Tempe man among 3 charged in deadly drug hit - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

Tempe man among 3 charged in deadly drug hit

August 20th, 2019 development
Tempe man among 3 charged in deadly drug hit

By Jim Walsh

Staff Writer


A former basketball player at Seton Catholic High School faces first-degree murder and other charges stemming from a drug-related hit in Scottsdale.

Mathhew Eric Bjornholt, 20, of Tempe, and two other suspects were indicted in June on charges of first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder and attempt to commit armed robbery in the slaying of Richard Chavez III, 26, on May 25 at a north Scottsdale apartment complex.

After someone banged on the front door of his apartment early that morning, Chavez peered through a nearby window and said, “who are you looking for,’’ according to court records.

The answer was swift and fatal.

Chavez was shot through the window with an assault rifle. He was found dead later that day when his sister went to the apartment, saw bullet holes in the window and called police. 

That account is based upon the statements of a friend of the victim who is not named in the report. The witness told police that Chavez asked him to come over because “he had a price on his head’’ and feared for his life, the documents said.

The court records said that a $10,000 contract was placed on Chavez’s life as retaliation after his partners in a drug deal accused him of stealing money and THC cartridges—a hot seller used to vape powerful concentrations of THC discreetly rather than smoking conventional flower marijuana.

THC is the chemical largely responsible for most of marijuana’s psychological effects.

Bjornholt is identified in court documents as an events coordinator for a medical marijuana dispensary in Tempe, but police suggest the slaying had to do with the black-market street trade.

Bjornholt has no record of prior convictions and was released on a $250,000 bond while he awaits trial. He grew up in an affluent south Tempe neighborhood but had been living in an apartment at the time of his arrest. He graduated from Seton in 2017.

Police say Bjornholt admitted he provided 2,000 THC cartridges for a deal brokered by another man with Chavez.

Chavez bought 1,000 cartridges, even though he had received $20,000 from a third man to buy all 2,000.

The group accused Chavez of stealing the money and cartridges.

 Police got a major break on the murder case when the victim’s relatives told them that he was a drug dealer and that he had recently had a falling out with another defendant in the slaying, Joshua Levi Bird, the court document said. 

The document said Chavez had accused the other men of cutting him out of another lucrative deal.

None of the three suspects indicted on murder charges, which include Bird and Sergio A. Valdez, admit to pulling the trigger in Chavez’s death.

However, they admit different levels of involvement in the drug deal. 

The convoluted court documents are difficult to follow because the names of some confidential informants have been purposely omitted.

Bjornholt told police he was robbed by “unknown Hispanic males’’ after meeting with Chavez. He said they took 800 THC cartridges and his Glock pistol, but that the thieves did not find the $8,500 in proceeds from the drug buy, the document said.

“He denied ever telling anyone there was a price on Chavez’s head. He denied ever telling anyone to rob Chavez and recover the items stolen from him,’’ the document said.

But when police searched Bornholm’s apartment and car, they found more evidence of his participation in the drug trade, including a substance believed to be THC oil, cartridges, a tool used to inject the THC oil into cartridges, $1,000 and a Glock pistol. 

Police said they also found $36,000 in cash hidden in Bjornholt’s car.

Sgt. Ben Hoster, a Scottsdale police spokesman, said the case is still under investigation and that detectives are looking at other potential defendants.

“I think we have seen cases (involving THC cartridges) because these things are very popular,’’ Hoster said. “They are very easy to use and to move around.’’

Ray Schmacher, Bjornholt’s defense attorney, declined to return telephone calls seeking comment.

The court documents described how Valdez was linked to a drive-by shooting in Phoenix later that day involving three men and a similar car seen during the Scottsdale shooting—a white Dodge Charger.

After Phoenix police arrested Valdez in the unrelated shooting, a search warrant was served and guns were seized, including an assault rifle, according to court documents.

Because of some similarities between the crimes, Scottsdale police submitted shell casings found at Chavez’s shooting to the Phoenix police crime lab. An analysis linked the same gun to the Scottsdale and Phoenix shootings.

The court documents said the three suspects drove from west Phoenix to Chavez’s apartment in Scottsdale with intent to recover the money and drugs that they alleged Chavez had stolen.

Valdez told police he drove to Chavez’s apartment with two other men, but never left the car. 

Bird told police he drove to Chavez apartment and acted as a lookout until Valdez arrived, but that he left before the shooting. 

The document said the unidentified shooter pulled the trigger after noticing that Chavez was armed with a pistol. 

The potent THC cartridges can be purchased legally by residents who have obtained an Arizona Medical Marijuana card with the approval of a doctor. 

A critical Arizona Supreme Court ruling in June upheld the right of patients to buy marijuana in any form they like, including the THC cartridges, said Eric Fraser, an attorney representing the Arizona Dispensary Association.

“I think it really applies to things like vape,’’ Fraser said. “The cartridges, in order to be legal, have to be at a licensed dispensary,’’ and the buyer must have a valid state medical marijuana card.