Man Pleads Guilty in Shovel Murder
A Moore County man pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter Monday, taking a deal that spared him from trial on first-degree murder charges for killing a man with a shovel.
Claudio Daniel Castillo, 19, said he fought to defend his brother, Jorge, against a knife attack from the victim, 32-year-old Wilbalbo "Willie" Balbuena, who'd threatened to kill his family.
Southern Pines police arrested Castillo, 18 at the time, in the early hours on June 27, 2009. They charged him with murdering Balbuena by striking him in the head with a shovel. The incident took place during a gathering at a trailer park at 1225 Central Drive.
Castillo doesn't speak English well enough to participate without an interpreter, so the state provided a court-certified interpreter to help him both in court and in dealing with court-appointed attorney Arthur Donadio.
Prosecutor Peter Strickland outlined the factual basis for the plea agreement for Judge John O. Craig III.
"The defendant had drunk three or four Bud Lights, had bought one of them from the victim," Strickland said. "Mr. Balbuena got into an argument with the defendant's brother, Jorge, and the defendant pushed the victim away. The victim went back into his trailer and came out again, angry.
"The defendant said he heard a knife click and picked up a shovel from a nearby pickup, swinging it and hitting (Balbuena), who fell to the ground."
Balbuena got up and went to his trailer, then came out saying, "I will kill you and your whole family!" according to a statement Castillo gave police that night, Strickland said.
"The defendant, in his statement, said he did not remember if he saw a knife in the victim's hand at the time he hit him with the shovel," Strickland said. "He put the shovel back in the pickup bed. Investigators found a trail of blood between the defendant's trailer, No. 4, and the victim's, No. 6."
Castillo didn't think the man he had struck had been badly hurt and neither did the victim himself, apparently, according to statements in court.
When his roommate, seeing that he was bleeding, urged him to go to the hospital, Balbuena refused, Strickland said.
"His roommate tried to get him to go, but he refused," he said. "Southern Pines police were called at 1:54 a.m. and had EMS check Balbuena. They Life-flighted him to UNC Hospitals.
"The victim told his roommate he'd been 'hit in the head with something.' The autopsy showed he died from blunt force trauma to the head."
'Moment of Confusion'
The factual basis of the plea was primarily based on Castillo's own statement, Strickland said - the defendant's saying that he hit Balbuena because he "said he was going to kill my family."
Defense attorney Arthur Donadio said his client's conversational English led him to use sometimes inappropriate words, like "mad" when he really meant something like feeling "terrified and defensive."
"My client is an American citizen, born in New Jersey," Donadio told the court. "He only speaks conversational English. His statement was taken at a moment of excitement and confusion when he did not want to talk to the police."
An investigator hired by the defense, who has since died, found that Balbuena had cut one man earlier in that week. Balbuena's blood alcohol measured .19 that night, the court was told.
"Daniel and Jorge had seen a knife in his hand in the trailer," Donadio said. "He threatened the family, and threw a knife that hit the black truck. Mr. Castillo then picked up the shovel. My client hit him one time as he came forward.
"He did not follow that up. Instead, he dropped the shovel back in the truck where he found it. It was clear both had been drinking quite a bit that night."
At an earlier hearing, Castillo had been allowed to go home on house arrest so he could work to help support the family, Donadio said.
The whole family had to move, fearing retribution, he said.
"What he was trying to say when he made the remark that he was mad - it is clear he was trying to say Willie scared him and he was scared for his family," Donadio said. "His judgment was clouded by alcohol, and he grabbed an object at hand and hit Willie.
"This is not to minimize the fact that there was a death, not to minimize the loss to Willie's family, who loved him, too."
Craig accepted the plea arrangement, giving Castillo an active sentence reflecting the five months he had already served before his release, a $1,000 fine, court costs, and a suspended sentence of 16 to 20 months prison and three years' probation.
Balbuena's body was returned to Mexico for burial there, where his wife and children still live. Castillo would ordinarily have been required to repay the $3,800 cost. However, the Mexican Consulate, which advanced $1,200 of that amount, advised that it could not accept repayment. A private individual who had paid $2,600 cannot be located.
"He has been deported," Strickland said.
Strickland asked for, and the court agreed to a requirement that Castillo be evaluated by the common threat group.
"If he is not a gang member, that is not going to be anything to worry about," Strickland said.
Contact John Chappell by e-mail at email@example.com.
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