Friday, April 20, 2007

Sheriff: Slain family in drug trade

By Allyson Bird

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 20, 2007

With two men indicted as the alleged gunmen in the October murder of a family, St. Lucie County Sheriff Ken Mascara explained Thursday the suspects' connection with the Escobedos, who were sprayed with more than 20 close-range bullets off the shoulder of Florida's Turnpike in Port St. Lucie.

A federal indictment says 23-year-old West Palm Beach men Ricardo Sanchez Jr. and Daniel Troya were responsible for the murders of 28-year-old Jose Luis Escobedo, his 25-year-old wife, Yessica, and their sons, 4-year-old Luis Julian and 3-year-old Luis Damian. The family had moved to Greenacres just months earlier from Brownsville, Texas, just across the border from the Mexican drug hub of Matamoros.

"We think (Jose Luis) Escobedo was more or less the manager of the drug trade these people were involved in," Mascara said.

He said Yessica Escobedo might have counted, packaged and shipped drug money back to Texas or Mexico.

Jose Luis Escobedo's brother, Jose Manuel Escobedo, escaped from federal prison last year after being sentenced to 10 years for conspiracy to distribute to cocaine in 2003. Mascara said the brothers worked together and that the suspected killers worked for them.

"This is probably one of the largest cocaine rings, not only in the Florida, but in the Eastern United States," Mascara said.

He would not name the cartel or say how many others could be involved.

Mascara said investigators identified Sanchez and Troya as the suspected gunmen within three days of the murders. Evidence linking them to the crime includes cellphone records and turnpike photos and receipts.

The indictment says Sanchez called Jose Luis Escobedo five times before he and Troya met the family on the roadway. Asked why the Escobedos were driving home at nearly 2:30 a.m., Mascara said, "We would assume they were in the process of either delivering drugs or picking up drugs."

He said investigators cannot explain how Sanchez and Troya persuaded the family to stop the car and get out.

Evidence shows both men killed the family, Mascara said, because more than two guns were fired from different angles.

The sheriff said detectives are unsure whether they have recovered the murder weapons because 13 guns taken from Sanchez and Troya's home are still being analyzed. Their two roommates, 26-year-old Danny Varela and his 19-year-old girlfriend, Liana Lopez, also were originally named in connection with the killings.

"We do not suspect they were involved at the actual scene," Mascara said. "Perhaps they helped plan it or helped afterward."

Varela and Lopez were indicted with Sanchez and Troya on federal cocaine charges and remain in custody.

They have not swapped information for lighter sentences, Mascara said, and could face charges related to the slayings.

Two 20-year-old men, Juan Gutierrez and Kevin Vetere, also were indicted on cocaine charges but never were considered to be suspects in the killings.

Mascara declined to say whether Sanchez and Troya would face state murder charges in addition to the federal indictment. The sheriff said investigators continue to work with prosecutors to find "the maximum punishment under the evidence."

Two of Sanchez and Troya's charges - armed carjacking resulting in death and using or carrying a firearm in a violent crime - qualify for the death penalty; the sentence would have to be approved by the U.S. attorney general.

Raquel Rios, Jose Luis Escobedo's aunt, said she always has pitied the murder suspects, thinking, "Who in their right mind would do something like this?

"I didn't think I wanted the harshest punishment for these people," Rios, who lives in Spring, Texas, said Thursday.

But when sheriff's Detective Fred Wilson told her about their new charges Wednesday - and the possibility of a death sentence - Rios was happy.

"I didn't think I would react that way," she said. "Maybe there might be mixed feelings."

Rios said she talked to her nephew often and that police came to her door on the day the bodies were discovered. She had to go to the local Wal-Mart store where her sister, Escobedo's mother, was working. And she had to call the ambulance when the woman almost fainted after hearing the news.

Her family hopes state murder charges will follow the federal indictments, Rios said.

But for now, "it's very good news," she said. "Very, very good news."

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