Co-defendant takes stand in Sundberg murder trial

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Emry Dinman/Columbia Basin Herald Julio Cesar Albarran Varona, 27, of Quincy, testified Tuesday against Gustavo Tapia Rodriguez, accused by prosecutors of being the trigger man in Jill Sundberg's December 2016 murder.

EPHRATA — After a brief discussion over whether threats against him made it necessary for a friendly face to be in the room to provide emotional support, Julio Cesar Albarran Varona testified in court Tuesday that he had helped as his co-defendant murdered Jill Sundberg in cold blood.

Albarran Varona walked into the courtroom in green prison jumpsuit and chains Tuesday afternoon, was put under oath and detailed to the 12-person jury, presiding Judge John Antosz, and Sundberg's family how on Dec. 21, 2016, he had helped Gustavo Tapia Rodriguez kidnap Sundberg and take her to the remote location where she was killed.

The 27-year-old's voice quaked as he explained to prosecuting attorneys, with the assistance of a translator, that he had immigrated illegally from Mexico when he was 18 to find work. Having gotten no further in school than the third grade, Albarran Varona was unable to read or write, and found work in potato fields before meeting Tapia Rodriguez. Albarran Varona told the court he started working for Tapia Rodriguez earlier in 2016, collecting money various people owed to Tapia Rodriguez.

Less than a year later, Albarran Varona said that he, Tapia Rodriguez, Sundberg, fellow co-defendant Ambrosio Mendez Villanueva, and material witnesses Fernando Marcos Gutierrez and Salvador Espinoza Gomez were in Espinoza Gomez' trailer at the Shady Tree RV Park. Though others had been in the trailer earlier in the night, they had since left, Albarran Verona said, leaving Sundberg alone with the men who are accused of her kidnapping and murder.

An argument broke out between Sundberg and Tapia Rodriguez for roughly 30 minutes, Albarran Verona said, though he does not speak English and did not understand them.

All but Tapia Rodriguez and Sundberg left the trailer during the argument in response to an incident at nearby laundromat, Albarran Verona said. When they returned, Tapia Rodriguez told Albarran Verona to stay in the trailer while he left with the other men, and to make sure Sundberg didn't leave. Mendez Villanueva soon returned to the trailer with gloves and told Albarran Verona to put them on.

The two men then attempted to force Sundberg to exit the trailer, but Sundberg pulled a knife on them and struggled, Albarran Verona alleged. He said that Mendez Villanueva pulled a gun and appeared ready to shoot Sundberg, but he interceded, fearing the neighbors would see. The two eventually overpowered Sundberg and forced her at gunpoint into a truck driven by Tapia Rodriguez.

The five men, having kidnapped Sundberg, drove to a frozen parking lot off the Old Vantage Highway, where they tied Sundberg's hands with a cell phone charger, Albarran Verona said. He pulled Sundberg out of the truck and a few meters out into the snow, where she simply asked, “Why?,” he told the court Tuesday.

Tapia Rodriguez told Sundberg to kneel, Albarran Verona said. After she did, Albarran Verona said he lowered her head, and Tapia Rodriguez shot her 13 times in the head and back with a .40 caliber pistol. Sundberg's University of Washington sweatshirt was presented in court Tuesday, which a detective with the Grant County Sheriff's Office confirmed was riddled with bullet holes.

While listening to yet another play-by-play retelling of how Sundberg died, her family fought back tears from the galley. Tapia Rodriguez stared at Albarran Verona.

The men got back into the car and drove a few meters away before Mendez Villanueva got out of the car, Albarran Verona said, and pinned an unfolded Modelo beer box to Sundberg's back with a steak knife. The sign carried a note in Spanish warning that Sundberg was what happened to “snitches” who disrespected the Gulf Cartel.

Prosecutors have previously suggested that Tapia Rodriguez may have believed Sundberg was an informant for the Grant County Sheriff's Office drug task force, and that this belief may have spurred the deadly dispute. A member of that task force told the court Tuesday that Jill was never an informant for them.

Shortly after Sundberg's murder, Albarran Verona said the men returned to the RV park to gather all of Sundberg's belongings, then drove to Vantage where they dumped the items into the Columbia River. A few weeks later, the murder weapon was found in Albarran Verona's possession by law enforcement, though he claimed it had been passed around before he received it and that he was in the process of stashing it somewhere else.

Tapia Rodriguez is also charged with first-degree murder in the death of Arturo Sosa, a Royal City man who was murdered Dec. 9, 2016. Marcos Gutierrez was also charged with first-degree murder in the Sosa case.

Law enforcement have previously confirmed that the three co-defendants and the two material witnesses in this case are illegal immigrants.

More evidence in the trial will be presented throughout the week.

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