A Los Angeles Police Department homicide detective testified yesterday in the witchcraft murder trial of 22-year-old Carla Mendez who is accused of killing a local snow-cone vendor who allegedly put an evil spell on her female lover.
Detective Luis Rivera, who looked dapper in a beige suit, blue shirt and yellow tie, told jurors that he spoke to Mendez in an interview room at LAPD’s northeast station seven months after officers found the badly beaten body of 43-year-old Norberto Castro, a happy go lucky snow-cone vendor who pushed a cart around his Melrose Avenue neighborhood.
During the taped 2006 police interview, Mendez seemed relaxed and chatty. She snacked on a sandwich and chips, and joked regularly during the 40-minute interview with Rivera.
“She laughed and joked a lot,” said Rivera, from the witness stand. “You try to build a rapport so they don’t feel intimidated by you.”
Maria Gomez (left) and her lover Carla Mendez
According to Rivera, Mendez was so infatuated with Gomez that she repeatedly asked to see a picture of her lover during the interrogation, and demanded to be put in the same cell as Gomez who was convicted in August of 2007 of the first-degree murder of Castro. At times, Mendez seemed angry, and called Castro “a son of a bitch” for allegedly stabbing her the day before his death. Mendez later admitted to Rivera that she never went to the hospital, or called the police after the alleged attack.
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.
The trial was filled with amusing court room outbursts by Mendez who sighed regularly, smacked her head a few times with her palm, and yelled “No” when Rivera told Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Hyunah Suh that he gave Mendez her Miranda rights before the police interrogation. The judge, who was obviously annoyed by Mendez’ outbursts, admonished her lawyer during the lunch break.
Mendez told Rivera that she moved to Los Angeles from El Salvador in 2004. She met Gomez at a dance and lived for a short period of time with her and Castro in his studio apartment.
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.
On that summer night, Castro joined Gomez, Mendez and a friend in a late-night trip to Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro, where, according to court testimony, Castro accepted a beer from Gomez and guzzled it — not realizing Gomez had spiked it with nail-polish remover and paint thinner.
Castro was barely conscious when they shoved him into the car and drove back into Los Angeles. As they drove, Gomez began striking Castro with a beer bottle and shouting, “You disgust me…You are ugly.”
Rivera told the jury that Mendez admitted to striking Castro over the head with a beer bottle after he lunged towards Gomez’ throat. The beating began after Castro insulted the women, and performed witchcraft on Gomez, according to Mendez.
“[Castro] was stupid for not defending himself,” Mendez said during the interview.
They eventually parked Gomez’ Jetta on Allesandro Way. According to court testimony, 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, and fled.
During the interview, Mendez told Rivera that she didn’t know why Castro died. Rivera suggested that it was because of the beating he endured at her hands. “She was laughing and said, ‘I don’t want to talk about those stories.’”
Rivera said Mendez later laughed, and said: “I should have used gloves…next time.”
Last week, 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.”
With fingerprint evidence placing Gomez inside the bloodied Jetta, she was arrested during a six-hour stakeout on a South L.A. street 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.