Danny Carbajal TKO'd

A curious moment occurred inside Maricopa County Judge Andrew Klein's courtroom on July 25.

Danny Carbajal, the older brother and former trainer/manager of retired local boxing great Michael Carbajal, was about to plead guilty to three counts of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars in property and retirement accounts from his estranged (and now late) wife, Sally. Carbajal's two daughters, who had been in cahoots with their dad in the scheme, also had pleaded guilty to felony charges at earlier hearings. Both were placed on probation, without having to serve jail time.

The 56-year-old Phoenix native stood at a lectern awaiting the start of his plea-bargain hearing with his attorney, Sherry Bell.

Without prompting, Bell marched over to the spectator's gallery and testily addressed a New Times writer who had been chatting with Bell's law partner, Henry Florence.

"I know he didn't kill her," she told the writer, referring to her client loudly enough for everyone in the vicinity to hear.

"How do you know that?" the reporter responded.

"There is no tangible evidence against him at all," Bell responded.

The attorney was referring to the February 25, 2005, homicides of Sally Carbajal and her boyfriend, Gerry Best.

The pair were shot from close range shortly before dawn in a parking lot just outside their apartment, at 20th Avenue and Indian School Road.

They were killed just three days before Danny and Sally were scheduled to square off in a divorce trial with momentous financial implications for both parties.

Court records in that case suggest that Sally would have won about $750,000 of assets under Arizona's community-property laws.

Phoenix police at the murder scene found a folder near Sally's bloody body that held reams of paperwork related to the divorce case. Other evidence at the scene seemed to indicate that robbery was not the underlying motive for the homicides.

The murder spelled the end of the divorce case, and Danny Carbajal retained full ownership of the properties he allegedly had stolen from his wife with the use of forged quit-claim deeds and other means.

Detectives were convinced from the start (and remain so) that Carbajal was behind the twin-killings, either as the actual hit man or, more likely, as the contractor of a murder for hire — the prime motive being the money.

But Carbajal vehemently denied involvement in Sally's killing during a 2005 interview with New Times, saying it would be "the last thing I would think of."

No one has been arrested, much less convicted in the Carbajal/Best murder case, which made attorney Bell's courtroom outburst so peculiar. Danny Carbajal was in court to acknowledge his guilt in the financial fraud case, not to admit culpability in an unsolved double-murder.

Before returning to Carbajal's side at the dais, Bell also referred disdainfully to the "relationship" between her client and the writer.

(New Times wrote the first story on Michael Carbajal and his close-knit family back in 1987, "A Hit With His Family," when Michael was an up-and-coming amateur, and published a retrospective piece "A Long Day's Journey" (April 10, 1997). Then came "Family Secrets" (June, 23, 2005), which told of Sally Carbajal's murder and of the financial fraud and other scams that led to the September 2005 grand jury indictments of Danny and daughters Josephine and Celia.)

Soon after the hearing began, Judge Klein asked Bell to give a "factual basis" for her client's guilty pleas.

Instead, the attorney chose first to criticize Sally Carbajal, calling her a drunken thief whose actions had pushed previously law-abiding Danny into acting out of character.

The judge listened patiently until Bell finally gave a bare-bones account that explained why Danny had whispered the word "guilty" to two counts of theft and one count of committing fraudulent schemes.

The pleas were an admission that county prosecutor Annielaurie Van Wie had enough evidence to prove what Sally Carbajal's divorce attorney had been ready to establish at the aborted 2005 divorce trial — that Danny had enlisted the aid of his daughters through forgeries submitted to the County Recorder's Office and other deceptions to rip off his wife of 34 years.

What Judge Klein didn't hear was the chilling account given earlier to New Times by Sally's divorce attorney, Ken Winsberg. The veteran lawyer spoke in 2005 of his last conversation with Sally, a day before the murder:

"She told me, 'Danny will never let me get the money that's coming to me.' She was genuinely scared of getting murdered by him. I told her, 'No one's killed you yet, right?' Just trying to lighten things up a little."

Earlier, Judge Klein had sentenced the Carbajals' daughters, Josephine and Celia, to probation after their guilty pleas for their role in the schemes.

A probation officer wrote in Josephine Carbajal's presentence report, "[She] appears to have assisted in the fraudulent activities to enable her father to steal community property assets, including several real estate properties, from her mother . . . Tragically, the defendant's mother, and the victim in the extensive fraudulent schemes, was a victim of homicide just days before her divorce proceedings from [Josephine's] co-defendant and father, Danny Carbajal.

"As such, justice may never be served for [Sally] Carbajal, as her family members, who perpetrated this fraud, have received the benefits of their actions."

Judge Klein advised Danny Carbajal that he can't back out of his guilty pleas unless he proves that a "manifest injustice" must be corrected.

Judge Klein scheduled Carbajal's sentencing for September 25 and allowed him to remain free until then. Prosecutors are expected to ask the judge to impose, at least, a five-year prison sentence, the average term under Arizona law for the crimes to which Carbajal pleaded guilty.

But, according to the terms of the plea bargain, Danny Carbajal is also eligible for probation.

Despite Carbajal's legal problems, the judge permitted him to leave Arizona for Las Vegas on a recent weekend to attend a boxing tournament in which Danny Carbajal said his grandson was participating.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin