20-year-old man gets life in prison for Castro Valley woman's murder

Bay City News
Thursday, March 5, 2015

OAKLAND, Calif. -- After he apologized for his actions, a 20-year-old Hayward man was sentenced Thursday to life in prison without the possibility of parole for his murder and arson convictions for the strangulation death of a Castro Valley woman whose home was also set on fire.

Before Alameda County Superior Court Judge Jon Rolefson pronounced the harsh sentence, Cody Nicosia said, "As weak as this may sound, I would just like to take this moment to apologize."

According to prosecutor Adam Maldonado, Nicosia and co-defendant Christian Birdsall, who is scheduled to be prosecuted separately next month, killed 58-year-old Barbara Latiolais on Oct. 17, 2012, because they wanted to steal guns, jewelry, rare coins and cash from her home in the 2400 block of San Carlos Avenue in Castro Valley.

Latiolais shared the home with her longtime boyfriend, retired San Francisco firefighter Michael Rice.

Birdsall was only 16 at the time of the incident but is being prosecuted as an adult. Nicosia turned 18 only three weeks before the crime.

In addition to first-degree murder and arson, jurors, who deliberated for only half a day before announcing their verdict on Feb. 2, also convicted Nicosia of three special circumstances murder allegations: murder during a robbery, murder during a burglary and murder while lying in wait.

Maldonado told jurors during the trial that Nicosia and Birdsall planned their crime for Oct. 17, 2012, because they knew Rice was out of the state at that time. He said they were familiar with Latiolais' house because Birdsall had done yard work for her.

Birdsall attended Redwood High School in Castro Valley and was living in Hayward with Nicosia, who graduated from Castro Valley High School in June 2012, and Nicosia's father, according to Alameda County sheriff's officials.

Maldonado said the two teens arrived at the home around 8 a.m. and waited in a crawlspace for four or five hours before finally going inside and attacking Latiolais in her living room.

The prosecutor said Nicosia, with help from Birdsall, strangled Latiolais for about four or five minutes and then stopped because he thought she was dead.

The two youths then started stealing guns and cash from another part of the house but went back to the living room after they heard noises there and discovered that she was still breathing, although she was motionless, according to Maldonado.

Nicosia decided to finish the job by finding a long rope, wrapping it around Latiolais' neck four times and choking her to death with Birdsall's help, Maldonado said.

The teens then continued to ransack the house and eventually drove away in her Volvo and had a late lunch at a nearby Chipotle restaurant, he said.

But at about 10:30 p.m. that night, Nicosia and Birdsall returned to Latiolais' house because they realized that their fingerprints were all over it, the prosecutor said.

Nicosia poured gasoline all over the house and then lit the house on fire to help them conceal evidence of the crime, Maldonado said.

Nicosia and Birdsall were arrested several days after the incident.

Nicosia's lawyer, Richard Humphrey, told jurors in his closing argument that Nicosia acted under duress because Birdsall coerced him into committing the crimes by putting a knife to his throat and threatening to kill him unless he participated.

Humphrey said Nicosia shouldn't be found guilty of the special circumstances murder allegations because of the duress he was under.

Latiolais' sister, Karen Sousa, told Nicosia Thursday, "You were lying through your teeth" when he testified that he helped carry out the crime because Birdsall had threatened to kill him and his family if he didn't participate.

Sousa said Nicosia had plenty of time to withdraw from the crime and could have called police if he really thought his life was in danger.

Sousa told Nicosia, "May God have mercy on your soul because I don't."

Latiolais' daughter, Lalanya Romero, said, "Cody, what you've taken away from my family is priceless and you have turned my family upside down."

Romero said, "You deserve to go away for life and die in prison because you had many hours to decide against doing what you did."

Humphrey, the defense attorney, said of Nicosia's actions, "I don't know what transpired but something went terribly wrong. As he said to me one time, he lost his moral compass."

Rolefson said he got to know Nicosia better than he gets to know most defendants because he acted as his own attorney for a short time and they interacted to a certain extent.

The judge said Nicosia was "very respectful" and "a very polite, very likeable person" but he deserves to be sentenced to life in prison without parole because he committed "a terrible crime."