sat in the back seats of her gray Honda Civic. Horne told her to pop the trunk. She did, and he took out a duffel bag. She drove around the corner to wait for him at a small park. She told detectives she thought he was meeting with an old friend, John, from work.

The fact that Villatoro eventually left him behind, Fryer said, suggests she didn’t have any idea about his real intent. She later told detectives she wanted to wait but her twin daughters started to get “fussy.” So she drove home.

“It’s just completely inconsistent with the theory put forth by the government, that in the middle of all this, in the middle of a murder-for-hire scheme, the kids get fussy, so she just abandons him,” Fryer said.

What makes more sense, her attorney said, is that Villatoro left because she was frustrated with her “idiot boyfriend” taking too long to smoke pot while hanging out with his friend, when they were supposed to be getting lunch at Olive Garden to celebrate his birthday.

Villatoro drove back to Birch Bay, a half-hour drive. In the meantime Horne — in a stolen black Chevy Tahoe, tailed by unmarked police cars with lights and sirens blaring — went past Michael Moore Park around 10:20 a.m. Moments later, police made the Tahoe crash. Horne died from a single self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

Exactly how long Villatoro stayed in the park was never made clear. She expected Horne to be at his friend’s for maybe a half-hour. So if she’d waited that long, she saw the chase going past her, McEachran told the jury in his final rebuttal. Villatoro mentioned to detectives that she’d heard ambulance sirens just before she drove off. She had no way to call Horne, since their phones only worked with Wi-Fi. She did not go back to knock on the door.

Phone records show she was online checking Craigslist at home at 11:15 a.m. Around noon, she read stories on The Bellingham Herald’s website about cannabis businesses, a school lockdown in Ferndale, a man who shot himself in the head after a police chase on Smith Road — and throughout the afternoon looked online at baby outfits, car seats, and other news of the day.

“Probably the last thing you would do,” Fryer said, “if you were confronted with this information, if you were provided information that the gig is up, it’s been revealed, you’ve done these horrible things — arguably the last thing you would do is to sit down, kick back, and read an article in the Herald about some contractor in Ferndale being awarded a bid.”

That evening, when Ferndale Police Detective Melanie Campos asked her if she’d been reading the news, Villatoro broke down in tears. She gasped for air. That, Fryer said, was a moment of realization that she’d been reading about Horne.

“She has this incredible, emotional reaction,” Fryer said. “Significant enough that Detective Campos, who probably wants to get on with interrogating her, stops to take time out to get a support officer, (who is) essentially a grief counselor. Again, it’s absolutely, entirely inconsistent with Lesley having this knowledge.”

In the back of Villatoro’s Civic, police found a full gas can, beside a backpack holding a police scanner and a man’s change of clothes. McEachran said that’s blatant evidence that Villatoro planned to pick up Horne after the killing, to help him in his getaway.

“One of the things I don’t have to prove is that this is smart,” McEachran said. “Murder’s not smart. Murder is terrible, and that’s what this was. And it was a terrible, terrible plan.”

The jury had not reached a verdict as of Wednesday evening.

Attorneys on both sides have spoken openly in court about a jealous man suspected of hiring Horne to kill the woman. He has not been arrested or charged with a crime — “not yet” — due to a lack of hard evidence, a Bellingham detective, Sue Howell, said on the witness stand.

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