Careaga family hopes for swift justice as murder trial begins

It has been nearly seven years since Seabeck was left shocked by the brutal quadruple murders of the Careaga family.

Prosecutors in the murder trial that began Nov. 27 said the blended household was extremely close and warmly accepting of its newest members.

What has since emerged in the years of searching for the killers and the 2022 arrests of three suspects is evidence of a cold-blooded killing influenced by drugs and money, the secret career of a father that provided more earnings than a local taco shop could offer, and old friends/business partners who turned against one another.

It is a trial officials believe will take well into 2024 to complete.

The trial officially commenced in the Kitsap County Superior Courtroom of Judge Kevin Hull. An 18-member jury, six of whom will serve as alternates, was sworn in and charged with determining the fate of the three suspects: Danie Jay Kelly Jr., 45; Robert James Watson III, 52; and Johnny James Watson, 50.

All three face charges of first-degree murder along with a slate of other felony counts. They pled not guilty and are expected to serve the remainder of their lives in prison without parole if convicted in the deaths of John Derek Careaga, 43; Christale Lynn Careaga, 37; and 16-year-olds Hunter Evan Schaap and Jonathon Felipe Higgins.

Those who knew the family still find it hard to believe the trial has finally begun after years of waiting. Thomas Schindler, whose grandson was Hunter’s cousin, said: “It’s about time. We’ve been chasing these guys for many years, and we know too many people involved. It just needs to get done now.”

“It’s a lot of anger,” an uncle of Jonathon’s said. “Innocent boys lost their lives. They need to go to prison.”

As for what the family hopes to gain by the end of the trial, justice isn’t even the proper word to some. “Execution,” Schindler said bluntly. “Hang ‘em. They killed four people, brought down a family.”

Keys to case

Tears streamed down the faces of many as Kelly Montgomery began the prosecution’s opening statement by recounting the moments that led up to Hunter’s 911 phone call.

“He went and saw was something no 16-year-old kid should ever see,” Montgomery said. “He saw his stepmom facing him, covered in blood and dead.”

In the Seabeck house near Lake Tahuyeh, he found both Christale and his brother Jonathon dead from gunshot wounds. The assailants turned on him next and shot him twice, but he lived long enough to call police.

“Help. My whole family’s shot. Me too,” Hunter had told 911 operators in the late night of Jan. 27, 2017. The call lasted less than a minute, and when law enforcement arrived, they found three lifeless bodies and a house set on fire.

John Careaga’s remains were found two days later inside a burned pickup on a tree farm in Mason County.

Montgomery called the efforts to start the fire “herculean” out of a realization that Hunter’s unexpected 911 call may have done a lot of damage to their plans.

“There wasn’t one inch of that house that wasn’t altered by fire and smoke,” she said. “The evidence will show you that this house would have burned all the way down but for Hunter. Hunter’s 911 call interrupted their whole process.”

Montgomery then took jurors through the days, weeks and months of events that led to the murders, including information that aside from owning Juanito’s Taqueria in Bremerton, John Careaga had become a large player in local drug dealing.

Also found in this side hustle was a close friendship in the past between himself and Kelly, a known member of the notorious Bandidos Motorcycle Club. The relationship turned sour, Montgomery noting a disagreement over about $15,000 of stolen money.

That broken relationship, she said, will tie into the evidence of data collected through various phone towers as the case was built on that data. The jury was shown map after map of different towers, how they worked and why she believes the records of phone activity of the suspects unearthed in the investigation will be their undoing.

“What the evidence is going to show you is that one thing leads to another thing, leads to another thing, and everything connects,” she said. “This isn’t a case of ‘whodunit.’ This is a case of, ‘They did it.’”

Montgomery’s opening statement took up all of the first day, leaving the defense to begin its time before the jury Nov. 28.

Thomas Weaver, one of two lawyers representing Kelly, reminded the jury of the importance of witness testimony and its importance in proving his client’s innocence.

“It’s a horrible thing to happen, and I’m not going to minimalize it at all,” he said. “But on behalf of my client, Danie Kelly, I would cement that it would be an equally tragic thing to double down on the tragedy for an innocent person to be held responsible.”

Weaver called the feud between his client and Careaga as more of a falling out. He said, “You’re going to hear from witnesses who say that Mr. Kelly never spoke ill of John Careaga. He was a good friend, but no longer…”

He also calls into question the “evolving story” of a witness named David Zaleski, a neighbor whom Weaver said he plans to go in-depth with in his witness examinations. Zaleski, the attorney said, had little to nothing to offer police in the first days of the investigation only to keep adding information in the years following. “He’s making himself into this big-time witness, talking about the neighborhood. He’s making himself a big shot,” Weaver said.

The Tuesday proceedings concluded without opening comments from the other two defendants’ council, one reporting sick that day. Opening statements are set to continue Nov. 30.

Prosecuting attorney Kelly Montgomery works through her opening statement before the jury in Kitsap County Superior Court.

Prosecuting attorney Kelly Montgomery works through her opening statement before the jury in Kitsap County Superior Court.