A man who was refused service at an Otay Mesa fast food restaurant opened fire on four “completely unsuspecting” employees, killing one of them, a prosecutor said Wednesday. While a defense attorney said police erroneously focused on her client as the suspect despite numerous inconsistencies in the investigation.
Opening statements and testimony began Wednesday in the trial of Albert Lee Blake, 51, who is accused in the Nov. 6, 2019, slaying of 28-year-old Maribel Merino Ibanez at the Church’s Chicken restaurant at 3726 Del Sol Blvd. Blake is charged with her murder, plus the attempted murders of three of her co-workers.
Ibanez was fatally wounded in the shooting, and two other employees were hospitalized. Mario Rojas was shot in the stomach and arm, while Humberto Cota was shot in the back. Officials said another employee, Raquel Gutierrez, was fired upon but not struck by the gunfire.
Deputy District Attorney Mary Loeb said Blake tried to use a counterfeit $100 bill to purchase food but was rebuffed by Ibanez.
The prosecutor said he then left the restaurant and went to his car where he “prepared himself to kill over this slight” by changing clothes to better conceal a 9mm pistol he planned to take back into the eatery, then re-positioning his car near the restaurant’s exit so he could quickly flee the scene.
After the shooting, Blake allegedly fled the state and was arrested later that month in Memphis, Tennessee.
In her opening statement, Loeb outlined for the jury how police identified Blake as the alleged shooter.
Though no surveillance footage was available from inside the restaurant, investigators located images of the shooter’s vehicle through smart street-light cameras. The prosecutor said investigators pinned the vehicle down as a Dodge Charger and found that Blake had been contacted by police on prior occasions that year in a similar vehicle.
With Blake identified as the alleged driver, Loeb said his phone records helped police track down his girlfriend. At her home, police found the same brand of ammunition used in the shooting, she said. Blake’s car was also located at the girlfriend’s home, inside of which were two counterfeit $100 bills with Blake’s fingerprints on them, she said.
The car’s steering wheel and gearshift also tested positive for gunshot residue, according to the prosecutor.
Loeb claimed Blake’s cell phone was also in the area of the shooting on Nov. 6 and did not move from that location until just after the shooting occurred.
Another cell phone tied to Blake allegedly contained pictures of him with a similar haircut and clothes matching descriptions of the shooter. By tracking that second phone, police were able to locate him in Tennessee, Loeb said.
Defense attorney Katie Nagler told jurors that Blake was wrongfully accused, saying police “honed in on Mr. Blake in less than 48 hours, and everything afterwards was built around making him their suspect.”
The attorney said the identification of the shooter’s vehicle as a Dodge Charger was based on assumptions made by investigators, who she said could not have positively identified the car’s make and model through the images provided them by smart street lights.
Once police discovered Blake had a similar vehicle as the shooter, “they were glued to him,” Nagler said.
According to the defense attorney, no forensic evidence such as DNA or fingerprints tied Blake to the restaurant, and the witnesses’ identification of the suspect was unreliable.
Though all the witnesses generally described the shooter as a tall Black man, Nagler said other details regarding the suspect differed among witness accounts.
Mario Rojas, who Nagler said claimed he “would never forget the face of the shooter,” did not identify Blake in a photographic lineup, she said.
The attorney said that the other two surviving employees were not provided photo lineups, as they had already seen Blake’s picture in news reports of the shooting.
City News Service contributed to this article.