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Former Marine Nicolas Morelos had a reputation for being a no-nonsense boss — who made his share of enemies on the job.
“He was tough,” his brother John Morelos told “Dateline: Secrets Uncovered,” airing Thursdays at 8/7c on Oxygen. “He was — excuse the language — a hard a--, very local, intimidating to some.”
While acting as the director of maintenance at Marana Aerospace Solutions, he was known to get his share of HR complaints from those who bristled at his gruff and demanding management style. But Morelos made a different kind of impression on many of the women at his Arizona workplace.
He was known to be a bit of a ladies’ man, romancing many of the women there until finally settling down with fiancé Kristina Trepanitis.
“I just felt like I can’t believe I get to be his bride,” Trepanitis told "Dateline" correspondent Josh Mankiewicz. “I was excited. I waited 40 years for him.”
Trepanitis saw a softer side to Morelos, who loved to read, tend to his plants, and spend time with his beloved pit bull, Smokey.
But the couple would never make it down the aisle. Morelos was killed in a hail of bullets at his home on July 18, 2016. He had been shot eight times, including once to the middle of the forehead, according to investigators.
The 45-year-old’s violent death left investigators wondering whether the man who had always made an impression had finally made the wrong one, angering an employee or a scorned former lover.
“The list was very long,” Pima County Sheriff’s Detective Jennifer Garcia told producers of the possible suspects.
Trepanitis discovered the body after she became concerned that Morelos hadn’t sent her his usual good morning message and went over to his Tucson home to check on him.
“I zeroed in on him. He was just laying there and he was just, just full of bullet holes,” she said. “This is the man I was supposed to marry.”
Inside the home, investigators found bullet holes in the wall, 11 shell casings, and Morelos naked on the floor of the bedroom in what appeared to be a cold-blooded execution.
“They shot through his window and assassinated him,” Garcia said, before adding that the killer had also climbed in through the window to finish off the bloody assault.
But the assailant also left behind some telling clues, including blood on the broken glass of the window pane and the stucco on the outside of the home. Investigators also found blood in his closet and on the mouth wash cap found in his bathroom.
“The floor was very sticky and it smelled very heavily of mouth wash, so we felt at the time that whoever did this tried to clean up whatever tracks they left,” Garcia said.
Morelos' large rug in the bedroom had been cut and a large portion of it was missing, in what investigators believed was another attempt to conceal evidence.
Despite the hail of bullets, none of the neighbors reported hearing any gunshots, leading investigators to theorize that the killer had used a silencer to carry out the deadly assault in the early morning hours.
To determine just who had fired the fatal shots, detectives began to delve into Morelos' personal life. One of his ex-wives had once threatened to kill him and another ex-girlfriend had previously broken into his home while he was asleep with a new girlfriend, according to “Dateline: Secrets Uncovered.”
Several of Morelos’ coworkers were also on his list of past romances, including Claudia Banks, who told investigators that she broke off a relationship with her serious boyfriend to be with Morelos.
“He was awesome. He really was,” Banks said of Morelos, who she dated for six months.
The relationship wasn’t well received by another woman named Jessica, who had worked at the aerospace company and had been dating Morelos for about six months before he kicked her out and moved Banks into his home.
“I know he was cheating on me with Claudia,” she told investigators during an interview. “When he got caught with her, um, and then he kicked me out, and then moved her in.”
But despite the heartache, Jessica, who said she had been home with her young daughter at the time of the murder, insisted she didn’t want Morelos dead.
“This shouldn’t happen to anybody,” she said through tears in the interrogation tape. “Nobody deserves that.”
Investigators also looked into the coworkers who had clashed with the 45-year-old on the job and interviewed safety inspector James Lapan, who said Morelos had given him a hard time for parking in a restricted area and using a personal tablet computer during work hours.
Although Lapan admitted he “never got along” with Morelos, he said he couldn’t think of anyone who would want to physically harm him.
Investigators continued to search for answers, but it would be Morelos’ brother John who finally got the break that would blow the case wide open.
While talking with the HR director Jeff Johnson at Marana Aerospace Solutions, John learned that Lapan — who had filed past grievances against Morelos — had bandages on his left arm shortly after the shooting. And just 11 days before the murder, Johnson told “Dateline: Secrets Uncovered,” Lapan had come to his office with concerns about Morelos.
“He said that if I don’t handle it, he has his own way of handling things and just bolted right out of my office,” Johnson recalled.
Investigators believed it might be the tip they were looking for, but Lapan said the night Morelos was killed he had gone to bed with his wife, Sareena, around 9 p.m. and got up the next morning around 5 a.m.
But he did make one admission: Lapan had been carrying on an affair with Morelos’ ex-girlfriend Jessica.
When authorities spoke to Sareena, she said she knew about the affair and that she had been trying to mend their marriage. Sareena also confirmed that her husband had been at home asleep at the time Morelos had been executed.
It seemed like a dead end, but John got a tip from another friend that Lapan had been to a Tuscon shop to try to get a tool to repair a silencer.
After securing a search warrant for his home, investigators discovered 18 boxes of .45 caliber bullets, two spent shell casings that matched the ones found at Morelos’ house, an empty box that once held a silencer, and a pair of work pants that looked like they had blood stains on them.
They also found carpet fibers in the back of the Lapan’s van that matched the rug taken from Morelos' bedroom, according to the episode.
Lapan was arrested while carpooling to work with Jessica.
The case against him grew when Sareena contacted prosecutors to admit that she had lied about Lapan being home at the time of the murder.
Sareena — who said she found the courage to come forward after watching a Lifetime movie about an abusive relationship — told authorities that although the couple had gone to bed around 9 p.m., he got up later and left the house.
The next morning, she saw him back at the home while she was in the shower.
“When he had come in, his arm was bloody and he just looked at me and said, ‘I was home all night and we worked out this morning,’” Sareena told “Dateline: Secrets Uncovered.”
Sareena said she agreed to lie to law enforcement officers for him “out of fear,” describing a controlling and abusive relationship with her husband of seven years.
Investigators were also able to match Lapan’s DNA to the blood found in Morelos’ bedroom.
Lapan was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison in 2018, local news station KGUN reported at the time.
Prosecutor Jonathan Mosher told “Dateline: Secrets Uncovered” there were a strange series of texts between Jessica and Lapan the night before the murder, where Lapan texted her about a pit bull and she responded, “His dog … his name is Smokey,” seemingly a reference to Morelos’ beloved companion.
Authorities never had enough evidence to connect her to the crime, though.
“I can’t prove that she had involvement, but I can’t rule it out either,” Mosher said.
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