SAN DIEGO (AP) - Mexican and U.S. authorities investigating the deaths of four Americans found in Tijuana, Mexico, are searching for a fifth person who might also have fallen victim.
Ernesto Murguia Ochoa, 22, rented a house in Tijuana where Mexican authorities found identification cards of the dead Americans and walls stained with blood, according to two U.S. and Mexican law enforcement officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
Murguia has not been found. It was unclear whether the blood inside the house was that of the victims.
The four bodies were found May 9 wrapped in blankets inside a van in a residential area of Tijuana, according to Mexico's Baja California state attorney general's office. They were beaten, strangled and stabbed. A tip led Mexican authorities to Murguia's house, but the officials stopped short of calling Murguia a suspect.
"He's a person of interest," the U.S. official said. "There's a possibility he may be a victim also. We're trying to get hold of him."
Many questions remained. It was unclear whether the victims knew Murguia and under what circumstances, or why they may have gone to the house.
If the Americans went to the house voluntarily or knew Murguia well, it may help bolster Mexican authorities who contend that at least some of the victims were involved in the drug trade.
American visitors had largely been spared as targets of the drug-fueled violence in Mexico that has claimed more than 10,780 lives since President Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006.
Jose Manuel Yepiz, a spokesman for the Baja California state attorney general's office, wouldn't comment on the Murguia case. He said Attorney General Rommel Moreno also would not discuss the investigation.
Arizona state prosecutors charged Murguia in September with conspiracy to sell or transport marijuana, illegal control of a criminal enterprise and transportation of narcotics. The 54-count indictment in Maricopa County Superior Court names 29 other defendants.
Murguia, who pleaded not guilty, was released on $50,000 bond, according to the prosecutor's office. In a petition to reduce bail from $150,000, Murguia's attorney Jeffrey Ross identifies his client as a U.S. citizen who lives in San Diego and had no criminal record. Ross did not respond to a phone message Wednesday.
About a month after the charges were filed, a related case against Murguia and others in Maricopa County was dropped. According to a probable cause statement, Murguia was arrested in August in Buckeye, Ariz., after being pulled over in a black Volkswagen Jetta and admitting to having a "small bag" of cocaine in his front pocket.
The arrest was part of an investigation in which authorities found 154 pounds of cocaine at one Buckeye residence, according to the statement. The cocaine was valued at $1.4 million.
The U.S. consulate has identified the four San Diego-area victims as Brianna Hernandez Aguilera, 19, Carmen Jimena Ramos Chavez, 20, Oscar Jorge Garcia, 23, and Luis Antonio Gamez, 21, all U.S. citizens.
Garcia was arrested on suspicion of smuggling six illegal immigrants in the San Diego area in January 2008 but was not charged, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.
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