Jury: Girlfriend guilty of helping Ferndale throat-slasher

A jury found a Birch Bay woman guilty of helping her boyfriend to carry out a calculated throat-slashing murder attempt in Ferndale.

Lesley Alexandra Villatoro, 29, began crying when she heard the verdict Friday, Feb. 20, in Whatcom County Superior Court. She buried her face on the table and continued to sob when she sat down, prompting at least one juror to shed some tears.

After more than a week of jury deliberations, Villatoro was convicted of complicity to six felonies: attempted murder in the first degree, burglary in the first degree, three counts of kidnapping in the first degree, and theft of a motor vehicle. She remains in Whatcom County Jail, awaiting sentencing.

The trial

At the heart of the state’s case against Villatoro was a shopping trip she made to Walmart in late April, when she bought a duffel bag and a gas can for her boyfriend, Chad C. Horne, 34. That afternoon, she also bought bananas, milk and Crayola markers.

Two weeks later, on a bright, sunny Friday morning in May 2014, she dropped off Horne in a southeast Ferndale neighborhood. He told her to pop the trunk, and he carried the duffel bag — containing a long hunting knife and zip ties linked together like handcuffs — up to the front door of a two-story house on Patriot Place.

Horne held a silver .45-caliber revolver as he pushed his way into the home of a 39-year-old mother of two. Over the next few terrifying minutes, he tied her hands, slashed her throat and fired one gunshot at her.

The bullet missed. The woman survived.

Horne stole her black Chevy Tahoe from the driveway. A half-hour later, he shot himself in the temple, at the end of a police chase from Ferndale’s Main Street to West Smith Road.

Villatoro was supposed to be waiting for him at a small park off West Smith, two turns from the house on Patriot Place where she left Horne. Her story, as she told two detectives that evening, was that Horne said he wanted to meet up to smoke marijuana with a friend named John, from Home Depot, where Horne used to work. She didn’t know John. She was supposed to wait for about a half-hour. (The police chase would have gone past her, if she stayed that long.) Afterward they’d go out to lunch at Olive Garden, to celebrate his 34th birthday.

She didn’t stick around. She told police her twin babies got “fussy” so she drove home to Birch Bay, a half-hour drive. She said she’d heard sirens just before she left.

The jury was convinced she was waiting for him to help him flee a murder scene.

In the same recorded interview, which was played twice in court, Villatoro talked honestly about Horne having an unregistered silver revolver, even though he shouldn’t have one because he’s a felon: He’d robbed a bank in Arizona as a teenager, she said.

Police found a blue backpack, a police scanner, a change of men’s clothes, and a gas can in the trunk of Villatoro’s car, a gray Honda Civic. They were tools to help with the getaway. The plan was to divert police by making two fake 911 calls, County Prosecutor Dave McEachran told the jury. Then, as a third and final diversion, they would light the Tahoe on fire.

But did Villatoro know the stuff was in the trunk?

Yes, of course, McEachran argued: She bought the gas can, and it was in her car.

Defense Attorney Thomas Fryer, however, argued she had no idea why Horne wanted her to get a gas can. They planned to move back to Arizona in June, and according to Fryer, she thought he wanted a gas can for the long drive through the desert. Also, Horne — or someone dressed in the same shirt Horne wore that day, driving an identical gray Honda with an identical dent in the back panel — was sighted on security cameras filling up a gas can alone, without Villatoro. If Horne was driving the Honda alone, Fryer argued, that would poke a hole in the state’s argument that they were always together, and that they were working together to plot a murder.

Then there’s the duffel bag. Police found it on the floor of the Tahoe, near Horne’s body. Hours after the attack, detectives Sue Howell and Melanie Campos asked Villatoro if Horne had any duffel bags. She recalled one bag, but she neglected to mention the black bag Horne carried from the trunk to the front doorstep.

However, as Fryer pointed out, the detectives never asked, “What about a black duffel bag?” That wasn’t Horne’s bag, Fryer said, it was a duffel bag for the children’s clothes, to help with the move to Arizona.

During questioning, Campos asked Villatoro if she’d been reading the news. Villatoro had a CNN app and she’d been checking The Bellingham Herald throughout the afternoon. (The Herald had reported the throat-slashing story online as it developed.)

“There’s a school lockdown, um, Costco’s expanding, um … ” Villatoro started gasping for air, then through tears she choked out: “So the … the guy on Smith Road, then … that was … Ch— Chad?”

“Were you expecting us to come?” Campos asked.

“After the phone call,” earlier in the day, from a male detective, “I was.”

Unanswered questions

Villatoro and Horne had few, if any, friends in the area. They spent almost all of their time together. Neither of them had a job. They lived off welfare in Horne’s sister’s garage, and for months they’d been looking to move out.

Why would they, or anyone, want to kill this woman?

McEachran told jurors his theory: This was a targeted murder-for-hire, a “hit” on the victim, who had started dating a married woman. Horne did not know the victim and several times during the attack he asked if her husband was coming home soon. He took the woman’s phone, looked at the clock, and mentioned that he had “some time,” as if he were working on a timeline with an accomplice, McEachran said.

A hoax report of a high school shooting was received by police dispatch at 10:05 a.m., moments after the woman escaped her house bleeding from the throat. But the call wasn’t from Horne, according to testimony by his ex-wife, Natalie. A voice recognition expert flown in from Old Dominion University in Virginia said it had come from another man. Police suspect that man hired Horne. Dispatchers traced the first call to the parking lot of a business, less than two miles from Patriot Place.

Six minutes later a second hoax 911 call, a reported shooting at Home Depot, came in from the same phone number, a 360 area code number that until recently belonged to a hairstylist.

The expert witness and Horne’s ex-wife agreed: That was Horne.

The phone must have been handed off, McEachran said. Officers, junior cadets and a police dog searched the nearby marshland of Tennant Lake for the phone. They found nothing.

Detective Howell, the lead investigator on the case, estimated 70 search warrants — for bank records, phone records, work emails — were carried out as police tried to find some tie between Horne and the man who, in their eyes, had a motive to want the 39-year-old woman dead. (If secrecy was so crucial to this supposed hit, Fryer argued, why would Horne let Villatoro in on the secret?)

So far they’ve found no tie, no hard evidence of a link, between Horne and the man.

On the witness stand, Howell said, “Not yet.”