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Deliberations resume in Indio carjack killing case

Published On: Feb 14 2013 08:38:34 AM CST
Updated On: Feb 14 2013 09:40:00 AM CST

INDIO, Calif. -

Jurors finished their first full day of deliberations  today without reaching a verdict in the trial of one of two men charged in the  robbery-motivated slaying of a 55-year-old Indio resident.

      Carlos Contreras, 34, and Daniel Cervantes, 35, could face the death  penalty if convicted of the May 7, 2008, murder of Daniel Kuzawa, and jurors  find true special circumstance allegations of murder in commission of a  robbery, kidnapping and carjacking.

      Both defendants -- who are also charged with committing other crimes  over a two-week span -- were tried together, but with separate juries.  Cervantes' jury returned a verdict on Feb. 5, but it won't be read until  Contreras' panel -- which will resume deliberations at 9 a.m. tomorrow --  reaches a decision.

      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 victim  repeatedly pleaded for his life.

      The morning after Kuzawa was slain, Contreras used Kuzawa's transponder  to enter the gated community where the victim lived with his wife and knocked  on their door, apparently with the idea of robbing the residence, according to  the prosecution. Contreras asked Kuzawa's wife if he could use the phone, but  she refused and he left, Bustamante said.

      "Ask yourselves, who does this? He takes the truck, takes the credit  card, tries to take money with it ... A thief and a murderer does that. Carlos  Contreras does that," Bustamante said in his closing argument last Thursday.

      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, 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.

      "Overwhelming (evidence) shows Carlos Contreras carjacked, kidnapped  and murdered Daniel Kuzawa," Bustamante said.

      Contreras' attorney, Gail O'Rane, argued in her closing argument that  Contreras' decision to go to the Kuzawas' house showed he didn't know Daniel  Kuzawa was dead.

      "Why knock on the door if you know the man of the house isn't there?  That shows you he didn't know. If he knew, he would go right in," O'Rane said.

      She said fingerprints found on Kuzawa's truck and the truck belonging to  Walter Garrett -- who he is accused of 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.

      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.