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Cousins found guilty of murder of mistaken identity shooting of young couple in Salinas

PIX Now - Morning Edition 5/30/24
PIX Now - Morning Edition 5/30/24 13:04

Two cousins were found guilty of shooting, by mistake, a young couple to death in Salinas in 2022, according to Monterey County prosecutors.

The Monterey County District Attorney's Office said Wednesday that Gonzalo and Jose Echeverria were each convicted by a jury of two counts of first-degree murder, with special circumstances of lying in wait and committing multiple murders.

They were also convicted of personal discharge of a firearm causing death, shooting into an occupied vehicle, and two counts of assault with a semiautomatic firearm, prosecutors said.

Gonzalo Echeverria, Jose Echeverria
(L-R) Gonzalo Echeverria, Jose Echeverria Monterey County Sheriff's Office

On Feb. 5, 2022, Jesus Arias Villa, 22, and Karina Chavez Vargas, 23, were gunned down in their vehicle near Closter Park in Salinas. Prosecutors said the couple entered their vehicle parked at the corner of Grandhaven and Towt streets at 8:18 p.m. so Villa could drive Chavez home.

However, prosecutors said the Echeverria cousins were waiting nearby, parked across the street in the dark, so they could ambush the pair.

As soon as the couple settled in their car, Jose Echeverria drove to the corner and both cousins exited their vehicle and opened fire on the victims' car from behind. The two fired at least 18 shots into the car, with Jose Echeverria using a 9mm handgun and Gonzalo Echeverria using a rifle with .223 ammunition.

Karina Chavez Vargas, Jesus Arias Villa
Karina Chavez Vargas, Jesus Arias Villa Family photo

Due to multiple gunshot wounds, Villa died at the scene while Chavez died shortly after at a hospital. Villa's mother testified at the trial that she was inside her apartment and heard the shots that killed her son.

According to prosecutors, Jose Echeverria's vehicle was caught on multiple surveillance cameras traveling between the crime scene and Griffin Street, where he and other members of his family lived.

Gonzalo Echeverria was seen exiting the vehicle around the corner from the shooting before being picked up shortly by an unknown vehicle. He admitted to his role in the crime and gave statements to undercover agents that implicated his cousin as the second shooter, police said. Gonzalo Echeverria also revealed that they intended to murder a different male who lived in the same apartment complex.

They killed Villa and Chavez by mistake, with cellphone evidence helping to prove it, according to prosecutors.

In May, Chavez would have graduated with a bachelor's degree in kinesiology at California State University, Monterey Bay, the District Attorney's Office said.

The cousins face life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Jose Echeverria will be sentenced on June 26 and Gonzalo Echeverria on July 17. 

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