It was 7:15 p.m. and very cold on February 19, 2013, when Olive Street residents said they heard loud “pops” then moans outside their windows. They saw two people cautiously approach a crumpled figure on the sidewalk and then hurry away. Along the dark stretch of road between Santa Barbara High School and Greater Hope Baptist Church, neighbors discovered Kelly Hunt on his back next to a bicycle, his mouth moving but no words coming out. A passing UPS driver stopped to give CPR, and paramedics cut through Hunt’s sweatshirt to reach four bullet wounds in his chest, but Emergency Room doctors pronounced him dead soon after he arrived at the hospital.
It took police six months to arrest Hunt’s alleged killers, Eastside gang members Joseph Castro, 22, and Isaac Jimenez, 25, who have been in jail since and are now on trial. SWAT teams took Castro into custody at a Cook Avenue home. Jimenez was tracked down and apprehended in Washington State. The pair face life in prison without parole, and their jury trial is expected to conclude by the end of January. So far, defense attorneys have seized on discrepancies in eyewitness testimonies — which described the two fleeing subjects as young Latino men with shaved heads — and sought to discredit informants. They have also alluded to tensions between Hunt and Ventura gang members right before his death.
Hunt’s murder came at a time when Santa Barbara authorities were voicing serious concerns that the Mexican Mafia was exerting increased power and influence over city street gangs. There would be seven attempted murders in the eight months following the shooting, and a high number of gun- and drug-related arrests. A top gang leader was sentenced to life in prison for kidnapping and extortion. The city’s proposed gang injunction had its day in court, too, though it was ultimately struck down.
Hunt himself was a known gang member. He belonged to Ventura’s Midtown gang, a skinhead group with white supremacist ties, and often carried a gun. Hunt, a k a “Thumper,” was also involved with a smaller subset of Midtown called the Crazy Winos. Both groups are linked to sales of methamphetamine and heroin. The Midtown gang, police have said, recently realigned itself with the Sureños, a Southern California Latino gang that holds sway over Santa Barbara’s Eastsiders. Jimenez was reportedly an associate member of Midtown.
Witnesses gave testimony during the trial that the night he was killed, Hunt, 21, had attended the birthday party of an Eastside gang member. Castro and Jimenez were also present. They and a few others all reportedly left the party to play football at Ortega Park but headed under the Santa Barbara High School bleachers to drink beer when it started to rain. When the group returned, Hunt was no longer with them. During the case’s preliminary hearing back in October 2013, detectives claimed Hunt had voiced threats against Eastside gang members and was killed in retaliation.
The motive for the shooting has not yet been explored in trial, which is moving at an exceedingly slow pace due to an unprecedented amount of evidence in the case — 170,000 pages of printed documents, lengthy wiretap recordings, and numerous photos and computer files. In an unusual move, the entire jury was taken on a walking tour of the murder scene and surrounding area.
Last week, one of Hunt’s relatives appeared on the stand. He explained Hunt sometimes helped his mother, who was present in the courtroom, with her housecleaning business, and that Hunt was “one of his best friends.” It was revealed that the relative, who has his own criminal record, told detectives shortly after the murder he had reason to believe Jimenez and another unknown person wanted to kill Hunt. When asked by lead prosecutor Kim Siegal if he had previously understood Jimenez to be a good friend of Hunt’s, the relative responded pointedly, “I thought so.” He also told Siegal he was uncomfortable on the stand as there is a “code” within gang culture to not cooperate with law enforcement.
Shortly thereafter, Jimenez’s defense attorney, Ilan Funke-Bilu, asked the relative if he was “mad-dogging” his client. The relative sneered at Funke-Bilu, and claimed ignorance. After a few more tense exchanges, Siegal objected to the argumentative tone of Funke-Bilu’s questioning. During further cross-examination, Castro’s defense attorney, Michael Hanley, asked the relative about the term “green light” and what it means in “gang parlance.” The relative claimed he did not know. Typically, police have said, the term is used when a gang orders someone killed.
The trial has recessed for the holidays and is scheduled to resume January 4, 2016.