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Convicted killers could face death penalty for Indio carjack murder

Published On: Feb 19 2013 03:54:05 PM CST
Updated On: Feb 19 2013 08:00:00 PM CST

Daniel Cervantes and Carlos Contreras could face death penalty for the May 7, 2008 murder of Daniel Kuzawa. Jurors find true special circumstance allegations of murder in commission of a robbery, kidnapping, and carjacking.

INDIO, Calif. -

Carlos Contreras, 34, and Daniel Cervantes, 35, were both found guilty of first degree murder and robbery in the May 7, 2008 killing of Daniel Kuzawa. Jurors found true special circumstance allegations of murder in commission of a robbery, kidnapping, and carjacking, making both men eligible for the death penalty.

Cervantes' panel reached a decision on Feb. 5. However, in order to prevent the decision from influencing the Contreras case, both verdicts were read together. Contreras' jury finally returned a verdict on Thursday after about two days of deliberations. The court doesn't conduct trial proceedings on Fridays and was closed Monday for Presidents' Day.

Kuzawa was found by a field worker. He had been shot at close range in the head and chest on the dirt shoulder of Pierce Street south of Airport Boulevard. His wrists and neck were bound with electrical cable.

Deputy District Attorney Manny Bustamante alleged that Cervantes held a gun on the victim, while Contreras tied up Kuzawa in his own truck as he repeatedly pleaded for his life.

Kuzawa's credit card was used at a Shell station in Coachella early on the morning of May 7. Surveillance video from the Fastrip station, where an ATM transaction was traced, showed Kuzawa's truck pulling up to the pumps. Cervantes, who was driving, got out to speak to Contreras, who was riding in another vehicle, Bustamante said.

Contreras was arrested that night, after authorities stopped a vehicle in which he was a passenger. While trying to flee, he disposed of a gun believed to be the weapon used to kill Kuzawa, Bustamante said.

Cervantes told investigators he was present during Kuzawa's ordeal but tried to minimize his involvement, the prosecutor said.

Contreras had gunshot residue on his hands and was in possession of Kuzawa's wallet, a round of ammunition and a credit card belonging to a man he allegedly shot a few days before, the prosecutor said. He was also carrying Kuzawa's insurance and Costco cards, Bustamante said.

A search of the Coachella home where Contreras lived with his parents turned up an ATM receipt from the Fastrip station and spools of cable of the type used to bind Kuzawa, according to Bustamante.

Contreras' attorney, Gail O'Rane, said in her closing argument that fingerprints found on Kuzawa's truck and the truck belonging to Walter Garrett -- who he is accused of a shooting during a carjacking a few days before Kuzawa was killed -- didn't match Contreras' fingerprints. 

She also said there was one particle of gunshot residue found on each of Contreras' hands, and an expert testified there was no way to tell for certain that Contreras fired a gun.

"You can't really determine what happened; the evidence doesn't tell you that. (The prosecution) is asking you to speculate and guess," she told the jury.

She said evidence showed Cervantes, not Contreras, was connected to the crimes, and there was "reasonable doubt" of her client's involvement.

Cervantes' attorney, John Hemmer, said his client told investigators that he thought he and Contreras were hitching a ride with Kuzawa. He claimed Contreras pulled out a gun and forced Kuzawa into his own truck. Later, Cervantes started driving, Hemmer said.

"You heard Mr. Cervantes (say) -- `I didn't tie him up, I was driving' ... You heard Mr. Cervantes, `I was trying to get Contreras not to kill him, I tried,"' Hemmer said in his closing argument.

He said Cervantes "adamantly" denied shooting Kuzawa and DNA found on the alleged murder weapon excluded his client as the shooter. The defense attorney said there was also no evidence Cervantes tied up Kuzawa or trained a gun on him. "So where was his participation?"

"(Kuzawa) just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and Mr. Cervantes happened to be with the wrong person at the wrong time," Hemmer told the jurors.

Contreras is accused of shooting Garrett in the jaw and shoulder and stealing his pickup truck near Dillon Road and Vista Del Sur in Coachella on May 3, 2008. The pickup was later found burned in Indio.

On April 28, 2008, Contreras allegedly robbed a woman while she was sitting in her car in Palm Desert. He allegedly dropped Sandra Jaramillo off in the Thermal area and threatened to kill her if she looked back, Bustamante said. The vehicle was later found abandoned in Coachella.

Cervantes is also accused of robbing and kidnapping a Thermal-area man, Diego Chavez, on May 11, 2008, and having another man's check in his possession when he was arrested on May 22. At the prosecution's request, the judge dismissed allegations that Cervantes tied up and robbed a La Quinta man and his friend at the man's home on May 4, 2008.