Editors Note: This story incorrectly said that the testimony had lasted 13 days instead of 11.
Jurors today are expected to begin deliberating on whether to convict a part-time resident of Glenwood Springs of premeditated murder for the 2016 shooting death of his estranged wife or find him guilty of second-degree homicide.
Gustavo Olivo-Tellez’s defense team rested Wednesday after a psychologist with the Colorado Mental Health Institute testified that she diagnosed the defendant with disorders related to his heavy use of methamphetamine and alcohol. But Loandra Torres Miller did not diagnose Olivo-Tellez with a psychotic disorder because, while he told his attorney and her about paranoid thoughts, such paranoia outside of his use of methamphetamine did not exist, she said.
Over 11 days of testimony, the defense tried to convince the jury that Olivo-Tellez, 29, shot Blanca Salas four times inside her Spring Valley apartment in a fit of paranoid rage spurred by days of meth and alcohol use, and the victim’s purported insult of him in the home. The legal defense involves a crime being committed “in the heat of passion,” and the defendant would face 16 to 48 years in prison for the Oct. 7, 2016 homicide.
Prosecutors believe Olivo-Tellez planned the murder and are seeking a conviction of first-degree murder that carries a prison sentence without the possibility of parole. They have pointed to the fact that he and his-then girlfriend bought the bullets used that day; that the defendant, when he confessed the next day, said he began planning it four days before; and that he placed his son, then 3 years old, in the hallway before confronting Salas. The alleged preplanning aspect led to a heated exchange Wednesday between District Attorney Jeff Cheney and Natasha Powers, a former homicide detective who worked as a private investigator for the defense and who criticized the thoroughness of the investigation.
Deputy district attorney Don Nottingham asked Miller if Olivo-Tellez — who said he had drunk 12 beers and a liter of tequila the night before the murder and had been using methamphetamine daily — was intoxicated when he shot Salas. The victim, 29, was an Aspen High School graduate and the mother of a son she had with Olivo-Tellez.
The psychologist said there was no way to know, nor any way to know if he intended to kill the victim at that moment, which occurred hours after he had left Denver. He was working with family members on concrete jobs and lived with them during the work week, visiting his son and Salas, with whom he was trying to reconcile, on weekends.
But “basically there was no mental illness, so there was nothing to impair his ability to form intent,” Miller testified.
With jurors out of the courtroom, Olivo-Tellez quietly told Judge John Neiley of Garfield County District Court through a translator that he had consulted with his attorneys, Garth McCarty and Ryan Dawson, and decided not to testify.
DA, private investigator clash over scope of law enforcement inquiry
McCarty called Powers, who runs a Grand Junction-based private investigation and consulting firm, to the witness stand. The former homicide detective, who retired in 2011 after a 14-year career, said McCarty hired her a few days after Olivo-Tellez was arrested. She was able to walk through the crime scene days after the murder before the home was released to the victim’s family.
She said she found the police investigation generally was “very good” and thorough — if the DA’s office had decided to charge him with second-degree murder. When McCarty asked her if the investigation, because it was into what authorities believe was a premeditated crime, was still a high-quality inquiry, Powers said no.
She acknowledged that police discovering that his then-girlfriend, Michelle Castillo, had earlier that day bought the bullets at the defendant’s request would reasonably lead authorities to believe the homicide was premeditated (Castillo is serving 16 years in prison after pleading guilty to being an accomplice and other charges).
But she and McCarty then set out to pick apart the inquiry by the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office.
Powers called the questioning of Castillo by two Colorado Bureau of Investigation agents the day after the murder “appalling.” Judge Neiley ruled in 2017 that certain statements she made in her interrogation were inadmissible, finding they had been coerced by the agents.
The questioning of Olivo-Tellez also involved pressure tactics but did not rise to the level used with Castillo, Powers said. After 90 minutes or so of steadfast denial, Olivo-Tellez confessed after police told him that Castillo was going to be imprisoned and would not see her child for decades.
That is a legitimate law enforcement tactic to get a full and accurate statement, she added.
But investigators should have validated and tried to better understand what led to the shooting, Powers said.
“You have to get all that information and give it to the district attorney for the charging decision,” she said, agreeing with McCarty that as Olivo-Tellez wrote out his confession, a CBI agent asked him, “almost as an afterthought,” when the defendant had begun planning the murder.
“That was concerning because it’s part of the big picture,” Powers said. “You want to find out” why the homicide happened, what led up to it and myriad other questions: What was the plan? How did you decide Friday would be the day of the murder? Why there? Why did you decide to shoot her? Did you use a key or knock? Did you wash up? Change clothes? Have blood on you?
This would elicit information essential to the prosecution decision about which homicide charge to pursue, she said, adding she would have sought to obtain a blood draw to gauge his mental state and whether he was sober enough to waive his Miranda rights. Olivo-Tellez told police that he hadn’t slept in days and had been drinking and using meth in the prior days, though a detective testified that he did not see any signs that the defendant was intoxicated or exhibiting signs of methamphetamine withdrawal during the interview.
Had she been investigating the case, Powers said she “absolutely” would have asked questions such as: What went through your mind? Were you angry? Did you want her to die or just hurt her?
“There was really no follow-up,” Powers said.
Cheney got her to change that last position, asking her if she realized that everything Olivo-Tellez had told them, including throwing the handgun that was used and a box of bullets into the Roaring Fork River, was corroborated by police, who recovered the gun.
If she spotted faults in the investigation, why didn’t she reach out to the lead investigator with the sheriff’s office, Cheney asked.
“Are you asking me to go to the cops and tell them how do their jobs?” Powers asked.
“You waited for two-and-half years sitting on yer hands criticizing” police? the DA responded.
McCarty objected at that point, deeming the questioning argumentative. The judge overruled the objection, ruling that Powers was an expert witness who could take harsher questions than a lay witness.
“It wasn’t my purview to tell [the lead detective] how to do his job,” Powers said.
While she faulted police for not searching the defendant’s Front Range residence, she acknowledged she, too, did not do that. When Powers said she wanted to explain further to the jury, Cheney cut her off, saying, “I’m the one asking the questions,” he said.
Through his line of questioning, he got Powers to admit that police did ask Olivo-Tellez about his actions at the apartment, including knocking on the door, placing the child in the hallway, and following Salas into the home. But the defendant was never asked whether they were arguing or why she walked away from him, Powers said.
“This goes to the motive, is that your critique?” Cheney asked, then followed up by asking her if she’s aware that, under Colorado law, motive is not an element to a first-degree murder charge, nor does the statute governing deliberation require pre-planning of months or even minutes. Powers said she was aware of those aspects.
In a curt follow-up, McCarty asked Powers that, if she was to criticize investigators “to their face,” he would have had to direct her because she was working for him, correct? Powers agreed.
Jury hears testimony from addiction specialist
The jury of nine men and seven women also heard from Dr. Dawn Obrecht, who is a board-certified addiction specialist. She, and the jury, at times delved into complicated issues involving the frontal lobe of the brain — one juror asked a highly technical question involving neuroplasticity, or the change in neural pathways and synapses — decision-making and complex thinking, and the effects of methamphetamine.
Olivo-Tellez has told his lawyers and psychologists that he began using meth in 2015, and progressed to using it and other substances almost daily.
Obrecht said such addicts are either high or going through withdrawal, and that it
doesn’t matter if the defendant had used meth on the day Salas was killed or even that week because “he had it in his brain.” His brain was acutely afflicted, she said, and the drug had “sabotaged” his thinking. She agreed with McCarty that Olivo-Tellez was a “very sick drug addict” at the time of the shooting.