SAN DIEGO (CNS) - DNA evidence led authorities to two men accused of robbing and fatally shooting two San Diego-based sailors more than 18 years ago in an area of Otay Mesa popular for after-hours drinking and bonfires, a prosecutor said Wednesday.
Edward Jesus Elias and Leopoldo Castro Chavez II, both 36, are each charged with two counts of murder in the Sept. 25, 1993, deaths of 20-year-old Eugene "Cliff" Ellis and 23-year-old Keith Combs. The victims were stationed aboard the aircraft carrier USS Constellation.
In her opening statement, Deputy District Attorney Andrea Freshwater said Chavez and Elias robbed the victims of their wallets and ID then "executed both of them needlessly." Ellis' new Toyota pickup truck was also stolen, the prosecutor said.
Defense attorney Dan Tandon told jurors that Chavez came upon the victims' bodies, went through their pockets, and drove off in Ellis' truck.
"Although death is a tragedy, it's an opportunity for some," the defense attorney said in his opening statement. "Mr. Chavez didn't kill those young men. He took from their bodies."
Elias' attorney, Jeff Martin, said he would give an opening statement when the defense case started.
According to the prosecution, both victims were shot three times from close range -- Combs in the back, side of the head and back of the head, and Ellis in the chest, temple and side of the head.
Their bodies were found about 20 feet apart around 7 a.m. in an area east of Palm Avenue and Interstate 805, where they had gone to have a bonfire and drink beer with other Navy personnel. Evidence showed that Ellis struggled with his killers, Freshwater said.
The prosecutor said Ellis and Combs went to the remote and rugged area about 1:30 a.m. after going to a bar popular with Navy personnel.
A witness recalled a car pulling up to the bonfire area around 4 a.m., with two "smart asses" laughing in the back seat, she said.
About an hour later, another witness said three young Hispanic males approached a group of people at the site, making rude comments about their music, Freshwater said.
Another witness remembered four Hispanic males making sexual comments as she searched for her jacket, the prosecutor said.
Four days after the slayings, Chavez was caught driving Ellis' stolen pickup in Tijuana and was arrested. He was questioned by detectives but they were unable to connect him to the murders, Freshwater said.
In November 2009, San Diego police laboratory personnel notified the department's cold-case investigators of a potential match between previously unidentified biological evidence recovered from the site of the slayings and Chavez's profile in a national database.
Chavez's DNA was found on the inside of Combs' pockets, Freshwater said.
Authorities also got a DNA sample from Elias and his DNA was found a cigarette found near the victims' bodies, the prosecutor said.
Chavez was arrested in July 2010 at his home in Washington state and eventually extradited to San Diego. Elias was arrested and charged last April, Freshwater said.
Because they were 17 at the time of the killings, the defendants are not eligible for the death penalty. They face life in prison without parole if convicted of murder and special circumstance allegations of murder during a robbery and multiple murders, Freshwater said.
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