Thursday, March 5, 2009

Jury finds four defendants guilty in Turnpike slaying case

WEST PALM BEACH — A federal jury this afternoon convicted two men in the 2006 murders of a family of four along Florida's Turnpike.

The verdicts mean either life in prison or death for Ricardo Sanchez and Daniel Troya, both 25.

The 12-member jury also convicted Danny Varela, 26, and Liana Lee Lopez, 20, on charges related to the drug ring the four ran from a luxury Briar Bay home in 2006.

Jose Luis Escobedo worked as a drug connection for the group. He, his wife Yessica and their 3 and 4-year-old sons Luis Damian and Luis Julian were killed after he and Varela, the group's leader, argued over missing money.

Varela wasn't charged in the deaths, but Assistant U.S. Attorney John Kastrenakes told jurors last week that investigators were still searching for evidence and could charge him if they find more evidence connecting him to the killings.

As it is, the drug convictions guarantee life sentences for Varela.

The verdicts against Sanchez and Troya put into play the rarely-used death penalty in Florida federal court.

If the jury opts for death in either case, it will be the first time a federal jury has imposed the death sentence since lawmakers re-authorized the capital punishment in 1988.

Jurors rejected claims from Ruben Garcia and Michael Cohen, Troya and Sanchez's attorneys who claimed that Mexican drug cartel members eliminated the Escobedos because he owed them money.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Carlton, Kastrenakes and Department of Justice trial attorney Richard Burns presented their case over more than four weeks, building it mostly on circumstantial evidence.

Among the evidence, investigators found Troya and Sanchez's palm prints on Turnpike toll receipts from the night of the killings, tracked cell phone records to show the two and Escobedo were on the highway at the same general place and time and discovered a piece of luggage belonging to the Escobedos in a van Varela sent to be repainted after the killings.

Prosecutors waited until the last full day of their case to give jurors evidence of bullets found in the group's Garden Court home that matched bullets found at the crime scene just south of Fort Pierce. No murder weapon was ever recovered.

Troya, Sanchez, Varela and another man, Juan Gutierrez, were arrested less than two weeks after the murders when investigators executed a search warrant at the group's home and found a cache of guns and drugs.

Both Gutierrez and another man, Kevin Vetere, pleaded guilty to their roles in the drug ring. Vetere received a 12-year prison sentence and spent nearly three days on the witness stand during the case testifying against the other four.

Gutierrez has yet to be sentenced, according to court records.

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