Trial begins for one of several men accused of 2019 shooting death that killed young mother

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Rhodes is the first defendant in the case to have a trial

Larenz Rhodes, aggravated murder charges, Youngstown

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) — Opening statements are expected shortly for one of several men accused of the shooting death of a woman in an East Side apartment as she was holding her child.

Jurors in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court in the case of Larenz Rhodes, 19, just returned from viewing the crime scene where Crystal Hernandez, 24, was shot and killed Jan. 24, 2019, in her McBride Street apartment.

Police said Hernandez was holding her 2-year-old son when several men fired inside the apartment, killing her. The child was not harmed.

Police said the shooting was retaliation for an earlier shooting in which Hernandez’s boyfriend, shot at several people earlier in the day.

The trial is the first jury trial in Mahoning County since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Jurors are being separated so social distancing guidelines can be followed. Six of the 12 jurors will be in the jury box and and remaining six will be seated in the gallery.

Plexiglass shields have been set up throughout the courtroom as well between jurors. Media members have been assigned seating on the side of the courtroom to accommodate social distancing guidelines.

Rhodes is the first defendant in the case to have a trial.

Assistant Prosecutor Rob Andrews said Hernandez died as the result of an “all day feud” between her boyfriend, Gabriel Smith, Lavante Perry and Rhodes and his friends.

Andrews introduced all nine men who were feuding, calling them “the cast.”

At first, Andrews said, someone in a car driven by Rhodes fires shots at Smith. Later, Perry shot at a car Rhodes was driving, wounding him with buckshot. Another person was slightly wounded.

Rhodes and his friends later met to plot their payback, Andrews said. One of the men supplied weapons to the group and later that night they piled into two cars and drove to McBride Street.

According to Andrews, there is video of the two cars pulling into the Victory Estates apartment complex where Smith lived on McBride Street, where Hernandez was staying.

At first, the group shoots out the fuse box for the apartment, and then “they just lit up the house,” Andrews said.

Hernandez died of a gunshot wound to the cheek with her son asleep on her chest, Andrews said.

Police found 46 shell casings in the parking lot, Andrews said.

“Not four. Not six. Forty-six casings,” Andrews said.

After the snow melted police went back to the crime scene and found seven more shell casings. The casings were 7.62mm casings which are most commonly used in AK-47 or SKS semiautomatic rifle.

Of the 53 total shell casings, 25 of those casings were 7.62mm, Andrews said.

“Twenty five shots from one gun,” Andrews said.

According to Andrews, the remainder of the casings were 9mm and .45-caliber. All told, four different weapons were used.

In his opening statement, defense attorney Frank Cassese said the death of Hernandez is a tragedy from a “senseless street crime.”

Cassese told jurors testimony during the trial will show that the day Hernandez died was a “very violent day.”

Cassese said, “The cast of characters is extremely important in this trial,” and the state’s case hinges on testimony from co-defendants who have a lot to gain.

“I believe the evidence will show they are testifying to save their own skin,” Cassese said.

Cassese said the witnesses lied repeatedly during the early stages of the investigation, which makes it hard to find their testimony credible.

Cassese also hinted at possible trial strategy when reminding jurors they promised not to hold it against his client if he chose not to testify during the trial.

The evidence will show that Rhodes is a “patsy.”

“The state of Ohio may show Mr. Rhodes was not a saint, but they can not prove he is a killer,” Cassese said.

The first witness was Nivea Ramos, the mother of Hernandez, who repeatedly through tears said her daughter was her “second born” and her “sunshine.”

Ramos testified the child Hernandez was her grandson Gabriel, who is now four. The child’s father is Smith.

The next witness was a Campbell man, Patrick Duce, who testified about his car that was stolen early Jan. 24 in Campbell. Prosecutors said the car, which was found in Youngstown the day after Hernandez was killed, was the car Rhodes used when Hernandez was killed.

Prosecutors also played 911 calls from the apartment complex when Hernandez was killed. One caller said, “There’s a shootout out there,” and he added there were “five people out here.”

Another caller, a woman said she heard the gunshots also.

“It was pow-pow-pow-pow-pow-pow-pow. It was a whole bunch of gunshots,” she said.

Another caller said he heard “20 to 30 shots.”

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