RUTLAND - A former associate of the man on trial for murdering Melissa Barratt two years ago recounted details of the killing on Wednesday, as prosecutors continued to make their case.
Joshua Makhanda-Lopez explained in U.S. District Court how Frank Caraballo fatally shot Barratt in a wooded area of Windham County on July 29, 2011, after accusing her of stealing a safe filled with thousands of dollars worth of drugs. Caraballo, 31, of Holyoke, Mass., stands accused of shooting and killing Barratt, who sold narcotics for him, with a single gunshot to the head in the woods of Dummerston.
Makhanda-Lopez -- who is being held and awaiting sentencing at Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield after pleading guilty to conspiracy to traffic heroin and a weapons charge -- said he saw Caraballo kill Barratt next to a tree while the victim was asking for a chance to see her son one last time.
Caraballo -- who appeared in court Wednesday wearing a long-sleeved collared shirt, khaki pants and sneakers -- is currently serving a 16-year sentence for conspiracy to distribute drugs.
Makhanda-Lopez testified that he stayed with Caraballo and the safe filled with drugs at a hotel on Putney Road in Brattleboro on July 28, 2011. Caraballo noticed the safe was missing after Barratt visited the hotel room and soon asked Barratt and Makhanda-Lopez if they took it, which both denied doing. Makhanda-Lopez said on the witness stand that Caraballo had planned to sell the drugs that were in the safe to bail his brother out of jail.
"He was upset," Makhanda-Lopez said. He recalled Caraballo saying he wanted to hurt someone and saying he wasn't sure who he should "bust off," or take some sort of action against.
The witness, who was tasked with driving Caraballo around during their time together, said Caraballo eventually asked Barratt, in the apartment of a friend she was staying with, if she took the drugs. Makhanda-Lopez said Caraballo interrogated Barratt for about an hour before telling him to get a gun out of a safe in the trunk of the car. He told the court he got the gun and loaded a round into the chamber before handing it to Caraballo.
"He said someone took the safe and he would kill all of us if he had to," Makhanda-Lopez said, adding that he was confused by the situation. "I was confused because I felt Frank should have known I would never steal from him."
Caraballo soon handed the gun back to Makhanda-Lopez, who said he unloaded it and put it back its safe. Makhanda-Lopez said he, Caraballo and Barratt then left the apartment and went to a fast food restaurant, with Caraballo all the while repeatedly asking Barratt where the missing drugs were. Caraballo then reportedly called another associate, telling the person someone had stolen drugs from him and he didn't know how to deal with the situation.
Makhanda-Lopez said the three then stopped by the house of another associate off Exit 2 in Brattleboro and heard Caraballo say, "Let's get this (expletive) over with." He said they left the house and drove about a minute down the road to "a semi-wooded area," where Caraballo again asked him to get the gun before walking with Barratt into the woods. Makhanda-Lopez said he placed a clip into the gun and joined the other two.
He said Caraballo kept asking where the drugs were and Barratt said she wanted to see her son one final time. Barratt, apparently knowing Caraballo's intentions, reportedly said Makhanda-Lopez didn't have to witness the crime. Caraballo then shot Barratt in the head and Makhanda-Lopez said he walked back to the vehicle in shock. He said Caraballo then met him at the vehicle, told him Barratt was still twitching and asked if he should shoot her again.
Makhanda-Lopez said he then drove to Holyoke, Mass., while Caraballo called someone and said the problem had been "taken care of." He said he showered at his grandmother's house in Springfield, Mass., and later texted some friends about how stressed he was feeling. He said he and Caraballo never talked about what happened before they were both arrested while in Ludlow.
During cross-examination, attorney Mark Kaplan (who along with Natasha Sen is defending Caraballo in court) suggested Makhanda-Lopez might be "pointing the finger" at his client in exchange for a plea agreement to avoid life imprisonment. The federal government reportedly has offered to put a maximum of 13 years on to his sentence and not bring a murder charge against him if he agreed to testify against Caraballo.
Kaplan said it can be hard to believe Makhanda-Lopez is telling the truth because he lied to his own family and to the Vermont State Police after being arrested in Ludlow. He told Makhanda-Lopez he got the gun, put a clip in it and "acted like it was a normal day" after Caraballo allegedly killed Barratt. He said state police asked Makhanda-Lopez how they can know he didn't pull the trigger and he reportedly told them ballistics analysis would prove it.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Van de Graaf, one of the prosecutors, asked Makhanda-Lopez if the plea deal rests on Caraballo's conviction (which it does not) and if he first said Caraballo had murdered Barratt before any deal was made (which Makhanda-Lopez said he did).
Domenic Poli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow Domenic on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.