The late Frank Carson and wife Georgia DeFilippo. Carson was a defense attorney accused of murder. Credit: Georgia DeFilippo

This story is one in a series written and paid for by Gwilliam, Ivary, Chiosso, Cavalli & Brewer, an Oakland-based law firm dedicated to helping people who are injured and suffering get the compensation and results they need to move forward.

The Oakland law firm of Gwilliam Ivary Chiosso Cavalli & Brewer, has had a reputation of taking on tough cases and getting justice on behalf of their clients for 40-plus years. Laws have been changed because of their work. And other attorneys regularly refer cases to the firm.

Such was the case when Modesto criminal defense attorney Robert Forkner, referred his client, Frank Carson, himself a criminal defense attorney, to the firm. The Estate of Frank Carson case, now filed in court, asserts the following:

Stanislaus County law enforcement officials despised Modesto attorney Frank Carson, who had dealt them a series of high-profile courtroom defeats and repeatedly accused them of corruption.

In retaliation, police and prosecutors framed Carson, the case states, for supposedly orchestrating the 2012 killing of a petty thief, Korey Kauffman. In 2015 Carson along with his wife, step-daughter, and six other people, were arrested on charges of murder or helping to cover up a killing. 

“This case was a vendetta by the Stanislaus County District Attorney against a successful criminal defense attorney whom they hated, someone who exposed corruption in their office and in law enforcement,” said Jayme Walker, the attorney with Gwilliam, Ivary, Chiosso, Cavalli & Brewer who is representing several plaintiffs in the case. “They destroyed people’s lives,” Walker said.

Tragically, Carson died in August of 2020, at the age of 66, of kidney problems that Walker attributed directly to his 17 months of confinement before and during the trial.
The jail was shut down for inhumane conditions just months after Carson’s release. 

Jayme Walker

Walker represents the Estate of Frank Carson; Carson’s widow, Georgia DeFilippo; stepdaughter, Christina DeFilippo; and Eduardo Quintanar, one of three California Highway Patrol officers who faced charges brought by the Stanislaus County District Attorney.

Carson was acquitted in June of 2019 after less than two days of jury deliberations following a trial that lasted 14 months. Charges against five other defendants were dropped or thrown out.

The case fell apart, Walker said, because it was based on false testimony from criminals whose own charges were dropped or reduced in exchange for their cooperation. 

A thief disappears

The prosecution’s “preposterous” theory, Walker said, was that Carson asked three men with criminal histories to “teach a lesson” to anyone caught stealing from a Turlock property where Carson stored antiques and old cars, thus setting in motion events that led to Korey Kauffman’s death. 

Kauffman had a history of using drugs and stealing scrap metals to sell for cash. After Kauffman went missing in 2012, one of Carson’s neighbors, Michael Cooley, reported seeing Kauffman late at night heading for Carson’s land to steal some irrigation pipes. Kauffman was not seen again, and almost a year-and-a-half later, Kauffman’s remains were discovered about 60 miles east, in the Stanislaus National Forest. Police found a spent bullet casing, but an autopsy did not determine a cause of death. 

Instead of focusing on known drug dealers involved, a multi-agency task force zeroed in on Carson.  Leaders of that task force included officials who had clashed bitterly with Carson for years, such as district attorney investigator Steve Jacobson, whom Carson was suing at the time for allegedly assaulting him in a courthouse. Carson’s lawsuit asserted that Jacobson had “a long history of animosity against (Carson) and has repeatedly been exposed as a liar by him in court.” 

The result of the task force’s investigation was a rambling, 325-page arrest warrant affidavit that painted Carson, who had no criminal record, as a volatile bully who wanted to stop the burglaries on his property without police help by enlisting others to punish suspected culprits. 

The fact that Carson announced in late 2013 that he would run for district attorney and assailed the overuse of wiretaps and other “corruption” in the district attorney’s office was counted as a strike against him; investigators in their affidavit described his campaign as a “contrived and calculated” effort to obstruct their inquiry.

There was never any physical evidence linking Carson to Kauffman’s death, or to show that a murder occurred on Carson’s property, or that Kauffman was ever there.

The key to the prosecutors’ case was Robert Lee Woody, a serial car thief and self-described drug addict who had been doing work for four years for brothers Baljit and Daljit Atwal at one of their stores. Carson had done legal work for both Baljit Atwal and Woody. Woody testified that Carson waived his fee, asking in return that Woody and the Atwals help Carson stop thefts from his property. 

A suspect’s story

In March 2014, police arrested Woody for Kauffman’s murder after his girlfriend recorded him while they were smoking methamphetamine, telling her that he alone shot and killed Kauffman and fed his remains to pigs. Once in custody, Woody disavowed his tale, saying he was just trying to impress his girlfriend. Once in custody,Woody offered up a new scenario, one that Carson’s attorneys say was “coerced.”

“They fed Woody facts about the case and he would repeat it,” Walker said. Woody was eager to cooperate, having been told he faced life in prison without the possibility of parole, she said.

As part of his deal with prosecutors, Woody agreed to plead no contest to voluntary manslaughter, conspiracy to obstruct justice, and arson. He was sentenced to seven years and four months in prison and has already been released with time off for good behavior. 

Woody’s new story was that he and Daljit Atwal came to Carson’s property late at night and found Baljit Atwal fighting with Kauffman. Kauffman was then killed, though over time Woody gave multiple versions of how that occurred: that there was a gunshot; that there was no gunshot; that he had nothing to do with it; that he was solely responsible; that the Atwal brothers did it alone, or with help from CHP officers, or a Mexican prison buddy of the Atwals. The list of versions does not stop there, Walker said.

Los Angeles Times reporter, Christopher Goffard, has written extensively about the Frank Carson case.

Prosecutors embraced Woody’s claims even though they conflicted with the available physical evidence, Walker said.

Woody testified that he helped the Atwal brothers wrap Kauffman’s body in a tarp and bury it in a yard next to their store for several weeks before it was moved to the foothills.  The ground next to the Atwals’ store, however, was so hard that a bulldozer could not dig down more than 18 inches, Walker said. It makes no sense that the smell from a barely covered decomposing body would go unnoticed for weeks in a crowded neighborhood, especially because the store had a lounge in the back frequented by police officers. No physical evidence was ever found to support the notion.

The Atwal brothers vehemently denied any involvement in or knowledge about Kauffman’s disappearance or death, and they complained bitterly about police searches of their homes and businesses, alleging that investigators caused $30,000 worth of damage to equipment and merchandise. Like Carson, they both spent 17 months in jail before being acquitted. 

CHP officers drawn into case

The CHP officers accused of involvement — none of whom Carson knew — were friends of the Atwals, who would hang out at their store.  Officer Walter Wells, who had invested $10,000 in the Atwals’ business, was charged with murder and spent 16 months in jail.

Wells was accused of traveling around with Kauffman’s cellphone for almost three weeks and turning it on and off to derail the investigation.   The evidence to support the charge was entirely circumstantial — a cell phone “expert” said Kauffman’s and Wells’ mobile phones connected to towers in the same parts of town at roughly the same times, including near Wells’ home. The expert, however, was almost completely discredited in court, Walker said. Kauffman’s cellphone was never located, and Wells was never shown to have been in possession of it.

Once attorney Frank Carson was acquitted, he represented Wells, and in late 2019 the district attorney dropped all charges against Wells.

Officers Scot McFarlane and Eduardo Quintanar were charged with being accessories for not being forthcoming and for advising their “co-conspirators” on how to undermine law enforcement investigative techniques. A court cleared Quintanar in 2017, and a judge threw out the charges against McFarlane in 2018.

All three men lost their jobs, but a state panel ruled in 2019 that Quintanar was improperly dismissed and should be reinstated. He is still seeking back pay.

Carson’s family also scrutinized

If the evidence against the officers was thin, it was perhaps even weaker against Carson’s wife and step-daughter, both of whom were freed after a preliminary hearing found no evidence to hold them. 

In parts, the affidavit seems almost laughable concerning the women, imputing criminal intent to “a few innocuous communications,” according to Carson’s attorneys. There was a recording of a telephone conversation, for example, in which Christina DeFelippo told her mother she cut her hand hitting a window while signaling someone to quiet a lawnmower. “You want me to come shoot them?” the mother asks in apparent jest. The affidavit states, “This is relevant to show that the first response to problems at the property involved at least the threat of violence regarding issues with the neighbors.”

In their suit, the DeFelippos claim that Chief Deputy District Attorney Marlisa Ferreira repeatedly asked Carson’s wife when she was going to run out of money and offered to drop charges against her and her daughter if they would give testimony implicating Carson.  That sort of heavy-handed tactic is typical for an anti-gang task force in which police will arrest everyone and try to coerce defendants to turn on each other, Carson’s attorneys contend.

“I think she (Ferreira) committed serious prosecutorial misconduct,” Walker said. “There was zero in the way of probable cause that could cause any reasonable person to think that these women had anything to do with a murder.”

Today, the civil case is in the discovery phase with multiple depositions scheduled for key witnesses. The attorneys at Gwilliam Ivary Chiosso Cavalli & Brewer, hope to bring justice to their clients, after years of trouble. However, nothing will bring back Frank Carson.