Riverside County Senior Deputy District Attorney Marcus Garrett on Wednesday, Jan. 11, stood before the jurors hearing the trial of two women accused of killing and robbing an elderly woman at the Pechanga Resort Casino near Temecula in 2019.
Garrett clasped his left arm with his right hand to simulate Long Beach resident Afaf Assad carrying a large, pale pink Coach purse as she entered the casino that Aug. 31.
“On her other arm was her husband,” 93-year-old Youannes Assad, Garrett said in his opening statement in Superior Court at the Southwest Justice Center in French Valley.
The couple crossed paths with the defendants, Kimesha Monae Williams and Candace Tai Townsel, who were headed out the door.
“They did a complete 180,” Garrett said, spinning on his right heel, “and stared at an 84-year-old who they saw as a target.”
Garrett played a casino surveillance video that showed the women following Afaf Assad into the restroom at 7:28 a.m. Four minutes later, after the women left, custodian Carmen Guevara entered and found Assad on the floor. The purse was gone. Assad died on Sept. 4.
Jurors also viewed two photos of Assad. One showed her wearing a pink skirt and blue blouse and lying on her side after suffering a cracked skull. The second was a close-up of the left arm where several inches of skin were missing where the purse strap had, Garrett said, rubbed against her arm when the purse was taken.
Moreno Valley residents Williams, 38, and Townsel, 42, have pleaded not guilty to charges of murder, robbery and elder abuse. Williams is represented by Virginia Blumenthal, one of the leading criminal defense attorneys in the county, and a law partner Jeff Moore; Townsel’s attorney is Richard V. Swanson, who has represented numerous murder defendants.
Attorney Peter Ginsberg of the New York City law firm Sullivan & Worcester was originally hired by Williams’ family, and he tabbed Blumenthal’s law office to represent her. No one is saying who is paying for the high-priced defense, but Ginsberg represented Williams’ brother, Clippers basketball star and Riverside King High graduate Kawhi Leonard, in a copyright infringement lawsuit against Nike.
None of the defense attorneys made opening statements Wednesday, but they began laying the groundwork for a case that will attempt to poke holes in the largely circumstantial prosecution argument.
Their questions to witnesses focused on two areas: One, Assad’s health, particularly her steadiness on her feet, after she suffered neck injuries in a Mother’s Day traffic collision in 2019 and two years before that, a fall down the stairs at home. The other area, whether there was water on the tile floor of the bathroom that might have caused Assad to fall on her own and strike her head.
Townsel spent much of Wednesday’s hearing holding her right hand to her chin or taking notes. Williams also watched intently. Court records show both have a history of petty thefts that didn’t involve violence.
Mary Assad, the dead woman’s daughter, testified that her mother had a neck brace removed the previous week and rejected a suggestion from Blumenthal that her mother shuffled her feet. The video showed Assad’s parents entering the casino hand-in-hand and her mother taking short steps.
Assad said her mother’s purse was about 18 inches wide and 6 inches tall.
Blumenthal wrote in a March court filing that unsuccessfully sought to dismiss the case that the video showed Williams and Townsel leaving the casino without bulges under their shirts that would have been created had they attempted to hide such a large purse. The purse has never been recovered, Blumenthal said.
“There is no evidence a robbery occurred,” Bluthenthal wrote, “And if there was no robbery, there is no evidence that Afaf Assad was assaulted; hence, no evidence of a murder.”
Youanness Assad, now 96, also testified. He is hard of hearing, and attorneys had to stand close to him and almost shout their questions. Judge Timothy F. Freer waived court rules and allowed Assad to keep his hat on.
Assad insisted that his wife was healthy and in fact was caring for him, his daughter and her husband, and Assad’s granddaughter in their Long Beach home. He said his wife carried $400 for him and $500 for herself into the casino.
“She always brought more for her,” he said, eliciting a chuckle from some jurors.
Assad testified that he rode to the hospital in the ambulance with his wife of 45 years.
“I was praying to God to save her,” he said.