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Accused mass killer originally friends with slain neighbors, defense says

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    Law enforcement escorts accused killer Francisco Oropeza out of the San Jacinto County Courthouse.

COLDSPRING – A pre-trial hearing for a man accused of fatally gunning down five people in a neighbor’s home had defense attorneys painting a very different picture of Francisco Oropeza — as a well-liked man whose relationship with those next door began to deteriorate over time.

“It wasn’t an isolated instance. I know it was portrayed early on as just a random mass shooting,” said defense co-counsel Anthony Osso. “They were friends, to begin with, neighbors and friends,”

Flanked by law enforcement officers, Oropeza arrived at the San Jacinto Courthouse May 18 in shackles, personally escorted by Sheriff Greg Capers.

Oropeza made his first appearance before 411th state District Court Judge John Wells alongside Osso and fellow attorney Lisa Andrews.

The defense counsels immediately began to offer another view of their client than that of a man accused by the state of killing his neighbors in cold blood.

Oropeza, a 38-year-old undocumented immigrant from Mexico authorities said has been deported four times since 2009, remains behind bars in the San Jacinto County Jail charged with five counts of murder.

Bond on each count is set at $1.5 million, for a total of $7.5 million. Investigators have said the charges could be upgraded to capital murder, which carries an automatic sentence of life in prison without parole or the death penalty.

The victims include Jonathan Casarez, 18, Julisa Molina Rivera, 31, Diana Velasquez Alvarado, 21, Daniel Enrique Las-Guzman, 9, and his mother, Sonia Argentina Guzman, 25

They died early April 29 at a residence off Walters Road in the Trails End Subdivision, just outside of Cleveland, when a man entered the house and began firing a .223 caliber semiautomatic rifle.

The deaths resulted in a four-day manhunt that saw well over 200 law-enforcement officials search for the suspect before finally locating him near Cut and Shoot, hiding under a pile of laundry.

Oropeza, initially identified by law officers as “Oropesa,” has remained behind bars since then.

Osso said there is more to the story than what the public has been told.

“I think you’ll find out as this case goes on that he (Oropeza) was an extremely well-liked ... neighbor,” Osso said outside the courthouse.

The attorney spoke of a once-positive relationship between Oropeza and the neighbors that began to sour over time.

Osso spoke about how Oropeza would help his neighbors as a tradesman, often assisting with electrical work and other odds and ends.

“Francisco always made himself available,” Osso said.

Osso also argued the story of neighbors asking Oropeza to stop shooting his .223 caliber semiautomatic weapon because they were trying to put a baby to sleep was not entirely accurate.

“Nothing is ever quite that simple, and I think that we can use our common sense and know that as a reason is not really going to be accurate,” Andrews added.

During the hearing, Osso and his team told the court during the discovery phase of preparations for trial they would review body camera footage from those involved with the search as they built a timeline.

Osso elaborated more on issues between Oropeza and the neighbors, noting that a neighbor’s dog is said to have killed livestock on the defendant’s property.

“Obviously, the evidence at the initial outset was finding and arresting him, but beyond that, I hope that the story will be told in a more nuanced way that is more accurate,” said Andrews, a veteran Houston-based attorney appointed by Wells.

“As we gather all the evidence from the district attorney and start looking at everything and complete our investigation, we’ll have much more information,” added Andrews, also based out of Houston.

The defense and prosecutors also discussed other housekeeping items related to the five counts of first-degree murder Oropeza is facing.

“There is a lot of stuff we haven’t received yet,” said District Attorney Todd Dillon.

Those talks focused on discovery and the timeline for a possible grand jury probe, which is expected to bring indictments sometime in June.

Osso informed the court his team had already started their investigation, talking to neighbors and looking into the search, while applauding the dialogue with the sheriff’s office and prosecutors.