SAN DIEGO (CNS) - Two men who robbed and shot a pair of San Diego-based sailors more than 18 years ago in an area of Otay Mesa popular for after-hours drinking and bonfires were sentenced today to life in prison without parole.
Edward Jesus Elias and Leopoldo Castro Chavez II, both 36, were convicted in March of first-degree murder. The defendants weren't eligible for the death penalty because they were both 17 at the time of the killings.
Jurors who convicted the defendants also found that the Sept. 25, 1993, murders of 20-year-old Eugene "Cliff" Ellis and 23-year-old Keith Combs were committed during a robbery, along with a second special circumstance allegation of multiple murders.
"This is a really tragic case for everybody," said Jeffrey Martin, the attorney for Elias.
Dan Tandon, the attorney for Chavez, said the case was particularly difficult for the families of the victims.
"They're not going to find justice in this," Tandon told Judge Joan Weber.
Deputy District Attorney Andrea Freshwater said that 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.
Tandon told jurors that Chavez came upon the victims' bodies, went through their pockets, and drove off in Ellis' truck.
Addressing the judge at the sentencing hearing, Freshwater said the defendants didn't stop committing crimes after they killed the victims. Chavez committed a robbery a month after the murders and Elias was found with weapons at school, the prosecutor said.
Ellis' mother said "nothing in life prepared us for Cliff's death."
She said her son had dreams of graduating from Mississippi State University and getting married.
"Those dreams were shattered by Leopoldo Chavez and Edward Elias," Rita Ellis said.
Speaking to the defendants, the mother said, "I will never forgive you ... ever ... for what you did."
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.
"Why did they have to kill my son three times?" Combs' mother asked in a letter to the court. "They committed the worst crime anyone could commit."
Keith Combs' wife, Lisa, called the defendants "heartless, soulless, evil thugs" for murdering her husband and his friend over a truck.
The judge said the case was a "senseless tragedy" in which two young men serving their country were "executed" over a "shiny new truck."
Weber said the defendants gave up their freedom when they decided to kill and rob the victims.
"This life is not a dress rehearsal," the judge said.
The victims' 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 -- who were stationed aboard the USS Constellation -- 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. 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 a year ago, Freshwater said.