Several key witnesses took the stand Wednesday in the preliminary hearing for a San Diego man charged with involuntary manslaughter in the accidental death of a 10-year-old boy fatally wounded while playing with a gun.
Defendant Todd Francis sat quietly and, at times, wiped tears from his face, as his wife, 15-year-old son, officers and other witnesses testified regarding the tragic death of fourth-grader Eric Klyaz.
Klyaz died on Jun. 4 after sustaining a gunshot wound to the chest inside Francis’ garage.
The boy had been playing with Francis’ 9-year-old daughter in the family’s garage in Miramar Ranch North when the children discovered a firearm. The kids began touching the gun and somehow, it discharged, firing a bullet at Klyaz. The boy died from his injuries.
Though extremely shaken up, Francis’ daughter was not injured. The girl was interviewed by investigators, including San Diego Police Department Officer Vito Messineo, immediately after the incident.
Messineo testified Wednesday about his conversation with the girl. He said he asked her what happened that day and where the gun came from.
“She answered, ‘We were inside the garage playing, it was just us. There was a gun sitting on top of the couch and we were both touching it. Then it fired and it was pointing at Eric,’” said Messineo.
Messineo said the girl told him she didn’t know where the gun came from, or who it belonged to.
When the officer asked her who was holding the gun and who pulled the trigger, the girl responded, “Well, we were both holding it. I don’t really remember. It was just there and we both had it.”
Messineo said he spoke to Francis’ teenage son at the scene as well. The teen told him he was supposed to be watching his little sister because his parents weren’t home.
Messineo also spoke with Francis that day. The officer said Francis insisted the gun was not loaded.
“He said, ‘I just want to let you know that the gun was hidden and I know for sure it was not loaded. I guess I should’ve secured it better. If that kid dies, I don’t want to live anymore,’” said Messineo.
SDPD Detective Brett Burkett also took the stand Wednesday, recalling his interaction with Francis’ daughter following the shooting. He was assigned the task of obtaining a DNA swab from the girl and her teenage brother, as well as testing their hands for any trace of gunshot residue.
Burkett said the girl made some “spontaneous statements” as he interacted with her, telling him, “No, I did fire a gun because, well, I don’t know – I think I might’ve fired it.”
During her interviews with authorities, Burkett said the girl was despondent – sometimes silent – and seemed traumatized.
Burkett said the girl denied ever seeing the gun before the incident on Jun. 4.
The girl told authorities she and Klyaz had not put bullets inside the gun and said she did not know what bullets looked like. She also told officials she was unsure whether the gun was real when they began playing with it.
Before Messineo and Burkett recalled their roles in the investigation, Francis’ wife of 18 years, Susan Francis, took the stand.
Susan was very quiet, almost whispering her testimony at times. As she answered questions, she pleaded the fifth three times.
Susan said she left her two children home on Jun. 4 for about an hour while she went to buy a dress for her daughter. Soon after, Susan said she received a phone call from her teenage son telling her that police were at their home.
Susan testified she had argued with her husband in the past about keeping guns in their home. She said Francis assured her that if he did keep guns, they would be stored safely.
“I said, ‘I don’t want guns in this house.’ He said it was safe, meaning [there were] no bullets,” said Susan.
Susan said she never saw bullets or a gun cartridge in their home, but knew there was a gun case hidden behind the water heater in their garage.
When asked about Klyaz, Susan described the boy as a neighborhood friend who often played with her daughter, sometimes in their garage, in their tight-knit townhouse community in Scripps Ranch.
She described the boy as curious and talkative, and said she and her husband had both asked him numerous times to not touch things in their garage, including boxes.
Other preliminary hearing witnesses included handyman Mark Jones and Paul Guardino, a neighbor who lives a few doors down from the Francis home.
Jones had been working on a project in Guardino’s garage when he heard the gun discharge from the Francis’ garage.
Jones said he ran out and saw Francis’ daughter screaming, saying her friend was shot. When he entered the Francis’ garage, Jones said he saw Klyaz lying on the ground.
He called 911 and began administering aid to the boy. Jones said the boy’s mom had also come running into the garage and was on the ground next to Klyaz.
Jones said he noticed a gun in the garage, lying on top of a sofa. A 911 dispatcher instructed him to remove the gun from the garage and safely secure the weapon outside until police arrived.
Guardino told a similar story of the chaos he witnessed alongside Jones inside the Francis' garage. The neighbor said he saw Francis’ daughter “panicking” and then saw Klyaz lying unresponsive on the ground.
He also said he saw a loaded gun on the couch in the garage and said Jones then wrapped a towel around the firearm and took it outside, per the 911 dispatcher’s orders.
“I asked [the girl] who had the gun and she just said, ‘It was just in the room and it went off.’ That’s all she kept saying,” Guardino testified.
SDPD Detective Rob Newquist with the Child Abuse Unit also testified at Francis’ preliminary hearing.
Newquist said he interviewed Klyaz’s parents at the scene, who told him the boy had gone outside to play immediately after getting home from school that day around 4 p.m.
Newquist said the boy’s parents both told him they had seen a gun on the couch in the Francis’ garage right after their son was critically wounded.
Between the aforementioned witnesses, Francis’ son also testified. The defendant’s daughter was also scheduled to take the stand but could not testify after becoming very emotional.
At times, Francis was seen crying in court as the events of Jun. 4 were recounted.
Francis was charged with involuntary manslaughter, child endangerment and criminal storage of a firearm back in June.
He pleaded not guilty on Jun. 25 in the accidental shooting death of Klyaz. At the time, Francis’ attorney said his client didn’t know how the kids were able to get a hold of his gun, saying the gun was not loaded and was hidden in a separate location from the ammunition.
After Wednesday’s testimony, a judge announced Francis would be bound over for trial, meaning enough evidence has been presented to send the defendant to trial.
If convicted, Francis faces up to seven years and eight months in prison.