gavel

The murder charge against Moses Torres was dropped at the end of his preliminary hearing on July 17 in Sonoma County Superior Court.

Torres is accused of killing his brother Ivan Torres during a fight on March 27 at Canyon Run Apartments.

Judge Dana Beernink Simonds found there was not enough evidence to support probable cause for the charge. She found there was no malice, either through expression or implied, which is a requirement in the law’s definition of murder.

She did find there was enough evidence to have a court determine whether Moses Torres committed manslaughter or whether he acted in perfect self defense.

“Justice was done here today,” Moses’ lead attorney Kristine Burk said after the hearing. “I am relieved, as is my client. He says a weight has been lifted. Carrying that weight at 18 years old was a tremendous burden. This is a good preliminary outcome.”

During the preliminary hearing, which began July 15, the court heard from four witnesses from the state as well as video from the police interview with Moses Torres while in custody. Two witnesses, Alycia Bennett and Jesse Moreno, were present at the fight that resulted in Ivan Torres’ death. The other two witnesses were Healdsburg Police Department’s Detective Sgt. Will Van Vleck and Officer Frank Patane. Judge Simonds found all of their testimony to be credible and overall consistent with the evidence submitted.

The fight

Bennett and Moreno both testified about what they saw at Canyon Run Apartments, with Bennett up first.

She and Moreno were living with Moses and his father, Luis Torres, at the complex the day Ivan Torres died. Moreno and Bennett are in a relationship, and know Moses from when he dated Bennett’s daughter.

According to Bennett, around 5:45 to 6 p.m., she heard someone knocking on the door.

Moreno answered the door for Ivan Torres, whom the couple also knew through Moses, and wanted to speak with Moreno outside.

Bennett was in the kitchen at the time with Moses. Another friend, Angelo, was in the living room. Luis Torres was also there.

Bennett said she watched through the window as Moreno followed Ivan outside. When she saw Ivan take off his hat, she became concerned about what was going on and went out the door.

“Something was off when I saw Ivan take off his hat,” she said.

When she turned the corner of the building to see what was happening, she saw Ivan Torres hit Moreno.

Bennett became more emotional during the next part of the testimony. Though the court asked her if she needed a moment, she declined and continued.

She said she got between the two to break up the fight. Moses and Angelo had followed behind her.

She put her hand on Moreno’s chest and stretched her other arm out to Ivan. Moreno was backing up but Bennett said Ivan “was right in my face.”

She stated she told Moreno, “let’s just go” repeatedly.

Then, according to Bennett, Ivan threatened her, saying, “Get the (expletive) out of the way or I’m going to hit you, too.”

She then saw Ivan reach into his pocket area. Bennett and Moreno both testified that Ivan was known to carry a screwdriver, presumably as a weapon. Moses also told the police about the screwdriver and where it was usually stored during his interview.

Moses Torres then stepped in and, according to Bennett, struck Ivan with what looked like a punch.

She said Ivan did not hit Moses back, but kept standing and walking. It was only when he pulled up his shirt that Bennett saw the blood from a stab wound. Moses’ father had come out at that point and Ivan told him, “Look what your son did to me,” while holding up his shirt.

Bennett and Moreno left at that point, with Ivan still moving back toward the front door.

Moreno’s testimony

Moreno testified next. He recounted much the same course of events as Bennett.

He said Ivan wanted to talk to him about problems Ivan heard Moreno was having with Moses.

Moreno denied there was any problem. Moreno and Bennett both testified to possibly moving out of the apartment with Moses, in part due to Ivan possibly moving in.

Moreno had invited Ivan in to talk but Ivan declined. When outside, Ivan wanted Moreno to prove he was “still a homie,” which Moreno said he interpreted as being affiliated with a gang.

Moreno said he did not associate with gang members any more. He testified that he knew Ivan to glorify gang affiliation with the Sureños street gang.

Moreno said Ivan wanted to fight him for 13 seconds. Moreno was repeatedly questioned about the significance of 13 seconds, but said he did not know. He once said it stood for “M.” This was the one particular piece of Moreno’s testimony that Judge Simonds questioned, believing he likely knew more. The possibility was that the time referred to how gang members are beat in to the group.

Moreno said Ivan claimed, “I’m from Florencia,” while showing off a gang tattoo. The two gangs are related, one being in LA, the court established.

After Moreno again denied any gang affiliation, Ivan hit him in the face, according to Moreno’s testimony.

Moreno said that while Bennett was between the two, Ivan also took two more swings past Bennett toward him, though he missed. Just after, he saw Ivan reach down into his waistband while holding up his pants with his other hand. He said he saw something like a screwdriver handle in Ivan’s hand.

“I knew not only my life, but everyone else’s, was in danger,” Moreno said.

He then saw Moses intervene, striking Ivan. He then left with Bennett and saw Moses leave as well.

Violent history

During the hearing, both Moreno and Bennett testified to knowing of Ivan Torres’ history of violence with family members. It was one reason why the couple felt it may be best to have Moses Torres move in with them upon hearing Ivan may move in to the Canyon Run apartment.

Moreno described Moses telling him a story of Ivan punching Moses. Ivan later told him that if he didn’t hit back, Moses “wasn’t a man.” According to Moreno’s testimony, Moses did not strike back. Moreno also recounted a different story where Ivan tried to stab his father. Moses stepped in this time and was able to disarm his brother.

According to Bennett, Moses recalled a different story in which Ivan stabbed another of his brothers with the same screwdriver.

Both testified to knowing that Ivan had been in prison recently and knew him to drink in excess. Bennett said Ivan became angry when drunk.

“You can see it in his eyes,” she said, adding that she saw that look the day the fight began.

Moreno said he had seen Ivan drink earlier that day before leaving for a while.

Bennett also claimed that she had seen Louis Torres drink regularly.

Moreno testified that Moses was the smaller of the two brothers, both in age and size. Bennett said Moses did not seem to be a violent person, but was protective of his friends.

Before the hearing, Moses sat in the prisoners’ row waiting. He asked questions of the deputies in the court, who responded in an amiable enough manner. He smiled at their responses and went back to waiting. When the hearing began, the court allowed Moses, who is not what is typically considered to be a large man, to sit between his council.

During the police interview, Moses was not treated as being especially dangerous, it seemed. He was not restrained, was allowed to stay wrapped in a blanket and given a pen to help diagram a map of the incident.

After the fight

After police had been alerted to Ivan’s death, Moreno was picked up as a murder suspect. While in custody, he allegedly told a different story as to Moses’ desire to kill his brother, claiming Moses said Ivan had it coming and that Moses intended to “whoop” Ivan.

Burk confirmed that this interview occurred, though a request for the interview transcript from the Healdsburg Police Department was verbally denied and a request letter to the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office was also denied, both due to the ongoing nature of the case.

Moreno denied that these statements were true of Moses at the hearing. He also testified to not recalling having said them.

“I try to forget most of it,” Moreno said of the whole day.

Bennett was at the police station shortly after as well, though not as a suspect. She initiated a call to Moses that was overseen by Detective Sgt. Van Vleck. According to Van Vleck, this is done to get more truthful information from a person of interest than what someone may say to a police officer.

During the conversation, Moses did not say anything along the lines of being happy about Ivan’s injuries. He did express surprise that police were interested in Bennett and Moreno.

He also said he saw Ivan reaching for something, and knew about the screwdriver Ivan kept.

In Snapchats sent to Bennett from Moses and captured in a picture on a different phone, Moses said he knew something bad was going to happen to Bennett if Ivan was allowed to keep going.

During the phone conversation, neither Van Vleck nor Bennett testified to thinking Moses knew the call was being listened to by law enforcement.

Moses’ interview

Van Vleck later interviewed Moses in custody after he was picked up without incident from the Larkfield area where he had briefly fled. Sgt. Luis Rodriguez was also in the room and the body camera on Van Vleck was played.

Moses recalled times Ivan had been violent with him in the interview. He said he had seen Ivan drinking at his apartment earlier in the day and had heard Ivan speaking with his father on the phone prior to the event as well. According to Moses, his father had told Ivan that Moreno and Moses were having trouble. Moses had argued with Moreno and Bennett over what to have for dinner, but nothing more.

Moses then said Ivan left, came back and left again the day of the fight, one time to allegedly purchase alcohol.

He described the fight, saying he had his pocket knife out as Ivan was yelling, ready to step in. When Ivan threatened Bennett, he intervened.

Moses then describes his action either as a push, a punch or an attempt to cut Ivan’s forearm. Judge Simonds found this to be believable testimony as it was a fast blur of motion. In one instance, Moses said he forgot the knife was in his hand, and he dropped it when he realized the knife had gone into his brother’s chest.

He picked up the knife and ran shortly after, saying his father yelled to get out of there, and said he knew where he had dumped the knife and could help police find it. The audio of the tape was difficult to hear in the courtroom, and Simonds took extra time to watch it again privately.

Officer Patane testified that he was the one who found the knife. He said it was approximately where Moses said it would be, thrown into a ditch. Moses was with police at the scene and was able to confirm it was the correct knife.

Patane was also the first officer on scene at the apartments after the stabbing. When he arrived, he saw Luis over Ivan, applying pressure to a chest wound. He then did a sweep of the interior before calling in paramedics. Patane said he knew both Ivan and Luis from previous law enforcement contacts.

Van Vleck said police later executed a search warrant of the apartment, where they found the screwdriver where Moses described it was normally kept, in his father’s room. It was not known how the screwdriver made it to the room after the fight during the hearing.

Arguments

After witnesses were heard, the prosecution, handled by Deputy District Attorney Matthew Henning, argued that Moses overreacted to the situation. He pointed to the two stab wounds found on Ivan’s chest and a laceration on his arm to back up his claim. He said that Moses’ anger overwhelmed him in that instant. According to California law, acting in self defense is only legal if the appropriate amount of force is used for the situation.

The defense argued that Moses did not overreact, that he not only saw the danger when Ivan reached for something, but that he knew based on his past that Ivan was capable of that type of violence. Burk said that Moses knew Ivan could mean more than “hit” when he threatened Bennett.

“This was not just a potentially dangerous situation,” Burk said. “It could’ve gone the other way.”

Burk further argued that a reasonable use of force doesn’t have to be correct, it just has to be reasonable. It also doesn’t say in the law that a person is allowed only one stab or hit in self defense. Burk noted that Moses didn’t “stay and pummel his brother” after the fight.

Henning pointed to Moreno’s testimony that Moses said, “I told you not to come around here and start (expletive)” to his brother immediately after stabbing him and his flight as well.

Judge Simonds did question Henning’s reasoning, stating that the fight could not be judged in a vacuum when attempting to show malice.

After hearing from Henning, Judge Simonds took the rest of the afternoon to again review the evidence before reaching her decision.

When Simonds found a jury trial to be warranted on the manslaughter charge, she pointed to the threshold of whether Moses reacted properly or went too far as the main reason. She said there was not enough in front of her to determine whether a claim to self defense was legally perfect.

Though Burk was pleased with the outcome of the hearing, which has a lower bar to pass to move to the next phase than what a jury needs to find proof for guilt, she said she would argue the defense was legal in a trial.

The next hearing for Moses Torres was the morning of July 24, after press time. Moses had been on no bail due to the murder charge, but a $110,000 bail was set after the trial.

Burk said she would try to have conditions put in place in lieu of posting bail, which at 10%, the amount to pay to a bail bond company, would still be too high for Moses’ family.

Editor's Note: All persons accused are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.

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