The first-degree murder trial of Braulio M. Castillo entered the ninth day of testimony today, bringing to light phone and text records that prosecutors say show Castillo was trying to create an alibi.
Castillo, of Ashburn, is accused of killing his estranged wife, Michelle, on March 19, 2014.
The case began when Michelle Castillo’s body was found hanging in a basement bathroom in her Belmont Station home. Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office investigators say Castillo entered her home, killed Michelle during a struggle in her bedroom while their children slept in rooms down the hall and then staged a scene to make it appear she hanged herself in a basement bathroom.
On the stand today, Detective T.F. Butler, with the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office Computer Forensic Unit, told the jury that Castillo had searched from his phone on March 19, 2014, how to treat a black eye. Lead investor Mark McCaffrey noted scrapes and a black eye on Castillo’s face earlier in the trial.
At one point, with the jury out of the courtroom, the prosecution and the defense attorneys went head-to-head, debating over the possible admission of notes found on Castillo’s phone. The notes, which the prosecution believe were written by Castillo, provide an account of Michelle’s whereabouts and browser search history.
The defense attorneys said that admitting those notes as evidence would break attorney-client privilege because they were saved copies of emails between Castillo and his divorce attorney at the time.
They went as far as to ask the judge to declare a mistrial, saying the prosecutors should have never looked at the content of the emails.
Judge Stephen E. Sincavage denied the motion for mistrial, and said the documents could be admitted as evidence, ruling that Castillo waived his rights to keep that material private when he handed it over to Detective Mark McCaffrey, who was the lead investigator in the case.
Prosecutors continued questioning Butler, asking about deleted messages found on Castillo’s phone. The selected messages revealed Castillo sent text messages to two of his children and to Michelle the morning her body was found.
The defense questioned whether the line of questioning was an attempt by prosecutors to prove Castillo tried to set up an alibi. Butler told the defense that it was not uncommon for Castillo to text Michelle during early hours of the morning.
“It wasn’t the norm, but it wasn’t unusual,” he said.
Butler said he was also told to look for searches of the word “hanging,” and the only evidence he found were phrases such as “hanging out” or “hanging with friends.” He also mentioned that he did not find any searches of suicide or depression on the victim’s phone.
Law enforcement’s trained cadaver and blood scent dogs, which were brought to Michelle Castillo’s home a few weeks after her body was found, were the focus of testimony Wednesday.
The prosecution is working to prove that Castillo had killed his wife in the bedroom and later moved her body to the basement bathroom to stage a suicide.
Rex Stockham, an FBI deployment coordinator, and K-9 handler Martin Grime took the stand, attesting to the credibility of scent detection dogs Keela and Morse, along with revealing what they had found.
Keela, a human blood detection dog, is trained to pinpoint dried blood, while Morse, a victim recovery dog, is trained to detect the scent of human remains. Keela was directed to search the master bedroom, and found no traces of blood other than a drawer containing women’s underwear. Grime noted that isn’t uncommon because of the scent of menstrual blood.
Stockham and Grime said Morse detected two areas of human decomposition, near the bathtub in the bathroom of the basement, where Michelle’s body was found, and the carpet at the foot of the bed in the master bedroom.
Grime testified that Morse’s sniff rate increased when in the bedroom and basement, notifying him that there was the possibility of human decomposition. “All I can really do is tell you whether the dog gave a positive or negative response,” he said. “He gave a positive response [to human decomposition] in the basement and bedroom.”
The defense countered, arguing that the positively identified odor in the bedroom may have been transferred by investigators, a possibility to which the handlers did not deny. Defense attorneys argued that it is impossible to determine whether Morse’s alert was accurate.
“If it’s not confirmed that there was a dead body, you don’t know if it’s right or wrong,” defense attorney Jonathan Shapiro said.
Grime stressed that people will challenge positive responses, but not negative ones. “I am interpreting what is happening within the dog’s brain,” he said. “As soon as the dog entered the bedroom, he exhibited behavioral changes.”
The trial is scheduled to run through June 10. If convicted, Castillo could face 20 years to life in prison.