Sobbing mourners provide soundtrack to Charlotte’s ‘Next Top Model’ murder trial

Mirjana Puhar, 19, an one-time aspiring model, was one of three people found shot to death near uptown on Feb. 24, 2015.
Mirjana Puhar, 19, an one-time aspiring model, was one of three people found shot to death near uptown on Feb. 24, 2015. Observer file

For a time Wednesday, the rows on the right side of a Charlotte courtroom were filled by families and friends holding space for those who couldn’t be there – the four people police say were gunned down two years ago by Edward Sanchez. In his opening statement to the jurors in Sanchez’ first-degree murder trial, prosecutor Jay Ashendorf lingered over each name:

Rosool Harrell, 22, a Xanax dealer who was shot three times in the back outside a Mathews motel on Feb. 22, 2015.

Jonathan Alvarado, 23, his girlfriend Mirjana Puhar, 19, and Jusmar Gonzaga-Garcia, all found dead two days later in a small home not far from uptown Charlotte. Alvarado, known as “Cupie,” pushed heroin and was shot in the back of the head. Puhar was a former contestant on the TV show, “America’s Next Top Model.” She was shot twice, once near the throat. Gonzaga-Garcia was hit eight times in all.

As Ashendorf continued, each name and each detail he used of how that person died brought an eruption of sorrow – and a sobbing exodus – from the nearby rows of relatives. By the time Ashendorf finished his summary of the evidence he believes will convince the 12 jurors of Sanchez’ guilt, the rows behind him were mostly empty.

Sanchez, 21, who will die in prison if convicted of any of the killings, listened impassively from the other side of the room. He wore a Navy blazer, tan slacks and a red tie. The back of his left hand bore a large tattoo, which spilled out from beneath the cuff of his coat.

Defense attorney Scott Gsell patted his client on the shoulder before telling the jurors that nothing Ashendorf had said minutes before could be considered evidence, and that they must presume Sanchez innocent until the state proves otherwise.

Based on what prosecutors Ashendorf and Bill Bunting have said about the case, the litany of evidence jurors will hear in the coming days is a daunting one.

▪ How it was Sanchez’ father who first notified Charlotte-Mecklenburg police that Sanchez and longtime friend Emmanuel Rangel were involved in two armed robberies and four killings – three on Norris Avenue that police did not know about because they were only a few hours old.

▪ How the defendant’s former girlfriend and accomplice, Emily Isaacs, will offer eye witness testimony concerning the killing of Harrell and the attempted murder of Harrell’s friend outside the Microtel motel off Independence Boulevard; and how police found Sanchez’ wallet at scene.

▪ How his acquaintance David Lopez, the would-be getaway driver on the night of the Norris Avenue robbery and shootings, heard multiple gunshots inside the home before walking in to view the carnage. There, Ashendorf said, Lopez saw Sanchez and Rangel looting everything they could carry from the home, including armfuls of Air Jordans still in their boxes. Later, police would say they found nine pairs of the shoes at the home of Rangel’s mother.

▪ How Sanchez’ 1,000-mile dash for freedom ended outside of Houston, Texas, when he and Isaacs were stopped doing 103 in a 55 mph zone in Isaacs’ Camry. According to Ashendorf, Texas troopers found Harrell’s .45-caliber handgun under the passenger seat. There was heroin hidden in a fuzzy animal toy stashed in the glove compartment and Xanax found in the console. Later, according to Ashendorf, when investigators tested Sanchez’ jeans and his Ralph Lauren boots, they found Puhar’s blood on both.

According to prosecutors, the case has gang ties. That led Superior Court Judge Eric Levinson to ban all video cameras and to limit still photographs to opening and closing arguments. Witnesses who are not law enforcement officers cannot be photographed or filmed in any way inside the courtroom.

Sanchez’ trial is expected to last up to two weeks. Rangel’s will follow at a later date. The faces of those expected to testify in both trials will soon become familiar.

So will those of the mourners.

Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095, @MikeGordonOBS