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Suspect in 1986 Slaying of Activist Goes on Trial

July 29, 1993|VICKI TORRES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

POMONA — Seven years after the slaying of a well-known Chicano activist, the man who police suspected all along of his murder finally went on trial Tuesday in Pomona Superior Court.

Self-styled survivalist William Barnes, 35, faces the death penalty if convicted in the Jan. 2, 1986, killing of Carlos Vazquez, 25, whose funeral drew more than 1,000 mourners. The Latino community activist and musician was gunned down outside his El Monte home and died from a single, .22-caliber bullet wound to the heart.

Barnes had dated Vazquez's wife, Dolores, before the couple's marriage and, prosecutors say, the thin, intense North Carolina man was obsessed with the woman he called his "No. 1 dream girl."

After the slaying, Barnes allegedly harassed the distraught widow for more than a year while authorities stood by, powerless to prosecute for lack of evidence.

Powerless, that is, until Barnes' cousin, Shara Ammen, two years ago told police that Barnes admitted killing Vazquez. By then, Barnes had been convicted of murdering a North Carolina man in a similar, frustrated romantic triangle.

The trial is unusual, not only because evidence surfaced years after the slaying, but because the prior murder conviction allows California authorities to seek the death penalty here against Barnes.

For family members and friends of Carlos Vazquez who say they waited seven years for justice, the trial's outcome could bring an end to the fear that Barnes would get out of prison and repeat his obsessive behavior.

"A life sentence over there in North Carolina means he could be out in 12 years," said Miguel Vazquez, brother of the slain activist. "Obviously, the man is dangerous. We're glad he could be taken off the streets."

But defense attorney Alan Abajian said Barnes did not kill Vazquez. Although he made no opening statement Tuesday, the attorney said he would concentrate during the trial on discrepancies between the murder account given by witnesses and that of Barnes' cousin.

"Whoever did this, I don't think it was anything planned or premeditated," Abajian said Tuesday during a break in the trial.

Abajian also revealed his line of defense during questioning of Dolores Vazquez, whom he accused of deceiving Barnes by accepting gifts, dinners, a trip to Santa Catalina Island and movie outings from a man in whom she had no romantic interest.

"Didn't you say you had the best of both worlds, romance from Carlos and wining and dining from Bill?" Abajian asked.

"I was stupid and naive when I was young," the 29-year-old widow said tearfully. "I should have stopped seeing him (Barnes), because I had the love of my husband and that should have been enough."

In her testimony Tuesday, Dolores Vazquez said she considered Barnes a friend and had repeatedly told him she was not romantically interested in him. When Barnes learned in 1985 that she planned to marry Carlos Vazquez, Barnes became enraged, she said.

After her husband's death, Barnes telephoned, saying he had set her free. He continued to phone and write letters for months afterward, she said.

Barnes, who at his preliminary hearing in July wore his hair in a long ponytail and sported a mustache, had interrupted Dolores Vazquez's testimony then with a loud shout of "Lying bitch!"

But on Tuesday, the defendant--clean-shaven, his hair neatly cut, and wearing eyeglasses, a jacket and tie--remained calm, whispering occasionally to his attorney.

The trial is expected to last up to six days, including a visit by jurors to the murder scene in El Monte. Although no murder weapon, witnesses or fingerprints connect Barnes to the slaying, a private detective who was hired to track down Vazquez for Barnes will testify, as will his cousin.

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