Two young men killed a Pinyon Pines family, leaving behind a trail of clues that, when taken together, proves they carried out the “senseless, brutal” triple slaying, a prosecutor told a jury Monday, while an attorney for one of the defendants disputed the veracity and relevance of the prosecution’s case.
“What happened that night in 2006 is unsettling and undeniable,” Riverside County Deputy District Attorney Brandon Smith said in his opening statement at the trial of Robert Lars Pape and Cristin Conrad Smith. “These two men murdered three innocent people. It’s taken 12 years of patience and persistence to reveal the truth. Hold them responsible for these senseless, brutal murders.”
The prosecutor meticulously laid out the thrust of the government’s case, taking the jury on a grisly tour of the Sept. 17, 2006, murders and connecting the defendants’ alleged involvement through scientific reconstruction, witnesses’ statements and conflicting narratives that purported to show the pairs trying to lie their way out of culpability.
The defendants, both 29, are charged with three counts of first-degree murder, with special circumstance allegations of taking multiple lives, in the deaths of 18-year-old Becky Friedli, her mother, 53-year-old Vicki Friedli, and the latter’s boyfriend, 55-year-old Jon Hayward.
The prosecutor made no allusion to a possible motive, sticking instead to the alleged evidentiary chain that the prosecution intends to compose.
He acknowledged that Pape and Becky Friedli had dated for most of 2005 and broke up in February 2006, but no reasons were given for the split, or who initiated it.
According to the deputy D.A, Pape and Friedli resumed communicating on Sept. 14, 2006, when the defendant — “out of the blue” — called her to suggest they take a night hike near her home. Over a three-day span, the young woman and Pape spoke by telephone 18 times and exchanged 18 text messages back and forth, the prosecutor said.
He noted that the defendant told sheriff’s investigators that the young woman was the one who reached out first — even though her best friend, Javier Garcia, countered that he was present when Pape contacted her to request a rendezvous.
Phone logs indicated that the victim and Pape were in touch until 7:30 that night.
The prosecutor presented cell phone tower data that he said showed Pape and Cristin Smith were in the latter’s vehicle, roving through the Coachella Valley and heading in the general direction of Pinyon Pines, shortly before 7 p.m.
The victims’ residence was described as remote, 180 yards off of Alpine Drive, surrounded largely by desert scrub.
The first sign of trouble was when a neighbor, Timothy Sumerlee, spotted flames about 9:30 p.m. at the victims’ residence, which was nearly a mile from his own, according to the prosecution. Sumerlee attempted to reach an area fire station but couldn’t get an answer, prompting him to investigate, at which point he saw flames spreading inside the single-story house.
Sumerlee testified that he saw what he initially believed to be a mannequin in a smoldering wheelbarrow near the home. Further inspection revealed the badly charred remains of Becky Friedli.
As firefighters and deputies finally converged on the scene after 10 p.m., the victims’ house was consumed by flames.
The prosecutor said the remains of Vicki Friedli and Hayward were discovered in the kitchen the following day. Both had been fatally shot. The youngest victim’s death was classed “homicidal violence,” because the exact means to kill her could not be determined, according to the deputy D.A.
He said the wheelbarrow had been rolled 200 yards to the rear of the residence, where there was evidence of overturned soil. Investigators found two different sets of footprints, as well as a business card from Catholic Pro Life Ministries.
According to the prosecutor, the card was eventually processed and checked for DNA trace evidence. He said the results of the analysis, produced several years later, showed two of Cristin Smith’s fingers had touched the card, and the probability of anyone other than him being a “major donor” of the DNA was 1 in 28 trillion.
The defendants were interviewed by detectives within two weeks of the murders, and according to the prosecution, the men’s accounts differed regarding where they had been and when that night. When an investigator first questioned Pape about what he knew of the circumstances, the then-18-year-old proceeded to identify crime scene elements — notably the flaming wheelbarrow — not publicly disclosed, Smith said.
The defendants were first charged in 2014, but after grand jury proceedings foundered, the case was shelved. However, when what the prosecutor described as a reluctant witness — Jeremy Witt — was found in 2016, the pair were re-arrested and charged.
According to the deputy D.A., Witt told detectives that while conversing with Cristin Smith a few weeks after the killings, the defendant admitted being at the scene, and that plans and gone awry, prompting him and Pape to “torch the whole (expletive) place.”
Pape’s attorney, Jeff Moore, deferred his opening statement to a later date, but Smith’s attorney, John Dolan, in outlining his defense for the jury, condemned the DNA evidence as not being credible.
Dolan said one of the labs responsible for the data supplied to law enforcement had gone bankrupt, and components of the evidence used to reach conclusions concerning his client had not been preserved.
According to the defense attorney, Witt — whom the prosecution admitted has been in trouble with the law — came forward only after a $50,000 reward had been announced for information leading to a conviction in the case.
Dolan said Smith cooperated with detectives from the outset and maintained that his client’s military service — with one deployment to Iraq and four to Afghanistan as a U.S. Army ranger, resulting in combat injuries — reflect well on his character.
“They have to prove their case,” Dolan said. “There is no evidence that supports a conviction. Everything is explainable in different ways. Nothing is categorical.”