Vasquez trial focuses on tablet, translations

BROWN COUNTY — Testimony at the Miguel Vasquez murder trial in Thursday focused on a tablet belonging to the defendant.

The electronic tablet turned over to law enforcement contained two recent YouTube searches, “how hard is the human head” and “how to sharpen a machete.”

Vasquez is accused of the first-degree murder and dismemberment of Amber Lechuga and burning her remains in a vehicle fire 3 miles south of Sleepy Eye on Sept. 25, 2014.

The searches, found on a tablet owned by Vasquez, suggest premeditation.

The defense has argued the tablet and the searches were first discovered by the Lechuga family and not recognized by members of the law enforcement.

Brown County Investigator Eric Schwarzrock testified about his involvement with the search of Vasquez’ apartment.

The search found a pack of Bic lighters similar to one found at the scene of the van fire and the same type of trash bags as the bags that contained Lechuga’s remains.

In addition, a .22 caliber Marlin long rifle, a .22 Mossberg rifle, .22 caliber ammunition, knives and a machete were recovered from the defendant’s home on Sept. 26.

On cross examination, Public Defender Steve Bergeson questioned if the apartment search was detailed.

Bergeson noted that a blood-stained shirt and the tablet were found by Lechuga’s family over a week after the first search by the BCA and investigators. He then asked if cell phones, computers and social media accounts are generally recovered in these investigations.

“If you would have seen that tablet, that would be needed?” Bergeson asked.

Schwarzrock agreed the tablet would have been taken as evidence if found during law enforcement searches.

Prosecutor William Klumpp redirected by asking Schwarzrock to describe the state of the apartment. Schwarzrock described the apartment as cluttered. Evidence photos show piles of cloths scattered around the room in which the Lechuga family said the tablet was found.

The prosecution clarified that during these searches, the investigators were not specifically looking for an electronic tablet. The focus of the search was the .22 caliber rifles and knives recovered at the scene.

Shawn Hughes, the digital forensic specialist for the case, examined the tablet for evidence. He testified the last two searches on the recovered tablet were “how hard is the human head?” and “how to sharpen a machete?” Hughes could not confirm who made the searches or when the searches took place. On cross examination he said it was possible other searches were deleted.

The most controversial witness appeared to be Brown County Jail Administrator Capt. Mike Mathiowetz. Phone calls from inmates at the Brown County Jail are recorded by law enforcement. Mathiowetz’ testimony was used to introduce a phone call made on Oct. 28, 2014, by Vasquez while in jail. It was presumed Vasquez was speaking with his mother and sister Janet.

At the end of the 15-minute conversation Vasquez asked, “did you ever get my tablet?” and later said “I wish you had that tablet.”

The State entered this audio into the record because it suggests Vasquez was aware of the search history on the tablet.

Public Defender Gregory Handevidt objected twice to the inclusion of the audio tape. Handevidt said the majority of the conversation leading up to the questions about the tablet was conducted in Spanish. The transcript for the recording did not provide a translation for the Spanish sections.

Judge Robert Docherty overruled the objection and allowed the recording to play in full.

Handevidt renewed his objection after the audio was completed. He argued that without a translation for the Spanish portion of the conversation, the context was lost. Handevidt said they could be talking about the tablet in Spanish.

Prosecutor William Klumpp said Vasquez speaks Spanish and this audio could have been disclosed to him by his defense team for translation earlier. The recording was made over two years ago.

Handevidt argued the State should have transcribed the Spanish before introducing it as evidence.

Judge Docherty chose to allow the audio into evidence as the English portion of the conversation included discussion on multiple topics and a translation of the Spanish would not necessarily have given any further context.

Despite the Defense and Prosecution’s inability to translate Spanish, members of Amber Lechuga’s family observing in the audience did understand. Amber Lechuga’s father, Adolfo Lechuga, gave a general translation to the press afterwards.

Adolfo confirmed the two women speaking in the audio were Vasquez’ mother and sister, as he knew both women. Adolfo said the Spanish portion of the conversation was not related to the tablet. According to Adolfo, Vasquez’ mother was asking her son to be honest and tell the truth. Later Vasquez asked about his kids. His mom advised him to make sure he was eating. Vasquez has noticeably lost weight since the start of the trial.

The court heard other testimony from members of the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA). Mckenzie Anderson, a forensic scientist, performed DNA testing on evidence from the apartment. Blood was found on the .22 caliber Marlin long rifle. Blood was detected on the barrel, inside the barrel and on the rifle sight.

The blood was a match for Lechuga’s DNA. A blood match for Lechuga was found on a mattress in the apartment and a nearby tote. A shirt recovered by the Lechuga family from the apartment contained Amber’s blood as well.

Vasquez’ DNA was found on the rifle trigger and handle of the machete.

Firearm investigator Kurt Molin testified the bullet fragments found in Lechuga’s remains could not be confirmed to have been fired from the .22 caliber Marlin. Molin said the design of the rifle barrel and the bullet erased any features. Even after test-firing two bullets from the weapon, neither bullet could be matched back to the firearm. The bullet fragments recovered from Lechuga did contain brass plating which was similar to the ammunition found in Vasquez’s apartment.

The State argued in the opening statement Vasquez likely used the Marlin rifle, as it was not immediately traced back to him, suggesting premeditation.

The trial will resume 8:30 a.m. Monday, Feb. 27. The State and Defense have agreed to conduct the trial out of order to accommodate witnesses. The mental illness phase of the trial will start. Brown County Attorney Chuck Hanson said multiple doctors will testify on Vasquez’ mental state. In addition there will be testimony from the medical doctor on Vasquez’ burns.

In a typical trial the mental health phase would begin after the jury delivered a guilty verdict, but since this is a bench trial, the mental health witnesses are able to testify before the first phase of the trial is complete. Judge Docherty will be making the final decision in the trial.