Updated August 19, 2021 - 6:14 am
Caren Chali and Willebaldo Dorantes Antonio had just finished their shifts at Nathan’s Famous hot dogs at the Luxor at around 4 a.m. on May 7, 2007.
They didn’t know that 90 minutes earlier, a metal pipe bomb concealed in a plastic foam coffee cup had been planted atop Antonio’s Dodge sedan.
Antonio joked that someone had left coffee for the couple. Seconds later, it exploded and sent shrapnel flying into his skull.
“On his hand, he didn’t have his fingers,” Chali told jurors through a Spanish interpreter on Wednesday at the retrial for Omar Rueda-Denvers.
Chali was unhurt in the blast. Antonio, 24, died at University Medical Center.
The explosion initially stoked fears of a possible terrorist attack on the Strip. But prosecutors have said it was planted by Rueda-Denvers, the father of Chali’s then-3-year-old daughter.
He and his friend Porfirio Duarte-Herrera were found guilty and sentenced to life in prison without parole. Prosecutors initially sought the death penalty.
A federal judge in 2019 granted Rueda-Denvers a new trial, ruling that he was unable to cross-examine his co-defendant, whose incriminating statements to police were presented to the jury.
On Wednesday, the 45-year-old sat in court wearing a gray suit. A Guatemala native, he listened with the aid of a Spanish interpreter.
Deadly love triangle
Chali testified that she met Rueda-Denvers, whose real name is Alexander Perez, at San Carlos University in Guatemala. She started dating him in 2001 and became pregnant with his child.
The relationship continued until 2006. By then, both had arrived in the United States.
Chali had borrowed $5,000 from a bank, traveling with her daughter by bus into the country to be with Rueda-Denvers. But he soon told her to move out because he had another girlfriend.
She said she had no friends or family in the country, and was upset and jealous, but moved on and began dating Antonio. They dated for about a year.
Antonio had entered the United States from Mexico illegally and worked two jobs to send money home. His wife and 1-year-old son had moved to Las Vegas shortly before his death, relatives previously told the Review-Journal.
Chali said that in August 2006, Rueda-Denvers — a name authorities believe is an alias and actually belongs to an acquaintance of the suspect’s — began coming to her workplace and asking her to come back to him.
That same month, Chali said, she met Rueda-Denvers at a park so he could see their child. He then followed her home and tried to hit Chali, court records show.
Antonio had told his employer at the Luxor that he had been threatened because of his relationship with Chali.
In the first trial, prosecutors painted Rueda-Denvers as a jealous ex-lover who was obsessed with Chali and once watched from a distance as Chali and Antonio had sex in a car in the Luxor parking lot.
But Christopher Oram, who also represented him at the first trial, said he followed Chali because she was keeping his daughter away from him.
“You got a guy from Central America who’s come here. It’s his fault. He’s upset two women. It’s his fault,” Oram said. “He’s undocumented. It’s his fault. But he loves the child. But now he can’t see the child. So he wants to follow the child.”
District Judge Michael Villani, who presided over the first trial, is overseeing the retrial.
‘Wrong place at the wrong time’
At the start of the proceedings Wednesday, Chief Deputy District Attorney Christopher Hamner displayed gruesome photos of the scene. He showed jurors photos of bomb materials, two cars and Duarte-Herrera.
“There is one common thread that links all of this together,” he said. “And it’s this man: Omar Rueda-Denvers.”
He played jurors a silent black-and-white surveillance video showing Antonio and Chali walking arm-in-arm.
The video showed a nearly panoramic view of the roof of the parking garage. It was dark. Vehicles were parked all around. In the top right corner, two people were about to enter a car.
A shock of white flashed in the upper right corner of the video.
“The bomb explodes, exactly how it was planned to,” Hamner said.
Another video from before the blast showed a silver Chevrolet Cobalt drive around the rooftop and park next to Antonio’s vehicle.
Hamner told jurors he would prove that the driver was Rueda-Denvers and that the passenger, Duarte-Herrera, planted the bomb on top of Antonio’s car.
Oram said his client was there to search for his daughter. His presence at the Luxor that morning did not prove that he knew about the bomb because it was disguised as a coffee cup, he said.
He encouraged jurors to keep an open mind throughout the trial and said Duarte-Herrera, who had a history of bomb making, had made the bomb months earlier.
“In the end, you’ll find that in fact, he’s not a killer,” Oram said. “He’s just a person that was really in the wrong place at the wrong time.”