The Republic public safety reporter Megan Cassidy helps clarify some of the persistent confusion related to murders that took place in Yuma in 2005.
After less than two days of deliberation, a Yuma jury has found Preston Strong guilty of killing six people nearly 12 years ago in what was the largest mass murder in the border city’s history.
A jury of eight women and four men delivered the verdict Tuesday after about a day and a half of deliberation, declaring Strong guilty on all six counts of first-degree murder. KYMA News 11 reported that Strong had no reaction to the verdict.
Strong, 50, will now face a separate proceeding to decide whether he should be sentenced to death.
The verdict marks the end of nearly three months of proceedings, in which prosecutors argued that Strong killed Luis Rios, his girlfriend and her four children out of greed in what has come to be known as the La Mesa Street murders. Physical evidence was found in suspicious places, his alibi was full of holes, and gaps in Strong’s phone records directly coincided with the times the victims were arriving home, where the killer was waiting.
Defense attorneys had argued that initial witness statements described a suspect who looked nothing like Strong. And the defendant’s physical traces left at the scenes could be explained by a relationship with the family. He and Rios were best friends.
Over a span of at least six hours on June 24, 2005, the killer asphyxiated Adrienne Heredia, 29, as well as three of her children: 13-year-old Andreas Crawford, 12-year-old Enrique Bedoya and 9-year-old Inez Newman. Rios and Heredia’s 6-year-old son, Danny, died of gunshot wounds.
Several of the family members were bound, and all had been killed either inside or just outside of the home.
In an interview early Tuesday evening, Strong told The Arizona Republic that he was thinking about “the injustice” as the jury was reading its verdict.
“What’s going through my head right now is that I have to wait a couple of more years to show the misconduct by the state,” he said. “It needs to come out. There’s too much criminal misconduct taking place in this small town.”
Police were called just before 8:30 that evening, when neighbors heard gunshots and Rios’ screams. At least two witnesses told police they saw a short, stocky Hispanic man leaving the home and driving away in Rios’ Dodge Durango.
Rios was discovered in the backyard, gunned down by the pool. The children and Heredia were laid out in separate rooms of the home.
Though police had suspected Strong months after the murders, charges stalled for nearly 10 years. For one, Strong is black. And though his DNA was found on the Durango steering wheel and fingerprints on bags inside the home, police predicted defense attorneys would point to his legitimate presence in Rios’ life.
Strong was officially charged in 2014.
Strong has maintained his innocence throughout the trial, but did not take the stand in his own defense. His testimony could have opened the door to unflattering cross-examinations about his criminal history. And notably, by the time Strong was charged in the La Mesa Street case, he had already been convicted of the 2007 murder of Yuma physician Dr. Satinder Gill.
There were striking similarities in the cases. In both, the murderer remained inside the home for hours and seemingly forced the victims to make strange phone calls. Gill, like four of the La Mesa Street victims, died from suffocation. The motive for both cases seemed to be money. And Strong, at least peripherally, knew all of the victims.
Amanda Rios, Luis Rios’ daughter, said she felt “relieved” when she heard the verdict on Tuesday. Like the rest of the victims’ surviving family, she was convinced Strong was the killer.
“It definitely feels like the brick’s been taken off my shoulders,” she said.
Ray Hanna, Strong’s defense attorney, said he couldn’t comment in detail about the case but said he was “concerned” that jurors knew about the Dr. Gill conviction.
Strong’s former defense attorney, Kristi Riggins, said she was disappointed in the outcome.
“I wasn’t actually in the trial and watching the evidence come in, but it sounds to me like there was a lot of evidence that wasn’t presented,” she said. “That if it had been presented, it might have convinced the jury that they weren’t doing the right thing.”
Representatives from the Yuma Police Department and the Yuma County Attorney’s Office did not immediately return calls for comment.
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