Jurors today will begin their first full day of deliberations after impassioned closing arguments by the defense and the prosecution in the Gustavo Olivo-Tellez murder case Thursday in Garfield County District Court.
The jury of eight men and four women were told that they will decide if Olivo-Tellez, 29, is guilty of premeditated first-degree homicide, which carries a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole, or second-degree murder, with a possible determination that the shooting of Blanca Salas on Oct. 7, 2016, occurred when the defendant was overcome by the “heat of passion” while in a purported methamphetamine rage. The jury could also find the part-time Glenwood Springs resident guilty of the lesser charges of manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide. Another option on the jury form is acquittal, but the defense during its opening statement acknowledged Olivo-Tellez shot Salas, his estranged wife and a graduate of Aspen High School, four times inside her Spring Valley apartment.
Four weeks after showing up for court duty and 11 days of testimony, jurors are weighing statements from an addiction expert, psychologists and the defendant’s family and friends.
In front of a courtroom crowded with friends and family of the victim and law enforcement officers who investigated the case, deputy district attorney Sarah Nordgaard placed a large photograph of Salas on an easel near the jury box.
Salas, who was 29 and had a son with Olivo-Tellez, was nicknamed “Chula,” Spanish for beautiful, and had her entire life laid out before her, said Nordgaard, who spoke during the bulk of the prosecution’s closing argument.
As District Attorney Jeff Cheney said during his opening, Nordgaard reiterated that Olivo-Tellez was “burning inside, bent on revenge for a betrayal he perceived” Salas had committed. She said he is guilty of first-degree murder with deliberation for his thoughts and actions leading up to and including the homicide.
“This was not a ready, fire, aim situation,” Nordgaard said. Instead, it was “ready, aim, fire: aim, he planned it, fire he murdered her.”
She pointed again to why her office decided to charge Olivo-Tellez with first-degree murder. When he confessed the day after shooting Salas, he told investigators that he had planned to kill her starting four days prior; he had his then-girlfriend buy a box of bullets on the day of the murder; he placed their son into a hallway outside the home before confronting Salas; and he tried to hide evidence, including throwing the handgun he used, the box of bullets and his cell-phone battery into the Roaring Fork River — all of which points to him being sober and thinking rationally at the time he shot the victim, Nordgaard said.
“He acted in a methodical manner … with a purpose,” she said. “He thought Ms. Salas was ending the relationship so he ended her life.”
Defense attorney Garth McCarty reminded jurors that they had heard testimony from Dr. Dawn Obrecht, a board-certified expert in addiction. She testified Wednesday that Olivo-Tellez’s brain was acutely afflicted by near-daily use of methamphetamine and heavy drinking in the days leading up to the shooting. The drug had “sabotaged” his thinking, and people addicted to drugs like methamphetamine can act without realizing the consequences of their behavior, Obrecht said.
According to her testimony and that of a psychologist employed by the state-run mental institution, he made statements involving paranoia and persecution — including believing that common screws in his ceiling were listening devices, that he was being followed and that his car’s brakes had been tampered with — and had unwarranted jealousy.
Olivo-Tellez had “extreme distortions of reality” and was “severely impaired” leading up to and on day of the murder, Obrecht said, noting that methamphetamine can damage the brain for months and possibly years after a single use.
Loandra Torres Miller, the state psychologist, testified Wednesday that, after a court-ordered evaluation (Olivo-Tellez pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, withdrew that plea and entered a straight not-guilty plea), she diagnosed him with disorders related to his heavy use of methamphetamine and alcohol. Miller, however, 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.
Jurors must consider self-induced intoxication, defense says
But because meth impacts the brain’s frontal lobe, which controls objective decision-making and a person’s ability to control their emotions, it would have been impossible for a “meth head” to deliberate and commit the murder with intent, McCarty said.
He told the jury to think about that, if it weren’t for methamphetamine, “this homicide would not have happened.
“If you believe that, without those effects on his mind, you know already this is not a case of first-degree murder,” McCarty said.
He told jurors that there are six elements of first-degree murder that must be met, including that the crime was committed after deliberation and with intent. Under state law, self-induced intoxication must be addressed by jurors in cases like this, McCarty said. That is because the Colorado Legislature wanted to ensure a jury would weigh whether self-intoxication had negated deliberation and intent.
He also said that “heat of passion” is a type of murder, and the district attorney’s office must prove that intoxication does not apply and that the murder didn’t occur in such a heated mental state.
Prosecutors have “offered next to zero evidence about the circumstances in which the murder happened” and haven’t come close to disproving the heat of passion scenario or Olivo-Tellez’s intoxication, McCarty said.
The defense attorney said all people have similar experienced similar emotions to what Olivo-Tellez had been going through in the days before the shooting, including jealousy, suspicion, heartbreak and rage.
The difference is most people can tamp down such “primitive emotions,” while Olivo-Tellez was “so poisoned by meth, his brain did not capability to tamp them down amid provocation.”
“Folks, that’s what happened in this case,” he said, reiterating the stance that Salas’ purported comments, likely sarcastic, about whether she was having an affair, and saying he was a poor father and man, made him snap during their confrontation.
Olivo-Tellez’s actions afterward were haphazard, panicky and desperate, not those of a man trying to cover up an elaborate plan, McCarty said.
Had there been deliberation, he wouldn’t have shot Salas in the middle of the day, in a fully occupied apartment complex, he said, noting his client didn’t do anything to clean up evidence, and hours later confessed to his sister-in-law in Clifton and then went to a hotel, allowing her to alert authorities.
This doesn’t “minimize the tragedy of her meaningless death,” but jurors must put their passions aside in order to do a job, similar to an emergency responder, McCarty said.
Prosecution’s final argument
Deputy district attorney Don Nottingham, in his rebuttal closing argument, said there were no objective signs that Olivo-Tellez was intoxicated at the time of the homicide.
He pointed to surveillance footage from a Denver-area Walmart, where the bullets were bought, showing the defendant walking without problem, while Olivo-Tellez had told investigators that he was so drunk on that morning he could barely stand up.
Nottingham said he was also “objectively sober” when police interviewed him the day after the homicide, showing no signs of methamphetamine withdrawal.
“He knew exactly how many bullets were in the gun and how many he fired,” the prosecutor said. “He was sober when he murdered Blanca Salas.”
Nottingham also pointed to what he said was a critical statement Olivo-Tellez made to police when he confessed: “She didn’t know what I was going to do,” he said after being told that his then-girlfriend, who bought the bullets, was going to prison for decades for being an accomplice.
That means the girlfriend likely wouldn’t have agreed to buy the bullets had she known what Olivo-Tellez was planning to do, Nottingham said.
“He knew exactly what he was going to do when she bought those bullets,” he said. “He had already deliberated and already decided to murder her.”