Phillip Saldana Prison Murder Trial Starts Amid Security, Publicity Worries

The scenic, tourist-oriented town of Salida doesn't see many murder trials.

This may be one reason that a prison homicide case getting underway there today has generated so much unease and unusual security measures — to the extent of anticipated road closures near the courthouse and concerns raised by the district court clerk that coverage by the local newspaper could taint the jury pool. 

State inmate Phillip Saldana is facing first-degree murder charges in the death of Gene Casados Jr., who was fatally attacked at the Buena Vista Correctional Complex in March 2013.

Authorities say that Saldana and codefendant Thomas Mercado were among a contingent of prison gang members who surrounded Casados and began kicking him, and that the two continued to stomp on him after the others dispersed. Mercado, who is facing a second-degree murder charge, will be tried separately. 

The case has drawn attention in part because Saldana, a reputed member of the Surenos prison gang, had a history with Casados that dates back to the streets of Pueblo.

Saldana is serving a sixteen-year sentence for shooting Casados in the leg on Pueblo's East Side in 2009, supposedly because Casados was flying gang colors of the Aces, a rival southern Colorado crew.

Department of Corrections officials have offered no explanation as to how Saldana and the victim of the crime that sent him to prison in the first place wound up in the same facility, despite classification procedures that are supposed to keep sworn enemies separated from each other.

The local newspaper, The Mountain Mail, which bills itself as "the Voice of Salida and the Upper Arkansas Valley," has devoted several articles to the case and plans to cover the two-week trial in some detail. But managing editor Paul Goetz says the paper recently fielded an unusual request from the Chaffee County district court clerk, seeking to squelch a preview story about the upcoming trial out of concerns that it might discourage potential jurors from serving on the panel.

"It was kind of an interesting request," Goetz says. "She's afraid that if people know what's going on, they may not show up." 

The paper declined to curb its coverage, running a preview story this morning. Goetz adds that the clerk's office hasn't failed to supply requested information or otherwise thwart coverage and that his overall relationship with the courts is a good one. "We just recently started covering the courts in the past few years," he says. "I think they got used to not worrying about these things. But I don't think it's as big a deal as she thinks it is." 

Past hearings dealing with prison prosecutions have prompted the local sheriff to close roads near the courthouse, and Goetz expects the same might occur during the Saldana trial. 

At a preliminary hearing last year, a DOC investigator acknowledged that video equipment at Buena Vista that should have recorded the incident had malfunctioned that day, leaving no footage of the attack.

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