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Rapist to Go on Trial in Slaying of Student

Prosecutors contend that the Simi Valley man tried to sexually assault the woman before she died from a gunshot wound.

May 04, 2003|Tracy Wilson | Times Staff Writer

Working construction and renting a room in a Simi Valley tract home, Vincent Sanchez kept to himself. He blended into the suburban landscape so well that for five years he eluded police searching for a knife-wielding serial rapist who terrified residents in a community routinely ranked as among the safest in the nation.

Sanchez admitted to those sexual assaults after his arrest two years ago on suspicion of burglarizing a neighbor's house, and faces more than 100 years behind bars.

But another case stands between him and state prison.

Starting Monday in Ventura County Superior Court, prosecutors will try to convince a jury that Sanchez's crime spree escalated to the kidnap and slaying of 20-year-old college student Megan Barroso.

A Moorpark resident, Barroso disappeared in the early morning of July 5, 2001, while driving home from a friend's house in Thousand Oaks. Her bullet-riddled car was found with the engine running on New Los Angeles Avenue near California 23.

A month later, searchers found her partly clothed body in a ravine in Black Canyon in Simi Valley, about 13 miles from where her car was abandoned.

Prosecutors contend that Sanchez shot Barroso with an AK-47 assault rifle as she exited the freeway, then pulled her from the vehicle and attempted to rape her before she died from a gunshot wound in the abdomen.

Sanchez, 32, is charged with first-degree murder, attempted rape, kidnapping and related allegations. If convicted, he will face the death penalty or life in prison without parole.

Defense attorneys concede that Sanchez shot Barroso but have suggested in pretrial hearings that he did so during an alcohol-fueled rage brought on by despair and anger over a volatile breakup with an ex-girlfriend.

They contend there is no evidence to prove that Sanchez attempted to rape Barroso or kidnapped her for sexual purposes, allegations that allow prosecutors to seek the death penalty.

Over the last several months, Deputy Public Defenders Neil Quinn and Jan Helfrich have tried to resolve the case, noting that their client already faces the equivalent of a life prison sentence based on his guilty pleas to other sex assault charges.

Sanchez has offered to plead guilty to murder in Barroso's slaying, without admitting to the special circumstance allegations, and to waive his right to an appeal.

But prosecutors have refused to accept his offer and asked that the case be set for trial.

Last month, lawyers waded through more than 800 prospective jurors before choosing a panel of seven men and five women to hear the emotionally charged case. They also have settled on five alternates.

The key issue before those jurors in the coming weeks will be whether there is evidence to support the district attorney's theory that Sanchez tried to kidnap and rape Barroso before she died.

County Medical Examiner Ronald O'Halloran testified at a preliminary hearing last year that Barroso could have bled internally for minutes or even hours after being shot.

But he was unable to examine for sexual assault because the body was badly decomposed.

Jurors will hear from O'Halloran as well as crime scene investigators, forensic scientists and at least one firearms expert.

Hoping to establish a pattern of sexual conduct, Deputy Dist. Attys. Lela Henke-Dobroth and Dee Corona also intend to present evidence of Sanchez's assaults on at least 10 women beginning in September 1996 and ending with the kidnap and rape of a Woodland Hills woman on July 9, 2001, four days after Barroso's death.

Jurors will hear testimony about how Sanchez methodically studied his victims, peeping through windows and sometimes taking surveillance videos before entering their homes and raping at knifepoint.

They will also see graphic videotapes of two sexual assaults that Sanchez filmed. Prosecutors said in court papers that the tapes "will demonstrate precisely how the defendant interacted with his victims and conducted himself during his sex-assault activity."

"Words alone could never adequately describe the content of this evidence," they wrote.

Quinn and Helfrich have not disputed that their client is a serial rapist. But they have argued that it is a stretch to conclude that Sanchez graduated to alleged rapist-murderer or that his motives were sexual when he fired an assault rifle at Barroso's car.

"It has all the earmarks of some kind of explosion of rage," Quinn argued at a pretrial hearing months ago. "It doesn't look like a rape."

They have also expressed concern that evidence of the prior sexual assaults, including testimony from victims and sex assault videotapes, will stir jurors' emotions to the point that they will no longer be objective.

Testimony is expected to begin this week in Department 43 before Judge Ken Riley and continue through mid-June.

If jurors convict Sanchez of first-degree murder and at least one special circumstance allegation, they will return to court to determine the sentence.

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