In the San Diego Christmas Eve mall killings there are three gunshot victims, a sole defendant, a silencer entered into evidence and testimony that the victims had an expensive drug habit. However, eight months into the investigation, prosecutors still have no clear motive behind the killings.
Homicide Detective Timothy Norris testified Tuesday about evidence collected in the case including the fact that Gianni Belvedere had been buying and smoking heroin daily, spending up to $250 a day. Norris testified Flint also used heroin.
Salvatore Belvedere had spent several months out of state as part of a detox program from heroin addiction, Norris said. The 22-year-old had returned to San Diego just one week before he was killed.
Flint and Salvatore were shot while sitting inside a parked car outside the Macy’s in Mission Valley in the early hours of Dec. 24, 2013. Flint died at the scene while Salvatore sustained critical injuries and died a few days later.
At a pretrial hearing Tuesday, prosecutors also played a 911 recording made by Flint at 1:11 a.m. Flint can be heard giving her location and then says "Ow, ow, I've been shot." The 911 call does not include any sound of gunshots.
Detectives believe Flint turned away from the gunman to conceal the phone call.
Ten to 15 minutes in the recording, Norris testified, "It sounds basically like someone struggling to breathe."
When officers arrive to the scene only Salvatore Belvedere was still alive and in critical condition. He never regained consciousness.
Homicide investigators tracked Salvatore's phone from the Belvedere home to the mall. He's believe to have arrived around 12:45 a.m. It was not unusual for Gianni's brother or father to pick up Flint after her shift at the shoe store.
Norris said Flint had tried to get a hold of Gianni after she got off work that night, calling him at least five times. Her last attempt was made at 1:05 a.m. She never reached him.
Salvatore and Flint sat in the mall parking lot for at least 20 minutes after Ilona left work, Norris testified.
Worried for Gianni, Flint called jails and hospitals trying to find him. The only other people she called that night, according to detective testimony, were the Belvedere brothers.
Several witnesses told police that they saw a man standing near the victim's car and walk away. Under cross-examination by the defense, Norris testified that those witnesses saw an image of Gianni Belvedere on the news after the shooting and later told police they believed the man they saw walk away from the car was Gianni.
According to investigators, Salvatore’s cell phone was taken from the scene of the shooting.
To this day, the phone has never been found. Investigators said Gianni’s phone received a text message at around 1:30 a.m. on Dec. 24 from Salvatore’s phone, but detectives have no idea who sent that text.
Immediately after the discovery of the crime scene at Mission Valley mall, the San Diego Police Department launched a missing person search for Gianni, 24.
On Jan. 17, Gianni’s body was discovered in the trunk of his own car in Riverside about an hour and a half north of San Diego County. He, too, had been fatally shot, and his decomposing body was found with his pants and underwear around his ankles and his shirt and sweater pulled over his arms, prosecutors say.
The prosecution and defense argued Tuesday whether his death was a homicide or suicide.
Crime scene specialist Heidi Hebert said she examined a deodorizing spray can found in the trunk of Gianni's car next to Gianni's body. The can had duct tape on it, hair and blood, she testified. The duct tape had been placed against the nozzle as if to allow the spray to come out of the can.
The investigator told the court that there was a piece of rolled up duct tape found on the license plate of Gianni's car too. The tape had a single black hair on it.
On June 21, investigators found the same type of duct tape in the Mercado's closet, Hebert testified.
As the defense revealed on Tuesday, evidence suggests drugs may have been a factor in the triple homicide. Detectives found a baggie with drug residue linked to a drug dealer next to the bodies.
A San Diego County Medical Examiner's office pathologist testified that Flint was found dead in the front passenger seat of the car. Under cross-examination, Norris testified there was a lighter found between Flint's legs.
A bag of pills, including Xanax, was also found in the vehicle.
Gianni had opiates, alcohol, morphine, codine and Xanax in his body when he died. There was no evidence of drugs in Salvatore's system at the time of his death.
Pathologist Steven Campman, M.D., testified that Flint’s blood tested positive for main metabolites for heroin but he could not estimate how much heroin was used or when it was used.
A drug dealer told investigators that Gianni Belvedere had bought heroin from her daily since August 2013 until the time he disappeared, the detective testified. At 7 p.m. on the night of the shootings, the shooting victim bought two grams of heroin, Norris testified.
Another drug dealer told police Gianni purchased seven Xanax pills around 11 p.m. that same night.
Gianni's last call, a 10-minute conversation, was recorded at 11:33 p.m. After 11:43 p.m., there was no other activity on Gianni's phone.
The detective on the stand said no evidence was found that the victims owed money to drug dealers, therefore drug debts may not have been motive for the slayings.
For nearly six months, the triple homicide case has remained a mystery, with no suspects detained and little information released on what, exactly, happened to Flint, Salvatore and Gianni or why they were killed.
On June 20, Mercado was arrested on Westmore Street in San Diego as the suspect in the slayings.
At Tuesday's pretrial hearing, a U.S. Border Patrol agent described his contact with Mercado around 4:30 a.m. on Jan. 18 at the Interstate 5 checkpoint in in San Clemente -- the day after Gianni's body was found in Riverside.
Mercado told the agent there was an AR15 in a bag inside the car, registered in his name. The defendant explained he was headed to San Bernardino to find a shooting range. When asked why he was taking the I-5, Mercado told Border Patrol he had planned to stop in Los Angeles first, the agent testified.
He said Mercado appeared "expressionless, monotone and indifferent" during their conversation.
The agent went on to search Mercado's vehicle. Inside, the agent said he found ammo, two loaded pistols and magazines. He said he also found a homemade silencer in the center console of the vehicle that appeared to be made of plastic pipes.
Border Patrol later discovered that the silencer fit one of the pistols perfectly.
The weapons were seized and Mercado was processed, the agent said.
The evidence presented at Mercado's preliminary hearing will determine whether he will ultimately stand trial for the killings. If convicted, he could face the death penalty or life in prison.
The hearing will continue Wednesday at 9 a.m.
His former attorney said Mercado denies any involvement in the case and has since pleaded not guilty to three counts of first-degree murder. He is being held without bail in the San Diego Central Jail.
The Belvedere family runs a website titled "Justice for Sal, Gianni and Ilona" which is frequently updated with new information and personal stories of the victims, as shared by their loved ones.
The family said Gianni was working as the manager of the family's restaurant Mario's. Salvatore was working as the chef. The family says they had just finalized the sale of the restaurant a week before the killings.
Family members described Gianni and Flint as teenage sweethearts and Salvatore as their best friend.
Anyone with information that may help the investigation can call the San Diego Police Department’s Homicide Unit at 619-531-2293 or CrimeStoppers at 888-580-8477.