Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Decision on death penalty may come soon for Escobedo suspects

June 16, 2007

WEST PALM BEACH — Within two weeks, the U.S. Attorney's Office will decide whether to recommend pursuing the death penalty against murder suspects Ricardo Sanchez Jr. and Daniel Troya, a federal prosecutor announced Friday.

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales should make the final decision by Labor Day, said Steve Carlton, the assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting the suspects. The men are charged in the shooting deaths of Greenacres residents Jose and Yessica Escobedo and their two young sons, whose bodies were found on the side of Florida's Turnpike in Port St. Lucie on Oct. 13, 2006.

Carlton and attorneys for the two men and four others — indicted by a grand jury in connection with a related drug operation — met Friday morning before U.S. District Judge Daniel Hurley.

During the meeting, to discuss the status of the federal case, the attorneys agreed with Hurley's decision to move the tentative trial date for all six defendants from October to February.

The delay is necessary so the law is "meticulously followed" to protect the "due process rights of all parties," charged with these "very, very serious crimes," Hurley said.

To get the case moving, Hurley asked the appointed attorneys to meet with one another and establish a budget for defending the suspects with added projected costs if the death penalty is sought for Sanchez and Troya. Part of those funds will pay for the hiring of mitigation experts so defense attorneys may investigate Sanchez and Troya's backgrounds and establish factors that could help argue against the death penalty.

In April, Sanchez and Troya were indicted and pleaded not guilty to a variety of drug charges and two charges that could ultimately lead to execution: armed carjacking resulting in death and using a firearm in a crime of violence resulting in death.

According to St. Lucie County sheriff's reports, Jose Luis Escobedo, 28, and his fugitive brother ran one of the largest cocaine rings in the eastern United States. Sanchez, Troya and the other indicted suspects in the case — Danny Varela, Juna C. Gutierrez, Liana Lee Lopez and West Palm Beach resident Kevin Vetere — worked with or for him.

At about 2:15 a.m. Oct. 13, Sanchez and Troya had Escobedo stop his black Jeep Cherokee on the side of the turnpike in Port St. Lucie. Jose Escobedo and his 25-year-old wife and sons, Luis Damien, 4, and Luis Julian, 3, were shot between 20 and 50 times before Troya, in a burgundy van, and Sanchez, in the Jeep, sped off.

The Jeep was found three days later, abandoned in West Palm Beach. Drug ledgers in the Escobedo family's home and cell phone records between Sanchez and Jose Escobedo eventually led detectives to the suspects, according to reports.

The drug charges against the suspects stem from activity connected to Jose Escobedo's alleged drug ring, spanning from about May 4 to Oct. 25, 2006, according to the indictment.

Varela, Gutierrez, Lopez and Vetere all face up to life in prison.

None of the defendants appeared in court Friday, but all were represented by counsel.

Although an additional attorney specializing in death penalty cases has yet to be secured for Sanchez, West Palm Beach attorney James L. Eisenberg made an appearance as Troya's newly appointed death penalty counsel.

And he did not appear overly optimistic about the impending result of Gonzales' decision.

"With this administration, the odds are this is a death penalty case," he said after the hearing.

Unless an additional hearing is requested, the attorneys and Hurley will not meet again in court until October.


Ricardo Sanchez Jr., 23 (aka "Rick"): Various illegal drug charges and carjacking conspiracy, armed carjacking resulting in death and use of a firearm in relation to a crime of violence resulting in death

Daniel Troya, 24 (aka "Homer"): Various illegal drug charges and carjacking conspiracy, armed carjacking resulting in death and use of a firearm in relation to a crime of violence resulting in death

Danny Varela, 26 (aka "D.V."): Various illegal drug and firearm possession charges

Liana Lee Lopez, 19 (aka "Negra"): Various illegal drug charges

Juan C. Gutierrez, 20 (aka "Flaco"): Various illegal drug charges

Kevin Vetere, 23: Conspiracy to possess cocaine with the intent to distribute.

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