An Orange County Superior Court judge Wednesday declared a mistrial when jurors deadlocked on a verdict in the case against a Garden Grove man charged with killing a 68-year-old neighbor he allegedly tried to rape.
Jurors deadlocked 7-5 for guilt in the trial of Michael Aon Varela, prompting Orange County Superior Court Judge Patrick Donahue to declare a mistrial. Attorneys will discuss a retrial Thursday.
Varela is charged with murder with a special circumstance allegation of murder during an attempted rape.
Varela went to a local bar to watch a mixed martial arts fight the night of Sept. 9, 2017, according to Senior Deputy District Attorney Dan Feldman. He made his way home about 5 a.m. with a blood-alcohol level of about 0.24, three times the legal limit, according to an expert, Feldman said.
The defendant’s father and his girlfriend, Allison Hogan, were awake and saw Varela shirtless and covered in blood with victim Dzung Thi Nguyen on the lawn, Feldman said.
“The defendant was in an agitated state and said, `What? Do you think I did this?”’ Feldman said in his opening statement of the trial.
Varela claimed he vomited on his Suzuki Sidekick when he saw the “grotesque scene” of the bloody victim, Feldman said.
“At 5 in the morning he tried to rape Mrs. Nguyen and beat her to death,” Feldman said. “He tried to rape her and when he was unsuccessful he beat her to death. It took her 11 days to die.”
When investigators drew blood from the suspect 12 hours later, his blood-alcohol level was 0.05, Feldman said.
Two neighboring homes had motion-activated video of the area, but the quality is murky, Feldman said.
According to the prosecutor, Nguyen had insomnia so she had a habit of walking around the neighborhood in the pre-dawn hours, sometimes picking up recyclables. When first responders arrived on scene, the victim was “not figuratively covered in blood, but literally covered in blood,” Feldman said.
The victim was taken to UC Irvine Medical Center for emergency surgery, as her brain was bleeding so much a portion of her skull had to be removed, according to Feldman.
Investigators found Varela’s DNA on an interior waistband of the victim’s underwear, Feldman said. His DNA is also on some of the recyclables spilled at the crime scene, Feldman said.
The victim’s DNA was on the defendant’s Suzuki and they also found her genetic material on Varela’s penis, Feldman said. A single sperm cell was also found on the victim’s breast, but it was too small to determine if it came from Varela, Feldman said.
The victim’s top was pulled up, exposing her breasts at the crime scene, Feldman said. She sustained a broken nose and orbital socket, the prosecutor said.
Varela’s attorney, Arlene Speiser of the Orange County Public Defender’s Office, said her client “came home to his worst nightmare.”
Varela had been sober for years until about a week before the killing, when he went out drinking with a close friend he met in college, Speiser said. She said Varela went out at 9 p.m. the night of the killing to watch the fight on TV and then went to another “dive bar” where he drank more alcohol.
“Michael is now very intoxicated and has blown $120,” the attorney said in her opening statement of the trial.
The defendant made the poor choice to get behind the wheel again, she said, and arrived at home when he saw the victim near his house, Speiser said.
“He had too much to drink, he’s feeling gross,” Speiser said. “He’s sitting in his own vomit. … All he wants to do is go inside and get a shower.”
Then he turns and “makes out a figure of someone and it’s not making any sense,” Speiser said.
The defendant’s friends say he had a reputation for jumping to help when needed, so his instinct was to help the victim, Speiser said.
“He gets out and sees the horror,” Speiser said. “He thinks it was one of the homeless women in the neighborhood.”
Nguyen’s husband had warned her it was dangerous to go out for a walk in the middle of the night, especially when she wandered over to nearby stores because there were many transients in the area, Speiser said.
Varela dragged Nguyen over to his own lawn, and when his father emerged from their front door, he “tells his dad somebody out front is all messed up,” Speiser said.
When his father asked him what happened, Varela replied, “I did not do this, I’m trying to help this woman,” Speiser said.
“He had no idea what happened to her,” Speiser said.
Varela did not flee “because Michael has nothing to hide,” Speiser said.
The autopsy indicated Nguyen may have been choked but it wasn’t the cause of death, Speiser said. She died from the blows to her head, the attorney added.
Speiser suggested there were some clues investigators never followed up on, including other people seen near the crime scene at the time of the attack. A bag of trash was found nearby with two used condoms in it, and there was no DNA match to Varela, but they were not tested to link to anyone else, Speiser said.
The attorney said Varela was born and raised in Orange County and after high school enlisted in the U.S. Army. He was discharged from the military after two years when he was caught driving drunk and opened the wrong gate to where he was living, Speiser said.
Varela enrolled in a community college and was taking engineering classes, his attorney said.