WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Prosecutors took jurors down what they described as "an expressway to murder" Wednesday as they presented closing arguments in the death penalty trial of two men accused of gunning down a family of four, including two young children, in a drug dispute.
The bodies of Jose Luis Escobedo, 28; his wife, Yessica Guerrero Escobedo, 25; and their sons, Luis Julian, 4, and Luis Damian, 3; were found alongside a remote stretch of Florida's Turnpike in October 2006.
Prosecutors claim Jose Luis Escobedo was involved in a drug ring with the defendants and he and his family were killed to settle a debt. The defendants also are accused of stealing 15 kilograms of cocaine from Escobedo that night.
Daniel Troya and Ricardo Sanchez Jr., both 25, are charged with armed carjacking resulting in deaths, conspiracy, weapons counts and drug offenses. Both have pleaded not guilty. They face the death penalty if convicted. Their attorneys say the family was killed by Mexican drug lords.
Two others — Danny Varela, 28, and Liana Lopez, 20 — also are on trial in the same case for drug conspiracy and weapons charges. They also have pleaded not guilty and face life in prison if convicted.
Prosecutor Stephen Carlton told jurors Wednesday the case was about "large-scale drug trafficking, guns and violence" that took the defendants down "an expressway to murder." He called the crime "brutal and savage."
Carlton then reminded jurors of the "arsenal of weapons" found in the defendants' home, 14 in all, including handguns and assault rifles, and "a huge amount of drugs."
He asked jurors to consider witnesses who testified about buying cocaine from the defendants and seeing kilograms of it and thousands of dollars in cash in the home they called "Thug Mansion." Carlton called it "an armed drug den."
Prosecutors say Escobedo secured drugs for Varela, who ran the gang that included the other defendants, and that debts were owed to Escobedo. They say the motive for the murders was to cancel those debts.
"The massacre of an entire family in the middle of the night ... was a particularly despicable and cowardly act," Carlton said. The victims were shot 18 times.
Carlton then walked jurors through a several-minute timeline leading up to the killings, noting that a nearby resident awoke at 2:24 a.m. to the sounds of "pop, pop, pop, pop."
He said just minutes earlier, cell phone records indicate Sanchez called Escobedo as he and Troya followed the family on the turnpike. Soon after, Carlton said, Sanchez and Troya convinced Escobedo to pull over, and the family was killed.
He said the children were shot because they knew Sanchez.
"They were eliminated because they were witnesses, executed," Carlton said.
In addition to witness testimony and other evidence, he said, a drug ledger found in Escobedo's home after the killings linked the defendants to him.
"Records speak for the dead," Carlton said, referring to notes in the ledger listing debts the defendants owed Escobedo.
Defense attorneys previously urged jurors to set aside emotion in the case and focus on the lack of witnesses, a murder weapon and other evidence in the killings. They were set to present their closing arguments later Wednesday, in part, claiming the Escobedo family was killed by Mexican drug lords because of money owed to them by Escobedo.
The prosecution's case relies on testimony from jailhouse informants, highway video surveillance, drug ledgers and guns found in the suspects' home. Authorities also said they have fingerprints that belong to Sanchez and Troya on turnpike tickets from the night of the killings.