“I could feel his evil spirit as soon as I walked into the room with him,” Detective Moses Costillo tells me in the hallway outside of Department 113 of the Criminal Courts Building. “I met the devil.”
It was Halloween night, 2016, and Officer Dimitrius Connor had a bowl of candy at the LAPD Rampart Station front desk, expecting trick-or-treaters. But he wasn’t prepared for the horror that came through the door that night.
Connor could see him through the station house window, pacing the sidewalk outside. He was Latino. His hair was long. He wore all black. And he held a Nike shoebox in his hands. Connor noted the man’s behavior was “untypical,” unsure if the all-black outfit was costume or fashion.
After about 10 minutes, the man in black entered the station house and took a seat on a bench in the lobby, placing the shoebox by his feet. The man in black stared at the box, focused on it as if he were Pandora, contemplating the release of all the world’s evils.
Working alone that night, Connor remained behind his desk, dealing with John and Jane Q. Public, intermittently looking back at the man. Each time he did, he noticed that the man’s gaze remained locked on the shoebox.
When the man in black finally approached the front desk, Connor was busy on the phone, speaking with a translator who was assisting with a Spanish-speaking woman.
The man in black politely waited for him to finish with the woman. He had left the shoebox on the floor behind him. Connor hadn’t seen that he had removed two items, nor could he see the man’s hands.
The Spanish-speaking woman left, but Connor kept the translator on the line.
“Can I help you?” he asked the man in black.
He responded in Spanish, so Connor handed him the phone.
Recounting this on the witness stand in Department 113, Connor said he understands some Spanish, but not enough to pick up anything from the man’s low speaking voice.
He recalled that the man seemed cool and collected, speaking to the translator with the tranquility one orders a pizza. After a few minutes, Connor testified, he handed the phone back to Connor.
On the other end of the line, the translator asked Connor, “Is the man in front of you wearing a black bandana?”
The translator paused.
“The man in front of you just killed a three-year-old girl.”
As Connor reached for his pistol, the man placed two items, wrapped in separate plastic bags, down on the desk and peacefully stepped back.
A handgun and a folding knife, the latter being the murder weapon.
The Homicide division was immediately called in.
The “devil” that Detective Costillo questioned that night is Ricardo Utuy. Costillo presents a compelling set of facts to support that description.
That Halloween afternoon, Utuy was at work at a sewing shop in the Garment District when he repeatedly stabbed three-year old Ruby Vasquez, the daughter of two of his co-workers, puncturing three different vital organs and killing the girl in her mother’s arms.
As Deputy District Attorney Kathy Ta puts it, “This isn’t a whodunit.” Utuy turned himself in only a few hours after the murder, bringing the murder weapon with him to the police station.
“I knew it wasn’t good, what I’d done,” Utuy would later testify, his admission translated from Spanish to the court. But at arraignment, Utuy pleaded not guilty.
Even though he admits to murdering Vasquez, Utuy argues that he should not be held accountable because it was “the voices” in his head that told him to do so, voices that threatened to harm his own family if he did not kill Vasquez. At the time of Vasquez’s death, Utuy’s youngest daughter was also three.
Utuys’s attorney, Deputy Public Defender Jac’queline Baskerville, expands on this narrative by arguing that Utuy’s heavy use of crystal meth caused him to fall into methamphetamine psychosis. At points her defense feels like a PSA, warning of the dangers of meth use, saying Utuy’s “brain was hijacked by the drug.”
Baskerville’s argument relies heavily on Utuy’s testimony. For the better part of a day she has him take the stand and share his life story, a ballad of addiction and hysteria. Utuy is quiet and sober, neither the devil nor the raving lunatic one might imagine responsible for this crime. He leans back in his chair in the same wrinkled blue shirt he’s had on all trial, no handcuffs in sight, speaking serenely, pausing every few moments so his translator can keep up with his tales of crystal meth use. He abused the drug for 14 years; his addiction grew so strong that he was ingesting meth every waking hour of every day for over two years.
With haunting coherence, he talks about the voices that told him to “kill, kill, kill.” The voices he describes are both auditory and visual hallucinations. He tells of imagining a person pointing a gun to his head. Another incident, Utuy was walking on train tracks, and “the voices were telling me not to move away. But I could see the train, but they kept telling me there was nothing coming, nothing.” Police found him lying on the tracks and, believing he was attempting to commit suicide, brought him to the hospital.
When questioned about Vasquez’s murder, he tells how Javier Vasquez, Ruby’s father, “offered” his child to Utuy.
“He showed me a Ouija board…. he didn’t show me, he said the word ‘Ouija’ and said ‘I give you my daughter. That is the sacrifice so you can play.’”
Baskerville shudders. “Does that make sense to you?”
“At that moment, yes.”
I find myself believing Utuy. Needing to believe Utuy. Only insanity could explain this horror.
But in the state of California, according to the jury instruction handbook, “the addiction to or abuse of drugs or intoxicants, by itself, does not qualify as legal insanity.” Such is the case even if drug use causes “brain damage or a settled mental disease or defect that lasts after the immediate effects.” In other words, since Utuy was voluntarily inebriated, he cannot claim insanity due to drug use. Furthermore, by turning himself in, Utuy admitted knowing right from wrong, again hindering an insanity plea.
With an insanity defense off the table, Baskerville is left with no choice but to push the meth psychosis narrative, implying that Utuy should be tried for involuntary manslaughter rather than murder since he was too high to know what was happening. But she never proves his meth use beyond a reasonable doubt, and the prosecution is able to point out holes in the story.
Utuy undoubtedly had meth in his urine at the time of arrest, but Ta is eager to note Utuy’s ability to bike to work the day of the murder, and the fact that he was diligently working up until the crime, implying perhaps he got high after the crime but before turning himself in.
Baskerville’s only expert witness, Dr. Ettie Rosenberg, describes the effects of meth psychosis, confirming that his hallucinations could, indeed, be brought on by heavy use of crystal meth. But Rosenberg never diagnosed Utuy personally.
Even Utuy’s voices are inconsistent. During Ta’s cross examination, Utuy doesn’t mention anything about a Ouija board, instead saying the voices were mocking his masculinity, that he killed Vasquez to prove to them he wasn’t “weak” or “gay.” Ta even coaxes Utuy into admitting premeditation, having purchased the knife two days before with the intent to kill Vasquez.
From her opening statement on, the DA treats the case like it is open-and-shut, promising the jury it will only take a few days. At points her confidence borders on smugness. Judge Eleanor Hunter even has to remind her to stand while she is questioning a witness.
The defense, on the other hand, struggles to make the best of a losing hand. In closing statements, Baskerville ambitiously suggests that the jury return a verdict of involuntary manslaughter, only to be reprimanded by Hunter. “Counsel, that’s an improper argument.” The jury has only three options: not guilty, or first- or second-degree murder.
On Friday morning, as the jury deliberates, Costillo assures me it won’t take them long to return a first-degree verdict. He is understandably relieved to have the case behind him, relating Utuy to other “devils,” criminals of nightmarish cases from his past. I ask him what he thinks of Utuy’s alleged voices, and he tells me that Utuy’s testimony in trial is consistent with what he said the night he turned himself in. But he’s careful never to imply that Utuy is crazy, instead sticking with his description of “evil.”
Although Costillo is right about the jury’s eventual verdict, he is wrong about the time frame. The deliberations drag over the long Labor Day weekend. I can only assume that the lengthy deliberation was a result of the jurors trying to reconcile Utuy’s personal legal responsibility with actions that were so unquestionably insane.