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Suspect Says Ex-Friend Fired 1st Shot in Slaying

Hearing: Jose Castillo testifies against his alleged accomplice as part of a plea bargain, under which he admits to murder in death of grocer Mirna Regollar.


Hard up for money and coming down from a methamphetamine high, Jose Castillo decided to hold up Junior's Market in Santa Paula and asked his friend Alfredo Hernandez for help.

Castillo gave Hernandez a loaded .22-caliber revolver and stuffed a .32-caliber semiautomatic into his own pocket before entering the small corner market and ordering Mirna Regollar to empty the cash register.

Everything was going all right, until he saw the 25-year-old owner push a silent alarm button. That's when they shot her.

"It all happened so fast," said Castillo, who on Monday gave this account of the events on June 2, 1998. He took the stand at a preliminary hearing of murder charges against his former friend, Hernandez, that could bring the death penalty.

Castillo revealed that two months ago he secretly pleaded guilty to murder in the shooting after prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty against him.

The deal, which requires Castillo's cooperation in the case against Hernandez, was kept under wraps to protect the 22-year-old gang member from retaliation while in custody.

The surprising turn in the case came when Castillo stepped out of a holding cell dressed in a long-sleeved black shirt and baggy blue jail pants late Monday afternoon.

Called as the final witness, he walked in leg shackles to the witness stand and described for Judge James P. Cloninger how the shooting occurred.

He and Hernandez entered the market about 11 a.m. and drew their weapons as Regollar was stocking shelves at the back of the store, he said.

They confronted her with guns drawn, and Castillo said he may have yelled, "Freeze!" Regollar walked to the cash register. It was at that moment, Castillo said, that he saw her push a silent alarm button near the counter.

Hernandez shot first, Castillo testified, firing a bullet from the .22-caliber revolver into the owner's head. Castillo said he also fired his weapon, hitting Regollar in the back as she collapsed to the floor.

Castillo said he then turned and walked away without taking any money from the register. He later sold both weapons for cash and drugs, he said.

Castillo admitted that he planned the unsuccessful robbery. He testified that he owed $900 to a drug dealer in Oxnard and needed cash badly.

At the time, both Castillo and Hernandez were unemployed and living with Castillo's family in Santa Paula, he said. He testified that he was often under the influence of drugs, including heroin and methamphetamine.

He admitted buying and selling drugs in exchange for guns--including the .22-caliber revolver authorities say fatally wounded Regollar.

Although Castillo could not recall whether he explained his intentions that morning to Hernandez, he testified that it was understood they were going to rob the Oak Street market, located about a block and a half from Castillo's home.

"I told him to come with me," Castillo testified. "It was my idea."

On cross-examination, defense lawyers for Hernandez attacked Castillo's credibility and tried to show that he had a motive to lie.

Castillo fatally stabbed Ventura teenager Jesse Strobel in 1993--a crime to which he confessed in juvenile court last year. His involvement in both the Strobel and Regollar slayings played a significant role in the district attorney's decision to seek the death penalty.

Ventura attorney James Farley asked Castillo if he agreed to testify against Hernandez to save himself.

Castillo acknowledged that he was trying to avoid a death sentence.

"I'm actually not doing it for myself," he said. "For my family." For his cooperation, Castillo is expected to receive a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole.

During Monday's hearing, Castillo's former friend Rene Moreno testified that he went over to Castillo's house less than an hour after the attempted robbery.

Moreno, who later became an informant and is now in a witness protection program under a new name, told the judge both defendants admitted they shot Regollar.

"They both started saying they shot the woman in the liquor store," Moreno testified.

Castillo had a .32-caliber gun on his bed, Moreno said. And when he asked Hernandez about his weapon, Moreno said the defendant pulled a brown-handled handgun out of his back pocket.

"He said, 'I shot her with this,' " Moreno testified, describing the weapon as a .22-caliber revolver.

Months after the shooting, Moreno agreed to wear a recording device to obtain statements from Castillo and Hernandez. During one meeting, Moreno said, Castillo admitted stabbing Strobel. The admission was tape-recorded and led authorities to solve the homicide after a six-year investigation.

Moreno said he helped police apprehend Castillo and Hernandez in connection with the Regollar shooting, and even turned over a .22-caliber revolver that he says was the murder weapon.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Don Glynn said the barrels had been removed, however, preventing authorities from matching the gun to a bullet removed from Regollar's head.

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