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State v. Bonilla

Court of Appeals of South Carolina

December 31, 2019

The State, Respondent,
Edward Primo Bonilla, Appellant. Appellate Case No. 2016-001725

          Heard December 9, 2019

          Appeal From Dorchester County Doyet A. Early, III, Circuit Court Judge

          Chief Appellate Defender Robert Michael Dudek, of Columbia, for Appellant.

          Attorney General Alan McCrory Wilson, Deputy Attorney General Donald J. Zelenka, Senior Assistant Deputy Attorney General Melody Jane Brown, and Assistant Attorney General Susannah Rawl Cole, all of Columbia; and Solicitor David Michael Pascoe, Jr., of Orangeburg, all for Respondent.

          GEATHERS, J.

         Edward Primo Bonilla was convicted of murder for the killing of Ashley Pegram and sentenced to life imprisonment. Bonilla appeals his conviction, arguing the circuit court erred in 1) finding Bonilla gave his attorney informed consent to disclose the location of Ashley's body; 2) admitting evidence obtained from the search of Bonilla's mother's Hyundai Sonata; 3) admitting evidence obtained from the search of a van owned by Bonilla's employer; and 4) refusing to grant Bonilla an in camera hearing on the qualifications of Investigator Jeff Scott and the reliability of his testimony. We affirm.


         The investigation into Ashley's disappearance

         Around March 15, 2015, Bonilla and Ashley Pegram[1] met on the online social site, and the two communicated for about a month using the messaging app "Kik." On April 3, 2015, Bonilla and Ashley arranged to meet in person and attend a bonfire hosted by Bonilla's brother. During their communications, Ashley indicated that she did not have a car, and Bonilla offered to pick her up from the house she shared with her parents in Summerville. Ashley then asked if he would pick up some beer for her, and Bonilla agreed. After Bonilla left his house, Ashley texted him her address, and he entered it into his phone's GPS. Shortly before 9:30 p.m., Bonilla arrived in a Hyundai Sonata, and the two left for the bonfire.

         Ashley and Bonilla arrived at his brother's house for the bonfire around 9:30 p.m. While at the bonfire, Ashley had a few drinks before she and Bonilla left around 11:45 p.m. After leaving the bonfire, Ashley indicated she needed to use the restroom, and Bonilla stopped at a Sunoco gas station around 12:04 a.m. on April 4, 2015. At 12:11 a.m., the gas station's surveillance system captured Ashley reentering the vehicle, and the two left a minute later.

         Later that morning, Ashley's mother reached out to Ashley's sister because Ashley had not returned from her date the previous night. Once Ashley's sister arrived at the house, the family looked through the phone Ashley shared with her mother for any clues as to her disappearance. In doing so, they found Kik messages between Ashley and a man with the username "E-Money Bon" discussing plans to go to a bonfire the night before. Additionally, they found a message from "E-Money Bon" at 3:29 a.m. that morning, reading "Hello. You still awake? Just making sure you made it home. Sorry I left at the gas station but you were too drunk to handle." Thereafter, the family called "E-Money Bon" from three different phones and messaged him on Kik, but he did not answer or respond. At some point, the family made contact with "E-Money Bon" on Ashley's daughter's phone. "E-Money Bon" identified himself as Edward Bonilla and indicated that he had left Ashley in front of a mobile home park, but he did not know what happened to her afterward.

         After communicating with Bonilla, Ashley's family filed a missing persons report with the Dorchester County Sheriff's Office, and provided officers with Bonilla's phone number and screenshots of the messages between Ashley and Bonilla. As part of his investigation, Detective David Harris called Bonilla and advised him that he was looking for a missing person. Bonilla described his night out with Ashley before telling Detective Harris that he left Ashley on the side of the road around 2:00 a.m. after he let her out to use the restroom a second time.

         On April 7, 2015, Ashley's missing persons case was assigned to Detective Andy Martin, who made contact with Bonilla and scheduled an interview for the next day. [2] On April 8, Bonilla arrived for the interview in his mother's Hyundai Sonata with his mother and girlfriend.[3] After Bonilla's mother and girlfriend left to run errands, Bonilla was taken to an interview room. During the interview, Bonilla summarized the events of the night, indicating the last time he saw Ashley was when he left her in front of a mobile home park after pulling over to let her use the restroom. Bonilla further indicated that he was unemployed due to an ankle injury. After the interview, Bonilla showed Detective Martin a shoeprint on the front quarter panel of his mother's Hyundai Sonata and told Detective Martin that Ashley had kicked the vehicle after exiting to use the restroom. Officers and volunteers later combed the area where Bonilla claimed he left Ashley, but they could not locate her.

         On April 15, 2015, Detective Martin was contacted by Bonilla's brother's girlfriend, who attended the bonfire on April 3. During their conversation, she revealed that Bonilla was employed at Cauble Flooring in Charleston County. Detective Martin then contacted Robert Cauble, the owner of Cauble Flooring, and confirmed that Bonilla was one of his employees. Cauble also indicated that Bonilla had access to two work vans; a Chevy GMC that he typically worked out of with his brother and a Ford Econoline that the company used as a "floater" van. Detective Martin indicated that he needed to look at the vans in connection with a missing persons case, and the two agreed to meet at Cauble Flooring. Coincidentally, Bonilla called Cauble moments after he got off the phone with Detective Martin and told Cauble that he needed to retrieve his cell phone from one of the vans.

         Cauble was the first to arrive at Cauble Flooring and, acting on Detective Martin's inquiry, he pulled up the security footage from April 3 and 4, 2015. The footage from April 3 showed Bonilla and his brother arriving at the end of the work day in the Chevy GMC. However, while Bonilla's brother left in the Chevy GMC, Bonilla left in the Ford Econoline. On the footage from April 4, an unidentified person could be seen returning the Ford Econoline at 10:55 p.m., parking it in the same spot it had been taken from the day before. Additionally, a small car could be seen pulling in behind to pick up the person. Cauble also indicated that Bonilla texted him on April 4 at 4:50 a.m., indicating that he was sick and would not be in to work, and again on April 6, indicating the same.

         Once everyone arrived at Cauble Flooring, Detective Martin confronted Bonilla for lying about his employment. Bonilla, in the presence of Cauble, claimed that he had started working at Cauble Flooring on April 14, 2015. However, Cauble indicated that Bonilla had been employed for eight months. Bonilla was charged with obstruction of justice the same day.

         After Cauble signed a "consent to search and/or seizure" form, officers searched both vans. While searching the Chevy GMC, officers found Bonilla's cell phone. Upon searching the Ford Econoline, officers discovered multiple red hued stains. Investigator Jeff Scott field-tested four stains, one of which tested "presumptive positive" for blood, and officers arranged to have the van towed to Dorchester County. On the same day, officers located Bonilla's mother's Hyundai Sonata at an Enterprise Rent-A-Car in Charleston County. Records indicated that Bonilla's mother had rented a silver Chevy Cruze on April 4, 2015, at 11:01 a.m.[4]The Hyundai Sonata was then seized, in cooperation with the North Charleston Police Department, and towed back to Dorchester County. After seizing the Hyundai Sonata and the Ford Econoline, officers obtained search warrants for both from a Dorchester County magistrate.

         On May 5, 2015, Bonilla was charged with murder. On May 8, 2015, he was transported to the Dorchester County Sheriff's Office where he met with his attorney, Mark Leiendecker, in a small conference room. During the meeting, Bonilla provided the location of Ashley's body to Leiendecker and consented to its disclosure.[5] On May 9, 2015, after searching the location for two days, police found Ashley's body in a shallow grave in Harleyville.

         The trial

         Bonilla's case proceeded to trial on August 8, 2016. Prior to trial, Bonilla made several pre-trial motions. First, Bonilla moved to have his statement regarding the location of Ashley's body suppressed, arguing Leiendecker violated Rule 1.6 of the South Carolina Rules of Professional Conduct by disclosing the location without Bonilla's informed consent. The circuit court allowed testimony on the issue from Leiendecker and Bonilla. While testifying, Leiendecker took care not to reveal any more confidential discussions between he and Bonilla than necessary to determine the issue of informed consent. Leiendecker testified that he did not know the location of Ashley's body until Bonilla revealed it to him on May 8, 2015, but he asserted that he and Bonilla had discussed the decision to disclose the location in meetings and telephone calls prior to the date of disclosure. Leiendecker explained that disclosing the location of Ashley's body was a key part of Bonilla's defense of accident, as there would be no evidence to corroborate the defense without an autopsy to determine Ashley's cause of death. In discussing potential consequences, Leiendecker told Bonilla that if he disclosed the location of the body, Bonilla would not be able to deny that he knew what happened to Ashley, it would place him at the scene of an alleged murder, and it would open him up to other charges. When the two met on the date of disclosure, they further discussed the issue before Bonilla drew a map to Ashley's body on Leiendecker's iPad. According to Leiendecker, after further discussion, Bonilla consented to the disclosure of the information. Thereafter, Leiendecker shared the information with the Dorchester County Sheriff's Office. Bonilla did not speak to any officers during the process.

         Bonilla testified that he and Leiendecker never discussed disclosing the body's location prior to May 8, 2015. Rather, Bonilla indicated that Leiendecker called him on May 8 to let him know that officers were transporting him to the Dorchester County Sheriff's Office to disclose the location of the body. Bonilla testified that once he arrived at the sheriff's office, Leiendecker explained the benefits of disclosing the location but not the possible ramifications. Bonilla indicated that he felt like things were already in motion to the point that he was backed into a corner. However, Bonilla testified that he was ultimately "on board" with the decision to disclose, confirming that Leiendecker would have believed he had Bonilla's consent to disclose.

         After hearing testimony from Leiendecker and Bonilla, the circuit court ruled on the issue. Using McClure v. Thompson[6] as a guide, the circuit court found that 1) Bonilla had given his consent to disclose the location of Ashley's body and 2) Leiendecker provided full legal guidance and a cautionary explanation of the benefits and consequences of disclosure. Thus, the circuit court found that Bonilla had given Leiendecker informed consent to disclose the location of the body. The circuit court further found Leiendecker to be more credible than Bonilla. Based on the circuit court's findings, Bonilla and the State agreed to stipulate to the fact that Bonilla had disclosed the body's location in lieu of calling Leiendecker to testify during trial.

         Next, Bonilla moved to suppress evidence obtained from the Hyundai Sonata and the Ford Econoline. Bonilla argued the warrants were defective because they were both obtained from a Dorchester County magistrate even though the vehicles were seized from Charleston County. Bonilla further argued the warrant for the Hyundai Sonata was defective because the affidavit setting forth the basis for probable cause indicated that Ashley was seen entering the vehicle at the Sunoco around 1:12 a.m. rather than 12:12 a.m. As to the search warrants, the State argued that both were obtained after the vehicles were seized and brought to Dorchester County, placing both within the jurisdiction of the Dorchester County magistrate. Furthermore, the State asserted that the warrant for the Hyundai Sonata was proper because the underlying affidavit still supported a finding of probable cause to search the vehicle after the inaccurate information was removed. The State then argued the Hyundai Sonata was properly seized pursuant to the automobile exception to the warrant requirement, further asserting the vehicle could have been searched without a warrant under the same exception. Finally, the State argued Cauble had given his consent for the search and seizure of the Ford Econoline, adding that it was properly seized after a stain in the back tested "presumptive positive" for blood. The circuit court ultimately determined the evidence to be admissible, finding both search warrants were proper and both vehicles were properly seized and searched under the automobile exception.

         During the trial, the State presented multiple witnesses detailing the investigation into Ashley's disappearance. Bonilla's brother's girlfriend testified that Ashley was not overly intoxicated at the bonfire, but Bonilla was adamant that she continue drinking from a particular bottle of beer when they left. The State also elicited testimony detailing Bonilla's inconsistent statements regarding Ashley's disappearance and his efforts to impede the investigation. Additionally, the State presented phone records and footage from surveillance cameras demonstrating Bonilla's travels on the night Ashley disappeared.

         Before Investigator Scott's testimony, Bonilla objected to the admission of photographs depicting the results of several tests used to determine the presence of blood in the seized vehicles. Bonilla asserted that, because Investigator Scott would be giving his opinion that stains in both vehicles tested positive for Ashley's blood, he was entitled to an evidentiary hearing regarding the reliability of the tests. The circuit court noted that Investigator Scott was not qualified to give an opinion on whether the stains tested positive for Ashley's blood. The circuit court then asked Bonilla if he was objecting specifically to the admission of the photographs, to which he responded, "Yes, sir." Consequently, the circuit court indicated Bonilla would be required to object contemporaneously when the photographs were admitted.

         During Investigator Scott's testimony, Bonilla objected to the admission of photographs depicting O-Tolidine, hexagon OBTI, and leucocrystal violet tests. The circuit court overruled each objection. However, Bonilla did not object when Investigator Scott described how each test was conducted, when he explained that a "presumptive positive" for blood would turn a certain color depending on the particular test, or when he indicated that stains in the van and the trunk of the Hyundai Sonata tested presumptive positive under each test. After Investigator Scott testified, SLED Agent Paul Meeh testified that the blood obtained from both vehicles matched Ashley's DNA.

         Investigator Scott further testified that officers found a tube of Astroglide personal lubricant in the Ford Econoline.[7] Investigator Scott also recounted finding Ashley's body, indicating she was found nude from the waist down. Additionally, Investigator Scott indicated that there appeared to be something wrapped around Ashley's wrist and neck. Following Investigator Scott's testimony, the State presented an expert in bloodstain pattern analysis. The expert testified that multiple cast-off patterns were found on the ceiling of the van and a cessation cast-off pattern was found on the rear wheel well. He provided that these patterns were consistent with someone standing over a victim and taking multiple swings at the victim.

         The State then presented Dr. Nicholas Batalis as an expert in forensic pathology. Dr. Batalis explained that he could not determine the specific cause of death because Ashley had been dead for an extended period of time and the body had undergone significant decomposition. Dr. Batalis testified that Ashley's body was nude from the waist down, her torn shirt and bra were around her upper chest area, and her glasses were tangled in her hair. Furthermore, Dr. Batalis indicated Ashley's neck and right wrist had been wrapped in black electrical tape, stating that the tape around the wrist was fashioned into two loops and appeared to resemble handcuffs.[8] Dr. Batalis testified that the tissue and internal organs were missing from Ashley's buttocks and vaginal area, suggesting that the area could have been a location of injury.[9] Regarding Ashley's cause of death, Dr. Batalis testified that Ashley had fractures on both sides of her thyroid cartilage, suggesting manual strangulation. Additionally, Dr. Batalis indicated that there was a circular defect on Ashley's scalp and areas of bluish-purple discoloration on her skull, suggesting blunt force trauma. Dr. Batalis also indicated that fluid from Ashley's chest cavity tested positive for low concentrations of alcohol and a muscle relaxer.[10] Dr. Batalis ultimately determined that the "cause of death in this case was homicidal violence."

         After the State rested, Bonilla elected to testify in his own defense. Bonilla described the events leading up to and following the bonfire, indicating that he and Ashley returned to his house to drop off some marijuana after they left. Bonilla then explained that he tried to take Ashley home, but she was combative and could not adequately provide directions.[11] Bonilla indicated that Ashley asked to stop and use the restroom twice, once at the Sunoco and once on the side of a private driveway. Bonilla asserted that the second time they stopped, he attempted to leave Ashley because she was being combative but while backing up, he accidentally hit Ashley with the back of his car. Bonilla claimed that when he got out to check on her, Ashley began attacking him. He alleged that he then wrapped Ashley in a "bear hug" in an attempt to restrain her and she died in his arms. Bonilla asserted that he did not know how Ashley died and he did not mean to harm her.

         Bonilla testified he placed Ashley's body in the trunk of his mother's Hyundai Sonata. He then drove a while before leaving the body on the side of a dirt road. After going home, Bonilla indicated he returned to retrieve Ashley's body in the Ford Econoline. Bonilla claimed that he put a plastic bag over Ashley's head and taped it to her neck so that she would not bleed in the van. After placing Ashley's body in the van, Bonilla drove until he found a deserted road in a wooded area. Bonilla then removed Ashley's body from the van, hid the van, and dug a grave with a wooden board. Bonilla claimed that while he was dragging Ashley's body through the woods, her pants and underwear got snagged and fell off. After placing Ashley's body in the grave and covering it with dirt, Bonilla returned to the location where Ashley died. He picked up one of Ashley's sandals, discarding it and the bag he used to cover her head in a gas station dumpster.

         After deliberations, the jury convicted Bonilla for murder. The circuit court then sentenced him to a term of life imprisonment. This appeal followed.

         ISSUES ...

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