SAN DIEGO — The government's case against two men accused of dissolving corpses in vats of acid for a Mexican drug gang hinges on flawed witness accounts, defense attorneys said Thursday.
Jose Olivera Beritan, 38, and David Valencia, 41, are accused burning two strangled corpses in 55-gallon barrels of acid heated by slow-burning propane tanks. The killings occurred in a San Diego home in June 2007 in what authorities say was an unusually gruesome display of drug violence crossing the border from Mexico to the United States.
More than two years after the killings, one witness led investigators to Valencia's San Diego ranch, where human remains were recovered. Another cooperating witness likely to face tough questioning from defense attorneys will offer testimony to support many key allegations.
A prosecutor acknowledged Wednesday that the two witnesses were promised more lenient treatment in exchange for their cooperation. The defense attorneys told jurors in the opening statements that those agreements undercut the case.
"They can't give you anything but the words of those two people who have a lot on the line," said William Wolfe, Valencia's attorney.
The technique of dissolving bodies in liquid is common among warring Mexican cartels but extremely rare on U.S. soil. It allows for evidence to be destroyed.
Prosecutors say the defendants belonged to "Los Palillos" – "The Toothpicks" in English – a cell of the Tijuana-based Arellano Felix cartel that broke away around 2002 when its leader was killed in an internal feud. The leader's younger brother, Jorge Rojas, moved to the San Diego area and allegedly directed the cell in trafficking drugs and kidnapping and killing perceived rivals until his arrest in 2007.
Rojas, 32, was convicted of kidnapping in 2008 and sentenced to life in prison. He will be tried later this year on additional charges that may make him eligible for the death penalty, if convicted.
Olivera and Valencia are charged with murdering and kidnapping two people in San Diego, while Olivera is charged with a third murder. They are the first to go on trial among 17 people who were indicted in state court in 2009.
Olivera is also charged with an attempted kidnapping in January 2007. The victim was allegedly abducted in a San Diego suburb by assailants wearing police uniforms and managed to escape. The victim is expected to testify.
During his opening statement Wednesday, Mark Amador, a San Diego County deputy district attorney, said he would present physical evidence but that witness testimony would be crucial.
One witness is Guillermo Moreno, who agreed to plead guilty to kidnapping and other charges in an agreement that calls for a 25-year prison sentence.
"That's his deal," Amador told jurors. "He will tell you much of what my opening statement covers."
Moreno's younger brother, Carlos Pena, received a "discount" for cooperating with the government and will be sentenced to a minimum of nearly 27 years in prison, Amador said.
The prosecutor also promised testimony from other witnesses, including Eduardo Gonzalez Tostado, who was chained and blindfolded for eight days until rescued in an FBI raid on a home in Chula Vista home in June 2007. Authorities found three boxes of muriatic acid in the house.
The prosecutor identified Gonzalez as a wealthy businessman but told jurors he may be questioned during the trial on whether he had any ties to the Arellano Felix cartel or drug trafficking. He said Gonzalez will deny those allegations.
The trial is expected to last six to eight weeks.