Opening arguments began yesterday in the strange witchcraft murder trial of Carla Mendez accused of the Silver Lake murder of a local snow-cone vendor who she believed had put an evil spell on Mendez' female lover.

Deputy District Attorney Hyunah Suh described the slight 22-year-old Mendez, who was sporting a buzz cut, as “territorial” and fiercely protective of her Mexican immigrant lover Maria Gomez who was convicted in August of 2007 of the first-degree murder of 43-year-old Norberto Castro, a happy go lucky snow-cone vendor who pushed a cart around his Melrose Avenue neighborhood.

In opening statements, Suh told the jury that Mendez laughingly told a Los Angeles Police Department detective, “the next time [Mendez killed someone] she would use gloves so she wouldn’t get caught.”

Maria Gomez (left) and her lover Carla Mendez

According to Suh, Mendez was so infatuated with Gomez that she repeatedly asked to see a picture of her lover during a police interrogation. Mendez – a El Salvadorean immigrant – later confessed to the police, and called Castro “a son of a bitch” for allegedly attempting to rape and stab her the day before his death. Suh argued that despite Mendez’ rape allegation she never contacted the police, went to a hospital, or had any visible wounds.

The entire tragedy, according to court papers, was driven by Gomez's belief in love spells and witchcraft, practiced underground in many poor Latino neighborhoods. After consulting a bruja — a Mexican witch doctor operating out of a botanica within the city's sprawling immigrant community — Gomez decided Castro had cast a spell on her as punishment for spurning his advances.

Swept up in her eerie beliefs, Gomez decided her only escape was to murder Castro.

Mendez’ attorney Norman Kallen said Mendez and Gomez came from “humble beginnings” and arrived in Los Angeles without “the help of legal entry.”

Gomez and Mendez had a history of “expecting a curse on them,” he said.

“My client is an individual who subscribes to the possibility [that] if a hex is placed on them those individuals are subject to be victimized,” he said, and because of Mendez’ love for Gomez, “she felt Gomez was being threatened by this guy.”

LAPD officers found Castro’s battered body next to a Jetta on Allesandro Way in Silver Lake on July 13, 2005. The former salesman from Acapulco was rushed to the hospital but died of his injuries soon afterwards.

His death remained a mystery for two months until detectives tracked down 17-year-old Sogui Godinez – a chronic runaway and middle school drop out – who accidentally left her YMCA card inside the Jetta. The police also found broken beer bottles and blood inside the car.

Godinez, now 20, testified at the Criminal Courts Building in Downtown Los Angeles that she met Gomez at an “AA” meeting she attended with her father when she was 12-years-old. The two became fast friends and drug buddies.

Godinez, who was sporting a pierced lip and wearing a black-hooded sweatshirt and black tights, testified that Castro oftentimes took the two friends out to dinner, and regularly gave money to Gomez – as much as $700 at a time. When Gomez needed a place to stay, she would often curl up overnight at Castro's.

Mendez, who was dressed casually in a baggy beige long-sleeved shirt and brown pants, listened – with the help of a Spanish translator – intently as Godinez recalled in chilling detail that fateful June night.

On that summer night, Castro joined Gomez, Mendez and Godinez in a late-night trip to Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro, where, Godinez testified, Castro accepted a beer from Gomez and guzzled it — not realizing Gomez had spiked it with nail-polish remover and paint thinner.

“I said, ‘what the fuck are you doing?,’” said Godinez animatedly. “Maria told me to ‘shut up’ and she punched me.”

Castro was barely conscious when they shoved him into the car and drove back into Los Angeles. As they drove, Godinez claimed, Gomez began striking Castro with a beer bottle and shouting, “You disgust me…You are ugly.”

Godinez, who was on the stand for most of the day, claimed she became a target herself when Mendez placed a shoestring around her neck and threatened her with a gun. They eventually parked Gomez’ Jetta on Allesandro Way. Godinez fled and hid, she said, as Gomez and Mendez tried to back the car over Castro — but the car wouldn't start. Instead, they bashed in his skull with two rocks that weighed over 16 pounds, then ran off.

Godinez, paralyzed with fear, hid for an hour then called her mother.

Godinez testified that Gomez called her after the incident and showed up at her house with gifts. “I would hide,” she said.

With fingerprint evidence placing Gomez inside the bloodied Jetta, she was arrested during a six-hour stakeout on a South L.A. street two days after Godinez told police her harrowing story in September of 2005. Mendez eluded the law for five more months, and was picked up by the LAPD's fugitive task force on February 23, 2006, visiting a friend in South L.A.

LA Weekly