Saturday, March 14, 2009

Harlow Cuadra's Trial... Penalty Phase Day 1 Overview

Harlow's Family

The Times Leader reports Joyce Kocis had to be helped from the witness stand after telling the Luzerne County jury about how generous her son, Bryan, was in the community.

“He was the type of person that did things for people,” a tearful Joyce said on Friday. “We heard stories after that happened about the generosity he would do.”

Her son was killed inside his Midland Drive, Dallas Township, home that was set ablaze on Jan. 24, 2007.

Two men from Virginia Beach, Va., Harlow Cuadra and Joseph Kerekes, were charged for Kocis’ murder.

Kerekes, 35, pleaded guilty in December to second-degree murder and is serving life in prison.

Cuadra, 27, was convicted by the jury on Thursday of first-degree murder and 11 other charges. The same jury is deciding whether Cuadra should be sentenced to life in prison without parole or be executed.

Kocis’ father, Michael Kocis, told the jury he hasn’t slept a full night in the last 26 months, and blames his son’s murder for his declining health.

“We were very close,” Michael said. “He was my hunting partner who saved my life when I had my heart attack.”

Michael told the jury that he taught Bryan how to drive a vehicle with a stick-shift transmission, and worked three jobs to put his son through college.

Bryan donated money to the Make-A-Wish Foundation and to an unwed mother who couldn’t afford Christmas presents for her children, Michael said.

Bryan’s dream was to build a waterfront home at Ice Lakes in Rice Township where he owned property, Michael said, and open a restaurant.

“That was the type of person he was, very generous,” Michael said.

Michael said he felt like an “intruder” and cried when he stood alone in his son’s burned out home.

The jury was shown a Kocis family picture standing at the Empire State Building in New York City. Bryan took the family to New York in a limousine for the July 4th weekend in 2006.

“He showed us the best time of our lives,” Michael said. “I miss him dearly.”

Assistant district attorneys Michael Melnick, Shannon Crake and Allyson Kacmarski are attempting to convince the jury that Cuadra should receive the death penalty because he stole items from Kocis’ home during a robbery and set Kocis’ home on fire that endangered firefighters.

Computer equipment, two Sony digital cameras and a Rolex watch were missing from Kocis’ home.

Joyce and Michael testified to the emotional pain and grief they continue to endure since their son’s murder.

Melnick said firefighters had a difficult time extinguishing the blaze. Windows were busted and two holes were cut in the roof to ventilate the heat and smoke, Melnick said.

“The heat was terrible, we really didn’t have any visibility,” Dallas firefighter Michael James Hawk testified on Friday.

Hawk was part of three search teams that entered Kocis’ home because firefighters were told by neighbors the home was occupied and a vehicle was parked in the driveway.

Hawk said he crawled on his hands and knees up the stairs to search the second floor.

“Something happened to my equipment, my face mask,” Hawk told the jury. “All of a sudden, I started breathing in smoke, tasting smoke.”

“With the smoke and heat … there was a danger there,” Dallas firefighter Timothy Rismondo testified.

Rismondo said when Kocis’ body was found, firefighters believed he succumbed to the smoke.

Melnick said Kocis suffered a slashed neck that nearly decapitated him and 28 stab wounds.

Harlow Cuadra

Meanwhile, over at the Citizens' Voice... three parents testified Friday — two remembering a son lost to murder; the other begging jurors to spare her son’s life.

Testimony concluded Friday in the penalty phase of Harlow Cuadra’s capital homicide trial.

The jury of eight men and four women will hear closing arguments Monday before deciding if Cuadra deserves the death penalty for Bryan Kocis’ murder. Cuadra was found guilty Thursday of first-degree homicide and 11 other charges in Kocis’ Jan. 24, 2007, murder at Kocis’ Dallas Township home.

Kocis was a generous and caring son, his mother and father said. He donated to numerous charities, served as a deacon at his church and was an Eagle Scout. Kocis, 44, was his parents’ “first and only son,” a hunting buddy and devoted uncle to his niece and nephew, they said.

He “would drop everything to help me out,” Kocis’ father, Michael Kocis, said.

Cuadra killed Kocis, prosecutors say, because he was a rival producer of pornography. Cuadra and his former partner and lover Joseph Kerekes plotted to kill Kocis in order to lure a model to the gay pornography Web site they operated in Virginia Beach, Va.

Kocis had plans, his father said, to open up a restaurant at his lake property.

“He wanted to run the best restaurant in the Valley,” he said. “His goal was by 2008.”

That goal was cut short when Kocis’ life ended, his father said. In the time he was alive, Kocis went out of his way to help people, his father said.

One time, the elder Kocis remembered, his son knew of a single mother who couldn’t afford presents for her children at Christmas. He bundled several gifts and left it at the doorstep, never taking credit, Michael Kocis said.

“That’s just the way he was,” he said.

Michael Kocis gripped a handkerchief and stopped to cry several times as he testified.

“I’m going to try to get through this,” he told jurors before answering questions.

Kocis’ mother, Joyce, cried through her testimony, detailing the pain her son’s death caused. Kocis’ parents haven’t slept a full night in the 26 months since their son’s brutal stabbing death, they said. They’ve returned to Luzerne County Courthouse for countless hours of hearings related to the murder.

Cuadra’s mother, Gladis Zaldivar, testified in Spanish and a court worker translated her words for the jury. Wiping away tears, she had one last remark for jurors before finishing her testimony.

“Before he was born, I fought for his life,” she said looking at the jurors. “And I fight for his life now. That is all I can say.”

Cuadra wiped away tears as his mother testified.

The same jury that convicted Cuadra on Thursday, will have to weigh Friday’s testimony in determining if Cuadra deserves death. The prosecution’s two aggravating factors — the robbery and the arson charges against Cuadra in Kocis’ killing — have to be considered along with the defense’s mitigating circumstance. Four prosecution and nine defense witnesses testified Friday. In addition to Kocis’ parents, two firefighters testified about the blaze at Kocis’ Midland Drive home the night of his death. That arson, prosecutor’s allege, risked the lives of firefighters and should be considered as a reason to issue the death penalty.

Five family members, including his mother, testified on behalf of Cuadra, as did a friend. They recounted Cuadra’s childhood and how his stepfather sexually molested him for years.

Cuadra’s mother read a letter her former husband supposedly sent to Cuadra. Cuadra had joined the Navy when he was a teenager to get away from his stepfather. In the letter, which his mother accidentally found in 2000, Cuadra’s stepfather discussed sexual acts he wanted to perform on Cuadra. Cuadra’s mother divorced him after discovering what her husband was doing.

“It’s embarrassing,” she said sobbing. “I’m sorry … I didn’t know. I didn’t know.”

Cuadra left the Navy and hadn’t returned home for more than five years when his siblings found his MySpace Web site. Cuadra was afraid they would be ashamed because he was homosexual and worked in pornography, his older brother Jose Cuadra testified. But they were able to reunite in early 2007.

“We didn’t care about that,” Jose Cuadra said. “I was just happy to have my brother again.
The Times Leader also has an additional story about yesterday's hearing... an e-mail on the Web social networking site MySpace reunited Harlow Cuadra with his family after nearly five years of being separated.

Cuadra testified earlier in the week that he kept away from his relatives because he felt ashamed he’s gay. Once they were reunited, his family rallied to support him after his arrest for the murder of Bryan Kocis in Dallas Township more than two years ago.

They testified in Luzerne County Court on Friday trying to convince the jury to spare his life.

Cuadra, 27, of Virginia Beach, Va., was convicted by the jury on Thursday for killing Kocis, 44, inside Kocis’ residence on Jan. 24, 2007. The same jury that found him guilty of first degree murder and 11 other charges will determine if Cuadra should be sentenced to life in prison or be executed.

Assistant District Attorney Michael Melnick and Cuadra’s attorneys, Joseph D’Andrea and Paul Walker, are set to give closing arguments on Monday before the jury deliberates Cuadra’s future.

Cuadra’s mother, Gladis Zaldivar, and his sister, Melissa Zaldivar, 19, have attended every day of the trial including jury selection since Feb. 17. Since Monday, his brothers, Jose Cuadra, 28, and David Bizizuela, 16, have attended court proceedings. They all reside in Greenville, S.C.

Jose Cuadra and Bizizuela told the jury that they found Harlow on MySpace in early 2007, after not hearing from him since early 2002.

Bizizuela sent Harlow an e-mail and got a reply, “Sorry, I don’t know any 14-year olds.”

They were reunited after Jose sent Harlow an e-mail, Jose said.

“I found out in 2007 on MySpace that Harlow was involved in gay porn,” Jose testified. “I sent Harlow an e-mail to meet up.”

Harlow invited Joseph Kerekes, his lover and partner in a male escort business and production of gay pornographic Web based movies, to meet the family, Jose said.

“It was weird at first but he’s my brother. He was scared that we would reject him because he’s gay. He’s my brother,” Jose testified.

“I didn’t care about that, him being gay,” Bizizuela testified. “I was happy to get my brother back.”

Bizizuela said he last saw Harlow when he was 9 years old.

Jose told the jury about the financial hardship and troubled childhood they endured while residing in Florida. Jose said they resided in a tiny, windowless apartment, slept on the floor without a mattress and had only one ball to play with.

“We were living on welfare, living on food stamps; it was bad,” Jose said.

Their mother, Gladis, remarried in April 1995. Their stepfather provided financial support but wanted something in return, Walker said.

“(Stepfather) had a fixation with him, Harlow,” Jose said.

Jose said the stepfather would send him to the store so he could be alone with Harlow, who was sexually abused for about 10 years. Jose said he left home when he was 16 years old when the stepfather grabbed him.

Gladis Zaldivar, who needed an English interpreter for her testimony, told the jury that she caught her husband molesting Harlow. She immediately left him taking her children, but her husband begged her to forgive him.

After reading a letter her husband wrote to Harlow, who had enlisted in the U.S. Navy in January 2000, Gladis learned her husband continued to have feelings for Harlow.

Harlow last spoke to his mother in early 2002 and felt embarrassed when she found out he was gay. It would be five years until he next spoke to his family.

“You don’t know how much I missed you,” a crying Gladis told Harlow on Friday.

Melissa Zaldivar said the first time she saw Harlow after five years was at a court hearing in Virginia Beach, Va., after his arrest in May 2007 for Kocis’ murder.

“Harlow told us he was afraid we would reject him because he was in the pornography business and he was gay,” Melissa testified.

Melissa also recalled her childhood that she called “happy” until her mother and father divorced.

“My brother (David) and I were on MySpace and we went to search for him (Harlow),” Melissa said. “Jose logged on and sent Harlow an e-mail and he called.”

Karen Stanton, a civilian employee with the Department of the U.S. Navy, testified about Harlow’s military service.

Harlow signed a delayed enlistment contract on Aug. 26, 1999, and reported for duty on Jan. 13, 2000, Stanton said.

Harlow committed to serve eight years and was trained as a hospital corpsman. While stationed in Norfolk, Va., Harlow met Kerekes in an on-line chat room.

Kerekes, 35, convinced Harlow to leave the Navy and helped pay for an attorney to expedite the process.

Harlow requested to separate from the Navy due to being a homosexual, Stanton said.

She said Harlow was honorably discharged after serving two years, 11 months and eight days in the Navy.

"I don’t mean this in a bad way, but it is a straight man’s military," Harlow testified on Tuesday when he took the witness stand against his lawyers advice.

Harlow moved in with Kerekes and joined him running a male escort business. Escorting turned into producing gay pornographic films as a “hobby,” Harlow said, on the Internet.

Kerekes took over the Web site after it made several hundred dollars, Harlow said.

Investigators said Kocis was killed because Cuadra and Kerekes considered him their main rival in the adult film production industry, and wanted to work with adult film actor Sean Lockhart, who was a contract actor for Kocis’ company, Cobra Video.