A man pleaded guilty Thursday to the slayings of two brothers and a young woman in a mysterious case that has engrossed San Diego for more than three years.
Gianni was killed sometime between Dec. 23, 2013, and Jan. 17, 2014, though evidence suggests Dec. 23, 2013. Sal and Flint were gunned down in the parking lot of Westfield Mission Valley Mall on Christmas Eve 2013.
In February 2016, Mercado pleaded not guilty to the murders. Prior to his change of plea Thursday, Mercado's trial had been slated to begin on April 3, 2017.
San Diego Judge Frederic Link sealed Mercado’s fate Thursday with three consecutive sentences of life without parole – one for each murder victim – telling Mercado, “Sir, you will never get out of prison.”
Mercado stared blankly as the judge handed down the sentence, showing no emotion. Mercado has given up his right to appeal, the judge said.
When given an opportunity to address the families of the victims in court, Mercado glanced at his lawyers and said "No," that he had nothing to say to them.
As mentioned before, San Diego County Deputy District Attorney Brian Erickson said the killings were nothing more than a random act of violence, likely sparked by road rage or a carjacking. He said the victims and Mercado did not know each other, which is why this case is so difficult to understand.
Erickson said the timeline of the killings likely unfolded this way: On Dec. 23, 2013, Mercado was riding his motorcycle near Westfield Mission Valley mall when his motorcycle broke down. At this point, Mercado may have gotten into a road rage-type argument with Gianni over unknown circumstances.
Gianni was sitting in his car, parked at the mall that night because he was picking up Flint from her job at the mall. Mercado saw Gianni in his car and walked up to him; he confronted Gianni and maybe tried to steal his car. Erickson said Mercado then shot and killed Gianni, while Gianni was on the phone with his cousin.
The phone line went dead.
“The defendant wanted his car – walked up to it – does not know him, just outright shoots him, and takes his car,” the prosecutor explained. “After he shot him, [Mercado] pushed [Gianni’s] body over to the passenger’s seat where Gianni literally bled out in his own car.”
After that, with Gianni’s body in the car, Erickson said Mercado drove the car back toward his home in Mira Mesa. He stopped at a gas station and put gas in Gianni’s car. Erickson said Mercado’s DNA was later found on the gas cap of the victim’s car.
About an hour-and-a-half later, Erickson said Mercado drove back to Westfield Mission Valley mall, likely to pick up his motorcycle which he knew connected him to the scene of Gianni’s murder.
At the time, Erickson said Mercado had no idea that Sal and Flint would be in the parking lot of the mall. Sal and Flint were there looking for Gianni, worried after Gianni had failed to pick Flint up from work that night as promised.
“They waited in that parking lot for Gianni, wondering where he was,” Erickson explained. “Calling hospitals; calling the jail – calling different places looking for him, in a panic.”
At that moment, Mercado pulled up to the parking lot in Gianni’s car. Sal and Flint saw the car, and perhaps thinking Gianni was behind the wheel or realizing someone else was driving, motioned for the vehicle to come close to them. Erickson said Flint quickly realized something was off – that it wasn’t Gianni driving the car – and she dialed 911.
“[Flint thought] ‘It’s 1 a.m., my boyfriend is not here and somebody else just pulled up in his car,’” Erickson said. “And she calls 911 and Mr. Mercado doesn’t even give her a chance – he guns her down, shoots her in the back, shoots Salvatore.”
Erickson said Mercado used a .22-caliber gun to shoot Flint and Sal. The gun was equipped with a silencer, which is why the shooting wasn’t clearly heard on Flint’s call to 911.
Erickson said the victims were all simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and these random killings could’ve happened to anyone that night – no matter how difficult that concept may be for the community to grasp.
He said the victims had nothing to do with Mercado before their slayings; the killings were in no way their fault.
“Gianni, Salvatore and Ilona had nothing to do with their demise – had nothing to do with them being murdered,” Erickson said. “And I know people have a hard time accepting that because they think, ‘Oh, they must’ve done something.’ They didn’t. They didn’t do anything.”
“This could’ve been any one of us in that parking lot that night,” he added.
Sal and Gianni’s sister, Antoinette Belvedere, read a letter in court Thursday on behalf of her mother. The letter said the family’s lives have been forever changed by the murders of their loved ones.
“The unbearable pain is to stay, for all of these difficult and heartbreaking years – three years that feel like 30 – may God continue to grant me the grace and courage and strength to somehow endure,” Antoinette read from her mother’s letter.
The family of the victims brought photos of the Gianni, Sal and Ilona to court; the judge ordered Mercado to look at them.
After the killings, Erickson said Mercado put fake license plates on Gianni’s car and parked the vehicle near his home and work in Mira Mesa. Gianni’s body was left in the trunk of the car for three weeks. Mercado bought Febreze air freshener at the Target store where he worked in an attempt to cover up the stench of the body. At one point, he tried to sell the stolen vehicle.
Three weeks later, he drove the car to Riverside, California, and abandoned it in the parking lot of a shopping center located more than 100 miles away from San Diego. On Jan. 17, 2014, police found Gianni’s badly decomposed body stuffed into the trunk of his own car in that lot in Riverside.
For five months, there was no break in the baffling triple homicide case. On June 20, 2014, Mercado was arrested as the suspect in slayings.
Thus began more than two-and-half years of legal proceedings involving Mercado -- including competency hearings, Mercado's pretrail in early September 2014 and his hospitalization in late July 2016 -- until his guilty plea on Thursday.
"Today’s guilty plea holds the defendant accountable and is a small measure of justice for the families of the victims, allowing them to avoid the emotional toll of a lengthy trial," District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said in a press release Thursday. "These senseless murders shocked San Diegans during the holidays three years ago. The team who prosecuted this defendant worked tirelessly in the pursuit of justice in order to reach an outcome that will send this murderer to prison for the rest of his life."
For a full timeline of this case, click here.