A Delano man who had faced a murder charge in the death of Delano grape grower Jakov Dulcich was found dead Monday with "traumatic injuries," according to authorities.
The coroner's office says Mariano Fernandez Perez, 24, was found dead around 7 a.m. on Wallace Avenue south of Highway 155. No further details were provided.
The Kern County Public Defender's office confirmed Perez is the same person it represented in the slaying of the 84-year-old Dulcich. His murder trial ended in a hung jury, and the District Attorney's office dismissed the case in November pending further investigation.
"I'm absolutely devastated," said Lexi Blythe, one the public defenders who represented him at trial.
"Mr. Perez was an amazing person, and I’m devastated he’s lost his life now."
The last time she saw Perez was Nov. 5 when the charges were dismissed. She said he was "quite happy" to be released after spending months in jail.
"I was happy as well," Blythe said. "He was in custody for something he didn’t do."
Blythe argued at trial there was no evidence Perez was the gunman in the killing of Dulcich near the intersection of Woollomes Avenue and South Browning Road.
There was no DNA evidence, the weapon was never recovered and a witness to the shooting who struggled with the gunman before escaping testified Perez was not the shooter, she told the jury.
Prosecutor Ken Russell told jurors the defendant lived down the street from where the killing occurred and had the opportunity to carry it out, and at one point the witness identified Perez as the shooter. Another person was in the suspect vehicle with Perez, Russell said, but that person has not been identified.
The jury deadlocked 11-1, with the majority voting not guilty.
A witness to Dulcich's killing told investigators he was traveling on Browning Road the morning of April 11 when he saw an SUV and a car traveling south on Browning trying to hit each other. The witness pulled over and the SUV careened into his PT Cruiser.
The car stopped at the crash scene and a passenger got out and opened fire on Dulcich, the SUV's driver, the witness said in court documents. The shooter then said "let me go kill this guy too" and chased the witness.
The shooter pointed a gun at the witness at point blank range and pulled the trigger but it didn't fire, the witness said. The two fought, and the witness grabbed the front of the shooter's sweater and pulled it over his head.
He then ran south on Browning and the shooter returned to the car and sped off.
Later, authorities were notified that a vehicle similar to the description of the suspect vehicle was found burning near the county line. The car, a 2009 Kia Rio, was determined to be registered to Perez's mother, according to court documents.
In speaking with investigators, the witness said Perez was the person who most looked like the shooter out of several photographs he was shown.
But at trial the witness testified the shooter had no tattoos and was shorter than him. Perez had numerous tattoos — some representing his gang affiliation — and was roughly the same height as the witness.