Man convicted in cartel-related murders that left 3 shot, burned in OC; 4th victim found in Fontana

City News Service
Wednesday, May 1, 2024
3 bodies found inside burned vehicle in Orange
An investigation was underway after three bodies were found inside a burned SUV in a quiet Orange neighborhood Monday afternoon.

ORANGE, Calif. (CNS) -- A 33-year-old man was convicted Monday of killing four men, including three torched in a moving car in Orange in the middle of the afternoon, amid a violent conflict between drug dealers.

Raul Gastellum Flores was convicted of four counts of murder with special circumstances of killing during a robbery and for more than one victim. Flores was scheduled to be sentenced July 19.

Flores was convicted of killing 19-year-old Antonio Medina of Glendale, Arizona, 20-year-old Fernando Meza of Phoenix, 26-year-old Edgar Berrelleza-Soto of Orange and his brother, 35-year-old Joel Mauricio Berrelleza of Orange.

Medina, Meza and Berrelleza-Soto were found in a flaming SUV rolling onto a sidewalk in front of a home in the 500 block of East Oakmont Avenue near Shaffer Street the afternoon of Nov. 9, 2015. Joel Berrelleza was found Nov. 15 in the backseat of a car in Fontana.

Co-defendant Angel De Jesus Barrera, 32, is charged with two counts of voluntary manslaughter and one count of robbery. He is next due in court May 17.

Co-defendants Alexis Corral, 31, Juan Fidencio Castro, 34, and Rosario Roman-Lopez, 32, remain at-large.

"Loaded guns, knives, duct tape, gasoline," Senior Deputy District Attorney Harris Siddiq said in his closing argument in the trial. "This is what the defendant and his henchmen were armed with."

Police believe there was a fourth person in the burning SUV where three bodies were found in Orange.

After killing the three men and igniting the GMC Yukon with a cigarette lighter, Flores bailed out and dashed to a trailing car, Siddiq said.

"Their skin melting... in the middle of the day in front of a high school," Siddiq said of the victims, one of whom was still alive and was unsuccessful in his struggle to get out.

"A fourth victim was tied up, robbed and marched out of his apartment," Siddiq said of Joel Berrelleza.

He was led to a car and shot multiple times, Siddiq said.

Roman-Lopez videotaped the bleeding victim in the car, "and they couldn't contain their laughter," Siddiq said.

"This was a plan carried out by people motivated by greed," Siddiq said. "And a thirst for power."

The drug peddlers had "ties to the Sinaloa Drug Cartel," Siddiq said.

A witness told police he saw a 2007 Pontiac G6 with a man appearing to be slumbering inside on Nov. 12, 2015, and when he passed by it again near Mango Avenue and Orange Way he saw the same car and man inside and called police, who found Berrelleza's body, which had been shot four times, Siddiq said.

Barreras was arrested Dec. 11, 2015, and told investigators he lived with the Berrelleza brothers at 2065 N. Orange-Olive Road, Siddiq said. Barreras sold drugs for the two, who got into a dispute with Roman-Lopez, the prosecutor said.

Roman-Lopez went back to Mexico to care for his ailing wife and the brothers promised to send him money as part of the drug-dealing operation, but they instead cut him out, Siddiq said.

On Oct. 28, 2015, Roman-Lopez visited Barreras with "four friends" and said he intended to kill the brothers, who, Barreras said, had $50,000 to $60,000 in cash, according to the prosecutor.

On the day of the killing, Barreras was with Roman-Lopez when Flores called saying he had the three men with him, including Edgar Berrelleza, who was pleading for his life, Siddiq said.

"This drug business was making $5,800 a day, nearly $2 million a year," Siddiq said.

Flores "wanted in," Siddiq said.

Roman-Lopez summoned help from Phoenix because he wanted to catch the brothers "off guard" with people they did not know, Siddiq said.

"That's part of the plan," he said.

The robbery involves taking phones from the brothers to help retake the drug operation, Siddiq said.

"If they wanted this drug business they had to eliminate Edgar and Joel," Siddiq said.

Flores "is the only person present at all four murders," Siddiq said.

After the killings, Flores went on to Oklahoma, where he was arrested by federal agents for allegedly selling drugs there, Siddiq said.

"He continued drug trafficking in Oklahoma, so it didn't scare him, it emboldened him," Siddiq said.

Barreras has had an agreement with prosecutors for about a year, Siddiq said. His charges were knocked down because of a change in state law regarding what elements are necessary to file murder charges.

Barreras "provided important context" that was corroborated by other evidence, Siddiq said.

Flores' attorney, Cameron Talley, said, "This DA cuts a deal with a snitch after he gets a jury."

Talley likened it to a Hail Mary pass in football.

Instead of life in prison without the possibility of parole, Barreras is "now facing 20 years," Talley said.

Barreras was dishonest in his testimony, Talley argued.

"You wouldn't know (about the plea deal) until I brought it out," Talley said.

"Why cut the deal and not tell you about it" if Barreras wasn't necessary, the defense attorney said.

Talley said the gun Flores has with him was not fired.

"So whose gun did he shoot?" Talley said, ridiculing the prosecution argument that Flores was the one who gunned down the victims.

Talley said one of the other men "went crazy and shot everyone."

With the other co-defendants eluding authorities while prosecutors worked to file charges and Barreras seeing his charges reduced, "The only person you have left is Mr. Flores. It's the politics of Orange PD that's driving the bus. They've only got one guy left."

Talley said police lied to Flores during questioning to get him to confess.

Flores thought the trip from Phoenix was to help with a "sit down" that "went off the rails," Talley said.

"There was desperation to get him to confess because he was the last guy to take the fall for this," Talley said.

The defense attorney said his client did not rob anyone.