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Christmas is a season of joy for many, but for a close-knit California family it's now a constant reminder of a shocking triple murder.
On Christmas Eve in 2013, Salvatore “Sal” Belvedere, 22, and Ilona Flint, 22, were found shot in their car in the parking lot of the Mission Valley Mall in San Diego.
Sal “was shot right between the eyes,” Brian Erickson, Deputy DA for San Diego County, told “Homicide for the Holidays,” airing Fridays at 9/8c on Oxygen. He was rushed to the hospital, where he died two days later.
Ilona was “slumped over in the passenger seat,” said San Diego Police Department Det. Tim Norris, adding that she’d been shot in the back and the back of her head. “She was pronounced dead at the scene.”
Ilona, who was engaged to Sal’s brother, Gianni, 24, had called 911 and told the dispatcher she’d been shot. In the recorded call no gunshots could be heard, but .22 caliber shell casings were found in the car. Detectives believed that a silencer was used.
Police found that the car was registered to Leonard Belvedere, Salvatore’s father. They went to his home and informed him of the fatal shooting. Gianni, meanwhile, was nowhere to be found. Missing persons bulletins were put out on him.
Detectives got a tip they hoped would lead to Gianni: A mall employee placed a 911 call three minutes after Ilona’s call. She said she saw a man of average height standing outside the driver’s window of the victims’ car.The suspect drove away in a car that matched the description of Gianni’s vehicle.
Detectives considered the possibility a love triangle had gone terribly wrong, reported CNN at the time.
But interviews with family members and other witnesses refuted the idea that Gianni had shot his brother.
“Everybody we talked to who knew Gianni said that was not his personality,” said Erickson.
Detectives focused on Gianni’s cell phone history. His phone had shut off completely at 11:45 the night of the shooting and never came back on. His last call was to a cousin. The relative told investigators that Gianni was headed to the mall to pick up Ilona, as he always did because she didn’t like to drive.
Ilona’s phone history showed that she’d sent texts to Gianni shortly before the shooting that were never answered. Records also showed that Ilona called Sal and that he went to the mall to get her. From midnight to 1 a.m., they had sat in the parking lot while Ilona called local hospitals looking for Gianni.
On January 17, 2014, Gianni’s car was found 90 miles from San Diego in Riverside. There was blood on the passenger seat and a putrid smell coming from the vehicle, investigators said. Gianni’s badly decomposed body was recovered from the trunk and identified by dental records. Cans of air fresheners with taped-down triggers were found near the body.
It appeared that Gianni had been dead for two to three weeks.A bullet was recovered from Gianni’s skull.
“He had been shot behind the left ear as though somebody was standing over him and to the side,” said Norris.
Forensic analysis showed that the same gun was used to fire the round that killed Gianni, Sal and Ilona. The case was a triple homicide, not a fatal love triangle.
Investigators were able to get DNA off the tape used to hold down the triggers on the air fresheners. The DNA was uploaded to CODIS in hopes of identifying a match in the data bank.
But no match was found. “If somebody gets arrested and put in the system, then it will connect,” investigators said.
On January 18, less than 24 hours after Gianni’s body was found, a seemingly unrelated incident would eventually lead to the break investigators needed.
A man was stopped at an interior border patrol checkpoint in San Clemente, California, an hour north of San Diego. He had an AR-15 style of assault rifle, hundreds of rounds of ammunition, and numerous other firearms. Border patrol also found a .45 caliber handgun, a .22 caliber pistol with a threaded barrel, and a homemade silencer. The haul meant numerous different California violations, according to “Homicide for the Holidays.”
The man was identified as 29-year-old Carlo Mercado. He was the registered owner of two of the firearms and had no criminal record. He was released at the scene and his guns were confiscated.
Mercado was free to go, but the California Department of Justice and special agents kept an eye on as they built their case against the illegal .22, silencer, and magazine clips.
Four months after the Christmas Eve murders, the special agents' investigation into Mercado’s illegal firearms produced enough evidence to arrest him, and Mercado was charged in April 2014.
Mercado pleaded guilty to having the illegal silencer. As part of that deal, his DNA was taken and uploaded to CODIS.
“Carlo Mercado’s DNA matches the DNA that was found in the car where Gianni's body was found,” journalist Ana Garcia told producers.
San Diego detectives connected with the special agent who seized and had possession of Mercado’s guns. Ballistics analysis showed that a .22 caliber gun that had been confiscated was the weapon used to kill Gianni, Sal and Ilona. In addition, phone records placed Mercado at the scene of the crime.
On June 28, 2014, Mercado was charged with three counts of murder.
Detectives theorized that Mercado’s motive for murder may have been linked to a parking lot scuffle when Gianni arrived to pick up Ilona.
Investigators believe Mercado shot Gianni and then drove off in his car. Knowing that police would look for the car, he taped a license plate over the legitimate one. Mercado then returned to the mall parking lot, which is when Sal and Ilona saw the stranger in Gianni’s car. Mercado then turned the gun on them.
“He did it because he either lived in a fantasy world where he thought he was an assassin or he lived in this world where he didn’t think he could be held accountable,” said Erickson.
Mercado, then 31, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole.
To learn more about the case, watch “Homicide for the Holidays,” airing Fridays at 9/8c on Oxygen.
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