Merced sheriff's lieutenant says he 'stands by' decision to arrest DA's son for murder

Ethan Morse poses for a portrait in Merced, Calif., Tuesday, June 2, 2015.
Ethan Morse poses for a portrait in Merced, Calif., Tuesday, June 2, 2015.

A Merced County sheriff's lieutenant testified Tuesday that a prosecutor with the state Attorney General's Office — not sheriff's detectives — gave the go-ahead to arrest District Attorney Larry Morse's son on a murder charge in July 2014.

But Lt. Charles "Chuck' Hale admitted on the witness stand that he never met with prosecutor Barton Bowers before Ethan Morse's arrest or go over the evidence in detail with Bowers.

Hale also conceded that Bowers only had the case for two days before Morse was arrested, and that the decision to take Morse into custody came during a telephone conversation with Bowers.

In U.S. District Court in Fresno, Morse, 21, has accused Hale and detectives Erick Macias and Jose Sam Sanchez of violating his civil rights by maliciously or recklessly lying to a judge to get a warrant for his arrest.

Morse spent nearly four months in jail before Merced County Superior Court Judge Ronald Hansen in November 2014 declared him factually innocent of the murder charge and freed him from jail.

During the trial, now in its third week, Morse's attorneys, Jayme Walker and J. Gary Gwilliam, have accused Hale, Macias and Sanchez of coercing witnesses, covering up evidence that would have exonerated Morse, and manipulating evidence to get a judge to sign a warrant for Morse's arrest.

But Hale, Macias and Sanchez have all testified that they had probable cause to arrest Morse because they suspected he was the driver in a drive-by shooting in a triple murder in Atwater in March 2013.

On Wednesday, a jury of six men and two women will begin deliberations in the high-profile civil rights trial after both sides give closing arguments.

Bowers took over the criminal investigation of Ethan Morse after his father declared an obvious conflict.

In the final day of testimony, Hale's last moments on the witness stand resembled a scene right out a "Law and Order" television drama.

Gwilliam bluntly asked Hale if he and his detectives had arrested an innocent man.

But Hale didn't flinch. "I stand by our investigation," he told the jury. " I'm proud of our work."

Hale, however, admitted that there were flaws with the investigation.

For example, Macias had interviewed a man who said he had information about the murder that detectives had already linked to Morse. Macias' interview with the informant happened in June 2014, Gwilliam told the jury. Macias, however, didn't write a report about his interview with the informant until after a judge declared Morse innocent.

In addition, Merced police detective Paul Johnson testified last week that he met with Hale in November 2014, before Morse's preliminary hearing. Johnson said he informed Hale that another man had confessed to the murder that sheriff's detectives had linked to Morse.

When Johnson told Hale about the tip, according to court records, Hale said: What? Is Larry (Morse) buying you lunch?"

Gwilliam said Hale did nothing to follow up on this information and withheld the information from Bowers.

But Hale told the jury that he never met with Johnson in November 2014.

"How sure are you?" his lawyer, Dana Fox, asked.

"I'm 100 percent certain," Hale replied.

Following a four-day preliminary hearing in November 2014, Judge Hansen released Morse from jail after making several factual findings, including that Jacob Logan-Tellez, one of Morse's passengers, did not fire a gun from Morse's vehicle and that Logan-Tellez did not fire the weapon that killed Bernabed Hernandez-Canela in March 2013, court records say.

In his ruling, Hansen said he could not hear any admission of a shooting by Logan-Tellez in the accidental 911 call that Macias had relied on to get a warrant for Logan-Tellez's arrest. In addition, the judge also said the detectives used "improper interrogation techniques" on Morse's passengers, court records say.

Morse's troubles began on March 30, 2013, when he took his father's sports utility vehicle without permission and drove seven friends and acquaintances to the house party in Atwater that was advertised on Twitter. Before leaving his home, Morse testified in his trial that Logan-Tellez, showed him a .22-caliber revolver. He said he never told Logan-Tellez that he couldn't take the gun to the party.

While sitting in the SUV outside the party, Morse testified gunfire erupted. Samantha Parreira, 16, and Matthew Fisher, 19, were fatally shot in the backyard. Hernandez-Canela, 18, was killed out front. Morse and his passengers drove away unscathed.

But shortly after the killings, Logan-Tellez accidentally called 911 on his cell phone. Detectives contended the 911 call had implicated Logan-Tellez in the killing of Hernandez-Canela. Logan-Tellez was arrested, but then released after the then-lead detective, Dwayne Pavelski, said the 911 call was difficult to understand and insufficient evidence to book Logan-Tellez on murder charges.

The triple murder was a cold case when Hale was promoted to sergeant in in May 2014 and took over the major crimes unit. Hale testified on Tuesday that he told Macias on July 14, 2017, to dig into the unsolved triple homicide. Three days later, the sheriff's department announced the arrest of Jose Carballido and Jose Botello in the killings of Parreira and Fisher, and the arrest of Logan-Tellez in the killing of Hernandez-Canela. (Carballido and Botello were later convicted and sentenced to prison. Hernandez-Canela's killing remains unsolved.)

Witnesses implicated Carballido and Botello; Hale testified that Logan-Tellez's arrest was based solely on his 911 call and his videotaped interview with Pavelski. Hale testified that sheriff's detectives obtained a warrant for Logan-Tellez's arrest without input from the District Attorney's Office.

Hale told the jury that he disagreed with Pavelski's decision to release Logan-Tellez. In the 911 call, Hale said he could hear Logan-Tellez talk about shooting someone at the party. In addition, Hale said Logan-Tellez, who repeatedly has said he never fired a gun from Morse's car, said in his video interview that after listening to his 911 call, it sounded like he said he had shot someone.

But by the time of Logan-Tellez's arrest in July 2014, Gwilliam told the jury that detectives also had Hernandez's autopsy report and results from ballistic testing. The report and testing showed that Hernandez-Canela was shot with a .25-caliber firearm once in the head at close range and with .38-caliber firearm in his chest several times

Gwilliam said Morse, Logan-Tellez and other passengers in the Morse's SUV told detectives that Logan-Tellez was armed with .22-caliber revolver, so he couldn't have shot Hernandez-Canela. But Hale told the jury that the gun was never recovered, so he didn't know if Morse and his friends were telling the truth.

In fact, three of them later changed their accounts, saying Logan-Tellez had fired a gun from Morse's SUV, Hale said. Though their accounts were different, Hale testified, "I could make sense of them."

The news of Logan-Tellez's arrest prompted Ethan Morse to talk with detectives on July 20, 2014. Larry Morse drove his son to the sheriff's interview, but declined an offer to be present. Before the interview, Hale said Morse was not a suspect. But after Morse said he drove Logan-Tellez to the party, he became a suspect, Hale said.

Bowers testified last week that he took over the triple homicide case on July 23, 2014. He said detectives sent him about 70 sheriff's reports, but the vast majority of them were about the killings of Parreira and Fisher. He said detectives didn't send him Hernandez-Canela's autopsy report or ballistic testing, or tell him about Morse's offer to take a lie detector test. But he said he did listen to the 911 and "made some sense of it."

Bowers said Hale asked him in an email on July 24, 2014 as to whether he made a decision to arrest Morse. In his reply, Bowers testified he told Hale no decision had been made and that he wanted to look at the evidence more carefully. "Let's talk about his matter in the next few days,"Bowers said in an email to Hale, which was shown to the jury.

But on the next day, Hale testified he talked to Bowers about arresting Ethan Morse. He told the jury that he also sent Bowers a copy of an affidavit in support of Morse's arrest.

Bowers testified last week that he agreed with Hale that there was probable cause to arrest Morse. But Hale was more clear in his testimony. He said Bowers made the decision to arrest Morse. He also told the jury that Bowers, independently, made the decision to file a murder charge against Ethan Morse .

Pablo Lopez: 559-441-6434, @beecourts