The triple homicide case that baffled San Diegans since last Christmas Eve has officially been turned over to the San Diego District Attorney's Office, San Diego Police officials said Monday.
During a brief press conference, SDPD Chief Shelley Zimmerman started by officially announcing the arrest of a suspect, 29-year-old Carlo Gallapo Mercado.
After a six-month investigation into the slayings of Ilona Flint, Salvatore Belvedere and Gianni Belvedere, Mercado was taken into custody Friday night in his Mira Mesa driveway.
"Although the arrest of this violent individual and the upcoming aggressive prosecution will never bring back Ilona, Salvatore and Gianni, we hope it will somehow bring some comfort and closure for the families," said Zimmerman.
According to SDPD Lt. Mike Hastings, the arrest came after investigators and forensic lab personnel developed substantial probable cause to suspect Mercado.
He said directly after taking him into custody, forensic investigators spent the rest of the night and following morning gathering evidence.
By late Sunday afternoon, they were ready to present their case to the DA's office, and at 5:30 p.m., the case was formally turned over to prosecutors.
"As you are aware, once a case is turned over to the DA, the San Diego Police Department no longer makes comment on it," Hastings said.
Zimmerman admitted she realizes those in the audience were brimming with questions "that we simply cannot answer at this stage in the process," so she asked for everyone's patience until details are revealed in upcoming court proceedings.
Police have released no information about how they came to suspect Mercado, who was booked into jail on three counts of first-degree murder.
In an interview with NBC 7 Sunday, Mercado’s defense attorney Michael Berg said his client “adamantly denies any involvement” in the case. The attorney plans to enter a not guilty plea on Mercado’s behalf at his arraignment, scheduled for Wednesday.
The suspect was hospitalized over the weekend due to an incident that happened while in custody at the jail, and he was treated under guard at UC San Diego Medical Center Sunday, Berg said.
The case in which Mercado is accused started Dec. 24, 2013, when Flint and Salvatore were found gunned down in a parking lot outside the Macy’s department store in the Mission Valley Mall.
Flint was pronounced dead at the scene, and Salvatore died a few days later from gunshot wounds.
At Monday's press conference, Hastings said Homicide Team 1 -- made up of four detectives, a detective sergeant, a lieutenant and crime scene specialist -- were the first to arrive to the Mission Valley homicides.
They soon called in missing persons and robbery detectives when they realized Gianni, Salvatore’s brother and Flint’s fiancé, went missing the same day.
Gianni's body was found on Jan. 17, 2014 in the trunk of a car in Riverside, about an hour and a half north of San Diego County. He had died from a gunshot to the head.
While he said he could not comment on particulars of the case, Hastings spoke in general terms about homicide investigations.
"With the advancement of forensic science, the advancement of social media and the advancement of investigators' knowledge base, all three of these anchors, along with others, are important elements in solving homicide cases," he said.
He added that any time a firearm is used in a killing, it helps investigators because forensic science has made it simpler to gather clues from guns.