On one end of the social media exchanges: a Maryland teenager, looking to sell an extra ticket to his high school graduation ceremony the next day.
On the other end: four conspirators, who prosecutors say were plotting his murder.
“I’m at an ATM,” one of the four wrote, according to court filings, “be there in less than 10.”
“I’m parked on the side by a random house,” the teen seller replied.
The wait inside his Honda Civic on a suburban road 20 miles north of Washington involved more back-and-forth messages, according to the filings, and stretched longer than Shadi Najjar, 17, had expected. Beside him sat his friend, Artem Ziberov, 18, who was also set to graduate from Germantown’s Northwest High School. The extra tickets they had for the June 6 ceremony were going for $20, money they could use for a planned beach trip.
But the group on the way had only feigned interest in the ticket. They pulled up about 10:30 p.m., according to authorities, got out and unloaded at least 30 gunshots, killing the two teens in the Honda. Twelve days later, three suspects were arrested. Several months after that, a fourth man was charged.
For the past two weeks, the first trial in the killings was underway in Montgomery County Circuit Court. It ended Thursday with guilty verdicts of two counts of first-degree murder handed down to Jose Canales-Yanez, 26.
“This defendant in this case fired 11 shots from his .40-caliber handgun,” Circuit Judge David Boynton said from the bench, describing how Canales-Yanez moved closer to the Civic while shooting. “At this close range, while standing next to the car, this defendant was in a position to execute his intended target, Shadi, and to make sure that the eyewitness, Artem, was also dead.”
Boynton issued the verdict in the case because the defendant chose not to have a 12-member citizen jury render a decision. Among the details Boynton had heard: the final words the teens said to their mothers, an alleged meeting the suspects held in a trailer park before the ambush, the scene that the first officer arriving after the shootings encountered.
“I’ve got one, two people down, blood, gunshot wounds to the head,” Montgomery County Police Officer Matthew McGowan said into his radio, calling for more officers and paramedics .
He shouted at the two teens, his words recorded by body-worn camera video that was played in court: “Hey! Can you hear me? Are you alive?”
Crime scene photos, presented in court, showed the car’s exterior pockmarked by bullet holes and the interior stained with blood. The dead teens were still in their seat belts. Ziberov’s body lurched left, and Najjar’s body, in the driver’s seat, lurched right. Their heads leaned against one another. Beside Najjar’s left leg and against his door was a bloodstained graduation ticket.
Prosecutors described Canales-Yanez as the ringleader, who for months waited to exact revenge on Najjar after he reportedly stole marijuana from Canales-Yanez’s wife during a botched drug deal. Months later, as Canales-Yanez was doing Google searches on his phone, prosecutors said he looked for a music topic they contend shows his mind-set: I kill for my family rap songs.
Boynton agreed. “I think that says it all about this defendant’s motive, intent and actions on June 5, 2017,” he said Thursday.
Nothing in the trial had linked Ziberov to the earlier botched drug deal.
In presenting their case against Canales-Yanez, prosecutors relied in part on what they say was done on his behalf by the three suspects who have trials pending: Roger Garcia, his brother Edgar Garcia-Gaona, and Rony Galicia.
The social media exchanges that purportedly led to the ambush came from a Snapchat account registered to Roger Garcia. The DNA found on some shell casings was matched to Rony Galicia, according to prosecutors, who also said that a box of bullets bearing Canales-Yanez’s fingerprints was found at Garcia-
Prosecutors placed Canales-
Yanez in a purported planning meeting just before the killings, and said his cellphone records indicated he was soon moving toward what became the crime scene. But they did not produce an eyewitness or direct forensic evidence that put Canales-Yanez at the site of the shootings.
“This is essentially a circumstantial case,” Boynton noted Thursday.
Attorneys for Canales-Yanez chose to have a judge trial to keep emotions out of the verdict . One of them, Kathleen Dolan, implored Boynton early in the trial not to be “swayed by sympathy, prejudice or public opinion, natural in a case like this,” and to find her client not guilty.
Last week, prosecutors called the mothers of the victims as their first witnesses.
Julia Tewelow testified about Ziberov, her son, coming to the United States from Moscow as an 11-year-old who couldn’t speak English well. He became an Eagle Scout, excelled in school and was set to enroll at the University of Maryland at College Park.
“We laughed and talked” before he went out June 5, she said, recalling what his plans were: “They were going to sell tickets.”
Cristina Berner Najjar said her son was born in Montgomery County and had picked up a little Arabic, taught to him by his father, a little German, which she taught him, and had learned Spanish. She said the evening of June 5, he told her he was going to sell a graduation ticket and “kissed me and hugged me” as he headed out.
About an hour before they were killed, and unrelated to the crime, the teens sold a different graduation ticket to one of their classmates.
The buyer, Sean Hughes, testified he had used the social-media app Snapchat to get out word he needed a ticket. Ziberov replied he would sell Hughes one for $20.
At 9:38 p.m., Hughes met Ziberov and Najjar outside his home, he recalled from the witness stand. “See you tomorrow,” he told them.
That night, according to testimony from a different witness, the four suspects gathered in a mobile home in a trailer park off Frederick Road in Germantown. Phone location records also placed Canales-Yanez and two of the other suspects in the trailer park, according to prosecutors.
The witness testified she had been sleeping at the trailer but awoke to see the four suspects huddled around a cellphone. They seemed to be discussing a map on the phone, and spoke of “East Village Avenue” and a street that ended in “court,” she testified.
She told the judge she saw a black pistol on a nightstand. “I had a bad feeling about things,” she said, “and I decided to leave.”
During the witness’s appearance in court, the defendant’s wife, Kara Yanez, allegedly pointed her phone camera at the witness stand and muttered threatening comments . She was charged with witness retaliation and arrested, jailed and then released on bond, according to court records.
The Washington Post is not naming the witness because of the threats.
Reached on Thursday before the verdicts, Kara Yanez denied trying to sell Najjar marijuana last year, and denied trying to retaliate against the witness. “Both incidents are not true,” she said.
Yanez also said her husband is innocent and “not a violent, aggressive person.”
Prosecutors detailed Canales-Yanez’s web browsing history that showed within eight hours of the shootings — at 5:55 a.m. — he was on his phone reviewing a Montgomery County Police news release on the incident and continued reading police updates and news accounts in what prosecutors assert was a departure from his browsing habits.
Prosecutors also played a video interrogation of Canales-Yanez after he was taken into custody. He was asked about the botched drug deal reportedly involving his wife and said, “I don’t know nothing about what happened. I just know she got hurt.” Detective Paula Hamill, in the interrogation, told him what she believed: that he and others were involved in the killings.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Canales-Yanez said.