Ashlea Harris didn’t have an enemy in the world, prosecutors say.
But that all changed on a day in August 2014 when she discovered that someone had broken into the American Eagle Outfitters store where she worked in Hulen Mall, prosecutor Kevin Rousseau said
It was Harris — a 31-year-old assistant manager at the store — who called 911 and alerted corporate officials and the store manager about the theft.
And it was Harris, Rousseau said, who looked at the store’s surveillance video and recognized a man she believed was responsible for stealing thousands of dollars from the store’s safe — David Mallory, a store employee and live-in boyfriend of another of the store’s assistant managers, Carter Cervantez.
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Cervantez and Mallory were ultimately fired, and Cervantez knew Harris was behind it, Rousseau said.
Investigators believe the couple killed Harris inside her apartment early Nov. 28, 2014, setting her bed and body ablaze and fleeing with her keys. They planned to steal from the store again, this time tens of thousands of dollars collected from Black Friday sales.
“She did it so she could obtain the key that Ashlea had to the store and, at the same time, exact revenge, payback, retaliation, for having been fired in the first place,” Rousseau told jurors Tuesday afternoon during open arguments in Cervantez’s capital murder trial.
Cervantez, her curly hair partially pulled back and wearing a black dress with black hose, looked frail as she walked into the courtroom, her ankles shackled. She pleaded not guilty to the charge that she suffocated and hit Harris in the head with an object while in the course of committing robbery and/or retaliation.
“She is not the child that she would appear to be sitting before you in court today,” Rousseau, who is prosecuting the case along with Ashlea Deener, assured jurors.
Rousseau told jurors that they will hear witness testimony, see video, including of Cervantez lying “through her teeth” to investigators, and learn about DNA evidence proving Cervantez is guilty.
Cervantez’s defense attorneys, Steve Gordon and Bill Ray, chose to not give an opening statement.
Mallory is also charged with capital murder. His trial is pending. Prosecutors are not seeking the death penalty against either defendant.
Witnesses gave jurors a glimpse of how Harris had spent Thanksgiving 2014, the last full day of her life.
Jeffrey Kayser, a friend who lived in the same apartment complex, testified that he and his wife were among friends who shared a Thanksgiving meal with Harris. He said they later helped Harris pack up food to take to fellow employees — whom she referred to as her “kids” — at the American Eagle Outfitters store, where she was scheduled to work that evening.
Patrick Sweet, who lived in an apartment downstairs from Harris, testified that he awoke at 7:30 a.m. on Nov. 28 to a loud, prolonged scream.
“I was pretty startled,” he said. “Then I heard a very loud thud on the ground.”
Sweet said he could hear labored breathing, as if someone was lying on the floor of Harris’ bedroom.
He said he heard the door slamming as someone left her apartment and looked outside to see a black Infinity G-35 pulling away. Another neighbor testified that he also saw a black Infinity with a toll tag sticker that morning parked next to Harris’s pickup as he smoked on his porch about 7 a.m. and again at 7:30 a.m.
Sweet said he lay back in bed. About 15 minutes after hearing the scream, he heard a carbon monoxide alarm going off. He said he was investigating the source when he heard water dripping in his bathroom. It was dripping from a pipe in the bathroom ceiling. He then realized there might be a fire in Harris’s apartment and he called 911.
Kayser, who lived in a nearby building, said his wife awakened him about 7:30 a.m. after hearing a beeping sound. After noticing a strobe light flashing on a fire alarm on Harris’ building, he said he rushed over to help her dog, a golden retriever.
When he saw Harris’s pickup parked outside the building, he knew something was not right and that she must be home, too. He said he ran up to her apartment, kicking in the front door without first checking to see if it was locked.
“When I ran up there, my adrenaline was pumping so hard. I knew my friend was there and her animal was there. My natural instinct was, ‘Don’t check; get the hell in there.’ ”
He said he twice entered the smoke-filled apartment, screaming Harris’s name and the dog’s name but had to turn back after becoming overcome by the smoke.
The dog would later be brought out alive by firefighters.
Fort Worth fire Lt. Jarrod Pavlechko testified that sprinklers had doused the fire when he and two firefighters entered the bedroom, looking for the resident witnesses said might be there.
After opening a window to clear the smoke, firefighters could see a woman face down on the floor. He said he was trying to lift her when he noticed that her hands were duct-taped together. Her ankles were also duct-taped and her hair and legs were burned.
Pavlechko checked for a pulse but found none.
Prosecutors also showed a Dillard’s surveillance video with glimpses of a figure dressed in a gray jacket and black scarf walking inside Hulen Mall on the morning of Nov. 29 — before the stores opened — after apparently entering through a fire exit.
Prosecutors told jurors that a homicide detective, who had Cervantez and her boyfriend under surveillance, had followed the couple to the mall and watched as Cervantez, dressed in a gray jacket and black scarf, walked inside while Mallory remained outside in the car.
Mallory was detained in the parking lot and questioned by police but Cervantez could not be located inside the mall.
Testimony in 297th District Court is scheduled to continue Wednesday.
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