JOSHUA TREE — The day after two women were shot to death in Twentynine Palms, Rafael Ari Aikens left the area and went to Mammoth for the weekend with a group of close friends — fellow Marines in his platoon who had just returned from a field op and were released on a four-day leave.
Before they left the base and started their trip, Kory Brinlee said Aikens came into his room and told him he had killed two people.
“He said, ‘Things around here are about to change pretty drastically with me. I killed two people,’” Brinlee said.
Brinlee took the stand at the Joshua Tree Superior Courthouse Monday to testify against Aikens. The 24-year-old former lance corporal is charged with two counts of murder with enhancements for the use of a firearm for the deaths of Christy McKissic and Renee Metcalf. McKissic, 32, and her mother, Metcalf, 62, were shot to death near midnight on March 23, 2017, in the Twentynine Palms home they shared with McKissic’s then-10-year-old daughter.
Before learning of the alleged murders, Brinlee testified, Aikens was like a brother to him. When Aikens came into his room and said he killed two people, he immediately thought the defendant was joking.
“He looked at me and said, ‘I’m being serious,’” Brinlee said. “Again, I didn’t believe him. I just kind of laughed it off.”
The two went on their Mammoth trip without saying anything more on the subject. Other than being a little more quiet than normal when the group went out for drinks, Brinlee said, Aikens acted like his normal self on the trip. After the trip, Brinlee went on leave to Oklahoma to visit his family.
A week later, he got a call from his roommate, Eric Branske, saying that two women had been killed in Twentynine Palms and Branske had just been interviewed by the Sheriff’s Department.
“And even when Mr. Branske told you that Aikens’ room had been raided and Aikens murdered two people, you still did not believe it,” Aikens’ defense attorney, Donald Calabria, asked Brinlee.
“I didn’t want to,” Brinlee replied.
Brinlee was one of the several members of Aikens’ platoon who went to Edchadas Mexican Restaurant in Twentynine Palms for drinks the night of the shooting. Brinlee and Aikens both traveled to the restaurant and back in Thomas Mihlbachler’s car, a 2006 Toyota 4Runner.
Mihlbachler testified during the first day of the trial that, at the end of the night, Aikens took Mihlbachler’s keys from the designated driver who took the group home. Brinlee agreed and said Aikens was insistent he would get those keys from the designated driver, who had moved Mihlbachler’s car to a parking lot, and return them to Mihlbachler at a later time.
The same 4Runner was spotted driving into the main gate about 12:20 a.m. that night, less than 20 minutes after the McKissic and Metcalf were shot to death.
Defendant's DNA not found in SUV or crime scene
Sgt. Marc Goodwin, a former homicide detective for the Sheriff’s Department who assigned to investigate McKissic’s and Metcalf’s deaths, took the stand again on Monday and showed the surveillance video from the main gate at the combat center as the 4Runner drove in. In the video, you cannot see the driver of the vehicle.
Goodwin said he ordered a DNA test to be performed on the vehicle after the homicide team launched an investigation into Aikens. He also ordered DNA tests for a vape pen, a piece of a condom wrapper, a sex toy and bottle of alcohol found at the scene of the crime.
“In all the DNA tests you sent out, are you aware of any DNA tests coming back with Mr. Aikens’ DNA?” Calabria asked.
“From the evidence, no sir,” Goodwin said.
Deputy district attorney Justin Crocker reminded the jurors that Aikens admitted to being in the vehicle, in the passenger seat, the same night when he traveled to and from Edchadas. Crocker said the lack of DNA evidence does not mean that Aikens was not the driver.
Fatal shots were fired at close range, pathologist says
Forensic pathologist Dr. Diana Geli also took the stand. Geli performed the autopsies on McKissic’s and Metcalf’s bodies and deduced the cause of death for both victims.
Geli first examined McKissic’s body and found two gunshot wounds to the head. One entered through her cheek and exited through the top of her head.
“The wound path injured the skull and the brain before exiting through the right parietal scalp,” she said.
The second entered through forehead and exited through the lower portion of the skull. Geli said soot and stippling from the gunshot was found on both entry wounds, indicating that the gun was fired from a close range.
“This indicates a range of within two feet,” she said.
On Metcalf’s body, Geli found three gunshot wounds: one to the left leg, one to her back and one to her face.
Geli said the bullet to her back injured Metcalf’s kidney, spine and liver and would have been fatal if she had not been shot again in the face.
The final blow to Metcalf’s face had the same stippling and soot residue that was found on McKissic’s body, indicating the bullet was shot by someone less than two feet away.
After finishing with the final witness of the day, Crocker pulled up images of both Metcalf and McKissic for the jurors. Crocker finished the prosecution’s presentation of the case and handed the trial over to the defense.
The court will reconvene at 9 a.m. Tuesday. The defense will present its case and Aikens is expected to take the stand and testify to his actions on the night of the shootings.