Crime & Courts

Greg Leon Trial: Defendant Takes Stand After Mistrial Motion Denied

“What the f*** have you done?”

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Defense attorney Jack Swerling began the fifth day of testimony in the high-profile murder trial of South Carolina restauranteur Gregorio M. Leon by moving for a mistrial. This motion came on the heels of an unexpected change in testimony by 76-year-old forensic pathologist Dr. Janice Ross last Friday (June 23, 2023).

Ross indicated in her 2016 autopsy report that the first bullet fired by Leon hit victim Arturo Bravo‘s arm while it was elevated. This lent credibility to the defense’s assertion that Bravo was reaching for something Leon believed to be a weapon at the time Leon fired his revolver at Bravo.

Ross testified in court that while reviewing images in preparation for the trial (seven-and-a-half years after she preformed the autopsy), she had changed her assessment – citing a wound pattern that she now claimed indicated Bravo’s arm was down.

Defense attorney Alissa Wilson impeached Ross’ testimony and raised appellate issues on cross examination.

“So it wasn’t until this time, seven years later, that you changed your opinion?” Wilson said last week.

Wilson also questioned when the solicitor’s office learned of this change during her cross examination.

(Click to view)

Alyssa Wilson (Dylan Nolan/ FITSNews)

The exchange with Ross – the state’s final witness – threw a major wrench in what had been an effective week of testimony as the state built its case against Leon.

While presiding judge Walton J. McLeod IV did everything within his power to avoid prejudicing the jury when trial resumed on Monday, it was evident something was amiss. Members of the jury were brought in on Monday morning and told they would not be needed until Wednesday afternoon because the attorneys had a matter to resolve.

When Wednesday rolled around, it was clear court wasn’t going to proceed as normal. Neither party had any documentation in the courtroom, and the court reporter was nowhere to be found. Court gaveled into session more than an hour after the judge had instructed jurors to arrive – and the session was every bit as brief as Monday’s.

This news outlet reported Wednesday evening that attorneys Dick Harpootlian and Chris Kenney – who previously represented Leon – testified about their knowledge of Ross’ original report in McLeod’s chambers earlier that morning, and that the defense intended to move for a mistrial Thursday morning.

Accordingly, today’s motion by Swerling was no shock – but the exchange between the defense attorney and eleventh circuit solicitor Rick Hubbard painted a clearer picture of what transpired after Ross’ testimony sent both parties scrambling.

Hubbard testified his first face-to-face meeting with Ross about the case took place during the hour-and-a-half lunch break leading up to her testimony – and that he first learned she had changed her assessment at that time. He said he was left with the choice of putting forward a witness he knew would be easily impeached on the stand – or requesting a bench conference so the parties could decide how to handle the matter. Hubbard chose to move forward with the testimony. Not only that, he argued the defense made a similar choice when Wilson impeached Ross on the stand instead of requesting judicial intervention on the issue.

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Attorneys on both sides worked through the weekend – attempting to amicably resolve their disagreement over the appropriate response to Ross’ testimony. When it became apparent an agreement could not be reached, the parties called McLeod to inform him the defense was moving for a mistrial. Additionally, defense attorneys told McLeod they would need time to find their own forensic pathologist since they assumed Ross’ testimony would actually bolster their case.

So who was at fault for this mess? It is certainly the responsibility of the solicitor’s office to know what their witnesses intend to say on the stand – and communicate that to the defense. In this case, though, prosecutors appear to have been every bit as derailed as the defense by this change. When charges were initially filed against Leon, Hubbard was still an employee of the S.C. attorney general’s office and the case was the responsibility of a deputy solicitor who is no longer employed by the eleventh circuit.

Meanwhile, Leon was represented by Harpootlian – and Ross’ memory of the case was still fresh.

We may never know why Ross failed to communicate her new assessment of the shooting to the solicitor’s office, but this unfortunate set of circumstances clearly demonstrates the need for a more efficient docket in the Palmetto State.

McLeod ruled that since the mistake was communicated to the defense promptly – and didn’t in his eyes constitute a Brady or rule five violation – the trial was free to continue, but that should the evidence prove “material in the context of the whole record” the issue would be re-addressed.

While Swerling lost the battle, this issue will figure prominently in Leon’s appeal should he ultimately be convicted.

With the matter of the mistrial motion settled, Leon took the stand in his own defense.

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Greg Leon prepares to take the stand in his murder trial. (Dylan Nolan/ FITSNews)

Almost immediately, Swerling sought to establish that Greg and Rachel Leon had a solid marriage.

Leon testified that he thought their marriage was “excellent.” While “excellent” is a very subjective word, all available evidence suggests the union was at least stable for the vast majority of the years the Leons’ built their empire of San Jose restaurants and raised their seven children.

Leon, who was born in Mexico and became a naturalized citizen of the United States, comes from a family of ten. His father and all of his siblings successfully operate numerous restaurants.

Leon explained that Rachel “took care of the children and I worked.”

He painted a picture familiar to anyone who has worked in the food service industry, telling jurors Rachel would wait for him to come home late at night, and the couple would enjoy each other’s company as she re-heated him a plate of that night’s family dinner.

According to Leon, the couple had sex three or four times a week.

But over time … things changed.

“I’d come home and she’d be real short and snap at me on any given day, but i didn’t think much of it,” Leon testified. “It was numerous things she was doing that caught my eye, but I didn’t think much of it, women go through changes.”

Leon said he grew concerned when his wife “missed picking one of children up from school” and “missed dental appointments” – explaining she had never neglected these things before.

Communication in the relationship became strained.

(Click to view)

Greg Leon (Dylan Nolan/ FITSNews)

“She probably lost 30-40 pounds at that time, she didn’t look good at all, I asked her about it but she snapped at me,” Leon said. “We would be in bed and I would hear her crying and I would ask what was wrong and she wouldn’t answer. She changed a lot in that period of time.”

He told the jury his wife appeared depressed and that he “thought she was doing drugs (with) the weight loss and everything.” When asked how she responded when confronted about drug use, Leon told the jury “she holed up and didn’t answer, she would go a week without talking to me.”

Leon’s suspicions of his wife’s drug use compounded when he found cash missing from the business’ safe on multiple occasions.

Throughout his direct examination Leon seemed candid and genuine, but answered most questions with either “yes sir” or “no sir.”

Leon attempted to explain some of the state’s most damning evidence including the GPS tracker, his cell phone accessing multiple dating websites, and the lack of text messages he and his wife exchanged.

When Swerling asked if he accessed dating sites to look for her Leon replied replied “no sir, I don’t know how to use the phone.”

Leon cited his technological ineptitude multiple times throughout his testimony, saying he doesn’t have mastery of reading or writing English – and that he didn’t send text messages until cell phones added the voice-to-text feature. According to Leon, he didn’t fully understand how to use the app tied to the GPS tracker he had installed in his wife’s vehicle.

Leon further testified to two near-encounters with Bravo at his home – one where he spotted a parked car outside of the house, and another when a neighbor asked him if his daughter had a boyfriend sneaking into the house after seeing an unfamiliar male on the property.

(Click to view)

(Leon demonstrates Bravo reaching our prior to being shot Via: Dylan Nolan-FITSNews)

Leon testified that even as the couple’s relationship deteriorated, they remained as physically intimate as ever – and that he never expected an affair.

Leon testified he expected to find himself in “the middle of a drug deal” as he made the ten-minute drive from his restaurant to the GPS location of his wife’s Mercedes SUV.

Leon testified that when he parked behind his wife’s vehicle he “wasn’t trying to block them in … I got out of the car, and went around, and looked in front of her car and she wasn’t there, so I went to front of the truck.”

Leon claimed he couldn’t see through the truck’s windshield, and that he drew his gun “for my protection and hers” after hearing his wife scream from inside the vehicle. Leon flung the rear passenger door of the truck open.

“My brain’s going 1,000 miles per hours, I saw him in the truck naked.” Leon said he recognized Bravo “immediately.”

Bravo was a regular at his restaurant’s Saturday night salsa dancing events, and even asked for a picture with Leon – who testified that this happened frequently when he worked behind the bar of his restaurants.

Leon told the jury he didn’t notice that his wife had only one pant leg on when he repeatedly told her to get out of the car, only to be told by Bravo that he intended to kill him. “Little Greg (Leon’s father is also named Greg) I’m going to kill you” Bravo allegedly said.

According to Leon, it was at this point Bravo reached for something in the cab of the truck.

“He moved like he was reaching for a gun, and at the time it happened so fast,” Leon said. “I believed he was going for a gun … he was reaching for the center console when I shot him.”

Swerling asked what his wife did next …

(Click to View)

A still shot from the surveillance footage of Greg Leon shooting Arturo Bravo. (Dylan Nolan/ FITSNews)

“Nothing, she got out (of) the door, when she got out he fell out,” Leon said.

Leon can be seen on video rapidly returning to his Range Rover, but says he saw his wife pulling her pants back up outside of the truck.

“What the fuck have you done?” Leon told his wife.

Asked why he flung the gun in the woods before surrendering to police, Leon replied that he was “”scared, I didn’t know what was going to happen, but at the bond hearing I told them where it was.”

Leon claimed to have no knowledge that his friend Maria Moreno was soliciting false testimony from Bravo’s former roommate and lover Enrique “Ruby” Sierra – despite a recorded phone call between Moreno and Leon heavily implicating him in the failed scheme.

He testified that when he told Sierra to “act natural” he was” “telling her the truth, not to make up stuff” and that he genuinely believed the case would never be tried when Sierra made her statement to his attorneys.

He insisted the cash Sierra left his restaurant with after making her statement was actually compensation for work Moreno’s husband had done on his house.

With that, Swerling concluded his direct examination.

Hubbard’s cross examination of Leon was brutal.

“So it was all Rachel Leon’s fault?!” Hubbard asked, launching his assault.

“I mean she had the affair” Leon replied.

“You had no suspicion, not any suspicion whatsoever that she was having an affair?” Hubbard continued. ” It was an excellent marriage … for you, and when you suspected your wife of having trouble it was because she was … looking bad?”

“Does your wife look bad in that photo?” Hubbard asked, referencing a selfie Rachel had sent to Bravo.

(Click to view)

(Via: Dylan Nolan-FITSNews)

“Doe she look depressed in that photo?” Hubbard asked while projecting a picture of a Rachel and Bravo smiling.

“No sir” Leon replied.

(Click to view)

(Via: Dylan Nolan-FITSNews)

“But you suspected it had to be drugs because it couldn’t be you?” Hubbard asked.

“No sir. We had a fine relationship,” Leon responded.

Hubbard, who has demonstrated his razor-sharp intellect and knowledge of the law throughout the trial, for the first time displayed his showmanship and charisma. Hubbard stood parallel to the jury, looking them in the eyes as he questioned Leon.

Leon’s tendency to provide simple “yes” or “no” answers didn’t hurt him while Swerling was asking the questions, but it allowed Hubbard to hit him with with rapid-fire attacks.

“So you have no clue who searched for Findmymatches.com on your phone?” Hubbard asked Leon.

“One of my kids or someone else,” he replied, again citing his supposed inability to use technology.

Leon had no explanation for cell records showing his phone accessing multiple dating websites over the course of months.

(Click to view)

S.C. eleventh circuit solicitor Rick Hubbard cross-examines Greg Leon. (Dylan Nolan/ FITSNews)

“Lets talk about searches that weren’t on your phone, ‘signs of drug addiction,’ ‘how to confront a family member with a drug issue,'” Hubbard said, emphasizing that Leon chose to deal with his suspicions himself.

“You called Eric Bland, and what did Eric Bland, your lawyer, tell you about getting a private eye?” Hubbard asked, referring to another of Leon’s former attorneys.

“He was out of town,” Leon replied.

Hubbard found that response laughable, telling Leon “you have plenty of money to hire one, you just chose not to, you chose to track her on your phone.”

“I don’t know how,” Leon replied.

“We’re back to that?” Hubbard shot back, pivoting to the jury. The prosecutor later pointed out the fact Leon clearly knew how to use the GPS tacker because he successfully located his wife with the app multiple times.

“Lets get back to Rachel, Valentines Day – your family goes to Carrabbas … did you say to Rachel, ‘look, let’s sit down for about fifteen minutes and talk,’ you didn’t take that opportunity on Valentines Day?” Hubbard asked.

“No sir,” Leon replied.

After the family’s dinner at the Italian restaurant – a dinner during which Bravo called Rachel Leon multiple times – Leon tracked his wife’s GPS location, and saw that her car was in the parking ten minutes down the road

“You chose not to call anybody, you didn’t call Eric Bland … clearly whatever problem it was you were going to handle it … you didn’t stop and go, what am I doing, did you?” Hubbard asked.

(Click to View)

Arturo Bravo and Rachel Leon on a trip to Charleston S.C. (Dylan Nolan/ FITSNews)

Leon, who didn’t attempt to evade any of the questions posed to him, responded affirmatively when asked if the only way his wife could leave the parking lot was in his vehicle after he parked behind her after arriving at the parking lot.

Hubbard and Leon debated the opacity of the truck’s windshield, something only Leon will ever truly know. It will be up to the jury to determine if they believe him when he said he couldn’t see into the vehicle – and that it was his wife’s scream and not the naked man sitting beside her which prompted him to draw his revolver.

“Then you open up the side door, Arturo didn’t open it up, you did.” Hubbard proclaimed.

Hubbard questioned the veracity of the death threat Bravo allegedly made.

“So you want the jury to believe that a naked man with no weapon in his car told you he was going to kill you while you had a .357 pointed at him?” Hubbard asked.

“Why do you flee if you are not guilty? ” Hubbard pressed.

“I just found my wife with another man, I was panicking,” Leon responded.

“But you had the sense to call your lawyer?” Hubbard fired back. “You’re going to turn yourself in, because you haven’t done anything wrong, and on they way you throw out your pistol, the .357 magnum you used to defend yourself with?”

Leon didn’t improve on his lackluster explanation of his role in the attempted witness tampering on cross examination.

Hubbard stressed that absurdity of the notion that Leon thought his case wasn’t going to trial given the fact that the charges were never dropped, and he was still out on bond wearing an ankle monitor, Yet Leon continued to testify that he didn’t know the case was going to trial when the false statement was recorded.

Hubbard’s final question – more of an attempt to publish evidence than solicit an answer – was wether Leon was aware that his attorneys had met with the judge to schedule his trial directly before Moreno contacted Sierra asking for testimony.

“No sir,” he replied.

Court adjourned after Leon’s testimony, and will gavel back into session tomorrow morning (June 30, 2023).

Stay tuned to this news outlet for continued coverage of Leon’s trial.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Dylan Nolan is a journalist and video producer for FITSNews. He graduated from the Darla Moore School of Business with a bachelors in Accounting in 2021, and has spent his professional career attempting to shine light on corruption and institutional failure in South Carolina through his journalism. Got a tip or story idea for Dylan? Email him here. You can also engage him socially @DNolan2000.

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