JOSHUA TREE — Defense attorney Donald Calabria asked his client to face the jurors, look them in the eyes and tell them if he murdered two people in Twentynine Palms on March 23, 2017.
“I did not kill Renee Metcalf or Christy McKissic,” Rafael Ari Aikens said.
Aikens is charged with two counts of murder for the shooting deaths of Metcalf and McKissic with enhancements for the use of a firearm. He took the stand Tuesday in the sixth day of his jury trial and said he was being accused of a crime he did not commit.
“I was not there that night,” he said.
Aikens was arrested March 30, 2017, a week after the shootings. Detectives had found evidence that he and McKissic had a romantic relationship and that phone calls and text messages were exchanged between McKissic’s and Aikens’ phones moments before the double homicide.
On Tuesday morning Calabria asked Aikens about his upbringing and his service to his county; at the time of his arrest Aikens was a lance corporal in the Marines. Aikens told the court he knew he wanted to join the military at a young age and said 9-11 was one strong memory he had from his childhood that led him to enlist.
Aikens’ father and stepfather were both Marines, and Aikens followed in their footsteps by enlisting in 2014.
He was stationed in Twentynine Palms, deployed to Iraq in April 2016 and then returned to Twentynine Palms in October 2016.
It was in 2015, soon after he was stationed in Twentynine Palms, that he met McKissic; he said it was on a dating app. Several other Marines who served with Aikens testified that he had found McKissic on backpage.com, a website that was shut down in 2018 because people were using its adult services section to sell sex.
Aikens said he and McKissic dated casually and hooked up about once a month before he deployed. When they met up, he said, they would hang out at the Virginian Bar in Twentynine Palms, where McKissic worked, or at other businesses and then McKissic would take him to a hotel room.
He testified he had never been to her house.
After he was arrested, Aikens was interviewed by Sgt. Marc Goodwin. Aikens said on Tuesday that he was drunk during that interview.
Throughout the last week of the trial, the prosecution provided evidence that Metcalf and McKissic were killed in their home with bullets from a Rock Island 1911 .45 caliber pistol. A firearms expert testified that the gun used belonged to Aikens, linking a bullet casing and a bullet fragment found at the scene with anomalies in his weapon.
“I was not in possession of my firearm at the time these crimes were committed,” he said Tuesday.
Aikens said a previous witness, Eric Branske, lied under oath when he said Aikens gave him his gun on March 24 to take to his father’s house to clean. In fact, Aikens said, he gave Branske his gun on March 23, before the shootings.
“‘She wasn’t the greatest looking chick but she was pretty.’” Deputy district attorney Justin Crocker read out loud from transcripts from Aikens’ initial interview to remind him of what he said to investigators.
Crocker pointed out that in this interview, Aikens made several statements that were inconsistent with the testimony he was giving in court.
“‘I had some drinks, chatted her up, then I ended up somehow miraculously taking her back to her house,’” Crocker read from Aikens’ initial statements about meeting McKissic.
“You said that because you had been to McKissic’s house at night before, correct?” Crocker asked.
“No, I hadn’t,” Aikens replied.
Aikens insisted he had never been to McKissic’s residence.
Defendant says former friends lied
On the night of the homicides, Aikens went to Edchadas Mexican Restaurant in Twentynine Palms with several other Marines.
Aikens testified that after a few drinks, he returned to the barracks in Thomas Mihlbachler’s Toyota 4Runner around 9 p.m.
He said Mihlbachler was heavily intoxicated and Aikens went with their designated driver to a parking lot after dropping off the other occupants in front of the barracks.
Aikens said he got the keys from the driver and walked them over to Mihlbachler’s room, which was near his.
He said Mihlbachler was changing his clothes at the time, so Aikens threw the keys on a desk.
Mihlbachler testified in court last week that Aikens did not bring him the keys, but that they were on his desk in the morning.
Aikens said, at that point, he went to his own room and took a shower. When he got back, he saw his roommate, Wensesleo Canela, had gotten home and passed out on his bed. Canela had also been drinking at Edchadas.
Canela testified in court last week that when he got home, Aikens was not there, but Aikens was in the room when he woke up in the middle of the night.
Aikens said after he got out of the shower, he tried to call his friend Christian and accidentally called Christy McKissic. It went to voicemail.
He called her again about an hour later, he said, because he had realized they hadn’t spoken in several months and wanted to catch up.
“I had not talked to or seen Christy since October of 2016, since I had just got back from deployment,” he said.
According to phone records, McKissic again did not pick up the phone.
Records show her text messages going back and forth between the two phones; Aikens testified his phone automatically texted McKissic back.
“Busy now, call back later,” said Aikens when asked what the automated response was.
The contents of the text messages could not be verified because detectives were never able to find her phone and his phone had been wiped of all data. He said that was from a virus his phone contracted while he downloaded pornography.
His fellow Marines Kory Brinlee and Eric Branske have both testified that Aikens said something to them about the deaths the day after the shootings. Brinlee said Aikens told him he had killed two people.
Aikens said that wasn’t true.
He said he had no significant conversations with either Brinlee or Branske.
Aikens went on a trip to Mammoth to snowboard and celebrate his birthday; he turned 22 on March 25. He returned to the barracks on March 28 and went about his normal work schedule until he was arrested on March 30.
Detectives asked him about McKissic and on Tuesday he admitted to lying to them in his initial interview, when he said he had zero contact with her that night.
Detectives also asked him how long he had known Christy and Aikens admitted that at the time, he lied. In that first interview, he told them he had only met and had sex with her one time, in October 2016.
After breaking for the night, Aikens returned to the stand on Wednesday morning.
His attorney, Calabria, reminded Aikens that he had a constitutional right to not testify and asked him why he choose to do so, knowing that his testimony would be different than statements he made to detectives in 2017.
“Because I didn’t kill anybody,” Aikens replied.