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Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on December 6th, 2013, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 13, Issue 8 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 13, Issue 8

The life and death of Jerry Berns

A lack of information from local law enforcement about how a man died has his family on a mission for the truth

BY AMY ASMAN

On the evening of March 9, 2011, shots rang out in the alleyway behind Reyes Blacksmithing on North Blosser Road in Santa Maria.

Ultimately, one man was declared dead at the scene and another was transported to Marian Medical Center, reportedly suffering from a gunshot wound to the chest.


LOOKING FOR ANSWERS:
Rod and his mother Jean want more details about how Jerry died. They’ve been frustrated greatly by their interactions with law enforcement.
PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER

Two days later, on March 11, the Santa Maria Police Department issued a press release “regarding the homicide that occurred on 3-9-2011.”

“The decedent in this case has been identified as Santa Maria resident Jerry Berns, age 48,” the press release said. “During the course of our initial investigation, it was learned that decedent Jerry Berns went to a Blacksmith business located off of an alley way in the 200 block of N. Blosser. Once at the business, Berns engaged in a dispute with a subject identified as David Jones.

“Berns, who was suspected of being armed with a handgun, began to chase Jones toward the business’ entrance. As Jones fled from Berns, a subject identified as Manuel Reyes ... armed himself with a handgun. As Reyes and Berns encountered one another, they exchanged gunfire,” the release continued. “As a result of the exchange, Reyes was shot one time. Berns was also shot and died at the scene from his wounds. Reyes was transported to the Marian Medical Center, where he was treated for his non-life threatening injuries and later released. Initially, Reyes and Jones were arrested, but later released pending further investigation into the events that led up to the shooting.”

As part of the investigation, police served search warrants at the homes of all three men, Reyes Blacksmithing, Jerry’s auto body shop, and the home of Jerry’s mother, Jean.

At Reyes’ home, police found a large number of marijuana plants and items commonly used to cultivate the plant, according to the press release. Both Reyes and Jones were arrested on suspicion of crimes involving the cultivation and sale of marijuana and were booked into the county jail. In addition to the cultivation and sales charges, Reyes was booked for child endangerment charges because the marijuana found in his home was accessible to children. 

“Thus far, investigators have learned that Jones and Berns have been involved in a long standing dispute over a failed automotive repair business adventure [sic],” the release continued. “Evidence at this point suggests that this incident was a result of the dispute as well as a possible nexus to the cultivation and sales of marijuana.” 

The press release offers a small glimpse into the circumstances surrounding Jerry’s death—and it’s the only official documentation the Sun could get after filing numerous public records requests for the police report and video surveillance taken by cameras at Reyes Blacksmithing the night Jerry died.

Today, more than a year after Jerry’s death, the case remains open, according to officials at the police department and the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department.

On April 30, Jones and Reyes pleaded no contest to possession of marijuana. Jones received credits for three days spent in jail. Reyes got three years probation and must pay approximately $200 in court fines. When asked to comment about Jerry’s death, Jones told the Sun he had no comment. Reyes said, “Talk to the police. It’s all on record as self-defense.”

This wasn’t their first time in court; both men have several misdemeanors on their records, and Jones had a felony concealed weapons charge that was dropped two months before Jerry died.

According to court transcripts, Joe Lopez, a member of the SMPD’s narcotics suppression team, testified to finding more than 400 marijuana plants in the blacksmithing warehouse on March 9, 2011. Police also found approximately $12,000 in cash, heat lamps, a water pump, and an irrigation system.

“It was quite a sophisticated grow that was within that area,” Lopez said in the transcript.

Jones told investigators the marijuana was for personal use and for a collective in Santa Barbara.

The District Attorney’s Office declined to file murder charges against Reyes because law enforcement determined he shot Jerry in self-defense while Jerry was attempting to rob the marijuana grow.

But this conclusion doesn’t sit well with Jerry’s family—especially his brother, Rod.

One man’s investigation

Rod approached the Sun because he feels the police aren’t investigating his brother’s death to the fullest extent possible. He asked the police and the District Attorney’s Office numerous times for a copy of the police report—even if it’s redacted—and the video surveillance, as well as his brother’s personal effects, including his laptop. All of those requests have been denied.

Rod said this is the scenario given to him by the cops and the DA’s Office: Jerry went to the marijuana grow that night to rob it. He brought with him two friends, but didn’t tell them what he was doing. Jerry and his friends parked their car several hundred yards away from the blacksmith shop. Jerry got out of the car, walked down the alleyway alone, and hid behind a Dumpster, where he waited for several minutes.

After this, things get a little fuzzy. According to Rod, police said Jerry ran toward the back door of the shop carrying a small gun wrapped in a cloth. He burst through the door and started chasing Jones around the warehouse. Reyes, Jones’ brother-in-law, came across the scene and shot Jerry numerous times. Then the two of them dragged Jerry’s body out into the alleyway, just as police arrived.

Rod doesn’t buy this account of what happened. He doesn’t believe his brother would rob someone, let alone try to shoot him. While Jerry had several run-ins with the cops in his lifetime—including felony charges for vehicular manslaughter and drug possession—Rod said, “Jerry never had a violent past.”

He thinks the official account of the night doesn’t add up, that something odd happened.

“I’ve told the cops several times, ‘If you have a video of my brother chasing somebody with a gun and shooting at them, just let me see it and I’ll never bother you again,’” he said.


THE SCENE:
Rod Berns took these pictures of the alleyway behind Reyes Blacksmithing shortly after his brother Jerry died. Rod said police told him Jerry was shot in the warehouse, but based on Rod’s own investigation, he believes the blood pattern never crossed the threshold of the back door.
PHOTO COURTESY OF ROD BERNS

“But they won’t budge, they won’t give me anything; the police department points the finger at the DA, and the DA points it back at the police department. So they put me on the merry-go-round and so I’m going back and forth, and I’m tired, you know what I mean?” he said.

“ He feels police have unjustly labeled Jerry as a criminal because of his past.

How it all began

To understand Jerry’s case better, one must first understand the man himself.

Jerry and his brothers were born in Santa Maria to Jean and Jerry Sr., who owned an upholstery shop in town. The family moved to San Jose for several years, but not long after that, Jean and Jerry Sr. got divorced. She and the boys moved in with her parents in Santa Maria.

“My brother, growing up, he was the type of kid who was always working on something—bicycles or mini bikes,” Rod recalled. “He always had to have the best. His [bike] always had to be the nicest with the chrome and the spit shine.”

Jean eventually got remarried to a local mechanic, who took Jerry under his wing and taught him how to work on motors.

“Jerry started working at a body shop when he was 15 years old, and his career just went on from there. He was one of the best around,” Rod said.

“The big thing back then, when we were in high school, was ... cruising and racing,” he recalled. “I had a Pontiac ’66 GTO, it was pretty fast, but I didn’t know how to drive it. I would go downtown, and when somebody wanted to race me, I would have to find my brother because he was my driver.”

Through his work at the body shop, Jerry met some other guys his age and started hanging out with them.

“They would do things that weren’t good, so he got a reputation—petty thief, stealing stereos and stuff like that,” Rod said.

Jerry’s criminal history got serious in his early 20s, when he was tried and convicted for vehicular manslaughter. A car Jerry was driving while under the influence flipped off the road and his passenger, an ex-girlfriend who was allegedly drunk as well, was ejected out of the front window. She later succumbed to her injuries.

Jerry served two years.

“He went to prison, and I didn’t see him for a long time,” recalled Leo Rubio, owner of Leo’s Upholstery and a friend of the Berns family. “He’d been out of prison for about a year, and then he came by and we started talking.”

Leo cleared out some space in his shop for Jerry to do auto body work. His first job was fixing the top seal on a Cadillac convertible.

“One day, his dad comes over and says, ‘I hear Jerry’s working for you.’ And then he says, ‘Thank you. I won’t put up with him, but thank God you will,” Leo said.

After Jerry got settled in his business, he met a woman and they had a daughter together. Things seemed to be getting back on track, for the most part.

Leo said Jerry was one of the hardest workers he’s ever had and a whiz when it came to working on cars. But he had his fare share of trouble with Jerry, too.

“There’d be too many guys hanging out around the shop, and I told him, ‘Look at these guys, they don’t even have jobs,’” Leo said.


In memoriam
There will be a memorial barbecue held for Jerry Berns on May 6 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Joey’s Custom Wheel and Tire, 807 W. Main St., in Santa Maria.

It was an ominous sign.

In the early ’90s, police picked Jerry up for prowling and drug possession. Officers found him high on meth and rummaging through a Dumpster on private property. (Rod said Jerry was looking for a PVC pipe to fix the plumbing in their mom’s house.) In Jerry’s pocket, they found several ounces of meth and marijuana. The prowling charge was dropped, but not the drug charges. Jerry served time in county jail.

Despite his troubles with the law, Jerry’s auto body career continued to flourish.

He started working on cars for a local businessman, Jesse Manriquez. The two men forged a friendship that would last until Jerry’s death. Steady employment from Jesse helped Jerry launch his own auto body shop, West Coast Collisions.

Jerry’s work received high praise throughout the classic car community, showing up at events and in numerous high-profile magazines. He traveled each month to the Pomona Swap Meet and Classic Car Show to buy and sell auto parts.

Around this time David Jones came into Jerry’s life. The men owned shops in the same industrial park and became friends. But they had a falling out while working together on an old VW Bug.

In January 2008, someone robbed Jerry’s shop on East Donovan Road while he was in Pomona. The thief took $13,000 in cash and some car parts.

A friend told Jerry he saw David Jones’ car parked at the shop the day of the robbery. Jerry took the information to the police department, but the incident went unsolved. The robbery—and Jerry’s belief that Jones did it—sparked what would become a highly antagonistic relationship between the two men.

Chop shop or drug raid?

On Feb 23, 2009, a taskforce of law enforcement officials raided Jerry’s shop on East Donovan Road, looking for stolen car parts. While searching the facility, they found a shoebox filled with marijuana and money, but no stolen car parts. Officers charged Jerry—who claimed it was medical marijuana—with possession with intent to sell. The Sun found a copy of Jerry’s medical marijuana license in some of his old files. Rod said Jerry suffered from back pain stemming from the car crash when he was in his 20s.

Transcripts of court proceedings revealed law enforcement received an anonymous tip that Jerry was running a “chop shop” out of his business. Members of the Santa Maria Police Department also believed him to be a drug dealer.

After the initial raid, members of the California Highway Patrol, the San Luis Obispo Sheriff’s Department, and the Santa Maria Police Department filed search warrants on Jerry’s business and his mother’s house, where he was living. They seized the marijuana and items relevant to Jerry’s business, including paperwork and his cell phone.

In court, first Jerry and then his public defender, Lori Pedego, argued the officers didn’t have probable cause to search his business and home. They said the taskforce set up the raid with the sole purpose of finding marijuana.

A Santa Barbara County Superior Court judge eventually agreed the raid was pretextual because the officers admitted on the stand that they communicated via phone before it occurred. They also met at the CHP office and rode to Jerry’s shop together the day of the raid.

“The officers proceeded without a search warrant and with no just cause,” Public Defender Pedego said.

She explained that there are some exceptions to getting a search warrant when it pertains to auto dealers and dismantlers. Though the CHP officers claimed that’s what they were doing, evidence proved they held a multi-agency meeting that included narcotics officers.

The case was dismissed, but the District Attorney’s Office appealed it. The day before Jerry died, and two days before he was supposed to appear in court on the matter, he left a voicemail for his appellate lawyer saying a detective on the case was harassing him. He didn’t mention a name.

“[Jerry] felt very persecuted. Definitely some of that was borne out during the suppression motion,” Pedego recalled. “The claim that it was a typical chop shop was not true. He certainly felt that he was being singled out.”

Police didn’t return the Sun’s phone calls for comment.

Because of the raid, Jerry lost his shop. He devoted all his time to fighting the matter in court. Jerry’s longtime friend Manriquez found out about what happened and offered him a job working on cars again.

“Leo [Rubio] told me, ‘Jerry’s not working, go talk to him.’ So I went to his house and said, ‘Let’s get to work,’” Manriquez told the Sun. “[Jerry] was a great guy. We worked together for many years, and he did a great job. I never had any problems with him.”

Manriquez, a classic car collector, found Jerry a new shop behind Custom Colors on Dal Porto Lane so he could do auto body work.

“He was here 7 o’clock in the morning every morning. If he was going to be late, he’d call and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to be late. I need to pick up some parts.’ I trusted him,” Manriquez said, adding that he even put his son, Alex, to work with Jerry to get Alex away from drugs.

“Everything he had me do was by hand: sanding, cleaning. He wouldn’t let me touch his tools. He wanted me to start the way he did—everything from the bottom up,” Alex recalled.

“He was a character. He liked to joke around. He was always fun and down to earth. He always had something for me to do, something for me to work on. He tried to guide me; he told me not to follow in his footsteps,” Alex continued. “Jerry talked to me about [not doing drugs] every day. Told me I should just quit everything and work for my kids.”

Jerry even drove Alex to a Christian drug rehabilitation center in San Clemente.

“I love that guy. I miss him a lot. To this day, I still don’t know what happened. [There are] a lot of stories that go around, but I want to know the truth,” Alex said. “I’ve got a lot to thank him for. One day I’ll see him, and I’ll thank him.”

First-person account

Hoping to get more answers about Jerry’s death, the Sun contacted the two friends who were with him the night he was shot. One man left a message for a reporter saying he had “no comment” on the incident and to “lose his number.”

The other friend, Mike Smith, agreed to meet for an interview.

“Me and Jerry spent almost every day together for three years,” Smith said. “He was my best friend.”

Smith said he got off from work the evening of March 9, 2011, around 7:30 p.m. Before heading home, he stopped at Jerry’s shop on Dal Porto Lane “to chill out for a little bit,” he said.

Jerry was working on his daughter’s car, a white Chevy Cobalt. Smith recalled that Jerry wanted to get a spray gun to paint the car, so Jerry, Smith, and the other man all got into the Cobalt and drove north to a friend’s shop. The guy Jerry was looking for wasn’t there.

“So we pulled out and Jerry said, ‘Pull over right here, I want to see Jonesy’s shop,’” Smith said, referring to Reyes Blacksmithing. “He said that they were growing pot, and he wanted to get pictures of [Jones] bringing it out of the warehouse.

“He always wanted to know what David was up to. He never said anything about hurting him,” Smith recalled, adding that Jerry wouldn’t let go of his suspicions surrounding Jones, blaming him for ruining his life.

Smith said Jerry convinced him to climb up onto the warehouse roof to cut a wire to one of the surveillance cameras. Then they went into a nearby Mexican food restaurant to buy some nachos, chips, and salsa. They took the food, drove around to the other side of the building, and parked in view of another camera.

“We sat there eating nachos, smoking cigarettes,” Smith said, adding that Jerry thought Jones and Reyes were inside the building and could see them in the alley.

Then Jerry and crew drove back to his shop. But around 10:30 p.m., Jerry said he wanted to go back to see if the spray-gun guy was back at his shop. Before driving to the shop, they switched cars at the other man’s house.

The guy still wasn’t there, Smith said, “So Jerry said, ‘Let’s go back to [the warehouse].”

Smith said to this day he doesn’t know why they went back to the warehouse, but he does know “we weren’t going to rob the grow.”

Jerry got out of the car and started walking down the alley toward the blacksmith shop. Smith said he followed him part of the way, but then decided to turn around. As he was walking back to the car, he heard gunshots.

Spooked by the gunshots, Smith and the other man got in the car and drove to the spray-gun shop to wait for Jerry. They heard sirens wailing. When Jerry didn’t show up, he said, they left.

“It would have been death for me if I’d taken another step down that alley,” Smith said, on the verge of tears. “There were almost four girls without dads instead of two.

“I left because I didn’t know what was going on. All I knew was the cops were coming and I was scared,” he said.

When asked if he remembered Jerry having a gun, Smith said, “I never saw a gun. ”

But he did say that Jerry had a bit of a reckless side to him.

“Jerry didn’t back down from anything. That was ultimately his downfall: He was trying to be too much like Wyatt Earp,” he said. “But he was a funny man. He was high-strung, but very lovable in his own way.”

Looking for answers

Rod said he thinks about his brother and what happened to him every day, and he dreams about him frequently. And while he can’t bring his brother back, he believes he can find out exactly how he died.

“He was a legitimate businessman, he wasn’t a freaking dope dealer like they want to make him out to be, or a gang member,” Rod said. “He was a family man; he loved his family, his kids, his nephews and nieces.”

Rod has talked to dozens of people about the night his brother died: the police; the Sheriff’s Department; the DA’s Office; the two friends who were with Jerry at the grow warehouse. He’s approached numerous lawyers seeking legal representation for his brother’s case—all to no avail.

“You know, it drives people nuts,” he said.

Rod lives in Los Angeles and works as a pool contractor. After his brother died, he stopped working for four months to get things sorted out for his family. He still drives to Santa Maria several times a month to check on his mom and work on Jerry’s case.

“This is what’s important to me right now. I’ll sell my house if I have to to get a lawyer,” he said, adding that he wants to file a wrongful death suit against Jerry’s killers. The statute of limitations to file against the police has already come and gone.

Rod is deeply frustrated by the lack of transparency from the police and the DA’s Office. He has concerns about how his brother’s death was initially investigated. He feels police never viewed Jerry as a victim because of his history and that they sided too quickly with Jones and Reyes.

He finds Jerry’s wounds suspicious: Pictures of Jerry’s body reveal up to six different wounds on his face, chest, and legs. Rod believes the wounds, which seem to be different sizes, were from two different guns. Jerry also had two small circular contusions on his ribcage, and markings on his feet and hands. But without the coroner’s report, it’s impossible to tell where those wounds and marks came from.

Rod also has questions about Jerry’s laptop, which went missing after the police searched the shop on Dal Porto Lane.

“That laptop was either with him or locked up in his shop,” Rod said.

He believes the answers he’s looking for are in the police report and the video, but he can’t get copies because the case is still technically open. Under state law, police don’t have to turn over certain items if they feel doing so will harm their investigation.

But, in this case, he was uncertain what the police are investigating: They already know who killed Jerry.

Rod provided the Sun with a recorded conversation in which he asked an SMPD officer, “What are you waiting for in terms of evidence?”

To which the officer responded, “We’re not.”

“So the case is inactive,” Rod continued.

“Correct,” the officer said.

The Sun filed public records requests for this story, asking for the coroner’s report of Jerry’s death, the police report, and the video surveillance. All of them were denied because of the reasons stated above.

The Sun refiled requests with expanded language after speaking to a legal representative for the California Newspaper Publishers Association (CNPA).

CNPA legal representative Nikki Moore said because the video wasn’t created as part of the investigation, and since there’s no definite prospect of murder charges being filed, the video shouldn’t be exempt from the public record.

However, Santa Maria Assistant City Attorney Phil Sinco said, “Even if the case was closed, there’s evidence not obtainable through the Public Records Request Act.”

Sinco went on to say that he didn’t see why the police wouldn’t release the video unless doing so would jeopardize the investigation.

On April 30, Sinco sent the Sun a letter in response to the second public records request. He said that, as part of the drug prosecution against Jones and Reyes, the SMPD was asked to give all of its investigatory files, including the video surveillance tape, over to the suspects’ defense attorneys.

“Since there is a ‘definite prospect of an enforcement proceeding’ at this time, although not necessarily related to the contents of the subject video tape, the video may still be subject to exemption from disclosure,” Sinco said in the letter.

In another letter to the Sun, Deputy District Attorney Jerry Lullejian said, “Because the documents you have requested fall under Government Code section 6245(f) and because of this Office’s longstanding commitment to preserving the integrity of the investigatory process, we are unable to provide the documents that are responsive to your request.

“ ... And due to safety concerns surrounding the documents requested, this Office will not provide the documents that are responsive to your request,” the letter concluded.

When the Sun called District Attorney Joyce Dudley to comment on the matter, her assistant referred the reporter to County Counsel Kerry Scott.

Scott didn’t return calls as of press time.

Law enforcement has a considerable amount of discretion under the California Code exemption. They have even more power if the video was subpoenaed in an investigation, but there’s no way to determine that without the police report.

Public Defender Pedego said this kind of tactic isn’t uncommon.

“You’re dealing with a department that has come under a lot of fire lately for their misdeeds,” she said. “There are a lot of people who are afraid of their shadows and lawsuits, and I think they smell [a lawsuit] all over this case.

“Isn’t it funny, they can release an opinion on [a case], but not release facts to back it up,” she said about the press release documenting Jerry’s death. “If the case is still under investigation, they shouldn’t be releasing anything.”

Contact Managing Editor Amy Asman at aasman@santamariasun.com.