Two found guilty of killing family

March 5, 2009 3:08:23 PM PST
Two men were convicted Thursday of gunning down a family of four along a dark stretch of Florida's Turnpike to settle a drug debt and now could face the death penalty. [SIGN UP: Get headlines and breaking news sent to you]

A federal jury deliberated for nearly 24 hours over parts of four days before convicting Daniel Troya and Ricardo Sanchez Jr., both 25, of armed carjacking resulting in deaths, conspiracy, weapons counts and drug offenses. The jury found them guilty on all l1 counts.

Two others -- Danny Varela, 28, and Liana Lopez, 20 -- also were convicted on all counts against them, including drug conspiracy and weapons charges. They face life in prison.

The bodies of Jose Luis Escobedo, 28; his wife, Yessica Guerrero Escobedo, 25; and their sons, Luis Julian, 4, and Luis Damian, 3; were found alongside the road on Oct. 13, 2006. The bodies laid in a twisted mound in the grass, shot at close range.

"My family finally got justice," said Jose Escobedo's sister, Rita Flores, 35, of Brownsville, Texas, who sat through the trial with her mother. The family sobbed as the verdicts were read.

"We needed that closure," Flores said outside court.

Defendants' family members, who also sobbed in the courtroom, left without commenting.

Varela's attorney, Robert Gershman, said he was still dismayed that his client stood trial alongside two defendants facing death sentences. He had argued for separate trials.

"It was a difficult position to be in a death penalty trial with a client" who was not facing death, Gershman said after the verdict.

Other attorneys in the case, including prosecutors, declined comment.

The penalty phase is tentatively set for March 16.

Yessica Escobedo suffered 11 gunshot wounds, "shot to pieces by two assassins," prosecutor Stephen Carlton told jurors. Her body still cradled her two young sons in her arms in an apparent attempt to shield them. They were shot a total of 10 times. Jose Escobedo was shot five times in the head and groin.

Prosecutors argued that Jose Escobedo was involved in a drug ring with the defendants. They said Troya and Sanchez killed him and his family to settle a debt, then stole 15 kilograms of cocaine from Escobedo.

Defense attorneys claimed that Escobedo owed $187,000 to someone in Matamoros, Mexico, just across the border from Brownsville, a major cocaine corridor for Mexican drug cartels. They said the family was likely killed by Mexican drug dealers over that debt.

The victims and defendants are all U.S. citizens. Three of the defendants are Mexican-American; Troya's family is Puerto Rican and Cuban.

The Escobedos had moved to Palm Beach County from the Brownsville area just a few months before they were killed, and authorities claimed Escobedo supplied the drugs to the ring run by Varela.

During the trial, prosecutors said bullet casings found at the scene were linked to ammunition at the defendants' home. They also said Troya and Sanchez's fingerprints were found on turnpike tickets from the night of the killings. Authorities said Troya and Sanchez followed the Escobedo family after Jose Escobedo picked up cocaine, then pulled them over on the highway and killed them.

Much of the government's case relied on testimony from jailhouse informants, highway video surveillance, drug ledgers found inside Escobedo's home with notations about money the defendants owed him, and guns and drugs found in the defendants' house.

Defense attorneys claimed the case was flimsy, questioned the reliability of government witnesses who stood to gain favor in their own criminal proceedings, and pointed to the lack of witnesses to the actual crime.

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