A key prosecution witness in the trial of two men charged with a Pinyon Pines triple murder is a convicted felon who threatened to kill his boss at a Palm Springs water park and brandished a handgun at a neighbor in Cathedral City, witnesses for the defense testified Wednesday.
Jeremy Todd Witt was cited at the outset of the trial of Robert Lars Pape and Cristin Conrad Smith as the only person to hear a possible admission from Smith about his and Pape’s alleged involvement in the 2006 deaths of Pape’s ex-girlfriend, 18-year-old Becky Friedli, her mother, 53-year-old Vicki Friedli, and the latter’s boyfriend, 55-year-old Jon Hayward.
Last week, Riverside County Superior Court Judge Bernard Schwartz excused Witt from testifying based on the probability that under cross-examination, he would be asked questions regarding his past that could negatively impact an unresolved misdemeanor case related to a restraining order violation in the Coachella Valley. In lieu of his personal appearance, prosecutors read nearly 80 pages of Witt’s testimony from a 2016 preliminary hearing for Pape and Smith.
At the heart of the witness’s testimony was a recollection of a conversation between him and Smith three weeks after the killings in which Smith allegedly remarked that his and Pape’s plans and gone awry, prompting the pair to “torch the whole place” on Alpine Drive.
Witt, Pape and Smith worked together at the Soak City water park in Palm Springs in 2006, according to trial testimony. Pape’s attorney, Jeff Moore, called another former employee, Corrie Smith, who was a food services manager, to testify about her final encounter with Witt in April 2008.
According to the witness, Witt was working as a security supervisor and showed up in the early morning hours, saying he intended to serve the park general manager with a trespassing warning.
Corrie Smith said she followed Witt out to his pickup truck and noticed a hatchet in the bed of the vehicle, which frightened her.
“He said he was going to do what he had to do,” Smith testified, adding that Witt went on to state that if the manager didn’t comply with the no-trespass citation, “he would probably have to kill him.”
The woman called police, who did not arrest Witt, though he was fired that day, according to testimony.
Another defense witness, Gregory Ellis, testified that he has resided at the same condominium complex as Witt, with whom he’s had a “contentious relationship” for years.
The witness alleged that in late April 2016, while he was speaking with a neighbor, Witt walked into the parking lot and raised his shirt, displaying a handgun in his waistband.
“I yelled to Tracy, `He’s got a gun!’ and we ran to her place,” Ellis testified. He said that he called 911, and officers appeared several hours later to investigate, but Witt was not arrested.
According to a stipulation read by the judge to the jury, Witt was convicted in Kentucky in 2008 of impersonating a peace officer — a felony. He’s also on probation in California for a driving under the influence conviction in 2016.
Pape and Smith, both 29, could face life in prison without the possibility of parole if convicted of three counts of first-degree murder and special circumstance allegations of taking multiple lives. Both are being held without bail at the Robert Presley Jail in Riverside.
Closing arguments in the trial are expected before the end of the month.
On Monday, Pape’s ex-wife, Sara Honiker, testified that she never saw the defendant display violence because “he doesn’t have it in him.”
The victims were killed on the night of Sept. 17, 2006, and Pape and Smith were first charged in 2014. However, the District Attorney’s Office shelved the case after grand jury proceedings foundered. The men were freshly charged in 2016.
Last month, sheriff’s Detective Scott Michaels testified about his encounter with Pape on Sept. 18, 2006, and during the recorded interview, Pape attributed what he knew about the murders to Javier Garcia, Becky Friedli’s confidant.
Pape told Michaels he’d had “no physical contact” with Friedli since their split in January of that year and that she initiated contact with him a week before she was killed.
When the detective inquired as to what the defendant knew regarding what happened at the residence, Pape answered, “They found three people. Two people were sexless, unrecognizable. One was found in a wheelbarrow — female, about 20 years old. The whole house caught fire.”
Michaels expressed surprise that Pape knew about the charred remains in the wheelbarrow, since that information had not been publicly disclosed. Pape pointed to Garcia as the source.
According to Garcia’s testimony, Pape initiated contact with Friedli less than a week before the killings. The witness testified that Pape wanted to see her again and was interested in going on a night hike near her family’s property.
According to Garcia, he spoke with Friedli several times that September day, and in their last conversation, she said she’d donned hiking attire and had received a call from Pape, who confirmed he was “on his way up the hill” to her home with Smith. Pape told Michaels that he canceled the hike at the last minute.
An autopsy showed Vicki Friedli and Hayward were shot to death. Becky Friedli’s death was ruled “homicidal violence” because the exact cause could not be determined due to extensive fire damage.