‘Here we go again.’ Judge reluctantly grants request in former CHP officer’s case

Walter Wells hugs Modesto attorney Frank Carson in a courthouse hallway moments after a Stanislaus County jury on June 28, 2019, found Carson and two others not guilty of murder in the death of Korey Kauffman.
Walter Wells hugs Modesto attorney Frank Carson in a courthouse hallway moments after a Stanislaus County jury on June 28, 2019, found Carson and two others not guilty of murder in the death of Korey Kauffman.

A judge on Tuesday reluctantly postponed a trial for a former California Highway Patrol officer accused of concealing a murder allegedly committed by three men who have since been acquitted of that crime.

Judge Barbara Zuniga sounded frustrated as she granted the prosecution’s request to delay the trial for Walter Wells, who faces charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice and acting as an accessory in connection with the death of Turlock resident Korey Kauffman.

“I have never seen a case plagued with so many problems,” Zuniga told Chief Deputy District Attorney Marlisa Ferreira. “A lot of them caused by your office, ma’am.”

Wells’ trial was scheduled to begin with testimony next month. The prosecutor asked the judge to postpone the trial for three months.

Ferreira said the District Attorney’s Office wants to explore evidence with new technological advances that were not available when the case began. She told the judge that prosecutors want to see what new information they might learn before deciding what to do with Wells’ case.

“There’s nothing nefarious about it ... it’s pretty standard,” Ferreira told the judge.

Robert Forkner, Wells’ attorney, told the judge that this is just an attempt by the prosecution to delay the case on the eve of trial by analyzing Wells’ cell phone after having it as evidence for the past few years.

“It does make me a little angry,” Forkner told the judge.

In late June, a jury found prominent Modesto attorney Frank Carson and brothers Baljit Athwal and Daljit Atwal not guilty in Korey Kauffman’s death.

Prosecutors alleged that Kauffman was killed after he was caught on Carson’s property trying to steal irrigation pipes. The defense argued that this was a vindictive prosecution intent on ruining Carson’s career.

On Tuesday morning, Judge Zuniga said there have been numerous problems with discovery evidence in the Kauffman case

“One thing after another,” Zuniga said in court. “I had to put myself in the mindset this morning of ‘Here we go again’.”

The judge said she has to put aside that frustration. She told the defense attorney that new technology is sufficient legal grounds for a postponement, even though this case has gone on long enough.

But Zuniga said she wasn’t willing to give the prosecution three months; she only wanted to give them 30 days.

Forkner said his client deserves to have his case concluded sooner rather than later.

“He wants to go back to work as a CHP officer,” Forkner told the judge.

The prosecutor said in court that it’s not likely Wells will return to the CHP, because he lied in front of a judge. The defense attorney called that claim false.

Wells, Eduardo Quintanar, and Scott McFarlane were CHP officers when they were arrested in the case. They were sanctioned by the CHP and no longer work for the agency.

Quintanar, who was charged with conspiracy to obstruct justice and being an accessory, has been cleared of wrongdoing. The State Personnel Board found in May that “the CHP’s discipline was far too heavy-handed and that Officer Quintanar should return as an officer with the CHP,” said Terry Leoni, Quintanar’s attorney. When Quintanar can return to duty remains unclear. The CHP has refused the State Personnel Board’s order, Leoni has said.

A preliminary hearing is scheduled to begin Oct. 21 for McFarlane, who faces an accessory charge. Wells and McFarlane are being prosecuted separately.

Forkner has said “This nightmare of a case” began in July 2012, and the prosecution continued to “terrorize these people” for the past seven years. He said taxpayer dollars have been wasted on a case that has resulted in acquittals and cases thrown out of court.

Nine people were charged in connection with Kauffman’s disappearance and death. Robert Lee Woody, the only person convicted in the case, received a plea deal in exchange for testifying against the other defendants.

Zuniga scheduled a hearing Oct. 9 to determine whether the prosecution has any new evidence.

“Hopefully, the DA dismisses the case then, and Mr. Wells is exonerated,” Forkner told the judge.

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Rosalio Ahumada writes news stories about criminal court cases in Stanislaus County for The Modesto Bee, issues related to immigration and immigrant communities and breaking news related to crime and public safety. From time to time, he covers the Modesto City Council meetings. He has worked as a news reporter in the Northern San Joaquin Valley since 2004.