Was a former Grace College professor a willing participant in a scheme to raise around $200,000, or was he another victim of a gang member’s intimidation?
That was the question asked of jurors in opening statements as the trial of Dr. Mark Soto began in Kosciusko Circuit Court Tuesday.
Soto, a pastor, is charged with three counts of corrupt business influence and three counts of intimidation from a grand jury indictment in February 2016.
The charges come from Soto’s relationship with Kevin Bronson, a member of the Aryan Brotherhood who has a long criminal record.
Prosecutors contend Bronson and Soto threatened to kill people unless they were given money that would then be used for Bronson’s business, Young Dragon Enterprises, a martial arts gym in Warsaw.
Bronson also used the business for efforts to launch a book or movie deal that would examine his turn to Christianity after a life of drug abuse and gang activity.
In opening arguments, Deputy Prosecutor Tami Napier told the jury the only reason Bronson was able to pull off the scheme was with the assistance of Soto.
“Soto and Bronson got a lot of money from people under the premise that a movie or book deal was going to be made,” she said. She added about $200,000 was funneled through the business and used for the personal pleasure of Bronson and Soto.
Napier said the only reason people provided the money was because they feared for their lives.
“Soto was the bridge to Bronson,” Napier said.
Soto’s attorney, Scott Lennox, told jurors that Soto was acting out of fear just like everyone else in the case. Soto slept with a gun in his lap because of the fear, Lennox said.
He warned people about Bronson’s threats because “he felt a duty and obligation” to let people know what Bronson had said.
Soto remained close to Bronson for 18 years because of a promise Soto made to keep Bronson on a Christian path.
“He’s a man of his word. He never gave up,” Lennox said.
Napier argued that Soto was originally investigated as a victim but the evidence showed otherwise.
Police were first alerted to Bronson’s threats after Bronson’s 2014 arrest on a cocaine charge.
Warsaw Police Chief Scott Whitaker received an email from somebody alleging that their son was being intimidated by Bronson. Whitaker assigned the case to detective Paul Heaton, who was on call at the time, Napier said.
The investigation revealed Soto was not a victim, Napier said.
Tuesday’s opening statements were made after most of the day was spent on jury selection in which 35 prospective jurors were questioned.
Lawyers asked the prospective jurors about the burden of proof and whether they thought Soto’s status as a pastor should affect the jury’s decision.
A 12-person jury with two alternates was selected. The alternates are there in case a regular jury member is unable to serve.
Also Tuesday, Special Judge Stephen Bowers took the motion to close a portion of the trial to the public under advisement.
Napier filed the motion Thursday seeking to close testimony in which one witness is expected to testify about his membership in a gang. Napier said she wanted to err on the side of caution and protect the witness against gang retaliation. She described the testimony as a small portion of the case.
Lennox argued the decision should be up to the judge, but argued the witness made the decision to join a gang. Bowers said he needed to hear evidence that the threat of retaliation is credible before granting the motion.