JOSHUA TREE –– Eric Branske said his longtime friend, Rafael Ari Aikens, approached him after an early-morning formation for their platoon aboard the combat center on March 24, 2017. Branske and Aikens were Marines who both lived in barracks building 1412. Their platoon had just come back from a field operation and they were about to leave on a four-day break.
“He asked me if I could take his gun home and clean it,” Branske said. “So the prior weeks we went shooting and I didn’t think anything of it.”
Branske agreed but asked Aikens why he wanted him to take the gun home with him. Branske was planning to drive to Redlands and stay at his father’s house during the break.
“The first time I asked him he said, ‘If I told you, you wouldn’t believe me,’” Branske said. “When I approached him again he said, “Just know it’s to the first degree.’”
Thinking that Aikens was joking, Branske took the gun home with him. It wasn’t until the following week that Branske learned two Twentynine Palms women had been shot to death just hours before Aikens asked him to take his gun.
Branske took the stand as a witness for the prosecution as the People Versus Rafael Ari Aikens reconvened for the third day of jury trial Wednesday afternoon.
Aikens, 24, is charged with two counts of murder with enhancements for the use of a firearm for the deaths of Christy McKissic and her mother, Renee Metcalf. The two were shot to death in the Twentynine Palms home they shared with McKissic’s daughter during the late hours of March 23, 2017.
Aikens first met McKissic in 2015 through an ad she had posted on Backpage, a website that was shut down in 2018 because federal law enforcement discovered that people were using the site to sell sex.
Braske served alongside Aikens in the 7th Marine Regiment and deployed with him to Iraq in 2016.
“What did you observe when it came to the defendant’s skill set when it comes to a firearm?” asked deputy district attorney Justin Crocker.
“He was a very good Marine, very smart,” Branske said. “As far as his marksmanship it was top-notch.”
Branske told the jurors that Aikens had become qualified to carry a pistol when in combat. Brankse also drove Aikens, who did not have his own car, to buy a pistol at O’Three tactical in Twentynine Palms. Aikens bought a .45 caliber Rock Island Pistol, the pistol Aikens later asked Branske to take to his father’s house and clean.
Branske said he arrived home in the late afternoon on March 24, 2017, after retrieving the gun from Aikens. His father, Tim Branske, met him in their garage. The two opened the gun carrier that Brankse had driven the pistol home in and saw that the magazine was missing.
“When my dad saw the pistol he asked me, ‘Where’s the magazine?’” Brankse said. “I called Aikens and I said, ‘Hey man where’s the magazine,’ and he said, ‘Don’t worry about it,’ and hung up.”
Again not thinking much of the conversation, Branske cleaned the gun and placed it in his father’s gun safe.
A week later, Branske was questioned by the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department about the shootings and the location of the gun. His father, Tim Branske, took the stand Thursday as a witness for the prosecution.
At the time of the phone call, Tim Brankse had recently retired from the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department. On the stand, he said the sergeant interviewing his son called him and asked him if Aiken’s gun was still in his safe. The gun was still there and deputies came out the following morning to collect it.
Ballistics on the gun
Jane Whitworth, a firearms expert with the county’s Scientific Investigation Division, was called to the stand by the prosecution on Wednesday afternoon. Whitworth was the lead forensic specialist who worked on Aikens’ gun after it was retrieved for evidence. The gun had already been cleaned but Whitworth said she was able to use it to shoot test fired bullets that she could match to bullet fragments found on the scene.
Whitworth said that when a firearm is manufactured, the barrel is hollowed out by a reamer that often leaves unique cylindrical marks.
“There are a bunch of different marks made by the firearm,” Whitworth said. “As the bullet travels down the barrel, it picks up those microscopic marks.”
Whitworth said that these marks are completely unique to each gun — even two of the same kind of gun made directly after one another would have unique marks.
On a projector above where Whitworth was sitting, Crocker brought up an image of a fired cartridge casing that was found at the crime scene. The image also included a second casing that Whitworth had test-fired from Aikens’ gun.
“Two fired cartridge casings. In the middle there’s a black line,” Whitworth said. “What I’m showing here in the middle are these lines that correspond.”
Whitworth was referring to microscopic horizontal lines that lined up between the two casings. Whitworth testified she found these similarities in six different areas along the casings.
Whitworth also examined a bullet fragment found in McKissick’s hair at the scene.
“Conclusion for both the cartridge case and the bullet was that they came from the Rock Island,” she said.
Whitworth was cross-examined by Aikens’ attorney, Donald Calabria, who noted that gun ballistics are not an exact science.
While Whitworth agreed, she said her work was verified by other experts throughout the process.
“I feel confident that these two were fired in the same firearm,” she said referring to the casing found at the scene and the one that she shot from Aikens’ gun for testing.
Aikens travels before the murders
Prosecutors on Thursday called witnesses who could testify to Aikens’ whereabouts during and after the shootings.
Wensesleo Canela, Aikens’ roommate and best friend at the time, said he went to Edchadas restaurant with Aikens and a group of friends on March 23. Canela said they each drove in separate cars with friends; Aikens went in Thomas Mihlbachler’s 2006 Toyota four-runner.
Surveillance video from the restaurant, which was reviewed by Sgt. Mark Green, showed that the group was at the restaurant for over two hours and left around 8:30.
Canela said he was very drunk when he returned home, but he remembers Aikens was not there when he came back. He did not see Aikens again until he woke up in the middle of the night.
“The last thing I remember is waking up around 4 to 5 and I see him on his bed,” Canela said.
McKissic’s phone traveled to the Marine base
Sgt. Marc Goodwin, who was recalled to the stand after testifying on Tuesday, spoke about McKissic’s phone records Thursday. He discovered that a caller from Aikens’ cellphone attempted to call her less than an hour after he left the restaurant, at 9:21 p.m. The call went to voicemail but he called her again a minute later. The call went to voicemail again but the two started texting back and forth.
They had a 26-second phone call at 11:23 p.m. They continued to text and he called her again at 11:27 p.m., when they had an eight-second phone call.
“This is the last completed voice call that she made from that phone,” Goodwin said. “That last call was about 30 minutes before the daughter made the 911 call.”
Goodwin and his team subpoenaed the GPS records from McKissic’s cellphone and tracked the phone’s movements after the shootings.
McKissic’s then-10-year-old daughter called 911 after finding her mother’s and grandmother’s bodies at 12:03 p.m. A minute later, records showed McKissic’s phone started moving away from the house toward the Marine base.
At 12:18 a.m. the phone was near the main gate onto the combat center on Adobe Road. Surveillance video showed Mihlbachler’s car pass through the gate at the same time.
At 12:23 a.m. the phone was tracked to outside Aiken’s building in the barracks. The phone was then shut off and never found.
Investigators also subpoenaed the records for Aikens’ phone, but the location history had been wiped from it on March 27. None of the data from before that date was retrievable.
Goodwin’s testimony closed out the first week of trial for Aikens. The court will reconvene for the second week Monday morning.