SANTA ANA, Calif.—Three men were convicted Thursday of killing a 24-year-old man on the Fourth of July weekend in 2016 in Buena Park in an attempted robbery gone wrong.
In an unusual trial featuring two juries, both panels found the defendants, Jeffrey Tuli, 38, Aaron Vermont Jackson, 41, and Dejon Vincent Griffin, 38, all of San Bernardino, guilty. The three are scheduled to be sentenced July 8 and face life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Gregg Prickett told the juries that he believed it was the first time the county has held a trial with two juries.
Tuli was convicted of murder with jurors also finding true a special circumstance allegation of killing during a robbery and a sentencing enhancement for the discharge of a gun causing death.
Jackson and Griffin were convicted of murder with a special-circumstance allegation of killing during a robbery, attempted robbery and jurors also found true sentencing enhancements for the personal use of a gun.
The three were convicted of killing 24-year-old Maher Yousef of La Mirada on July 1, 2016, at a gas station at 5989 Beach Blvd., near Artesia Boulevard.
Yousef and his friend Hanna Asia had just left a check-cashing business where he worked when they pulled into the gas station that evening because the Dodge Charger they were in had a flat tire. One of the defendants slashed the tire in the parking lot of Citi Cash Services, Senior Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Walker said in her opening statement.
Asia went into the mini-mart to get a couple of bottles of water while they waited for someone to help them change the tire, Walker said.
The defendants then pounced, holding them at gunpoint and demanding cash. Jackson stood by the driver's side door while Tuli was at the passenger side and Griffin rummaged through the car's trunk to try to find any valuables or cash, Walker said.
At some point, Tuli "panicked" and shot Yousef in the head as he emerged from the car, Walker said.
Earlier that evening, Yousef "had no idea what was in store for him," Walker said. "He had absolutely no idea three men since the day before had a plan to rob him."
Walker showed video of the violent robbery to jurors and played a 911 call from a witness.
Walker said the investigation was hampered in part by the defendants fleeing and dumping some of the evidence. Police found a shell casing a day after the shooting, and only found cigarette butts that link Jackson and Griffin to the crime scene, but not Tuli.
Investigators pieced together their movements from San Bernardino to Compton and then to Buena Park through cellphone GPS, Walker said. The evidence against Tuli includes statements he made under questioning with police and in a jailhouse call to his wife., Walker said.
Asia was able to identify Jackson and Griffin in photo line-ups, but wasn't able to pick out Tuli the same way.
On "Planning Day" the day before the killing, Jackson and Tuli exchanged 12 calls and 48 text messages as they went to Citi Cash Services. On the day of the killing, they go with Jackson in his mother's car to Orange County, Walker said.
Under questioning from police, Tuli said the robbery went south when Jackson started punching Yousef. As Yousef was attempting to get out of the car, "I panicked ... And I'm standing right there," he told his wife, according to Walker.
Tuli's attorney, Jay Moorhead, said his client was a "heavy" methamphetamine user at the time and went to Compton the night before the murder.
Moorhead indicated there was a "third suspect" at the shooting and emphasized there was no forensic evidence tying his client to the crime scene.
Moorhead said Asia told police initially there were three Black suspects at the gas station, but then later said the third man was Latino.
Jackson's attorney, Ed Welbourn, told jurors, "This is a case about determining who is responsible for the senseless murder of Maher Yousef."
Welbourn said Tuli was the gunman and that "He killed an innocent man."
"There will not be any evidence in this case that Mr. Jackson intended to kill Mr. Yousef," Welbourn said.
Griffin's attorney, Kelly Rozek, said, "This is not a whodunnit. They were all there, but, unfortunately Jeffrey Tuli shot and killed Mr. Yousef in a sudden panic... It was a killing done by one person and one person alone."
She said her client did pull a gun on Asia, but then put it aside to go through the trunk while smoking a cigarette.