RUTLAND -- A Massachusetts man who was building a drug sales network in southeastern Vermont shot and killed a woman he believed had stolen $10,000 worth of drugs from him, a federal prosecutor said Monday during opening statements in the man's trial.
Prosecutors began building their case against Frank Caraballo by telling the jury how he had arrived in the Brattleboro area in March 2011, when he allegedly began selling crack and powdered cocaine and heroin and in some cases trading drugs for guns, including the 9 mm handgun he allegedly used to kill Melissa Barratt of Bellows Falls.
On July 29 -- after a frantic day of trying to find the drugs that had disappeared along with a safe from a Brattleboro motel -- Caraballo, Barratt, who had sold drugs for Caraballo, and another business associate, Joshua Makhanda-Lopez, drove onto a back road in West Dummerston where Caraballo and Barratt got out of the car, prosecutors said.
"The defendant had Melissa walk down a slope. Melissa sat down with her back toward the trunk of a tree. The defendant demanded one last time, 'What happened to the drugs?' She said she didn't know," Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Van de Graaf said.
"He shot a single bullet," Van de Graff said.
Caraballo, 31, of Holyoke, Mass., has pleaded not guilty to a three-count federal indictment for his alleged role in the drug conspiracy and using a firearm to kill Barratt. Lopez has since reached a plea agreement with prosecutors that will limit his prison time, but he has not yet been sentenced.
Caraballo's attorney, Mark Kaplan, told the jury that the death of Barratt was tragic, but there was no physical evidence linking Caraballo to her killing. Despite repeated searches by the Vermont State Police, no DNA, no blood or the gun used to kill Barratt has been found. After examining Caraballo's clothing and shoes, they couldn't even find evidence he had been in the woods where she was killed.
"The only evidence in this case that Frank Caraballo shot Melissa Barratt comes from Joshua Lopez, who was promised five years" in exchange for his cooperation, Kaplan said.
In a text message Lopez sent after the killing, but before his arrest, Lopez "takes ownership ... of the death of Melissa Barratt," Kaplan said.
Prosecutors also outlined how Caraballo had allegedly started selling drugs in the Brattleboro area. "The defendant worked hard expanding his customer base," Van de Graff said.
The Vermont State Police drug task force had been investigating Caraballo in the days before the death of Barratt, who had been arrested on drug charges about two months before she was killed. At that time, she told investigators she was afraid of Caraballo.
Caraballo and Lopez were initially charged in state court with second-degree murder. But federal prosecutors took over the case and at one point considered seeking the death penalty against Caraballo. If convicted of the most serious charges, he could be sentenced to life in prison.
The trial is expected to last two weeks.