Carlos E. Morales occasionally would buy marijuana at his north Omaha auto body shop.
In late November, he called a go-between and said this time he wanted cocaine.
A week later, Morales and a drug dealer, Bernardo V. Noriega, ended up dead inside Morales' body shop at 4010 Grant St.
Now that go-between — Jose Herrera-Gutierrez — has become the go-to man as prosecutors attempt to convict two men accused of killing Morales and Noriega during a purported drug deal.
Shown a photo lineup, Gutierrez identified two shop regulars — Derrick U. Stricklin and Terrell E. Newman — as the men who killed Morales and Noriega on Dec. 2.
It was a drug deal gone grisly, prosecutor Tressa Alioth told jurors Wednesday in opening statements at the first-degree murder trial of Stricklin and Newman.
Alioth alleged that Stricklin and Newman bound the men's hands behind their backs, ordered them face down on the shop floor and executed them as they begged for their lives.
Defense attorneys focused on the witness who provided that account: Gutierrez, the sole survivor.
Newman's attorney, Daniel Stockmann, and Stricklin's attorney, Jeremy Jorgenson, urged jurors to judge the plausibility of Gutierrez's account.
“It all rides on him and his credibility,” Stockmann told jurors.
Prosecutors say circumstantial evidence will corroborate Gutierrez's version of what took place inside that shop. The trial is expected to spill into next week.
After Morales made arrangements to get cocaine, he told his girlfriend, Brenda Gibler, that he needed to go into the shop for a bit. It was a Sunday, when the shop was closed.
On the way, Gibler heard Morales having one phone conversation in Spanish and a second one in English. (Prosecutors say that will match records of phone calls to Gutierrez and to either Newman or Stricklin.)
About 10:30 a.m., Gibler dropped off Morales at the shop.
At 11:48 a.m., Stricklin and Newman showed up. Morales had employed one of the men for a time, and both men routinely did business at the shop.
About a half-hour later, Gutierrez arrived with Noriega, who brought in a package of cocaine.
The five met in Morales' upstairs office.
Stricklin and Newman had a bag of money, purportedly to buy the cocaine. But Newman told the others he was going to the car to get more money.
Then Newman and Stricklin each pulled out guns — Newman a large black-and-chrome handgun and Stricklin a smaller one.
The two began tying the men up, their hands behind their backs, and ordering them to the floor.
Gutierrez and Noriega complied.
“Don't do this,” Morales shouted, according to Alioth. “Take the drugs. Take the money. We have families.”
Morales initially refused to drop to the floor.
“Why you doing this?” Morales hollered at the men. “You're disrespecting me. This is like your second house.”
“You're a good man, Carlos,” Newman reportedly responded. “But business is business.”
Stricklin finished tying up Morales and forced him to the ground, next to Noriega. Stricklin covered Gutierrez's face with a bag and kicked him in the face.
From then on, Gutierrez said, he heard nothing but horror: Screams, then gunshots.
Both Morales and Noriega were shot in the head, their blood splattering across the room.
Gutierrez heard footsteps. A gunman fired a shot just above his head.
With a bag covering his head, Gutierrez told authorities he felt like he was on the verge of passing out — as if he were “floating.”
He said one of the men picked him up and ripped off the bag covering his face, presumably to see if Gutierrez was alive. Gutierrez said he played dead — and the gunman threw him back to the floor. He then heard the men scurrying away.
Both Stockmann and Jorgenson questioned how plausible that was. Stockmann said he will call a former Chicago medical examiner who will testify that it is highly unlikely that anyone could play dead after being that close to passing out.
Jorgenson took it a step further. He told jurors he once had a debate partner — a “brilliant guy” who would hold his breath “until he was floating.” Jorgenson then demonstrated how his friend would come to — with loud gasps and his body convulsing.
“I'm not going to list all of the inconsistencies,” Jorgenson said of Gutierrez's account. “You've got a lying witness — the only person who says (the defendants) did it.”