Flipped witness implicates Sosa murder defendants

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Emry Dinman/Columbia Basin Herald Julio Ceasar Albarran Varona, pictured left, stands next to his court-appointed interpreter during his testimony Tuesday.

EPHRATA — Yawning frequently, Julio Ceasar Albarran Varona testified in Grant County Superior Court Tuesday that he, along with that case’s two co-defendants, participated in the kidnapping and murder of 28-year-old Arturo Sosa in late 2016.

As the state’s key witness, his testimony mirrored the prosecution’s allegations: that he and Gustavo Tapia Rodriguez carjacked Sosa and his roommate as they were driving to work, and after a brief struggle, both kidnapped men were shot.

Albarran Varona testified that he had shot Jose Rafael Cano Barrientos, Sosa’s friend and roommate, in the chest during that struggle, and that Tapia Rodriguez had shot Sosa to death. Cano Barrientos survived that ordeal after being airlifted to a hospital and appeared in court to testify Monday.

Though he testified that he had participated in Sosa’s murder, Albarran Varona was not on trial with co-defendants Tapia Rodriguez and Fernando Marcos Gutierrez, due to a plea agreement with the state.

In exchange for a drastically reduced prison sentence — 18 years as opposed to the possibility of life in prison — Albarran Varona agreed to testify against his former friends for the murder of both Sosa and Quincy mother Jill Sundberg, who was also killed in late 2016.

Defense counsel questioned the credibility of Albarran Varona’s testimony, however, implying that he had only chosen to pin the murders on Tapia Rodriguez and Gutierrez in order to save himself. Albarran Varona had originally lied to police about his involvement in those cases, defense counsel stated, including denying that he had taken part in Sundberg’s murder.

Robert Kentner, defense attorney for Tapia Rodriguez, asked Albarran Varona whether he had offered any details of Sosa’s murder to police before he was offered a plea deal.

“No,” Albarran Varona replied.

Defense counsel pointed to numerous details from Albarran Varona’s testimony that had appeared to shift over the last two years, including who all was present during the murder and what time of the morning it had occurred, though the witness denied that his story had changed.

Kentner detailed the numerous charges, some relevant to the murders and some not, that Albarran Varona would escape justice for through the plea agreement. If found guilty for some of those charges, among them first-degree murder, Albarran Varona said he would have faced a sentence of at least 40 years behind bars.

Kentner then asked Albarran Varona whether he’d like him to be out of prison.

“You don’t like prison food, do you?” Kentner asked.

“I don’t like the food here,” Albarran Varona said, talking about the food at the county jail.

“What about in prison?” Kentner asked.

“It’s better,” Albarran Varona quipped. “The food is worse here.”

“Well there’s not much I can do about that,” Kentner said wryly. “You want to see your family again?”

“God willing, yes,” Albarran Varona said.

Defense attorney Michael Morgan, representing Gutierrez, noted that Albarran Varona had previously said to police, “I thank God that the guy I shot didn’t die.”

“But when he laid there, bleeding out, did you seek medical help for Jose?” Morgan asked.

“No,” Albarran Varona replied.

Emry Dinman can be reached via email at edinman@columbiabasinherald.com.

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