‘It was justifiable’: Attorney argues self-defense in West Valley park killing, but prosecutor argues murder

WEST VALLEY, Wash. —It happened the day after Thanksgiving; it was cold, foggy and at just after 6 p.m., the sun had gone down early and the sky had faded into darkness.

Five young men met up at West Valley Community Park; by the end of the night, one would be dead, one in jail and all of their lives would be irrevocably changed.

That’s the story agreed upon by both the prosecution and defense in the murder trial of Cameron Jay Helland, which began Thursday morning in Yakima County Superior Court.

In the lawyers’ opening statements, both sides said that on Nov. 23, 2018, Helland shot and killed 16-year-old Davontae Mesa, who was sitting in the backseat of Helland’s car.

While the two sides agree on what led up to the shooting and what happened after, they disagree on what happened inside the car and whether the shooting occurred in or out of the car.

But the biggest point of disagreement is what instigated the shooting. Helland’s attorney, Ulvar Klein, said Helland was “jumped” by Mesa and feared for his life when he shot him.

“What happened was horrible, but we need now a verdict that acknowledges that [Helland] did not commit a crime,” Klein said. “It was self-defense.”

Prosecutor Nick Barrett said that’s not the case. He said there was an argument, Helland reached for the gun and then fired at Mesa, continuing to fire at him and emptying the clip even after Mesa was on the ground.

“The evidence in this case is going to show five young men — none of them making any good decisions that night — drug activity, a gun and a dead 16-year-old, but it’s not going to show self-defense,” Barrett said.

In this case, the lawyers’ question to the jury is less about whether Helland shot Mesa and more about why he did, with the prosecution asking for a second-degree murder conviction and the defense asking for a not guilty verdict.

Before the shooting

Barrett began his opening statement by laying out what happened in the hours leading up to Mesa’s killing.

“The story of how we get to that moment is going to be the story of five teenagers: five teenagers and a lot of bad decisions,” Barrett said.

That series of bad decisions began with Mesa and three friends drinking beers at Cowiche Canyon, though they weren’t old enough to be drinking, Barrett said.

Barrett said they also had street drugs, little blue counterfeit Percocet pills that were laced with fentanyl, an extremely powerful opioid. He said they may have had marijuana.

One of the young men had borrowed his mom’s Toyota Highlander and drove the group around. They hung out in the Rosauers parking lot, at Walmart and at Taco Bell, Barrett said.

“They decided they wanted to get some more marijuana,” Barrett said.

Barrett said Mesa messaged one of his friends — Helland — on Snapchat to meet up so the group could purchase a small amount of marijuana from him.

Klein doesn’t dispute that Helland had marijuana: he said the group liked to hang out and get high together.

“These were all slackers: There’s no nice way of putting it,” Klein said. “These kids didn’t do well in school, they had no incentive or motive to get a job. They liked to sit around and get high.”

The group arrived first, parking the car in the back entrance to West Valley Community Park
— right next to West Valley Middle School — and waited for Helland to arrive, Barrett said.

About four months prior to the meeting between Helland and the group, 19-year-old Eduardo Rodriguez-Casteneda was shot to death inside a pickup truck that crashed into a sign at the middle school.

David Paul Ortega, Jr., then-17 years old, was arrested and charged with second-degree murder in connection with the shooting.

According to court documents, Ortega, Jr., “confessed to killing Rodriguez-Casteneda during a drug deal and claimed that Rodriguez-Casteneda had attempted to rob him.”

Klein said that previous murder was at the forefront of Helland’s mind that night when he drove to meet the group.

“[The young men] all knew this, that even a West Valley park can be dangerous as hell,” Klein said.

In the center console of Helland’s car was a 9mm semi-automatic handgun, with one bullet in the chamber and six more rounds in the magazine, Barrett said.

“The defendant brought a firearm: that’s a bad decision,” Barrett said.

Klein didn’t dispute that Helland had a gun, but said it was for protection.

“He’d gotten a gun from — of all people — his mother, several months before because Yakima, to [Helland], is just too damn scary,” Klein said.

Klein said Helland had previously shown the gun to Mesa and the other young men.

So when Helland pulled up in his white, four-door Pontiac sedan, they knew he was armed.

The shooting, according to the prosecution

The lawyers’ agreement about the events in the evening of Nov. 23, 2018 stops when Helland arrives at the park.

Barrett said one of the young men got out first and sat in the passenger seat of Helland’s car, with Mesa soon following to get in the backseat, directly behind Helland.

“Something started happening in the defendant’s car,” Barrett said.

Barrett said the young man in the driver’s seat of the Toyota Highlander looked over and saw Helland reaching back toward the center console and Mesa reaching forward.

“These young men had been having what they call ‘beef,’ teenage drama,” Barrett said. “They had history together as social friends, but they were upset and started arguing about something.”

Barrett said Helland reached for the gun, fired a shot over his head and hit Mesa; the bullet passed through his shoulder into the back of the car.

With the fentanyl from the laced pills in his system slowing him down, Mesa stumbled out of the car and fell down, where Helland proceeded to open his door, get out of the car and empty the magazine into his body at close range, “as close as you can get,” Barrett said.

An autopsy found four bullets still in his body, most of them having entered through his lower back, Barrett said. He said while seven shots were fired at Mesa, he ended up with eight gunshot wounds, with one bullet causing two of them.

The shooting, according to the defense

Klein told another story about what transpired inside the car, beginning with who got into Helland’s car first.

“What happened inside the car is where all the differences are,” Klein said.

Klein said Mesa was the one who entered first, getting in the backseat and talking to Helland for a time before the other young man got into the passenger seat.

Additionally, Klein said the young man in the passenger seat took Helland’s phone when he got in the car so Helland wouldn’t be able to call for help.

“They took his phone before they were going to jump him,” Klein said. “He wasn’t supposed to fight back, but he did.”

Soon after the young man joined them in the car, Klein said Mesa began to assault Helland.

“Then [Mesa] attacks, over the back seat, so violently that [the driver in the other car] can see the car moving,” Klein said.

Klein said Helland was stuck and pinned to his seat, with Mesa coming over him, reaching around his chest, head and neck, “smothering him, overwhelming him.”

“So now he’s alone, outnumbered four-to-one in the park and they’re attacking him,” Klein said.

Klein said Helland was trying to get out, to open his door and that he held off for as long as he could before he got his gun loose, turned, held the firearm next to his right ear and fired.

”At this point, [Mesa] is the one trying to get away but the shots have started and they don’t stop until the clip is empty,” Klein said

Klein said the entire shooting happened inside the car, arguing against the prosecutor’s statement that the bulk of the shooting happened outside.

“This was not a situation where he got out of the car and fired in a deliberate manner,” Klein said. “This was self-defense. This was justifiable.”

After the shooting

When all the shots were fired and Mesa and the other young man were no longer in Helland’s car, he fled the scene.

“He wanted to get away and he got away,” Klein said. “As soon as he saw [Mesa] was out of the car, he was gone.”

Barrett said that left the three young men at the park.

“They didn’t start making good decisions at that point,” Barrett said. “They didn’t do the right thing; they did the wrong thing.”

Barrett said the three remaining young men tried to hide the beer before calling 911. They initially told the dispatcher that someone had been shot, but didn’t disclose that they’d been witness to what happened.

“These were all bad decisions and that’s what this case is going to be about,” Barrett said.

Yakima police Officer Mario Vela was patrolling that night. Parked at a church several blocks away, his window cracked about an inch, Vela heard what sounded like a semi-truck driving over metal plates on the road.

Within minutes, he responded to reports of a gunshot victim at the park. Arriving on scene, his dashcam was pointed at three young men standing over a body.

“They weren’t doing chest compressions, they weren’t checking for a pulse, they were just standing there,” Barrett said. “They weren’t even standing up very well; they looked like you could push them over with a feather.”

Dashcam video shows Vela asking the young men if they had any weapons and who shot the boy: one of them said it was Helland.

Vela started chest compressions, asking one of the young men to hold a flashlight for him.

At that point, Klein said the young man who’d taken Helland’s phone went to put it on the ground, but one of the other young men told him not to.

Another officer arrived and took over CPR, while Vela went to deal with the three young men. They were placed in the back of a patrol car and told not to talk to each other.

“They weren’t supposed to compare stories or anything like that,” Klein said. “The minute the officer steps out of the car, they start showing each other phones and they’re conspiring.”

Barrett said that was yet another bad decision on the list of all the bad decisions the young men made that night.

Klein said the three young men agreed in that car that they weren’t going to talk about “jumping” Helland or that one of them was in the Pontiac during the shooting: just that it was Helland’s fault.

When a Yakima County sheriff’s deputy got in the car and started to pull away, one of the young men pointed out Helland, who was walking toward another deputy at the scene, Barrett said.

Klein said Helland came back as quickly as he could, to turn himself in. When he left, Klein said he was driving recklessly, all over the road, trying to get away.

“He went home to say goodbye to his mother,” Klein said.

After that, Klein said Helland got back into the car, which was running on fumes, and went to a nearby gas station.

“[Helland’s] so out of it, he can’t fill his tank,” Klein said. “This is not drugs. He wasn’t high, he hadn’t been doing pills: he’d just been jumped.”

Klein said Helland gave up, left the hose on the ground, flagged down a stranger and asked for a ride back to the park.

Helland went up to the first police officer he saw — a Yakima County sheriff’s deputy — and told him he was the shooter and that he’d just wanted to get away, Klein said.

“Even when they took [Helland] to the station, he’s drinking glass after glass after glass of water to try to deal with the shock that’s setting in,” Klein said.

Back at the station, the three young men were also interviewed; both lawyers said the one who’d been in the Pontiac during the shooting initially failed to mention he was there.

The young man who’d been driving the group around earlier eventually told a detective that the other young man was actually inside Helland’s car during the shooting.

Klein said while Helland came back to the scene and explained what happened to police, the others did not.

“While he’s being candid with the officers, [the other young men] had just begun to tell false statement after false statement after false statement,” Klein said.

Klein said Helland will take the stand near the end of the trial to tell his version of what transpired that night.

“He was outnumbered, it was dark, he was alone and he wanted to live,” Klein said. “Tragically, it cost the life of a friend of his, but he was so afraid, that is what he did.”

As the trial continues Friday and into next week, each side will present evidence and call witnesses.

Both attorneys will have the opportunity to cross-examine those witnesses, each making arguments as to what Helland did that night.

At the end, it will be up to the jury to weigh the evidence presented, determine the truth and decide if Helland will be found guilty of murder and sent to prison or if he’ll be found not guilty and sent home.

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