The mysterious killings of local residents Ilona Flint, Salvatore Belvedere and Gianni Belvedere in late 2013 shook San Diego to its core. The triple homicide was puzzling -- riddled with questions about why and how this could happen to three young people.
On Jan. 12, 2017, more than three years after the slayings, Carlo Mercado, 31, pleaded guilty to the murders, finally bringing closure to the case. He will spend the rest of his life in prison.
Here’s a timeline of key events in this case, which began on or around the early hours of Christmas Eve with a deadly shooting outside Westfield Mission Valley Mall.
Dec. 23 or Dec. 24, 2013: Mercado Kills Gianni
On Dec. 23 or early Dec. 24, Mercado randomly approached Gianni Belvedere in the parking lot of Westfield Mission Valley mall. San Diego County Deputy District Attorney Brian Erickson said Mercado was riding his motorcycle in the area when it broke down. Gianni was sitting in his car at the parking lot at Mission Valley mall, waiting to pick up his fiancee, Ilona Flint, from her job at the mall. Mercado walked up to Gianni's car and may have tried to carjack him, Erickson said. He shot Gianni, pushed his body to the passenger's seat and drove off with the stolen car. Gianni bled out and died in his car. Mercado would later stuff Gianni's body into the trunk, leaving it there to decompose for three weeks.
Dec. 24, 2013: The Christmas Eve Shootings of Salvatore & Flint
At around 1:15 a.m., Ilona Flint and Salvatore Belvedere, both 22 years old, were critically shot in a parking lot outside the Macy’s department store at Westfield Mission Valley mall. Despite being shot in the head, Flint managed to call 911 to report the shooting, telling dispatchers she was hurt and located somewhere near the mall. Minutes later, officers found the wounded duo inside a vehicle in the 1600-block of Camino Del Rio North. Flint was pronounced dead at the scene. Salvatore, suffering life-threatening gunshot wounds to the head and torso, was transported to a local hospital. SDPD Lt. Mike Hastings held a briefing on the Christmas Eve shooting and said police were looking for a possible suspect, described as a 5-foot-9 to 5-foot-11 man wearing tan pants.
Dec. 27, 2013: Salvatore Dies, Search Continues for Gianni
Three days after the Christmas Eve shooting, the Belvedere family confirmed Sal had died from his wounds. Police said they were still searching for Gianni, and issued a missing person bulletin describing Gianni as an Italian-American man with brown hair and brown eyes. The bulletin said he’s 6 feet tall, 165 pounds and likely driving a four-door, dark green 2004 Toyota Camry XLE with the Utah license plate B154VZ. The Belvedere family said Gianni may have also been at the mall with Flint and Sal at the time of the shooting.
Dec. 28, 2013: Vigil Held for Flint
Loved ones held a public candlelight vigil for Flint at La Jolla Shores. Friends described Flint as a loyal friend and hard worker. Friend Andre Briones told NBC 7 that Flint and Gianni had been dating for about eight years and were engaged to be married. Both Flint and the Belvedere brothers were originally from Utah. Flint moved to San Diego after Gianni and his family relocated here from Utah. Briones also said the Belvedere brothers would often take turns picking Flint up from work and said the trio were the best of friends.
Jan. 1, 2014: Vigil Held for Sal
Approximately 100 loved ones gathered at Crystal Pier in Pacific Beach at sunset on New Year’s Day 2014 to pay tribute to Sal in an emotional vigil. The family said Crystal Pier was one of Sal's favorite surfing spots. The Belvederes also said Gianni was still missing and announced a $10,000 reward for information leading to his safe return. "If you've seen the car, seen him, think you've seen him, please report it to Crime Stoppers, San Diego PD, to the news media, anybody," Gianni's uncle, Paul Donato, pleaded. "We need any clues we can get our hands on to bring him home to put a little closure to this whole nightmare that we're living right now."
Jan. 7, 2014: No Gianni, No Answers
Two weeks to the date of the shooting outside Mission Valley mall, investigators said there was still no trace of Gianni. Lt. Hastings told NBC 7 this is one of the most unusual cases he had ever seen in his 20-year career. Officials also confirmed Gianni’s cell phone and credit cards had not been used since he vanished.
Jan. 17, 2014: Body Found in Trunk of Gianni's Car Riverside
The dark green Toyota Camry with the Utah license plate described in the SDPD’s missing person bulletin for Gianni was found in Riverside, California, about an hour-and-a-half north of San Diego County. A passerby called authorities at around 11:45 a.m. on Jan. 17, 2014, to report a foul odor coming from the trunk area of the vehicle, which was parked at a shopping center. When officers arrived, they opened the trunk and found the decomposed body of a man inside. On Jan. 18, a Belvedere family member confirmed the victim found in the trunk was Gianni. Police said an autopsy was scheduled for the following week.
Jan. 23, 2014: Confirmed by PD: Victim in Trunk is Gianni
Police officially confirmed that the man found dead in the trunk of the car in Riverside was, in fact, missing San Diego resident Gianni Belvedere. The cause of death was not immedaitely released but detectives clarified that Gianni was a victim of homicide.
Jan. 24, 2014: New Suspect Details Released, Police Determined to Solve Case
At a press conference, SDPD Lt. Mike Hastings released more details of a possible suspect tied to the triple homicide case. He said the suspect – seen at Westfield Mission Valley mall on Dec. 23 and Dec. 24, 2013 – is a man wearing a black hoodie with white bands in the biceps area of the sweatshirt, tan pants and white tennis shoes. He is described as standing 5-foot-10 to 6-feet-tall. It's believed the suspect was at the Mission Valley mall at 11:15 p.m. on Dec. 23, 2013, and then returned to the mall at 12:15 a.m. on Dec. 24. Lt. Hastings assured the Belvedere family and the public that police were working diligently to find answers and said investigators had spent hundreds of hours on the case. “If this case can be solved, this case will be solved,” Lt. Hastings said.
Feb. 7, 2014: SDPD Confirms Gianni Suffered Shot(s) to Head
In the first bit of new information released in two weeks, the SDPD confirmed Gianni died as a result of gunshot wound(s) to the head, according to preliminary findings from an autopsy. At this point, police said this was the only information on Gianni's manner of death.
March 2014: Family Launches New Website in Search for Leads
After three months with no leads, the Belvedere family set up a new website filled with new information on the case and the victims.
April 2014: Victims' Family Desperate for Answers
Desperate to find answers to the murders, the Belvedere family hosted fundraisers to raise money to add to the reward fund.
June 21, 2014: Police, Family Confirm Arrest in Triple-Homicide Case
Nearly six months to the date of the Mission Valley Christmas Eve murders, the Belvedere family and SDPD confirmed that an arrest has been made in the slayings of Ilona, Sal and Gianni. Carlo Mercado, 29 years old at the time, was booked on three counts of first-degree murder in connection with the killings. The SDPD scheduled a news briefing for June 23, 2014, to share details.
June 22, 2014: Homicide Suspect's Attorney Denies Accusations
Mercado's attorney, Michael Berg, said his client "adamantly denies any involvement" in the triple homicide case, and assured he would prove Mercado's innocence. Berg told NBC 7 Mercado was hospitalized for unspecified injuries suffered sometime after he was booked into jail on June 21, 2014.
June 23, 2014: SDPD Shares Details of Mercado's Arrest
SDPD Chief Shelley Zimmerman and homicide Lt. Mike Hastings held a news briefing to share a few details of the case and the arrest of Mercado. The chief said she hoped this arrest would begin to bring some closure to the Flint and Belvedere families.
June 25, 2014: Mercado Arraigned; Pleads Not Guilty
Mercado was arraigned in court and formally charged with three counts of first-degree murder. A deputy district attorney said that because this is considered a capital case, Mercado could face the death penalty or life in prison for the slayings of Flint and the Belvedere brothers. Mercado was scheduled to appear in court again on July 11.
Sept. 2, 2014: Mercado's Preliminary Hearing
Mercado appeared in court for his preliminary hearing, where new details of the triple homicide are released for the first time, including DNA evidence.
Sept. 3, 2014: Mercado is Bound Over for Trial
A judge ruled enough evidence had been presented in the pretrial to send Mercado to trial on all three counts of first-degree murder.
Sept. 4, 2014: Search Warrants Reveal Details
Search warrants obtained by NBC 7 revealed the exhaustive investigation into the triple homicide case, but still, no motive.
Sept. 17, 2014: Mental Competency Exam Ordered
During an arraignment, Mercado's attorney raised questions about his client's mental competency to stand trial. The judge ordered Mercado be held without bail until he could be evaluated on Oct. 10, 2014. Until then, criminal proceedings would be suspended.
Nov. 3, 2014: Mercado Committed to State Hospital
Judge Joseph P. Brannigan found Mercado not competent to stand trial and ordered he be treated at Patton State Hospital for three years or until he is found competent to assist in his own defense.
Sept. 9, 2015: Mercado Returned to Jail, Mental Competency Questioned
The San Diego County District Attorney’s office confirmed Mercado was returned to San Diego Central Jail after evaluators from Patton State Hospital – a psychiatric facility in Southern California where Mercado had been receiving treatment – found him competent to stand trial. The defense requested a competency hearing for Mercado.
Nov. 3, 2015: Judge Sets Date for Mercado's Competency Hearing
A judge decided Mercado will undergo a mental competency trial on Dec. 14, 2015. At the bench trial, the defense would have the burden of proving the suspect was mentally incompetent to stand trial.
Dec. 14, 2015: Judge Finds Mercado Competent to Stand Trial
A judge ruled Mercado was competent to stand trial and face murder charges in the triple homicide case. Meanwhile, Deputy District Attorney Brian Erickson said the killings appeared to be random, perhaps stemming from a "road rage incident." The Deputy DA said Mercado did not know his victims.
Feb. 18, 2016: DA to Seek Death Penalty Against Mercado
Deputy DA Brian Erickson said the DA's office would seek the dealth penalty against Mercado when he stands trial. Mercado pleaded not guilty to the three murders. Erickson said he hopes to send Mercado to trial within a year. Mercado's attorney, Gary Gibson, said prosecutors will have a lot to prove in this complicated case, including the motive, which remained a mystery.
July 19, 2016: Mercado to Stand Trial
A San Diego judge ruled Carlo Mercado would stand trial for the killings of the Belvedere brothers and Flint. At this point, his trial date was set for April 3, 2017. If convicted, Mercado could face the death penalty.
July 26, 2016: Mercado Hospitalized After Drug Overdose in Jail
The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department (SDSO) told NBC 7 Investigates that Mercado – along with his cellmate, Abel Martinez, 52, experienced “medical distress” while in their cell at San Diego Central Jail. Both men were transported from jail to UC San Diego for treatment, SDSO’s Jan Caldwell said. As of July 27, no further details on Mercado’s condition were released.
Aug. 29, 2016: Mercado's Health Improves, Returned to Jail
After about a month in the hospital, Mercado's health improved and he was returned to custody at San Diego Central Jail.
Jan. 12, 2017: Mercado Changes Plea to Guilty in Triple Homicide
More than three years after the Christmas Eve killings of the Belvedere brothers and Flint, Mercado appears in court and changes his plea to guilty in the triple homicide case. He is sentenced to life in prison, without the possibilty of parole. Prosecutor Brian Erickson says the slayings were random, likely an act of road rage gone terribly violent.
Jan. 20, 2017: NBC 7 Obtains Records Detailing New Evidence
One week after a Mercado's guilty plea and sentencing, NBC 7 obtained records detailing the evidence prosecutors planned to present to a jury, had the case gone to trial. The documents give a clearer look at the timeline of the triple-killings and Mercado's attempt to conceal some evidence.