Two of three men convicted of killing a 24-year-old man during a 2016 attempted robbery that went wrong at a Buena Park gas station were given life sentences Friday.
In an unusual trial featuring two juries, both panels in March found the defendants — Jeffrey Tuli, 39; Aaron Vermont Jackson, 41; and Dejon Vincent Griffin, 38, all of San Bernardino — guilty.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Gregg Prickett, who retired on Friday, told the juries in March that he believed it was the first time the county has had a trial with two juries.
Tuli was convicted of murder, with jurors also finding true a special circumstance allegation of killing during a robbery and a sentencing enhancement for the discharge of a gun causing death. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Jackson and Griffin were convicted of murder with a special-circumstance allegation of killing during a robbery, and attempted robbery. Jurors also found true sentencing enhancements for the personal use of a gun. Jackson was sentenced to 65 years to life in prison and Griffin’s sentencing was rescheduled until Aug. 25.
Under a new law regarding those who did not fire the murder weapon, Griffin is expected to also receive 65 years to life in prison.
The three were convicted of killing Maher Yousef of La Mirada on July 1, 2016, at a gas station at 5989 Beach Blvd., near Artesia Boulevard.
Yousef and his friend Hanna Asia had just left a check cashing business where he worked when they pulled into the gas station that evening because the Dodge Charger they were in had a flat tire. One of the defendants had slashed the tire in the parking lot of Citi Cash Services, Senior Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Walker said in her opening statement.
Asia went into the mini-mart to get a couple of bottles of water while they waited for someone to help them change the tire, Walker said.
The defendants then pounced, wielding guns and demanding cash. Jackson stood by the driver’s side door while Tuli was at the passenger side and Griffin rummaged through the car’s trunk to try to find any valuables or cash, Walker said.
At some point, Tuli “panicked” and shot Yousef in the head as he emerged from the car, Walker said.
Walker showed video of the violent robbery to jurors and played a 911 call from a witness.
Walker said the investigation was hampered in part by the defendants leaving and dumping some of the evidence. Police found a shell casing a day after the shooting, and only found cigarette butts that linked Jackson and Griffin to the crime scene, but not Tuli.
Investigators pieced together their movements from San Bernardino to Compton and then to Buena Park through cellphone GPS, Walker said. The evidence against Tuli included statements he made under questioning with police and in a jailhouse call to his wife, Walker said.
Asia was able to identify Jackson and Griffin in photo line-ups, but wasn’t able to pick out Tuli.
Walker said the defendants planned the heist the day before, with Jackson and Tuli exchanging 12 calls and 48 text messages as they went to Citi Cash Services.
Under questioning from police, Tuli said the robbery went south when Jackson started punching Yousef. As Yousef was attempting to get out of the car, “I panicked … And I’m standing right there,” Tuli told his wife, according to Walker.
Tuli’s attorney, Jay Moorhead, said his client was a “heavy” methamphetamine user at the time and went to Compton the night before the murder. The attorney suggested there was a “third suspect” at the shooting and emphasized there was no forensic evidence tying his client to the crime scene.
Moorhead said Asia told police initially there were three Black suspects at the gas station, but then later said the third man was Latino.
Jackson’s attorney, Ed Welbourn, told jurors, “This is a case about determining who is responsible for the senseless murder of Maher Yousef.”
Welbourn said Tuli was the gunman who “killed an innocent man.”
“There will not be any evidence in this case that Mr. Jackson intended to kill Mr. Yousef,” Welbourn said.
Griffin’s attorney, Kelly Rozek, said, “This is not a whodunnit. They were all there, but, unfortunately Jeffrey Tuli shot and killed Mr. Yousef in a sudden panic. … It was a killing done by one person and one person alone.”
She said her client did pull a gun on Asia, but then put it aside to go through the trunk while smoking a cigarette.