Saturday, May 22, 2004

The Wichita Eagle | 05/21/2004 | Witness tells of body disposal

The Wichita Eagle | 05/21/2004 | Witness tells of body disposal

Witness Lauren Bertsch says Club Mexico owner Arturo Garcia admitted to killing three men when she helped him get rid of the bodies.


The Wichita Eagle

A former worker at the Club Mexico nightclub described in court Thursday how she helped move human body parts from a freezer into a pickup and then drove them to Cowley County to incinerate them.

"It reeked," Lauren Bertsch told a Sedgwick County District Court jury of the frozen plastic bags she moved. "It smelled like something I had never smelled before. The only way I could describe it is to say it smelled like death."

Bertsch, 19, was one of the first witnesses to take the stand in the triple-murder trial of Arturo "Jay" Garcia, who owned Club Mexico, 2600 S. Oliver.

Wichita police said it was in the basement of the club that Garcia shot and killed Clint Jones, 30, on July 26 during an all-night rave. Police said that five days later Garcia shot and killed two brothers -- Oscar Ramirez, 27, and Nicolas Ramirez, 22.

During her morning testimony, Bertsch described in detail how the club was used for drugs, prostitution and after-hours parties. During her afternoon testimony, she discussed her role in disposing of victims' bodies.

Bertsch was charged with aiding a felon in connection with the case, but was later granted diversion. In a diversion agreement, the charge is dropped if the defendant meets certain conditions set by the prosecutor.

Bertsch said she and a girlfriend first went to the club as customers in April, about three months after it opened. Three days after the visit, she said, she began working at the club.

Her job was to deliver drinks, talk to customers and help maintain a "cool environment." Bertsch said she made $50 to $200 a night in tips.

The club was normally open from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m., Bertsch said, and security guards with metal-detecting wands were at the doors on weekends. She said the majority of customers used cocaine or meth.

"Everyone tried to be inconspicuous, but I knew a lot of it was going on because I saw the coke and meth," she said.

It was also a place where you could buy drugs.

"If you knew the right people and they knew you were cool, you could find it," she said.

There were two types of after-hours parties at the club, Bertsch said. The first was for Garcia's friends and often included exotic dancers. The second type, all-night raves that lasted from 2:30 to 11 a.m., were open to everyone.

Bertsch said she got close to several people who worked at or visited the club. She said Garcia was among them.

"He was like a big brother to me," she said. "I loved him."

During a rave on the morning of July 27 -- about the time that Jones was killed -- Bertsch said she noticed that Garcia and some other club regulars were acting strangely.

"Everyone was acting a little tense," she said. "I wasn't allowed in the office. The kitchen was locked. Someone was blocking the entrance to the VIP room. The way people were carrying themselves seemed to be different."

On Aug. 6 -- a day she went to an orientation class for a new job at another restaurant -- Garcia asked whether he could use her family's land in Cowley County to burn some trash.

Bertsch said she suspected Garcia was trying to get rid of a body.

"It struck me as something secretive, something he needed to keep away from society," she said. "I thought I knew what he wanted to burn."

After agreeing to let Garcia use the land, Bertsch said, he drove her to his duplex in the 1500 block of North Market, and they went inside a detached garage.

The locked, top-loading freezer had a refrigerator door on top of it and a tire on top of that. Inside the freezer were objects that appeared to be wrapped in plastic bags.

"They were different sizes, different shapes," Bertsch said.

"Why did you stay?" asked District Attorney Nola Foulston.

"Because I told him I would help him," Bertsch replied.

The two loaded half of the packages into the truck, Bertsch said. She said she drank brandy during the 45-minute drive to Cowley County.

"Did you have any questions (like), 'Gee, why are we hauling this to my land?' " Foulston asked.

"I don't remember asking that question," Bertsch said. "He began to explain to me that it was three people in the back of the truck -- or parts of three people. And he explained why two of them had to be killed."

She said Garcia described how the Ramirez brothers, on the day they died, had come to the club to beat him up. She said Garcia said he shot them because they were threatening him with a broken beer bottle and because he had his son with him.

Once they got to the land, Bertsch said, the parts were loaded into two 50-gallon barrels, doused with gasoline and set afire. The remaining body parts were picked up later that day and disposed of in the same manner.

The trial resumes today in the courtroom of District Judge William Woolley.


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