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Trial unfolds over 2015 drug-deal killing in La Quinta


Following a botched La Quinta drug deal, a then-17-year-old boy shot a man in the neck -- rupturing his carotid arteries -- and left him to bleed to death, a prosecutor said today, but a defense attorney said the case against his client is based on the testimony of drug dealers and convicted criminals.

Jesse Keith Cottom, now 21, and Kenneth Michael Wilson, 25, are both charged with murder and attempted robbery, along with a sentence-enhancing allegation of discharging a firearm causing great bodily injury for the Jan. 30, 2015, shooting in the Cove neighborhood.

Cottom is alleged to have been the shooter who killed Ryan Sniffin, 20, of Joshua Tree, who was trying to buy an ounce of cocaine from Cottom at the time. Prosecutors contend Wilson provided Cottom with the gun and was present when the shooting occurred.

The murder charge includes a special circumstance allegation of committing a murder during the commission of a robbery, but the Riverside County District Attorney's Office previously opted not to seek the death penalty in the case. The defendants face up to life in prison without the possibility of parole if convicted.

In her opening statement, Deputy District Attorney Anne-Marie Lofthouse told jurors Cottom and Wilson went to the purported drug transaction
with a "carefully crafted plan" and "with a clear motive: money.''

According to prosecutors, Sniffin sought help from his cousin, Dylan Sniffin, to arrange the purchase of an ounce of cocaine. Dylan Sniffin gave his cousin a phone number for Cottom, whom Dylan Sniffin had met while spending time in juvenile hall, prosecutors said.

Lofthouse contended that Cottom, Wilson and another man, Miguel Ramirez -- who is expected to testify during the trial -- devised a scheme to fill two sandwich bags with baking soda in an attempt to pass the substance off as cocaine.

At about 6:30 p.m. on the night of shooting, Sniffin, his cousin and another man drove to the 51800 block of Avenida Ramirez to meet Cottom, Lofthouse said, and a short time later, Cottom, Wilson and Ramirez rode up to the area on bicycles.

On the stand Thursday, Dylan Sniffin testified that Cottom approached and handed Ryan Sniffin two bags containing an unspecified amount of what he
claimed was cocaine, but Sniffin handed the bags back, saying "he wanted better stuff."

Dylan Sniffin said Cottom rode away, but quickly returned on foot and tried to rob his cousin, with Cottom pointing a gun at Ryan Sniffin's head.

"His hand was shaking and he said, `What's up, give me all your
money,''' Dylan testified.

A shot rang out moments later, striking Ryan in the neck, Dylan Sniffin testified.

"I thought he (Cottom) was my friend ... but he killed my cousin,'' Dylan said.

Cottom allegedly ran from the scene without any cash.

Sheriff's deputies responded to the scene about 6:40 p.m. and found Sniffin on the ground with a single gunshot wound to the neck, according to prosecutors.

Sniffin died at about 11:05 p.m. that night at Desert Regional Medical Center, according to the Riverside County Coroner's Bureau.

Prosecutors contend Sniffin was shot with a .38-caliber revolver, although the weapon has never been recovered.

Cottom's attorney, Greg Johnson, said during his opening statement that the prosecution is expected to call drug users and convicted criminals to testify against his client during the trial, including people who agreed with the District Attorney's Office to reduced sentences in other cases.

Johnson questioned Dylan Sniffin Thursday about whether he was under the influence of any drugs or medications while testifying.

"No, sir," Dylan Sniffin responded.

Wilson's attorney, John Patrick Dolan, did not give an opening statement but claimed in a trial brief that Wilson was not present when Ryan Sniffin was shot.

Dylan Sniffin testified Thursday that he only saw Cottom prior to and during the shooting, but he said he saw Wilson and another man drive by in a red car gawking at the scene after authorities had arrived.

A third co-defendant in the case, Wayne David Wilson -- the brother of Kenneth Wilson -- pleaded guilty in October to being an accessory to the killing after the fact. He is also expected to testify in the trial, although it was unclear if his testimony was spurred by a plea deal with prosecutors.

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