An Atlantic City grifter with a history of fraud convictions was found guilty Thursday of the brutal stabbing death of a casino patron who was carjacked in May 2010 from the Trump Taj Mahal Casino-Hotel.
Craig Arno, 46, faces a potential life sentence on murder charges following his conviction by an Atlantic County Superior Court jury on 27 of 28 criminal counts he faced in the death of Martin Caballero.
The jury deliberated for five days after a two-week trial in Mays Landing. Judge Michael Donio set sentencing for May 24.
The trial included chilling and graphic testimony from Arno's former girlfriend and accomplice, Jessica Kisby, 26, who agreed to cooperate with authorities as part of a plea bargain.
First Assistant Atlantic County Prosecutor James McClain, who prosecuted the case, called Kisby a "cold-blooded, coldhearted murderer." But he told the jury that description also applied to Arno.
Caballero, 47, had gone to the Taj Mahal with his wife and family members May 21, 2010, to celebrate the 22d birthday of his daughter. The two women tearfully testified during the trial that the last time they saw Caballero was when he dropped his wife, Libia Martinez, at the entrance to the casino and drove toward the garage in his prized, white, 2009 Lincoln luxury sedan.
"Our office is very gratified at the verdict and hope it goes a long way toward giving the family a sense of closure and of justice having been done," McClain said in a statement released by the prosecutor's office.
Arno's court-appointed attorney, Eric Shenkus, could not be reached for comment. He is expected to file an appeal.
Arno and Kisby were arrested May 28, 2010, at a seedy motel just outside Atlantic City, after botching an attempt to steal an SUV and flee the city.
Kisby pleaded guilty to murder and kidnapping charges and agreed to cooperate with authorities in exchange for a 30-year prison sentence with no parole eligibility.
Arno was found guilty of murder, felony murder, carjacking, kidnapping, robbery, arson, conspiracy, weapons offenses, and related charges.
In his closing argument to the jury, McClain described the couple as a pair of "criminal pinballs" bouncing from one senseless crime to another during an eight-day period that began with the carjacking.
The couple met in spring 2010 when both were in the Atlantic County Jail. Kisby, a single mother with a 7-year-old daughter, was serving time on an assault charge. Arno was jailed on a parole violation tied to one of his four fraud convictions.
Arno spent about 10 years in jail for those convictions, according to the prosecution.
The couple began seeing each other after they were released from prison. Kisby, who lived with her mother and daughter in Egg Harbor Township, occasionally spent nights with Arno at a condo at the Plaza, a posh Atlantic City condominium complex on the Boardwalk. The place belonged to Arno's mother, who was living in Florida.
Kisby testified that the abduction and murder of Caballero were spontaneous acts. She said Caballero, a grocer from North Jersey, was targeted because he had a "nice car."
"We figured he had money," said the thin, dark-haired woman, who spoke matter-of-factly from the witness stand, occasionally giggling and playing with her ponytail.
Kisby said that there was never a plan to kill Caballero, that it "just happened."
She testified that they confronted Caballero in the parking garage after pulling up behind his car. Arno brandished a pellet gun and forced Caballero back into the car, she said. Then they drove to a dirt farm road in Hamilton Township where Arno stabbed Caballero so many times his knife broke.
Kisby said they forced the bleeding victim into the trunk of his car and drove to her mother's home in nearby Egg Harbor Township, where Kisby got two other knives. They then drove back to the dirt road where, she said, Arno continued stabbing Caballero until he died. They dumped the victim's body in brush by the roadside.
It was discovered nine days later and, according to court testimony, had apparently been ravaged by animals.
Arno, who testified in his own defense, said he had nothing to do with the murder. He told the jury that Kisby asked for help in getting rid of the Lincoln, which he had never seen before. He was unaware that Caballero had been killed, he said.
Caballero's car was found set on fire in a parking lot in Blackwood, Camden County, hours after the abduction.
Shenkus tried to portray Kisby as the person who orchestrated the murder and said she had made a deal with the prosecution and implicated Arno in order to shift blame from herself.
Those who might criticize the decision to make a deal with Kisby should remind themselves that "you don't find swans in a sewer," Atlantic County Prosecutor Theodore Housel said in a statement released after the verdict.
The prosecution's case was built around Kisby's testimony and hours of video surveillance footage that literally tracked the couple through a series of crimes that were at the heart of the case.
During the trial, jurors saw videotapes from the parking garage that clearly showed Kisby approaching Caballero's car, which he parked in an out-of-the-way alcove on the third floor. His wife said he always looked for a secluded spot because he didn't want the sedan dented by others who might park near him.
The video showed a man approaching Caballero as well, but it was impossible to identify him as Arno.
Other video surveillance clearly showed Arno making a withdrawal with Caballero's ATM card at a bank drive-through window.
Yet another surveillance shot at an Exxon station showed Kisby buying a five-gallon can of gas that authorities said the couple used to torch the Lincoln.
Two days later, on May 24, a video camera from a Kmart store in Pleasantville showed Kisby shoplifting ointment and bandages to treat Arno, who had been burned in the fire. In the footage, Kisby was seen being stopped at the door by store personnel and briefly showed a man who brandished a knife while helping her escape. A store official identified the man as Arno.
Arno was charged with attempted murder for trying to slash a store security guard, but the jury found him guilty only of aggravated assault. That charge was the only one on which he was acquitted.
During their deliberations, jurors asked to review several videos and also for a readback of testimony by Kisby and Arno.
Shenkus argued to the jury that Kisby was involved with another man while dating Arno and implied that the other man was responsible for Caballero's murder.
But McClain, asking the jury to use logic and common sense, said Kisby would have "given up" that man as well as Arno in a deal to lighten her sentence.
Under her plea bargain, and with credit for time served, Kisby will be free in 28 years.