Jury hears opening statements, expert testimony in Villa trial
EAGLE — The trial of Ramon Villa officially began on a chilly Thursday morning at the Eagle County Justice Center, bringing impassioned opening statements from attorneys on both sides, along with expert testimony from a former Colorado Bureau of Investigation DNA analyst, a forensic toxicologist and the bartenders who interacted with the accuser on the night in question.
Villa, 42, is one of four men accused of sexually assaulting a woman in the early morning of March 18, 2016, following a St. Patrick’s Day celebration at a bar in Silverthorne. The narrative of how the events unfolded at the bar that night, along with the alleged assault that took place in Villa’s Silverthorne apartment, vary dramatically from the perspectives of the defense and prosecutorial teams, as highlighted in their opening statements.
Lisa Hunt, deputy district attorney and lead prosecutor in the case, painted a brutal picture of a young woman waking up naked and afraid next to a strange man, virtually without memory of the alcohol and cocaine-fueled rape that allegedly took place hours before.
“She had no idea how this happened,” said Hunt. “She only recalls being held down and penetrated by four men she’d never met. She’s mad at her boyfriend who left. She’s confused, hurt, injured and she’s unclear what happened. But she knows she did not agree to have all this happen while she was intoxicated, despite what she might have said that night.”
On the other side of the aisle, Villa’s attorney Stacy Shobe spun a tale of attention-seeking and inappropriate behavior from the accuser that night, insisting that the woman deliberately chose the company of strangers over the “predictability of her boyfriend,” and willingly consented to the group sex acts that took place that night.
“Villa, based on (the accuser’s) words and actions, thought anything that happened that night was consensual,” said Shobe. “He had no way of knowing she would claim rape, or that she couldn’t remember.”
Testimony began following the opening statements, including the accounts of two bartenders who interacted with the accuser and several of the accused at the Silverthorne bar immediately preceding the alleged assault.
One bartender, Amy Rohland, recalls seeing the accuser that night along with three of the accused — Paul Garvin, Justin Erwin and Michael Gelber. Neither bartender remembered Villa being present that night, though a receipt entered into evidence by the prosecution confirmed his presence.
Rohland said that the woman stumbled into her seat after entering the bar and exhibited slurred speech while trying to order a drink. Rohland testified that she, along with Katherine Kolb — the other bartender — and the rest of the service staff refused to serve the woman the entire night because of her perceived inebriated state. Kolb corroborated Rohland’s testimony, adding that if not on alcohol, the woman seemed intoxicated in some other capacity.
“I wasn’t sure what she was on, but she wasn’t acting normal,” said Kolb. “It could be anything. There are a lot of different drugs out there. I don’t know what her cocktail was that night. Something wasn’t right.”
The accuser’s level of intoxication that night will serve as a key factor in determining whether or not she was sober enough to consent to the sex acts that took place.
Both bartenders said they didn’t witness the woman drink any alcohol during the several hours she was in the bar that night, though admitted it’s possible she could have somehow managed to drink something without their knowledge. Also of note is the accuser’s behavior that night. The woman was “bouncing” around the bar touching and flirting with a number of different men, according to testimony, in the presence of her then boyfriend who left after confronting her.
“She seemed to be acting odd for someone we weren’t serving,” said Rohland. “She was a little friendly with other males, and in ways that I wouldn’t personally act in public that made me uncomfortable. At one point late in the evening she was letting a gentleman feel up her skirt, and I had to stop it.”
According to Rohland, the woman left with Erwin at the end of the night.
In addition to the bartenders, two expert witnesses also took the stand on Thursday. Melissa Grass, a former CBI investigator and expert in DNA and serology analysis, was first up. During the initial investigation, Green was provided DNA swabs from the accuser, Villa, Erwin, Garvin and another man no longer considered a suspect in the case. She was also given evidence in the form of a SANE (sexual assault nurse examination) kit, underwear, bike shorts, mattress swabs, sheets and more evidence recovered following the execution of a search warrant at Villa’s apartment.
While most of the DNA recovered was unusable — Green couldn’t form a conclusion because multiple individuals were identified, but minor DNA components weren’t suitable for comparison — she was able to identify Villa. According to Green, DNA profiles are pulled from either STR analysis (unique DNA to everyone but identical twins), or YSTR analysis (male-specific DNA inherited through the paternal line). Villa was identified from a partial YSTR profile.
Sarah Urfer, lab director and forensic toxicologist for ChemaTox, was the final witness to take the stand in what was largely a hypothetical testimony. In previous trials stemming from the incident, Urfer gave testimony in regards to four videos of the alleged assault found on Villa’s phone, looking for clues to try and assess the accuser’s mental and physical state. The videos were suppressed as evidence at the request of the defense team in Villa’s trial.
Instead, Urfer schooled the jury on the affects of alcohol on the body, and the potential to compound those affects via drug-on-drug interactions. The accuser tested positive for cocaine during her SANE examination the day following the alleged assault, presumably taken at Villa’s apartment. The woman was also on a generic form of Prozac that night, prescribed to help deal with premenstrual dysphoric disorder. According to Urfer, cocaine would certainly exacerbate the affects of alcohol of the body, while Prozac likely wouldn’t.
Urfer — after reviewing the SANE report and arrest warrants — said that the accuser’s loss of memory was also consistent with fragmentary blackouts, a symptom of heavy drinking. That being said, Urfer wasn’t provided any urine or blood samples in her investigation, meaning that no biological evidence was tested to determine blood alcohol level or other drugs potentially in her system.
Villa’s case is the fourth stemming from the incident to be adjudicated. Garvin was convicted of felony sexual assault in October, and sentenced to a minimum of 16 years to life in prison. In June, Gelber pleaded guilty to a felony and two misdemeanors and was granted a deferred sentence. Erwin was found not guilty on 11 of 20 counts following his trial earlier this year. A mistrial was declared on the other nine counts.
Villa’s trial will resume on Friday and is scheduled to continue through next week. Fifth Judicial District Judge Frederick Gannett is presiding over the proceedings.