Jury finds man guilty of 2015 quadruple California killings

An Arizona man was convicted Monday, April 29 of the 2015 slayings of three men killed and burned in an SUV in a suburban Orange neighborhood and the slaying of a fourth man shot to death on a drive to Fontana, the apparent violent culmination of what prosecutors described as a feud over unpaid debts and control of a lucrative drug-trafficking business.

A six-man crew — including five men from the Phoenix area and a sixth from Mexico with alleged ties to the Sinaloa Cartel — allegedly carried out the sprawling murder plot that left brothers Edgar Berrelleza-Soto, 26, and Joel Mauricio Berrelleza, 35, both of Orange, and two other men dead.

Raul Gastellum Flores, 33, of Phoenix was the first — and possibly last — member of the crew to go to trial.

Despite an argument by Flores’ attorney that his client wasn’t aware that there was going to be any bloodshed and he was simply taking part in an illicit business deal that went wrong, an Orange County Superior Court jury deliberated for less than a day before finding Flores guilty of four counts of first-degree murder.

A former partner of the Berrelleza brothers — Rosario Roman-Lopez — who allegedly helped them run a cross-border drug smuggling operation promised to pay Flores $2,000 to take part in a plot to kidnap and kill the brothers, Deputy District Attorney Harris Siddiq told jurors during Flores’ trial.

Roman-Lopez was apparently angry at the Berrelleza brothers for not paying him back money they owed him, and allegedly wanted to kill them in order to take over a drug operation that prosecutors estimated took in nearly $2 million a year.

Flores was not accused of firing any weapons, but prosecutors described him as a being the only person present at all four slayings and alleged that he was part of a conspiracy to kidnap and kill the victims.

Berrelleza-Soto — along with 19-year-old Antonio Medina of Glendale, Ariz. and 20-year-old Fernando Meza of Phoenix — were shot and their bodies set aflame while they sat in a GMC SUV in an Orange neighborhood. In an interview with detectives, Flores admitted to dousing their bodies with gasoline and using a cigarette lighter to ignite the flames.

A short time later, members of the same crew kidnapped Joel Berrelleza and shot him three times at point blank range. A cell phone video shown during Flores’ trial showed members of the crew taunting a visibly bleeding Berrelleza as he died from his wounds on a drive to Fontana. A passerby spotted Joel Berrelleza’s body in a car in Fontana six days after his killing, prosecutors said.

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Siddiq, the prosecutor, told jurors during closing arguments last week in a Santa Ana courtroom that even after setting the first three men on fire, Flores was “ready for more” when it came to confronting the second Berrelleza brother. He added that the plan was always to kill the brothers, arguing the crew members knew if they left the brothers alive they would come back for revenge.

Flores’ attorney, Cameron Talley, denied that Flores was aware of any plan to kill the Berrelleza brothers. The defense attorney told jurors that Flores believed he was taking part in a business deal and a discussion to divide up the drug operation. Once the killings began, Talley added, Flores was acting out of duress.

Some of the other members of the crew are no longer in custody. That includes Roman-Lopez — the Berrelleza brothers alleged former partner — who was reportedly killed in Mexico months after the Southern California murders.

One crew member did plead guilty to robbery in return for murder charges being dropped, while another apparently cooperated with prosecutors and testified during Flores’ trial.

Talley, Flores’ attorney, described his client during the trial as the “last man standing” and “the only one left who could be charged with murder.”

Flores is scheduled to return to court for sentencing on July 29, when he faces up to life in prison without the possibility of parole.


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