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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Murder Defendant Testifies He Played No Role in '98 Stabbing

Court: Ventura man, taking stand in own defense, says fistfight escalated when his co-defendant pulled a knife on 24-year-old victim.

March 09, 2000|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Murder defendant Vincent Ryan Gatica took the stand in his own defense Wednesday, telling jurors he played no role in the July 1998 stabbing death of Moorpark resident Robert Bankson.

Gatica, 21, is accused of holding Bankson down as his friend and co-defendant, Robert Imes, repeatedly plunged a pocket knife into the man's neck, skull, back and eye socket.

But Gatica told jurors it didn't happen that way.

Instead, the former Ventura High School wrestler described a fistfight that quickly escalated into a deadly confrontation when Imes unexpectedly pulled a knife.

"It happened so fast," said Gatica, telling jurors he never aided in the stabbing.

Speaking in a soft voice, Gatica said Imes was itching for a fight the night of July 21, 1998--and found one when he ran into Bankson, 24, and another man outside an apartment building near downtown Ventura.

Earlier in the evening, Gatica had broken up an altercation between Imes and another man outside the Ventura County Fairgrounds after a concert. Gatica told jurors that Imes was upset with him.

"He just said we should have fought," Gatica testified.

Hours later, Gatica said, he and Imes were hanging out near Imes' Ann Street apartment when they saw a slow-moving Volvo carrying what appeared to be four men. Gatica testified that Imes said, "Watch this," and ran after the Volvo.

"I basically figured he was going to follow the car and talk some [expletive] to the guys in the car," Gatica said.

Gatica told jurors he followed Imes down an alleyway, fearing his friend might get in trouble. He testified that he found Imes peacefully talking to some men, didn't think there was a problem, and walked away.

Moments later, however, Gatica heard a loud noise and doubled back to find Imes on the ground with one man--Bankson--sitting on top of him and another man--Camarillo resident Joe Morgan--standing nearby, Gatica testified.

According to authorities, Bankson and Morgan had offered Imes part of a hallucinogenic mushroom and a fight started when Imes grabbed the mushroom.

Gatica told jurors he never heard the conversation that precipitated the fight but raced to help his friend when he saw him pinned on the ground. Gatica testified he knocked Bankson off Imes, then began wrestling with Morgan.

At one point, Gatica said, Morgan stopped fighting and ran away. Gatica told jurors he was not aware at the time that Morgan had been stabbed in the back.

After Morgan fled, Gatica said he turned his attention to Imes, who was locked in a struggle with Bankson. Gatica said he tried to pull Bankson off Imes and at one point threw the man to the ground and kicked him.

Gatica testified it was then that he felt a searing pain in his arm and realized he had been stabbed by Imes. Gatica told jurors he backed away and saw Imes leaning over Bankson--flailing with one arm. He knew Bankson was going to die, he said.

Later that night, Gatica said he asked Imes, "Why did this have to happen?"

"He said the guys who were beating him up had weapons. I said, 'No, they didn't,' " Gatica testified.

Asked by his attorney, David Callahan, whether Imes responded, Gatica said he did not.

On cross-examination, Deputy Dist. Atty. Maeve Fox asked Gatica why he did not call the police. Fox also questioned Gatica's motives for leaving the city that night and for later asking a friend to retrieve evidence left at the scene.

"I was scared," Gatica said.

Testimony is scheduled to resume today with continued cross-examination of Gatica. The trial is expected to wrap up by the end of the week.

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