An eyewitness to the fatal knifing of Roger Yale testified yesterday she watched suspect Gearold Sotolongo make stabbing motions as the two men scuffled, then saw a puncture wound in Yale’s upper left chest.
“Right where his heart would be,” Lila Van Pelt said under questioning by Deputy District Attorney Roger Rees during the first day of Sotolongo’s murder trial.
It’s been more than six years since Sotolongo allegedly stabbed Yale in the heart during an altercation outside the Hoopa Mini-mart. It was about 8:30 in the morning on Feb. 13, 2016. Van Pelt, her kids and her boyfriend were on the way to Yreka for a basketball tournament when they stopped at the mini-mart and saw a fight.
“It’s a common occurrence” at the market, Van Pelt said. But this fight was uncommon enough that while testifying, Van Pelt broke down crying. She didn’t know Yale, she said, but she knew Sotolongo as “Roldo Pratt.” She identified Sotolongo in the courtroom as the man she saw fighting with Yale.
What Van Pelt first noticed was a group of people across the street. A group of five, males and females, was having some sort of argument with Yale, who kept trying to get away from them by hiding behind a tree as someone swung a stick at him. When Yale crossed the street toward the mini-mart, the group followed him.
As Van Pelt recalled, some of the group members were taunting Yale, telling him to meet them behind the mini-mart. Yale’s response was “I don’t want to fight.”
Van Pelt said Yale kept weaving around trying to avoid his pursuers, walking around her mini-van and the gas pumps. Finally everyone but Sotolongo tired of the activity and left the area.
Yale then sat down on a curb in front of the mini-mart. Sotolongo approached him, Van Pelt said, and the two began scuffling. She said Yale “was trying to get away.”
Then the stabbing. Yale fell down, got up and walked to the mini-mart door to call for help. Sotolongo left.
The entire episode was captured by video surveillance cameras at the mini-mart and the nearby Hoopa Valley Tribal Police Department. Rees played the video several times during testimony.
Trinity County Sheriff’s Deputy Seth Ruiz was an officer with the Hoopa police when he stopped by the mini-mart that day six years ago. He was off duty and can’t recall now why he stopped. But he ended up viewing the surveillance video and identified both Yale and Sotolongo, though he knew Sotolongo as Roldo Pratt.
Under cross-examination by defense attorney Zack Curtis, Ruiz tried to remember the details of a long-ago arrest of Yale. He recalled having to use his Taser and pepper spray before Yale was finally taken into custody.
Also testifying yesterday was Police Chief Gregory O’Rourke of the Yurok Tribal Police Department. Back in 2016 he was a Humboldt County sheriff’s deputy who was dispatched to the call about the stabbing. He didn’t see Yale until Yale was in the back of an ambulance at the air strip in Willow Creek. The plan had been to transport him by helicopter to a hospital, but he died first.
O’Rourke had been informed Yale was violent and combative with paramedics. When O’Rourke arrived Yale seemed to recognize him, the chief said. He asked Yale to stop fighting with the medical personnel.
“His head slumped to the side and the paramedic said ‘I think he died,’ “ O’Rourke recalled.
The paramedic on the scene that day was Cameron Smith, who testified Yale was unresponsive when he and an assistant picked him up at the mini-mart. But a few minutes later he woke up. He seemed to think Smith was someone else, and he kept calling him by a name that Smith doesn’t remember anymore.
“He attacked me,” Smith said under questioning by Deputy District Attorney Jessica Watson, co-prosecutor in the case. He said Yale bit him and tried to gouge out his eye. When the EMT came back to help, Smith said, “he grabbed her by the hair and kicked her.” The kick was hard enough that the woman was knocked to the ground.
Smith said Yale told him to tell his father he was sorry. He also challenged Smith to kill him.
“Did it feel like he was fighting for his life?” Watson asked.
Testimony was expected to continue this morning before Judge Larry Killoran.
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