An admitted prostitute and heroin addict testified Wednesday that she saw a Mission Hills man arguing with his mother and aunt on a Pacoima street moments before she heard gunshots coming from their direction. The two women were found dead soon after.
The prostitute, Joanna Aguirre, the key prosecution witness in the San Fernando Superior Court murder trial of Charles (Carlos) de la Cuesta, testified that she never saw a gun. But she repeatedly identified De la Cuesta as the man she saw arguing with Angie Hernandez, 61, his mother, and Mary Gomez, 52, his aunt, at the time the sisters were shot to death last Nov. 8 while they sat in their car.
Relatives Crowd Courtroom
About 30 of De la Cuesta's relatives and friends, who had put up a $5,000 reward for information about the sisters' killer and have insisted that De la Cuesta is innocent, crowded into Superior Court Judge Howard J. Schwab's courtroom to watch the proceedings. Many wept as a coroner's investigator testified earlier in the morning about the wounds that killed Hernandez and Gomez.
The next witness was Aguirre, a convicted burglar who is currently charged with robbery. She told jurors she witnessed the murders as she stood on the corner of Van Nuys Boulevard and Telfair Avenue as a prostitute trying to find a customer.
"I was hustling out there," Aguirre said. "I was trying to get some money to get high on heroin." She said, however, that she was not under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Pamela Davis-Springer earlier had asked jurors to remember that "murders aren't often committed in front of priests and bank tellers.
"Street people sometimes see crimes committed and sometimes they're the only witnesses we have," Davis-Springer said in her opening statement, asking jurors to be open-minded when they consider Aguirre's testimony.
Aguirre testified that she waited more than three months to tell police that she had witnessed the killings because there were two warrants out for her arrest, one from an unpaid speeding ticket and another for being under the influence of heroin.
She said she first told what she had seen to her brother, Peter Dominguez, who is De la Cuesta's brother-in-law.
Dominguez testified that Aguirre identified De la Cuesta as the killer from family photographs. He said he then drove his sister to get a look at De la Cuesta in person, and that she identified him as he walked out of a market.
Aguirre said she was not aware that her brother was related to the De la Cuesta family when she first told him about the killings.
In response to questions from Davis-Springer and defense attorney Max Herman, Aguirre testified that she saw De la Cuesta, accompanied by another man, drive his car alongside the car in which the two sisters were riding on the night of the slayings.
Allegedly Saw Argument
She said she watched from across the street as De la Cuesta got out of his car and began arguing with one of the women. Aguirre said she heard three or four shots before De la Cuesta returned to his car and sped away.
Police and prosecutors have said the shootings stemmed from a family quarrel.
The defense attorneys did not give an opening statement.
De la Cuesta's relatives said outside the courtroom that they believe Aguirre fabricated her story to claim the reward they posted for information leading to conviction of a killer.
But Aguirre testified that she first heard about the reward "about one or two months after" she talked to police.
Asked why she did not contact police earlier, she said, "I didn't because I was just worried that I would go to jail for doing something that's supposed to be right."
Aguirre is scheduled to complete her testimony today.