Judge Sends Sterling Murder Case to Grand Jury

After a four-hour preliminary hearing Monday, General District Court Judge Ian Williams found enough evidence in the murder case of 24-year-old Jose I. Escobar Menendez to send it to a Dec. 14 grand jury for review. Gavin Collins and Joshua Hunter, both 22, are charged with first-degree murder in Menendez’s July 8 shooting death in Sterling.

During the preliminary hearing, 16 witnesses, including Sheriff’s Office detectives and friends of Menendez, and Collins and Hunter testified in the case to portray a clearer picture of what happened that morning. Asking the questions were Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Bruce Johnson, Ryan Campbell, Collins’ defense counsel, and Robert Vernail, Hunter’s defense counsel.

According to testimony from Menendez’s friend Stephanie Sanchez, Menendez, formerly of Winchester, was “very excited” to meet up with a friend he had met and “had relations” with three weeks prior to his death. A detective from the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office’s Digital Forensics Unit said she found more than 60 text messages dated around 12:30 a.m. July 8 on Menendez’s phone between he and Collins. She said the two men were talking about meeting up to smoke marijuana.

Another detective said she recovered information through IP addresses showing that one end of those texts was sent to Menendez from the Sheetz off Windmill Parc Drive in Sterling. There, surveillance video showed Hunter pumping gas into his black Dodge Charger at about 1:50 a.m.

According to testimony from detectives, Menendez texted that he had arrived at the Village at Potomac Falls apartment complex at 1:51 a.m. Detectives said that Collins and Hunter arrived there in Hunter’s Charger at about 1:55 a.m. A surveillance video from the complex at that time shows headlights that Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office Det. Michael Grimsley said he identified as being the headlights of a Dodge Charger.

Lisbeth Molina, who lives in a townhouse near the location where Menendez’s body was found, said she heard cars pull up with at least two people get out and start talking the morning of July 8. She said within moments, the conversation turned to yelling. She testified that less than a minute later, at exactly 2 a.m., she heard a “pop.”

Molina said she then heard people get back into a car and pull away with the wheels screeching. According to witness testimony, it was at about 3:10 a.m. that a resident noticed Menendez’s body with blood surrounding it in the street along Emerald Point Terrace near the intersection with Winding Road.

Detectives later found a single bullet casing fired from a .45-caliber handgun. Menendez’s friend Sussie Prem also later discovered Menendez’s phone off the side of the road along the Rt. 7 entrance ramp onto Rt. 28 south. She said she found the phone by tracking it using an app.

According to testimony from Collins’ and Hunter’s friend Masha Novikova, Collins and Hunter arrived at the Extended Stay America hotel where she was staying sometime after 2 a.m. She said Hunter pulled up in his Charger and Collins pulled up in a blue Nissan Sentra, which was later identified as Menendez’s car. She said all three then got into the Nissan, and Collins drove to Best Buy where the two men said they were meeting someone.

Novikova said Collins and Hunter were figuratively “high-fiving” each other with their words and that she heard Hunter tell Collins that he wished he “could have done it better.” Novikova said she asked Collins to drive her back to the hotel. Later that morning, before the sun came up, she testified that Collins and Hunter returned and asked her for help getting rid of the Nissan. Hunter then drove to his house in Prince William County with Collins following in the Nissan with Novikova in the passenger seat.

Novikova testified that when she told Collins the Nissan was nice, Collins told her that “the person that I got it from is not going to miss it.”

Vernail pointed out that Novikova did not include that part of the story in her written statement to the Sheriff’s Office. Vernail also emphasized that Novikova was “tipsy” in the early morning hours of July 8.

According to testimony from Alexander Guerra, Collins and Hunter later met him at a gas station and sold him the Nissan for $500.

Grimsley testified that Collins admitted to him on July 11 that he was an “associate” of Hunter’s and that the two had planned to rob someone of their car and possessions. Grimsley testified that Collins admitted that Hunter parked his Charger in the Sterling neighborhood the morning of July 8 and got out with a gun. Grimsley said Collins told him that he heard a gunshot five minutes later and that Hunter then got back into the Charger with keys to a Nissan parked nearby.

Detectives testified they found Collins in a hotel room on July 11, and a .45-caliber handgun in the room’s nightstand drawer. Detectives said Collins told them the handgun was Hunter’s.

One of the more contested aspects of Monday’s hearing centered on a .45-caliber casing attached to a necklace that Master Deputy Matthew Devaney found while searching Hunter’s Charger. Johnson argued that casing was relevant to the murder because it was of the same kind as the casing found at the scene of the shooting and of the same caliber as that of the handgun found in Collins’ possession.

Vernail said that the casing on the necklace was irrelevant because it had nothing to do with the homicide. He argued that just because the casing was similar to the one found at the crime scene, that doesn’t connect it to the case.

“There will never be any evidence of that, ever,” Vernail argued. “… There’s no connection between that casing and the murder.”

Vernail, in moving for Williams to strike the case, also argued that Johnson presented no evidence to show where Hunter’s Charger went after it was seen at Sheetz.

“I don’t see any evidence really whatsoever that puts Mr. Hunter at the scene of the crime,” he said, adding that it was Collins who was always driving the Nissan.

Johnson said it would be improper to throw the case out since someone had been “murdered in cold blood.”

Williams found probable cause in the case to send it to grand jury for review in December. If they are indicted, Collins and Hunter will see their case head to trial in Circuit Court.

In addition to being charged with first-degree murder, Collins is charged with felony robbery, felony conspiracy to commit robbery, two counts of felony use of a firearm in the commission of a felony, two counts of felony possession of a controlled substance, felony possession or transportation of a firearm, and felony possession of a firearm while in possession of certain drugs.

Hunter is also charged with felony robbery, felony conspiracy to commit robbery, and two counts of felony use of a firearm in the commission of a felony.

pszabo@loudounnow.com

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