Joshua Makhanda-Lopez said he loaded the gun that was used to kill Melissa Barratt but he didn’t pull the trigger.
Wearing a green shirt with his hair pulled back in a knot, the 24-year-old Springfield man who was once charged with murder along with Frank Caraballo took the stand in U.S. District Court in Rutland Wednesday and told jurors he watched the Holyoke man kill Barratt in cold blood.
“He kept asking her where the drugs were and she kept denying it and said she wanted to see her son one last time,” he said.
The 31-year-old Brattleboro woman was sitting with her back to a tree in a wooded area off East West Road in Dummerston and Caraballo, 31, was standing behind her, he said. Makhanda-Lopez said he was standing in front of Barratt holding a Glock 9 mm handgun that he said he loaded and took into the woods with him at Caraballo’s behest.
When Barratt refused to say where she had hidden the $10,000 worth of cocaine, crack cocaine and heroin that disappeared from Caraballo’s motel room on the morning of July 28, 2011, the Holyoke man told his half-brother to hand over the gun.
“Frank cocked the gun and then he shot her,” Makhanda-Lopez said.
Caraballo, who has been jailed since July 29, 2011, is on trial for the killing of Barratt as well as drug sale and gun possession charges. For more than a week, prosecutors have called witnesses to the stand to testify about the Holyoke man’s alleged drug distribution activities in Brattleboro and his suspicions that Barratt had stolen drugs from him on the day she was killed.
Other witnesses have told the jury about guns they traded to Caraballo for drugs — including the Glock 9 mm which prosecutors believe was the weapon used to kill Barratt.
But Makhanda-Lopez is the only person to testify that he witnessed Caraballo executing her.
His account was called into question on a number of points by Caraballo’s defense attorney, Mark Kaplan.
He attacked Makhanda-Lopez’s motivation to take the stand and the stakes he had in helping the prosecution.
While the murder charge initially brought against him was dropped when the case was transferred into the federal court system, Kaplan repeatedly inferred that the Springfield, Mass., man was trying to save his own skin by testifying against Caraballo.
“You pointed the finger at Frank Caraballo and you did that because you understand that it’s the only way to avoid spending the rest of your life in jail, correct?” Kaplan said.
Makhanda-Lopez answered “no” but the defense attorney attacked his credibility by asking him to explain why he initially lied to investigators about ever seeing Barratt on the day she was killed.
“You lied to police. Isn’t it because if it benefits you, you have no problem lying under oath?” Kaplan asked.
“In my line of work, who doesn’t lie to the police when they’re arrested?” Makhanda-Lopez responded.
As part of his plea deal with the government, Makhanda-Lopez said that he pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine and heroin and a charge of using a gun in furtherance of drug trafficking in exchange for a prison sentence of no more than 13 years.
Without the deal, he could face up to 60 years in jail on the convictions.
In addition, he said prosecutors agreed not to bring charges against him related to Barratt’s death in the future.
Kaplan argued at the start of the trial that it was possible that Makhanda-Lopez killed Barratt and not his client.
He argued that a text message exchange between Makhanda-Lopez and a friend hours after Barratt’s death supported his argument.
That text exchange was shown to the jury on Wednesday.
In it, Makhanda-Lopez writes “I’m so stressed. I didn’t wanna do it baby I didn’t.”
When told that if that was how he felt, he shouldn’t have done it, Makhanda-Lopez replies “I know, damn.”
Kaplan argued that the exchange amounted to a confession that he had a role in the killing.
But Makhanda-Lopez denied shooting Barratt and much of the evidence prosecutors have shown to the jury thus far has shown that the two men had far different stakes in the drug operation.
Makhanda-Lopez told the jury that he began working for Caraballo as a driver two months before the killing. Caraballo and Makhanda-Lopez are linked by a common half-brother — Jonathan Lopez.
Makhanda-Lopez said he ran into Caraballo at a criminal court hearing for his half-brother in May and Caraballo, who didn’t have a license, asked him to drive him around.
At first, Makhanda-Lopez said he was simply Caraballo’s driver, earning about $300 a week to get him to his drug customers.
But over time, he said he began to sell drugs himself, although he said he wasn’t as invested in the operation and never met the supplier who Caraballo bought his drugs from.
On the morning of July 28 after Caraballo realized that a safe containing $10,000 worth of drugs had been stolen, Makhanda-Lopez said Caraballo was as suspicious of him as he was of Barratt.
In a phone call to Jonathan Lopez in jail at 10:30 a.m. that day, Caraballo made a similar remark.
In a taped recording of that conversation played to the jury on Wednesday, Caraballo tells Lopez “I don’t know which of them to bust off.”
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