Trial begins for man accused of fiery homeless camp slaying

SAN DIEGO — A man murdered another homeless man by stabbing him, beating him with a rock and tossing a burning wooden pallet on top of him at a Grantville encampment, a prosecutor told jurors Tuesday.

But a defense attorney insisted his client is not guilty of first- degree murder, saying he was spurred to kill by derogatory comments the victim made regarding his client’s mother.

Sergio Padilla Chavez, 27, is charged with murder and a special circumstance allegation of murder by arson in the July 4, 2017, attack of Jose Jesus Hernandez, 63, who died in a hospital about six weeks after the attack. Chavez faces life without the possibility of parole if convicted.

Deputy District Attorney Kyle Sutterley said Chavez got into an argument with Hernandez in the evening hours at a homeless camp by the river bottom near 10990 San Diego Mission Road.

The prosecutor said Chavez stabbed Hernandez in the upper body with a pair of scissors and “crushed” the victim’s head with a cement block, causing several skull fractures.

He then allegedly threw a wooden pallet on top of the victim and used a makeshift blowtorch and an open flame to set the pallet on fire, causing burns on more than 15 percent of Hernandez’s body.

Other transients and good Samaritans pulled the victim from underneath the burning materials and called 911, then noticed Chavez standing in a nearby patch of shrubbery. Sutterley said Chavez was holding a small wooden stool in his hand trying to ward off anyone who got near him.

Defense attorney Dalen Duong conceded that Chavez killed Hernandez, but said he wasn’t guilty of first-degree murder.

The attorney said his client and Hernandez were close, and had an uncle-nephew type of relationship during the five or six months Chavez lived at the camp.

But on the night of July 4, 2017,  Duong said Hernandez began “berating” Chavez and insulted the defendant’s mother, who was killed in a car accident when Chavez was 8 years old.

Duong said that for unknown reasons, Hernandez claimed he’d killed Chavez’s mother and was glad she was dead.

The prosecution’s first witness, Sharon Downing, said she was living at the camp at the time of the attack. Just prior to the fire, she heard Hernandez arguing with someone in Spanish, but she didn’t understand what he was saying, outside of a few curse words.

She said she later saw a “wall of fire” near Hernandez’s tent, and grabbed a fire extinguisher to try to douse the flames, while others used jugs of water.

Downing said she saw Hernandez lying in the fetal position and Chavez standing in the bushes nearby, “watching him burn.”

Downing testified that she asked Chavez why he wasn’t helping Hernandez, to which he returned a blank stare. She testified that Chavez was friendly and respectful with her and others at the camp “up until that day.”

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