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Two Plead Not Guilty in Slaying of Merced Taxi Driver

MERCED - The man accused of killing a Merced taxicab driver in January bragged about the incident but also told people he “messed up” and “panicked” during a robbery, running away empty handed, according to Merced police reports examined by the Sun-Star.

Joseph E. Castrillo, 18, and Dante M. Woods, 20, pleaded not guilty Monday to murder in the Jan. 5 shooting death of 59-year-old Dean Barker. Both men entered their pleas before Judge Ronald W. Hansen in Merced Superior Court. New details surfaced Tuesday in Barker’s death, as some police reports in the case became public record for the first time.

Police have described Woods as Castrillo’s accomplice in Barker’s death. Woods has denied shooting Barker, police have said.

Barker was a well-known taxicab driver in Merced and a former Dos Palos police officer.

Katie Gates, one of the Merced County deputy district attorneys prosecuting the case, said both defendants face potential life sentences in prison, if convicted. Gates on Tuesday declined to comment on specific details of the case.

Castrillo’s attorney, Deputy Public Defender Michael Coughlin, said he still was waiting to receive all of the evidence in the case and declined to comment. Woods’ attorney, Jeffrey Tenenbaum, said he still was looking into the details of the case.

“Mr. Woods has entered a plea of not guilty and we’re still reviewing all of the reports,” Tenenbaum said Tuesday.

Both defendants have been described by police as having ties to criminal street gangs, but no gang allegations have been charged in the case.

According to police reports, Castrillo and Woods were passengers in Barker’s taxicab, a 2007 Ford Crown Victoria, the night he was killed. They arrived in the 300 block of Mimi Lane and Barker asked them for the fare. The reports say Castrillo then pulled out a chrome-colored revolver with a black handle and struck Barker in the face.

The reports say Castrillo then fired one shot, hesitated briefly and fired two more shots. Woods, who was in the back seat, apparently could not get the vehicle’s doors open and is believed to have crawled into the front seat and over Barker to exit the vehicle. Woods’ clothes were stained with blood in the process, the reports say.

Police found Barker slumped in the front seat of the cab with at least one gunshot wound to his head. The vehicle was running, the driver’s door was open, and the headlights were on, the reports say.

The reports describe Castrillo as “bragging” about the homicide.

After the death, the reports say, Castrillo indicated to others that he’d planned to rob a cab driver because he needed money. However, he claimed he “messed up” and opened fire. The reports also say Castrillo acknowledged being “so scared” after the slaying that he ran away without taking any money.

Castrillo was arrested Jan. 15 and Woods was arrested Jan. 20.

The reports say Woods wrote an apology letter to Barker’s family, saying “‘I am very sorry for your lost (sic). If I can take this back I would. I didn’t now (sic) it was going to go down like this.’”

Castrillo remains in custody without bail at the Merced County Jail. Woods was in custody Tuesday at the John Latorraca Correctional Facility on $1 million bail, according to booking records.

Both men will return to court March 30 for further proceedings.

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