Jury deliberating shooter’s role in killing of El Dorado County deputy

Thomas Frey
Mountain Democrat

A jury began deliberations April 6 in Juan Carlos Vazquez-Orozco’s homicide trial. Vazquez-Orozco is accused of shooting and killing El Dorado County sheriff’s deputy Brian Ishmael Oct. 23, 2019.

Vazquez-Orozco is charged with murder in the first degree and assault with a firearm. He maintains he was shooting in self-defense when he pulled the trigger on the gun, taking 37-year-old Ishmael’s life and wounding San Joaquin County deputy Josh Tasabia, who was on a ridealong. He also shot at deputies Brian Shelton and Shawn Taroli.

The defendant was living at 4740 Sand Ridge Road, a property owned by Christopher Ross. His job was to tend to about 100 marijuana plants of Ross’ as part of an illegal grow operation. Each plant was on target to yield about 3 pounds of marijuana.

Vazquez-Orozco was 20 years old and sleeping in a tent with no bathroom or running water. He would be paid $200 a day once the crop was harvested. Deputy district attorney Joe Alexander estimated the plants were worth a combined $249,600 based off the testimony of Det. Michael Roberts, who said the going rate per pound was $800-$1,200 in 2019.

When Vazquez-Orozco began working for Ross about a month before Oct. 23, 2019, he had been living in the United States for a little more than a year. He testified — through an interpreter — that when he lived in Mexico, he worked with cattle and was paid 5,000 pesos a month — about $200-$250.

“He’s making almost as much per day working in this marijuana garden as he would working a month running cattle in Mexico,” Alexander said. “That’s an incentive because he’s not going to get paid if there is no harvest.”

He was given a .22 revolver not by Ross, but by a growing ring boss the prosecution identified with the name of Abelardo.

Taking the stand, Vazquez-Orozco told his attorney Lori London he was given instructions that if robbers came on the property, “that I should scare them” and that he was “told to shoot.”

While Vazquez-Orozco claimed he was acting in self-defense, Alexander pointed out that the value of the crop was “a powerful motive” to protect the marijuana.

“He is not in imminent danger. He’s not defending himself. He’s defending marijuana. He’s intent to kill anyone who threatens the marijuana,” Alexander said.

“You cannot use lethal force to protect property,” he continued. “You can’t shoot them and the truth of the matter is you can’t shoot people who are there stealing marijuana no matter how valuable the marijuana is. That’s not the law and the killing of a marijuana thief is not excused.”

When asked on the stand how valuable the marijuana plants were Vazquez-Orozco said he didn’t know adding “I never ask things that don’t matter to me.”

On top of the $200 a day there was testimony, which Vazquez-Orozco denied, that he was going to receive 20 of the plants valued at $48,000 after the harvest.

“It is life-changing money for a young man who was otherwise making 5,000 pesos a month,” Alexander pointed out.

Vazquez-Orozco testified that he saw two people who weren’t supposed to be where the plants were about a week before Ishmael was shot.

“They started to pull some branches from plants,” he recalled. “I didn’t know what to do so I fired two shots. They left. I wasn’t aiming at them. I aimed at the ground.”

Vazquez-Orozco said Ross was visibly angry with him about 20 minutes after, but language barriers prevented understanding what Ross was saying.

Abelardo later came and took the gun away from Vazquez-Orozco.

About two days before Oct. 23, Ramiro Bravo Morales was sent to the property to work with Vazquez-Orozco, who was given a 9 mm handgun at the time. Morales and Vazquez-Orozco planned to take turns sleeping at night while the other watched the plants. Each would have the gun while they watched.

Vazquez-Orozco testified that on the night of Oct. 22, 2019, Morales was on watch outside the tent when he was called by Abelardo, who told Morales there had been a robbery at another marijuana grow that night and the robbers might be close by.

“I understood that we should be alert,” Vazquez-Orozco said. “I told (Morales) I was tired. I told him to be ready and to wake me up if anything should happen.”

In the wee hours of Oct. 23 Morales came into the tent to wake him, according to the defendant.

“He said that the robbers were already there,” recounted Vazquez-Orozco, who noted Morales gave him the gun at that time.

He testified that because it was dark he could only see a light in front of the tent and shadows of people.

“When I woke up I was scared,” Vazquez-Orozco said. “I didn’t know it was police. At that time I thought these were the same people who came the week before.”

He recalled taking about two steps in front of the tent, then going off to his right.

“That’s where I fired the first shot,” Vazquez-Orozco said. “I wanted to scare them.”

He described walking forward a little bit and shooting again. “They started shooting at me. I didn’t know what to do.”

Then he hid behind a post for about five minutes.

“I was scared but I couldn’t hear anything. (There were) no lights. Everything had gone back to normal,” Vazquez-Orozco said.

He explained that he had left his phone and shoes in the tent and made his way back in that direction.

“When I got to the tent I thought they had left,” he noted.

He said he heard gunfire. “The next thing I know I had been shot in my leg,” Vazquez-Orozco testified. “At that moment I was scared so I just ran. I was running and firing at the same time. I was just shooting. I didn’t know what direction, I was just shooting behind.”

That statement didn’t corroborate with the testimony of Tasabia.

“(Tasabia) said the first time he saw the defendant, the defendant was coming out from that brush pile, pointing the gun and pulling the trigger,” Alexander argued. “Josh Tasabia was very adamant about how the defendant started both the first volley and the second volley.

“He’s shooting at Brian Ishmael specifically and he strikes Brian Ishmael four times and I cannot emphasize that enough because you’re not shooting in the ground or shooting randomly or shooting over your shoulder as you’re running wildly through the woods,” Alexander said. “You hit your intended target four times; that’s really good. How do you shoot the ground and somehow miraculously hit your intended target at a rate of about 45%.”

Vazquez-Orozco took 11 shots and hit Ishmael on four of them and Tasabia on another.

“To say that the killing of Brian Ishmael was a fluke is an insult to common sense,” Alexander said. “And it’s an insult to the crime scene evidence and the testimony.”

Alexander, in his closing argument asked the jury to find the defendant guilty and hold him responsible for firing his gun at deputies Shelton and Taroli, for killing Ishmael and for shooting and injuring Tasabia, who was shot in the hip and suffers with scarring, daily pain, sciatic issues, numbness in his left foot and nerve damage.

London argued that this whole shooting is a result of a 911 call from Christopher Ross — who has been in custody since the shooting in 2019.

Ross had called 911 to report a robbery on his property. He failed to tell authorities that men were living on the property who may be armed and didn’t know English.

“Christopher Ross lied not only about the grow being robbed but he left out basic crucial facts to 911— the facts that ultimately cost Brian Ishmael his life,” London said in her closing statement. “As deputy Taroli told you, had they known the truth, they never would have gone up there.”

As London finished her statement, Alexander closed with his final remarks.

“Christopher Ross started this whole thing off but today is not his day in court and he will have that day. Today is this man’s day in court,” Alexander said as he pointed at Vazquez-Orozco.

Juan Carlos Vazquez-Orozco is escorted into the El Dorado County Superior Court courthouse by a bailiff March 29. Vazquez-Orozco is charged with first degree murder and assault with a firearm. Four of his shots reportedly hit and killed Deputy Brian Ishmael while a fifth shot severely wounded San Joaquin County deputy Josh Tasabia.
Mountain Democrat/Thomas Frey

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