Tag Archive for: Homicide

Photo of hand pouring blue pills from a small zip lock bag.

Murder Charges in Fentanyl Overdose Death

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan announced today that two individuals have been charged with murder in connection with the fentanyl overdose death of 31-year-old Connor Gerhart. Defendants Sheri Cavanaugh, 59, and her co-conspirator, Micah Seau,31, are both charged with murder and conspiracy to commit a crime. The pair conspired to sell the victim fentanyl pills which resulted in his overdose death.

“These defendants were aware of the dangers of the illegal drugs they were selling and in a callous indifference to the victim’s overdose death, conspired to continue dealing this poison in our communities,” said DA Stephan. “Working with our law enforcement partners, we will continue to hold individuals accountable for murder in cases like this and work to deliver justice for Connor’s family and loved ones.”

On June 2, 2023, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Overdose Response Team responded to the scene of the overdose and immediately commenced an investigation. During their investigation, they established that Seau and Gerhardt were longtime friends and that Cavanaugh and Seau were longtime associates dealing illegal narcotics. The investigation further showed that on May 31, 2023, Seau purchased at least $1,200 worth of fentanyl pills from co-defendant Cavanaugh in La Mesa. Thereafter, Seau invited the victim to pick up his pills and charged him $700. Mr. Gerhart picked up the pills, took some of them, and died on the evening of June 1. He was found in his home by a family friend. In the days following Gerhart’s death, Seau and Cavanaugh continued to be in contact regarding Seau purchasing more narcotics.

“Connor Gerhart is gone too soon,” said DEA Acting Special Agent in Charge Anthony Chrysanthis. “His life was stolen by careless drug dealers who chose money over life. Removing those who sell fake pills and endanger the community is one of the top priorities for the DEA.”

Seau and Cavanaugh were both arrested without incident on May 31 at their homes. They were arraigned this Tuesday in San Diego Superior Court and pleaded not guilty. A readiness hearing was set for June 12. If convicted of all the charges, each defendant faces up to 15 years-to-life in state prison.

“Fentanyl continues to fatally plague our communities, said San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit. “The impacts we see from Fentanyl sales is overwhelming and destructive, prematurely ending the lives of those struggling with addiction every day.” “The San Diego Police Department, Drug Enforcement Administration and the Narcotics Task Force, in coordination with the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office have dedicated significant resources to identify and aggressively prosecute those individuals responsible for the sales of these drugs, especially when such action causes death. This case is a result of the hard work and dedication of investigators to bring those responsible to justice.”

Since 2017, the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office has charged eight fentanyl dealers with homicide stemming from selling or furnishing fentanyl-laced drugs.

In 2021 and 2022, there was an average of about 800 deaths in San Diego County  caused by fentanyl or analogs of fentanyl in each year. To put that in perspective, in 2021, San Diego County experienced 88 homicides caused by firearms. That same year, the county saw 814 deaths caused by fentanyl poisoning.

“Fentanyl killed more young people in our nation than any other cause last year,” DA Stephan said. When someone sells fentanyl, knowing how incredibly dangerous that drug is, and another person dies as a result of using that drug, that is murder.” said DA Stephan.

This case is being prosecuted by the DA’s Major Narcotics Division.

Here are five things we should all know about the dangers of Fentanyl.

Photo of a Judge's gavel and a gun.

Defendant who Murdered In-Laws Sentenced to Life Without Parole + 50 Years

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan announced today that a 46-year-old man, who was convicted by a jury of killing his father and brother-in-law in Valley Center in June 2022, has been sentenced to two terms of life without the possibility of parole plus 50 years in state prison.

A jury found Christian Bobila guilty on March 20 of two counts of first-degree murder, including firearm enhancements for discharging a gun causing death and the special circumstance of multiple murders.

“This was a horrific murder that senselessly devastated an entire family,” DA Stephan said. “Although nothing is a substitute for the death of the two victims, I hope their surviving family members receive a measure of justice with the murder convictions and with today’s sentence. I’m grateful for the hard work and dedication of the DA team led by Deputy DA Daniel Gochnour and the service of the jury that heard the evidence in this case.”

The murders occurred over a long-simmering family schism that developed after the defendant married his wife without his father-in-law’s blessing. After a long drive from the Bay Area to Valley Center, the defendant — armed with a semi-automatic pistol — carried out his plan to kill on a Sunday evening in June 2022. The defendant executed his brother-in-law, Vincent Reyes, while he spoke on the phone, planning for an upcoming business trip. The defendant fired six rounds, striking Reyes three times.

He then proceeded to the upstairs bedroom of his father-in-law, Vicente Reyes. He found the elder Reyes in a recliner watching a movie while he enjoyed a glass of wine. The defendant told Vicente Reyes, “Three years…” referencing the schism in the family that developed when Bobila married Lylah Reyes-Bobila without Vicente’s blessing. Lylah Reyes-Bobila tried to intervene, but the defendant was determined to kill. Despite his wife’s presence, the defendant fired his pistol shooting Vicente in the chest and head.

After killing Vicente Reyes, Bobila went downstairs and told his mother-in-law, Carmelita Reyes, that her son was dead and pointed out to the patio. Carmelita ran outside and found her son, Vincent, face up in a ‘Just Married’ t-shirt, boasting a date just a few weeks before. The defendant fled in his vehicle and was apprehended a mile from the Reyes family home.

Photo of a Judge's gavel and a gun.

Gang Member Sentenced in Shooting Death of Alpha Project Security Guard

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan announced today that defendant Johnny Hill, a member of a criminal street gang, was sentenced to 55 years to life plus an additional 26 years in prison in connection with a 2019 shooting that left one man dead and another injured.

Hill and co-defendant, Floyd Garrett, who will be sentenced on January 22, were found guilty by a jury of second-degree murder with a special allegation of personal gun use causing death, assault with a semi-automatic firearm, and being a felon in possession of a firearm on September 14.

“Our office will never stop fighting to make neighborhoods safe from violence,” DA Stephan said. “Ernest Buchanan Jr. was a beloved member of the Alpha Project family and his own family, and his life was mercilessly taken without justification. San Diego Police Department Detectives working with the DA Gangs Unit put this case together piece by piece in order to obtain justice for the victims and hold the offenders accountable. Although this sentence will not bring back Ernest Buchanan Jr., we hope his family finds a measure of justice in the jury verdict and sentence in this case.”

The Alpha Project homeless shelter, located at 1700 Imperial Ave., lies within territory claimed by ‘Crip’ criminal street gang sets and is an area primarily used for gang related drug sales and acts of violence. Over the past two years, San Diego Police have responded to 6,187 calls involving violence: notably, seven homicides, 298 robberies, 1,280 assaults and 1,800 violent disturbances.

In December 2019, Buchanan Jr., and Dorian Cunningham were security guards for the Alpha Project homeless shelter at 1700 Imperial Ave. On the night of the shooting, the men left in Buchanan’s truck to get a snack during their break. In the meantime, the defendants, members of a criminal street gang, arrived in the area in a white sedan. The City of San Diego’s Environmental Street Cameras and the Alpha Project’s surveillance system captured the defendants as they walked together to a dark alcove across from the shelter and waited. When the victims returned and parked their car, Cunningham walked into the administration trailer and Buchanan followed shortly after walking across Imperial Ave. Together, the defendants fired multiple rounds at Buchanan, and he died shortly thereafter at the hospital. Cunningham was grazed in the leg and did not sustain life threatening injuries. After the shooting, the defendants fled from downtown only six minutes after arriving.

This case was prosecuted by Deputy District Attorney Matthew Carberry with the support of his team.

Welk Resorts Will Pay Up To $ 5.5 Million To Settle Consumer Protection Lawsuit

Man Sentenced for Fatally Stabbing Teenager at Chula Vista House Party

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan announced today that a 19-year-old man who fatally stabbed a 17-year-old male at a house party has been sentenced to 12 years in state prison.

On August 10, 2023, James Mumper Jr. pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and admitted the allegation of personal use of a deadly weapon. Mumper additionally admitted three aggravating factors in the commission of this crime in connection with the stabbing that occurred   at the house party in Chula Vista. 

“We all grieve with the family for the loss of such a young life taken by senseless violence,” DA Stephan said. “We hope the family can find solace in the justice that was delivered through this prosecution.”

This case was prosecuted by Deputy District Attorneys Alexis Lamprea and Garret Wong. 

Prison Sentence for Defendant Who Pushed Man into Freight Train

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan announced today that defendant Ryan Rukstelis, 27, was sentenced this week to 15 years-to-life in prison for a random attack that killed an elderly man at the Old Town Transit Station. Superior Court Judge Rachel Cano handed down the sentence on Thursday.

The victim, 68-year-old Martin Andara, was on his way to work at a Ralph’s supermarket in Pacific Beach at about 6:00 a.m. on New Year’s Day in 2022. After exiting the trolley and walking toward a connecting bus at the station, Rukstelis is seen on surveillance video walking ahead of Andara then slowing and stopping to wait until he is even with the victim. Rukstelis suddenly attacked Andara for no reason, punching him and pushing him directly into a freight train that was moving past them. Andara suffered severe head trauma causing almost immediate death.

“This random, chilling attack took the life of a man who was loved by his family, friends and colleagues,” said DA Stephan. “It is a tragic case that was solved by excellent police work and brought to justice by the Elder Abuse Unit in our office.” 

Police analyzed surveillance footage at various train stations throughout the county and determined that Rukstelis was at a trolley station in Mission Valley hours before the attack earlier that morning. Surveillance footage captured him attempting to remove a broken front panel of a vending machine. Fingerprints were lifted from the inside of the vending machine panel, matching those of Rukstelis. Investigators arrested Rukstelis three days after the attack.

Rukstelis pleaded guilty to second-degree murder on June 30. Deputy District Attorney Scott Pirrello prosecuted this case.  

Defendant Sentenced to Prison in 1974 National City Cold Case Murder

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan announced today that Carlin Cornett, 70, was sentenced to five years-to-life in prison on June 7, for the 1974 murder of Christy Bryant, a former Marine and 7-Eleven clerk. Bryant was stabbed more than 30 times in the back room of the store during her night shift in National City.

“When a murder is unsolved for decades, it takes an enormous toll on the victim’s loved ones, but now the family of Christy Bryant have a measure of justice after many years of mourning their loss,” DA Stephan said. “I am grateful to our Cold Case Unit and detectives in the National City Police Department who worked tirelessly on this case until it was solved, and the killer was brought to justice.”

The case was a priority for National City Police.

“The National City Police Department would like to thank every law enforcement agency that assisted us with this investigation,” said National City Police Chief Jose Tellez. “This collaboration led to the arrest and conviction of a dangerous murder suspect. The exemplary work performed on this nearly 50-year-old case highlights the National City Police Department’s unwavering commitment to solve cases and to hopefully give families of victims a sense of closure and justice.”

Cornett pleaded guilty to second-degree murder on April 26. In 1974, the punishment under the law for second-degree murder was five years to life in prison.

The case was solved with the DA’s Cold Case Homicide Unit working in collaboration with the National City Police Department, which exhausted every lead and never gave up. Their work was possible through the grant-funded Cold Homicide and Research Genealogy Effort, (CHARGE) which applies investigative genetic genealogy to cold case homicides led by the DA’s resident genealogist Deputy District Attorney Laura Tanney.

On July 31, 1974, Bryant was working the overnight shift at the 7-Eleven on Highland Avenue in National City when she was attacked. After being stabbed more than 30 times, she died at the scene. During the struggle, the defendant cut himself with the knife and left a blood trail as he fled the store. The blood was unidentified for almost 50 years until the National City Police Department in collaboration with CHARGE applied the new tool of investigative genetic genealogy to the unidentified blood. An investigative lead was generated, and the defendant was ultimately identified as the attacker through a standard DNA test.

The District Attorney’s Office commended the National City police department for their outstanding investigative work on this case over the many years it was unsolved, especially retired detectives Raymond Estrada and David Bavencoff, and current Sgt. Mark Segal.  

This case was prosecuted by the team leader of the DA’s Cold Case Homicide Unit, Deputy District Attorney Chris Lindberg.

Man who Killed Twin Daughters of Ex-Girlfriend Sentenced to Life Without Parole + 72 Years

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan announced today that defendant Dwayne E. Groves Jr., 41, was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole plus 72 years for murdering 15-year-old twin sisters, Caira and Leah Christopher, in April 2020. Groves pleaded guilty on March 10 to two counts of first-degree murder, a special circumstance allegation of committing multiple murders, and an assault with a firearm count.

On the day of the fatal shootings, Groves arrived at his ex-girlfriend’s home and used a semi-automatic handgun to shoot his way into the residence. Once inside, he shot and killed his ex-girlfriend’s twin 15-year-old daughters, Caira and Leah. He then beat her 22-year-old son, Gary, with the gun, causing multiple lacerations to his head and breaking his arm. Groves’ ex-girlfriend, Joann Hoyt, was able to escape the residence with her younger daughters. Groves fled the scene and tried to avoid arrest but was ultimately located and taken into custody that same day. Law enforcement located the gun on scene with its serial numbers scratched off.

“Anytime that a human being is murdered, there is a sense of deep loss and pain; however, when the lives of innocent children are stolen, we are left with a gaping wound,” DA Stephan said. “This was an unspeakable crime that took the lives of two innocent twin girls who were just beginning their lives. Nothing can make up for the devastation the defendant caused to the family of the victims, but I hope this sentence provides a measure of justice and healing.”

At the preliminary hearing, Joann Hoyt testified that Groves called her just before the incident, told her he had a plan and to trust him. Shortly after hanging up, the sliding glass door to her bedroom shattered and Groves came in holding a gun. He immediately went after Caira then proceeded through the house on his murderous rampage, killing Leah and attacking Gary. Before running out of the house Hoyt overheard Groves say, “You always wanted a story to write and now you have a book.”

Deputy District Attorney Meredith Pro prosecuted this case.

Solana Beach Woman Sentenced for Killing Stepfather

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan announced today that defendant Jade Janks, 39, who was convicted by a jury on December 21 of first-degree murder, has been sentenced to 25 years-to-life in prison.

Hours after she picked up the victim from a medical care facility, Janks drugged and strangled Tom Merriman, 64, to death on New Year’s Eve 2020 because she found nude photos of herself on his computer. Merriman was the co-founder of the education and research nonprofit Butterfly Farms, which had a half-acre vivarium in Encinitas.

“This was a complex case that our prosecution team along with law enforcement worked tirelessly on to prove the premeditated nature of this killing,” DA Stephan said. “Although today’s sentence will not bring back Mr. Merriman, it is a measure of justice for his family after a long ordeal.”

While Merriman was recovering on December 23, 2020 at a medical care facility in Encinitas, Janks went his home to tidy up when she accidentally bumped his computer mouse and discovered hundreds of nude photos of herself on his computer. She reached out to a friend who said he could help “fix” her problem. On December 31, Janks picked up her stepfather after he was discharged and gave him several pain pills and sleeping pills.

She texted her friend, the fixer, that she “just dosed the hell out of him” and was bringing Merriman home. But the fixer never showed up, causing Janks to panic and send a flurry of text messages, including:

  • “He’s waking up. I really don’t want to be the one to do this.”
  • “He is waking up and I really need help.”
  • “I am about to club him on the head as he is waking up.”
  • “It’s going to be Weekend at Bernie’s.”

Later that evening, a friend of Janks’ arrived, and Janks confessed that she drugged, suffocated, and strangled Merriman and needed help putting his body in his bed to make it look like an overdose. The friend said he couldn’t help, left and called police reporting what Janks said and letting them know they should look for Merriman.

The San Diego Sheriff’s Department contacted Janks and looked for Merriman but couldn’t find him anywhere in his home or her residence. As they were finishing their search of the premises, detectives looked under a pile of trash in Merriman’s driveway and found his body buried underneath it. The San Diego Sheriff’s Department conducted an extensive investigation—interviewing dozens of witnesses, examining terabytes of data, and testing numerous pieces of evidence for DNA—that ultimately solved the case and led to a first-degree murder conviction.

Deputy District Attorneys Jorge Del Portillo and Teresa Pham prosecuted this case.

Man who Brutally Murdered Wife and Sister-In-Law Sentenced

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan announced today that defendant Juan Carlos Ortega, 38, who was convicted by a jury on December 21 of two counts of first-degree murder, two counts of child endangerment likely to produce great bodily injury and one count of arson, has been sentenced to two life terms without the possibility of parole plus 26 years to life in prison.

In 2018, Ortega fatally stabbed his wife Veronica Soto Ortega, 30, and her sister Ana Gabriela Soto, 26, as the couple’s children slept nearby.

“The brutality with which this defendant killed the two victims is horrendous and is sadly a disturbing example of what can happen when domestic violence escalates,” DA Stephan said. “A specialized DA prosecution team worked tirelessly to bring this case to justice, and we are grateful for the jury verdict and sentence in this case. Every year there are more than 17,000 reported incidents of domestic violence with an average of 13 women killed per year by their intimate partner. We will keep fighting to reduce the gut wrenching damage of domestic violence in our community.”

On August 9, 2018, Ortega watched his estranged wife’s apartment in Escondido and waited to enter until just after 3 a.m. Once inside the home, he attacked his wife, stabbing her in the neck twice, then slashed his sister-in-law’s throat, stabbed her in the chest and shot her. He then continued stabbing his wife until she died. After killing his wife, he locked his two children, ages 4 and 5, in a nearby bedroom and covered his wife with a blanket. He stuffed his sister-in-law’s body into the back of his wife’s SUV and drove off, tossing out Soto’s cellphone along the way.

At Country Club Drive and Kauana Loa Drive, just east of Escondido, Ortega poured lighter fluid over Soto’s body, set it on fire, then walked back to his vehicle, which he left at a Park & Ride in San Marcos.

Deputy District Attorneys Patricia Lavermicocca and An Dang prosecuted this case.

If you are a victim of domestic violence, take the first step today to protect yourself and your family and call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233(SAFE) for help and referrals to local resources. Call 9-1-1 if in immediate danger.

McLeod

Fugitive Murderer Arrested in Central America

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan said today that defendant Raymond McLeod, 37, wanted for the murder of 30-year-old Krystal Mitchell in San Diego, was taken into custody Monday afternoon by El Salvadoran law enforcement authorities without incident. McLeod will be returned to San Diego County to face a charge of murder.

“This defendant’s brazen attempt to evade justice is over and the work to hold him accountable in a court of law for the murder of Krystal Mitchell can now begin,” said DA Stephan. “Huge credit goes to the victim’s mother who never gave up searching for her daughter’s killer and worked closely with our office and other law enforcement to make this arrest possible.”

McLeod confirmed his identity to members of the U.S. Marshals team and members of the U.S. Embassy, who were on the ground with the El Salvadoran local and national police when they took him into custody around 4:30 p.m. (Pacific time). Authorities had received a tip that McLeod had been teaching English at a school in Sonsonate.

Beginning in 2018, the DA’s Office coordinated with the U.S. Marshals Service to lead a targeted social media campaign in Spanish and English to encourage tips on McLeod’s whereabouts through Crime Stoppers. The DA placed Facebook and Instagram ads focused on users in Central America and Mexico. McLeod had been spotted in Guatemala, Mexico, and Belize.

The victim’s mother, Josephine Funes Wentzel, is a former police detective has been instrumental in helping authorities search for McLeod. Wentzel has generated leads for law enforcement and helped spread word about the international manhunt on social media.

On June 10, 2016, San Diego police officers responded to a 911 call of a woman not breathing inside of an apartment in the 7600 block of Mission Gorge Road in San Diego. The woman, later identified a Krystal Mitchell from Phoenix, Arizona, was pronounced dead at the scene by medics. Detectives from the San Diego Police Department’s Homicide Unit responded to the scene and determined that Mitchell was last seen alive with her boyfriend (Raymond McLeod). Mitchell and McLeod, also from Phoenix, had been in San Diego visiting friends.

McLeod fled to Mexico after Mitchell’s death. The District Attorney’s Office charged McLeod with murder in June of 2016 and a warrant was issued for his arrest.