Casino carjack suspects called 'evil pinballs'

Pictured: Craig Arno and Jessica Kisby as they appeared in court on May 9th, 2011. Both pleaded not guilty to murder, felony murder, carjacking and kidnapping charges.

April 19, 2012 12:18:31 PM PDT
Jessica Kisby and Craig Arno were no criminal masterminds, according to the prosecutor trying to put both in prison for carjacking and killing an Atlantic City casino patron two years ago.

"They were more like evil pinballs, bouncing this way and that, inflicting pain," James McClain, Atlantic County's first assistant prosecutor, said Thursday in closing arguments in Arno's murder trial. "They were like pinballs, bouncing from one thing to the next, never really planning."

That was clearly the case on the evening of May 21, 2010, he said, when the two headed out from the condo they shared near the beach and drove toward the casinos. They spotted a gleaming white Lincoln SUV driven by Martin Caballero, 47, of North Bergen, followed him into the parking garage of the trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort, and carjacked him, McClain said.

They drove him to a rural area in western Atlantic County, where Arno stabbed him to death with Kisby's help, dragged his body into the bushes, and set his SUV ablaze to try to hide their crimes, the prosecutor said.

Kisby pleaded guilty to murdering Caballero and agreed to testify against Arno in return for becoming eligible for parole after 30 years.

Arno denies any role in the carjacking or murder. He does admit he torched Caballero's vehicle after his then-girlfriend showed up late one night with it, saying she had "a problem" and needed his help in getting rid of it.

Indeed, Arno's public defender, Eric Shenkus, took the unusual step of trying to help the jury fill out its verdict checklist ahead of time.

"There are some counts here that you should absolutely check off 'guilty,' without a doubt," he said. "Count 14, aggravated arson: Check it off 'guilty.' Mr. Arno admitted it on the stand. Count 15, tampering with evidence? Blatantly. Guilty. Theft of the minivan? Guilty." (The pair stole a minivan from their condo garage to try to flee Atlantic City days after the killing.)

But on the most serious charges, Shenkus said, Arno is innocent.

He said the most overwhelming evidence points to Kisby; Arno testified she must have been aided by a mysterious "other guy" she was driving around with that night in carrying out the carjacking and killing.

Shenkus used Kisby's testimony Monday as a way to turn the jury against her, citing her flippant, remorseless performance on the witness stand, during which she laughed, giggled, yawned, stretched and matter-of-factly described a two-part knife assault on Caballero that led to his slow death.

"I don't think anyone could have imagined the display she put on here," Shenkus said. "The utter lack of shame that she displayed is simply atrocious."

McClain did not dispute that account of Kisby's testimony, and indeed used it to make his own point: that Kisby "is out for herself." Because of that, he told the jury, she had every incentive in the world to blame the shady third-party Arno suggested was her true partner in crime.

"If that third person existed, she would have given him up in a heartbeat," McClain said. "That's what you can count on with Jessica Kisby."

Then McClain tried to transfer what he hoped would be the jury's disgust with Kisby onto Arno, who, he noted, was naked in bed with her in a cheap motel when they both were arrested. The prosecutor said they remained a couple even though Arno was upset that she was running around with "some guy" other than him.

"Jessica Kisby is a cold-hearted, cold-blooded killer," he said. "When she testified, she was only one of two cold-hearted, cold-blooded killers in the room. They were a matched set, two of them."

Shenkus disagreed, saying prosecutors produced no forensic evidence linking Arno to the carjacking or murder. A bank surveillance video taken shortly after the murder shows Arno with clean hands, arms and clothes - not what one would expect from someone who had just carried out a gruesome knife slaying that broke the first knife that was used.

"Look at those fingernails," Shenkus told the jury as a video frame showed Arno's hand reaching toward the ATM machine to make a withdrawal - allegedly with Caballero's stolen card. "Does that look like a man who just 20 minutes earlier had engaged in a brutal and bloody attack? There was no time to clean up. Those are the hands of a man that is telling the truth."

But McClain pointed to a different surveillance video which he said clearly shows a cut between two of Arno's fingers.

The judge was to read three-hours of legal instructions to the jury Thursday afternoon. It was not immediately clear if the jury would begin deliberating late Thursday afternoon or would begin Friday morning.