For 15 years, Travis Phillips has been waiting for justice in the 1997 murder of his teenage brother, Kristopher Olinger.
It has been seven years since two brothers were arrested for the vicious crime. One of those men pleaded guilty last year. The other, Jacobo Ruelas, has pleaded not guilty and was to face trial Monday. Phillips put off his wedding and his college education to be present.
It was a wasted delay.
At the request of the defense attorney, who said he was not yet prepared, Judge Mark Hood vacated the trial date earlier this month. On Tuesday, as Phillips looked on, Hood denied prosecutor Jeannine Pacioni's request to stop "wandering aimlessly through the court system (and) set a firm trial date."
Pacioni said she felt defense attorney Andrew Liu was driving the trial date and Olinger's family had waited "quite enough."
Hood said he understood the urgency but is "focused on a just, fair, and expedient trial." He will set a date, he said, when Liu has digested 14,000 pages of discovery and is prepared. Liu took over the case in May after Ruelas' former attorney fell ill.
Hood scheduled a status conference for Feb. 5.
"I'm pretty outraged. I feel like I've been given up on," said Phillips, Olinger's only immediate surviving family member.
Now 25, Phillips was 10 the morning his brother was found dead in a turnout above the Pacific Grove Recreation Trail.
Every time the case comes back to court, Phillips said, "I have to think about him struggling back up the cliff, choking on his own blood. My mother spent countless days being out on the beach not knowing who killed her baby boy."
"My father," who raised Olinger from the age of 3, "finally got an indictment, but it didn't get much further than that," he said. "It's been too long."
Shell Phillips, Travis and Kris' mother, died in 2003, three years before Ruelas and his younger brother, Angel, were arrested in the case. Loren Phillips, Olinger's stepfather, died in 2008 waiting for a trial. Travis Phillips feels they died of broken hearts and the emotion of Kris' death.
Phillips' 15-year wait has not been fruitless, though it has been interrupted by fits and starts.
Technological advances led to the arrest of the Ruelas brothers, former wrestling stars at Gonzales High School who, prosecutors say, killed Olinger for their Norteño gang. In 2005, a new state palm-print database allegedly matched Jacobo Ruelas' print to one found on Olinger's recovered car. DNA and confidential witnesses allegedly implicated his brother, who was 17 in 1997. They were arrested and indicted in 2006.
Travis Phillips has carried the torch since his father's death, appearing at most hearings. The cases proceeded slowly on parallel tracks because prosecutors were seeking the death penalty against Jacobo Ruelas, now a father of three who was 18 at the time of the murder.
In 2011, Phillips asked prosecutors to drop their pursuit of capital punishment to speed the prosecution. The cases were rejoined and in April 2012 moved to trial.
Minutes before jury selection was to begin, Angel Ruelas pleaded guilty to murder. He has asked to participate in the "restorative justice" program with Phillips, who said a meeting is still in the works.
The younger Ruelas last year completed a prison sentence he was serving for an unrelated carjacking and is being held in an undisclosed out-of-county jail.
Pacioni proceeded to trial against Jacobo Ruelas, but in the midst of jury selection, defense attorney Bud Landreth fell ill and had to withdraw. It took the Alternate Defender's Office a month to find a new attorney to take the case.
Liu told Hood on Friday he is spending 80 to 90 percent of his time on the case, but has completed review of only 27 of 32 binders of evidence in the case, has viewed none of the audio-video evidence and little of the four boxes of work turned over to him by Ruelas' prior attorneys.
Ruelas was originally represented by private counsel, then Landreth and Santa Cruz attorney Lisa McCamey, then won the right to represent himself. After prosecutors dropped the death penalty, he went back to Landreth.
Assistant District Attorney Berkley Brannon said it is the longest-running pending case of his career and perhaps the longest in Monterey County history.
"I've never seen a case that's taken this long to try," he said.
Travis Phillips said he feels Hood needs to take control of a runaway train.
"He's a judge for a reason," he said. "I feel very wronged by the system."
Virginia Hennessey can be reached at 753-6751 or firstname.lastname@example.org