An Absolute Maybe

There's little doubt that Johnnie Bernal was not a really good guy. The question remains, though, how bad was he?

The summer of 1994, Bernal says, his stepfather kicked him out of the house. Bernal spent three months sleeping on friends' couches until his mother talked his stepfather into letting Bernal come home for his 18th birthday, the day after Dilley's death.

On Friday, August 18, Bernal spent the evening cruising and looking for girls with four friends: Pedro Sanchez, 20, Ronald Rozelle, 17, Juan Reynoso, 14, and Eric Schaefer, 18. "We were finding trouble, and getting thrills," Bernal says. Sanchez drove, Bernal sat in the front passenger seat, and the three others sat in the back seat. They went to Wal-Mart and bought a can of gold spray paint and a 12-ounce can of Coke. They poured out the Coke, sprayed the paint into the can and got stoned inhaling the fumes.

Bernal says when they pulled up at Nick's Drive Inn, they were just planning to mess with the people standing outside. Bernal says Reynoso, whose nickname is Little Gangster, was sitting in the seat directly behind him. He says Reynoso bent forward, stretched over the backseat, leaned out the window and pointed the gun at the group.

Prosecutor Sutton says Bernal was a vicious, violent guy.
Prosecutor Sutton says Bernal was a vicious, violent guy.

He says Reynoso started screaming at the people to hand over their money and demanded that the woman give him her gold chain. "Me, I'm just trying to stay out of the way," Bernal says. "The last thing I expected him to do was start shooting."

But then Debra Nicholson started running, and Reynoso opened fire, Bernal says. He says he ducked down in the seat to keep from being hit himself. "He shot the gun right by my face," Bernal says. After four shots were fired, Bernal says, Sanchez hit the gas and the boys sped off. Bernal says he cussed out Reynoso for almost killing him. Then the gang members went to the bayou and walked down a trail into the woods.

Bernal says he and Sanchez decided to scare Reynoso, as punishment for what he had done. Bernal took the .357 magnum from Reynoso and said that the Midnight Colors, a gang Reynoso was afraid of, was nearby. Reynoso ran.

Bernal says he took the gun home because he lived closer to Reynoso than Sanchez did. He says he called and paged Reynoso several times and left messages for him to come get his gun. But Reynoso never called him back.

He had fled to Mexico.

Sitting behind a glass wall during death row's weekly Wednesday media day, Bernal insists that the gun wasn't his. He says Rozelle, one of the guys in the backseat, had stolen it. (The gun was reported stolen two weeks before the murder, Elliott says.) After receiving the anonymous tip, the police first contacted Rozelle, a tenth-grade Westfield High dropout who had previously been arrested for both burglary and evading arrest. Rozelle told Detective Elliott that Bernal was the shooter.

The bullets, according to police reports, were supplied by Schaefer, who invoked his Fifth Amendment rights when the state refused to grant him immunity. Rosenberg says in his writ that the state had an interest in suppressing Schaefer's testimony because Schaefer reportedly recanted his statement to police that Bernal was the shooter, and told Bernal's parents that Reynoso had been the gunman. The state maintains that Schaefer's attorney said it was in the defense's best interest that Schaefer not testify.

Bernal says that Reynoso, who was on probation for weapons possession and evading arrest, fired the gun. According to Rosenberg's writ, Reynoso admitted owning both a .25-caliber handgun and a .38, and at the time of the trial was in boot camp for violating his probation with the possession of a nine-millimeter semiautomatic pistol.

Bernal says the group framed him because they didn't know him that well -- he was the new guy, whereas they had all grown up together.

"That's his story," says HPD Officer Elliott, with clear disbelief and disgust.

Bernal says that Reynoso was seated directly behind him, but Elliott says that Reynoso was sitting on the opposite side of the car behind the driver's seat. The detective says it's improbable that Reynoso, who was only about five foot six, was able to stretch himself across two guys in the backseat and then hang out the front passenger-side window.

Reynoso testified that after the murder, Sanchez and Bernal said they didn't want any witnesses. Reynoso said he was afraid they were going to shoot him to keep him quiet, so he ran out of the woods straight to a sheriff's deputy working at the Chevron station at Imperial Valley and FM 1960. He told the officer that someone was trying to kill him and he needed a ride home. The officer gave him a quarter and told him to call a cab.

"You don't go to a cop with your shirt off if you've got a gun on," Elliott says. "You're not gonna go up to a cop with a pistol stuck in your pants."

And Reynoso was back in Houston by the beginning of September, Elliott says. He says he can't remember if Reynoso returned of his own volition or because the police told him to. Reynoso could not be reached for comment by the Press.

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