A man prosecutors described as “a ringleader” and “shot caller” was convicted Friday in a vicious, drug-related double-homicide that saw the captured victims tied up, beaten with a bat, repeatedly shot and stabbed, and their bodies dumped in a car and torched in an orchard in northern Merced County.
The charred remains of Reyes Garcia Barona, a 29-year-old Atwater man, were found Oct. 20, 2014, in the trunk of a burned-out 2006 Chevrolet Impala left in an almond orchard off East Monte Vista Avenue, east of Denair. He’d been beaten in the head with a wooden baseball bat, his throat cut before he was dumped in the car. His “incinerated remains” weighed just 51 pounds when they were measured by authorities, the Merced County District Attorney’s Office said.
The other victim, Rudolpho Barona, a 32-year-old relative of Garcia Barona’s from Sacramento, was shot in the head repeatedly and dumped in the car’s back seat, according to reports from the Merced County Sheriff’s Office. His remains weighed just 34 pounds when measured during the autopsy, according to Matt Serratto, Merced County deputy district attorney and lead prosecutor in the case.
Before fleeing, the killers torched the car, using diesel fuel, investigators said.
On Friday, a Merced County jury deliberated for less than three hours before handing down guilty verdicts on two counts of first-degree murder against 39-year-old Heliodoro Silva Arreola, whom prosecutors described as one of the ringleaders in the double slaying.
Serratto, along with Deputy District Attorney Gerad Egan, told jurors the victims were killed as the result of some type of financial fallout over large amounts of marijuana with possible ties to Mexican drug cartels.
“There was either a debt owed or some money stolen. Some of the specific details (regarding the money) change depending on who’s telling the story,” Serratto said.
His attorney, Deputy Public Defender Tony Green, was unavailable for comment Friday. Green has said his client was not responsible for the slayings and said any involvement Silva Arreola may have had was “against his will and under duress.”
Prosecutors, however, described Silva Arreola as at least one of two “leaders” who organized the kidnappings and, ultimately, the deaths of the victims. Bernardo Rangel, 45, was identified by prosecutors as the “other leader” in the slayings. Rangel has pleaded not guilty.
Investigators believe the victims were captured some time around Oct. 18, 2014. They were bound with duct tape and held at homes in Atwater and Winton before they were taken to the orchard and killed, prosecutors said. As the group left Silva Arreola’s home on California Street in Winton the night of the slayings, he placed a call to a blocked telephone number in Mexico.
Sheriff’s detectives found “in excess of 200 pounds” of marijuana at the home on California Street.
Silva Arreola is the second conviction in a case involving six defendants. His nephew, Salvador Silva, 25, pleaded guilty Oct. 7 to kidnapping charges and returns to court Dec. 1 for sentencing. He purchased duct tape used to hold the victims, according to court records.
Monico Peña, 42, and Gerardo Alvarez Silva, 27, are suspected of killing the victims. Peña is believed to have beaten Garcia Barona with the baseball bat and Alvarez Silva is accused of shooting Rudolpho Barona, according to reports from investigators obtained by the Merced Sun-Star.
Both men have pleaded not guilty.
Salvador Peña Vasquez, 22, has pleaded not guilty to murder charges in the case. Prosecutors said he was present and “helped” during the slayings.
The four remaining defendants, including Rangel, return to court Thursday for a trial-setting conference.
At least two of the defendants believed the Baronas were “killers” who intended to kill Silva Arreola and felt they were essentially acting in pre-emptive self-defense, the reports say.
Investigators were told the victims were seated on the couch of Silva Arreola’s home when they were “jumped” and tied up. At least one of the defendants claimed one of the victims was armed and pulled the gun, but lost the firearm during the struggle, according to the reports.
“We’re obviously pleased and grateful to the jury for returning a just verdict in this extremely serious case,” Serratto said. He praised the work of his co-prosecutor, Egan, and the investigation conducted by sheriff’s detectives.
Detective Sgt. Chuck Hale, head of the sheriff’s investigations unit, said he hoped the verdict was “the first step towards some closure for the families of the victims.”
“Obviously, I’m extremely proud of the work of our detectives,” Hale said Friday. “It was a total team effort involving the (whole unit) and the work of the prosecutors; the teamwork between our offices was extremely good and important in this case.”
Prosecutors said Silva Arreola faces two lifetime prison sentences with no possibility of parole. He returns to court Dec. 8 for sentencing.
Rob Parsons: 209-385-2482