Dozens of search warrants obtained by NBC 7 Thursday reveal just how exhaustive the investigation has been on a baffling case that began last Christmas Eve involving the slayings of three San Diego residents.
Page after page, investigators detail their attempts to find out why someone would want to kill two high school sweethearts and their best friend and brother. Their search for a motive ranged from tracking calls to one victim’s employer to seizing and testing weapons owned by another’s father.
There was even an initial theory of a possible conspiracy from a lead investigator: “I, and the rest of the investigative team, believe the three murders are related and likely carried out by more than one person,” the detective writes.
On Dec. 24, 2013, Ilona Flint and Salvatore Belvedere, both 22 years old, were found critically shot inside their car parked just outside a Macy’s department store at Mission Valley Mall. Flint, who called 911 to report the shooting and their location, died at the scene. Salvatore died a few days later.
Flint’s fiancé and Salvatore’s brother, Gianni Belvedere, went missing around the same time of the killings. On Jan. 17, 2014, police found Gianni’s badly decomposed body stuffed into the trunk of his own car parked at a shopping center in Riverside, California, more than 100 miles away from San Diego.
He, too, had been shot to death.
For six months, police reported no breaks in the triple homicide case.
At Mercado’s pretrial this week, new DNA evidence emerged linking Mercado to Gianni’s car and the bloody Riverside crime scene, while ballistics evidence linked a gun registered in Mercado’s name to the deadly shootings of Flint, Salvatore and Gianni. Prosecutors also presented evidence found on Mercado's phone and computers.
Although no motive has been determined for the killings, a judge ruled there is sufficient evidence to send Mercado to trial on the three counts of first-degree murder.
Still, a total of 38 search warrants reveal that detectives initially believed Mercado may not have acted alone.
“In order to carry out the murders of Ilona and Salvatore, abduct and/or kill Gianni, put the body in the trunk of the vehicle and dispose of it over one hundred miles away, it seems reasonable to assume more than one person would be needed to carry out the murders,” the warrant continues.
The documents show investigators cast a very wide net in their search for answers. They requested a multitude of phone records in connection with the case, examined surveillance footage recorded at Mission Valley Mall on the day of the shooting and spoke with several witnesses.
Investigators also questioned the victims’ family members – including the father of the Belvedere brothers and Flint’s step-father – checked family bank accounts and focused their attention on several dealers who provided drugs to the victims on a regular basis.
One drug dealer admitted he met Gianni on Dec. 23, 2013, around 11 p.m. – about two hours before Flint and Salvatore were shot and approximately 30 minutes before Gianni was last seen. The dealer told detectives he sold Gianni several tablets of Xanax in exchange for cash.
The documents said Gianni “was known to arrange clandestine meetings for the purpose of buying controlled substances.”
Another woman told detectives she would meet with Gianni almost daily to sell him several grams of marijuana for $100. She said she last saw Gianni on Dec. 23, 2013, at around 7:30 p.m.
By searching cellphone records, the documents show investigators traced Gianni’s phone to Mission Valley Mall on Dec. 23, 2013, between 11:28 p.m. and 11:43 p.m. Gianni’s father told detectives his son was there to pick Flint up from work.
The warrants say the last phone call Gianni made was to his cousin at approximately 11:35 p.m. on Dec. 23, 2013.
“During that call [the cousin] said Gianni appeared to be distracted by someone or something and the call was unexpectedly terminated,” a document states.
The cousin called Gianni back but was unable to reach him. Investigators said phone records showed
Gianni’s cell phone was turned off right after that call with his cousin.
The search warrants also reveal what investigators discovered on surveillance tapes recorded at the mall.
The documents say Flint can be seen on video leaving the mall on Dec. 24, 2013, at 12:22 a.m. being followed by an unidentified man. The man could be seen talking on a cell phone prior to following Flint out.
The documents say a similar man was described by witnesses who found the bodies of Flint and Salvatore in the parking lot about an hour later. Witnesses told detectives they saw an unidentified man walking away from the vehicle where the bodies of the victims were found.
Despite the hundreds of pages of search warrants, no clear motive is outlined and investigators continue to look for answers. This week, prosecutors said they hoped renewed interest in the case would bring forth new tips and information about why the trio was killed.
Anyone with information on this triple homicide case should contact the SDPD Homicide Unit at (619) 531-2293.