Trial in murder of Penn Valley pot caretaker gets underway | TheUnion.com

Trial in murder of Penn Valley pot caretaker gets underway

Finley Fultz, on trial for the murder of Isaac Zafft, was characterized by prosecutor Jesse Wilson as a cold-blooded killer who shot the screaming man "to shut him up."

Fultz is the sole remaining defendant in the shooting death of Zafft, who was caretaking a marijuana grow on July 7, 2014. Fultz allegedly was with Nathan Philbrook and Daniel Devencenzi when they went to the Penn Valley property in order to steal the marijuana. Philbrook and Devencenzi took plea agreements earlier this year.

"Isaac was shot," Wilson told the jury Thursday during opening statements in Nevada County Superior Court. "And after he was shot, he started to scream. He was shot again in order to shut him up. And it worked."

Zafft was pronounced dead at the scene, Wilson said, noting he was only 27 years old.

Wilson told the jury the investigation into Zafft's murder stalled until investigators received a tip from Amber Nelson, who was Philbrook's wife at the time.

According to Wilson, Nelson will testify that Fultz told her he shot Zafft.

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"He explained (to her) the guy came at him with a machete or knife, that he fired a warning shot but the guy kept coming at him so he shot him," Wilson said. "He (went) on to say the guy started screaming, so he shot him again to shut him up."

Devencenzi and Philbrook will testify as well, Wilson said, explaining that each received a more lenient prison sentence in return.

The two men are expected to testify that when they arrived at the property, they went to the back of the greenhouse, while Fultz, armed with a long gun, approached from the side. Philbrook reportedly saw Zafft and then gunfire.

Philbrook will also testify that after the trio returned to Nevada, Fultz gave him tools to dismantle the gun and get rid of it.

Fultz's attorney, Greg Klein, was quick to paint the main witnesses as dishonest.

"They're what is referred to as snitches," Klein said. "They made deals so they either get less time or so they don't get charged."

Nelson, he suggested, was the brains of the pot rip-off ring.

"The District Attorney chose to crawl into bed with Devencenzi and Philbrook," Klein said. "They are career criminals. These are bad men … To get a deal, they made up a story, they put my client at the murder scene. There is no evidence. Zero."

First on the stand was David Braut, the property owner, who testified that he had hired Zafft just two days before his murder to help with the marijuana grow.

Braut said he was awakened just before 1 a.m. by three gunshots. Worried, he called and texted Zafft, but got no response.

He called 911 and testified that a deputy arrived several hours later. Braut met him at the locked gate and they went down to the greenhouse. According to Braut, Zafft's bedroll inside the structure was empty, and he then found him lying outside the door.

On cross-examination, Braut said he grew marijuana for profit, and added that he had been ripped off of his crop just two weeks before the murder.

He denied hiring Zafft to guard the greenhouse, adding, "Why would hire him to guard? I had nothing to rob."

Braut testified that he did discuss the possibility of another robbery with Zafft.

"I told Isaac if someone showed up to steal, he should help them load the truck," Braut said.

Braut said that in the aftermath of the homicide, he was charged with marijuana cultivation and took a plea agreement, which included the forfeiture of $300,000 in cash found in his vehicle.

A fingerprint analyst from the state Department of Justice testified that prints were recovered at the greenhouse, one of which was matched to Philbrook. None of the prints matched with Fultz, he said.

Pathologist Donald Hendrickson testified that the cause of death for Zafft was multiple gunshot wounds — to the face, the chest, the upper arm and the left buttock. Hendrickson said he could not determine which gunshot was the primary cause of death but that the shot to the chest perforated a lung, while the shot to the back severed the iliac artery and damaged the kidney, spleen and stomach.

The trial is expected to resume on Tuesday.

Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 530-477-4236 or by email at lizk@theunion.com.

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