A San Luis Obispo jury is tasked with deciding whether a Grover Beach man accused of murdering his housemate and burning the body meticulously planned the crime, or whether the killing was the result of a confrontation that spun out of control.
Manuel Jesus Perez, 43, is accused of first-degree murder and arson in the stabbing death of his housemate, Joseph Charles Kienly IV, following a disagreement related to their living situation. Prosecutors say Perez then set Kienly’s body and the house on fire and fled.
Perez has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity and faces life in prison if convicted. If found not guilty by reason of insanity, he could be treated in a state hospital.
Deputy District Attorney Michael Frye told jurors that Perez planned Kienly’s murder for at least several days, smoking methamphetamine and lying in wait for Kienly through the night before the murder.
Defense attorney Steven Rice, however, said Perez had been badgered and harassed by his housemate and only planned to confront him about the behavior, but acted in self-defense when the confrontation became physical.
Rice conceded to jurors that Perez committed arson.
Police and fire crews responded July 11, 2016, to a fire at a single-story apartment in the 100 block of North 13th Street, where they found Kienly’s body inside the kitchen. After fleeing, Perez was discovered in San Luis Obispo and allegedly confessed to the killing, according to testimony from a March 2017 preliminary hearing.
In his opening statement Tuesday, Frye told jurors that Perez and Kienly lived with two other housemates in the house for several years, describing the residents as people with little means who were either drug addicts or in recovery.
Frye said Kienly and Perez were the closest friends of the four occupants.
In the weeks prior to the killing, Frye alleged, Perez grew to believe that Kienly was antagonizing him, purposefully making noise and drilling holes in the walls to prevent Perez from sleeping. However, Frye said Kienly didn’t even own a drill.
Like a cheetah waits for a gazelle.
Deputy District Attorney Michael Frye, quoting Manuel Perez’s alleged statement to investigators
To prepare for the murder, Frye said, Perez zip-tied two steak knives together and purchased lighter fluid at a local store, as well as charcoal and beer to make it appear that he was going to a BBQ.
After smoking meth in the darkened living room the morning of July 11, Frye said, Perez sprung on Kienly as the latter woke to use the bathroom, stabbing him several times, including a fatal wound to the chest.
Frye said Perez then sprinkled Kienly’s body with lighter fluid and set it ablaze.
When he was asked in an interview with District Attorney Investigator Neal Clayton whether he “lied in wait” for Kienly, Perez allegedly responded: “Like a cheetah waits for a gazelle.” Frye said jurors will watch a recording of that interview in the coming weeks.
Defense attorney Rice told the jury that Perez was carrying the knife when he confronted Kienly because Kienly was known to carry various weapons. But Rice said Perez never intended to hurt Kienly.
“This case is about frustration, anger, and bad choices that did result in Mr. Kienly dying,” Rice said.
Rice described to jurors a decrepit living situation managed by a slumlord who tried to profit from fitting as many low-income residents inside as possible, which compounded tensions in the house.
Though Perez and Kienly were friends, the relationship soured when Kienly and his friends increasingly picked on Perez, pounding on his door pretending to be police, for example, Rice said. Perez had tried several times to confront Kienly, who would make Perez “think it was all in his head.”
Rice said Perez initially planned to set a small fire outside Kienly’s room to “smoke him out.” He didn’t want to enter Kienly’s room becuase he believed it was boobytrapped, Rice said, adding Perez only made the knife in case Kienly brandished a weapon.
“That was one of the bad decisions,” Rice said. “He even admits he didn’t want it to go that far, but he was prepared for it if it did.”
Rather than start the fire, Perez instead simply waited to confront Kienly, who “swung at Manny first,” Rice said. A struggle ensued and Perez stabbed Kienly several times, Rice said. It was not clear from Rice’s statement why Perez then lit the fire.
Following opening statements, jurors heard testimony from Grover Beach Detective Nelida Aceves, who, with her partner, was the first authority to arrive at the house. Aceves testified that when she arrived, a third housemate was busy trying to put out the fire with an outside garden hose.
Aceves described seeing blood on the floor of the living room and finding Kienly’s charred body on its back on the kitchen floor, smoking. Frye previously said the body was so badly burned, investigators were initially unable to determine the cause of death.
Testimony is expected to continue Wednesday. Superior Court Judge Craig van Rooyen indicated that the trial is expected to last a month.