YUMA — The gunshots were the finale, rapid bursts marking the end to a mass murder.
The killer had taken his time at first. He had spent hours suffocating the family one by one, then picking up after himself until the real target arrived.
Only Luis Rios lived to see the paramedics. After briefly escaping the killer’s grasp inside the Yuma home, he fled screaming into his gated backyard, only to be gunned down next to his pool. He was shot within moments of his girlfriend’s 6-year-old son, whose body wasn’t discovered until hours later.
The blasts cut into the twilight air on La Mesa Street on June 24, 2005, interrupting Marina Garcia de Quintero’s telenovelas. From her home across the way, the grandmother peeked through her window as a figure emerged from the house, walked calmly to Rios’ Dodge Durango, and drove off.
Her description of the man was largely consistent with another witness who would relay his account to police. He was Hispanic, short and “a little bit fat,” she recalled in a recent interview with The Arizona Republic. His hair was close cut and unremarkable — definitely not bald and definitely not long, she said.
The La Mesa Street murders, as they would be known, claimed more lives than any other crime in the border city’s history.
The Republic public safety reporter Megan Cassidy helps clarify some of the persistent confusion related to murders that took place in Yuma in 2005.
Police sifted through thousands of tips in the nine years after the slayings. They circulated a sketch of the best lead they had: a nondescript Hispanic man with short hair.
And so it came as a surprise to Quintero when her granddaughter called her in June 2014 with news of charges. The suspect was a black man, Iris Ruiz told her grandmother. Preston Strong was also 6 feet tall with a medium build.
“I don’t think the man was black — he looked Hispanic,” Quintero told a Republic reporter in February, speaking in Spanish from the La Mesa Street home where she still lives, 12 years after the murders. “He wasn’t black.”
Six people died within a span of at least six hours that day on La Mesa Street. Four of them were children.
Before Rios arrived home, the killer suffocated his girlfriend, Adrienne Bedoya Heredia, 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 youngest son, 6-year-old Danny Heredia III, died of gunshot wounds.
The Yuma Police Department had its work cut out. There was no scarcity of tips and no shortage of suspects in Rios and Adrienne Heredia’s network.
But as detectives chased each rumor, they were met with a series of contradictions, canceling out what had seemed promising leads.
The brutality and disregard for the children had the trappings of a cartel hit, but police could find no evidence of illegal activity in Rios’ life.
Rios was going through a bitter divorce, and his soon-to-be ex-wife was tied to a cast of unsavory characters. But as the investigation stretched into months and then years, none could be connected to the murders at the home.
At last investigators zeroed in on Strong, Rios’ best friend. But more contradictions plagued the investigation, effectively shelving charges for nearly a decade.
Strong’s DNA was discovered in Rios’ Durango — the getaway car — but Strong may have borrowed it from time to time. And there were other, unidentified DNA profiles found on the steering wheel.
Strong’s alibi was shaky and unsatisfying. But an ex-girlfriend said she was with him, at their home, at an hour when police are sure the killer was inside the La Mesa Street house.
The gun used in Rios and Danny Heredia III’s murders never was found. But according to Rios’ brother, a .38 caliber revolver had gone missing from the liquor store where Rios worked and where Strong was a constant fixture. Ballistics tests indicate the missing gun could have fired the rounds at the home.
And then there’s that eyewitness testimony. Could it be that the neighbors were mistaken?
Police and prosecutors were willing to wager on that scenario. This year, Yuma County prosecutors brought Strong to trial on six counts of first-degree murder, one count of armed robbery and one count of burglary.
The case is now in the hands of the jury, which will continue its deliberations this week.
He could face the death penalty if convicted.
The trial began in early February, with prosecutors spending two months presenting the case, and the defense offering only a handful of witnesses over a week.
Key witnesses for both sides faltered, changed stories and second-guessed themselves. Some are jailhouse snitches with questionable motives. The best eyewitness said he lied for more than a decade about what he saw that night. Quintero thought she remembered seeing the suspect as well as Luis Rios exit the front of the house that night and walk to the back, although there is no evidence Rios ever made it to the front yard.
Strong is 50 now. He’s graying, with eyes that curve downward at the corners and make a face appear kind.
He insists he’s innocent.
Detectives turned to Strong after exhausting other promising leads, said Wayne Boyd, a Yuma police homicide lieutenant who has investigated the murders since the beginning.
In an interview before the trial began, he acknowledged the case’s glaring weaknesses. In his mind, though, he said, they were outweighed by the physical evidence.
“If you take the compusketch, as given, it does not look like Preston. So he has that,” Boyd said. “(Defense attorneys) will argue that the DNA and fingerprints are present because Preston knew the victims, and was legally and legitimately where those items were found.”
In the interview, which took place last year, Boyd said there was a possibility that Strong didn’t act alone. The case doesn’t hinge on one smoking gun, he said, but rather several pieces of a “puzzle” that pointed to one person.
“I’m personally convinced he’s our guy,” he said. “I don’t know and don’t pretend to know if he did it alone or not. I think the totality of the evidence shows conclusively that he’s at least one of the people responsible.”
Prosecutors at the trial did allege Strong acted alone. There was enough time between the arrivals of each victim that one man could have bound and slayed them all.
By the time he was charged in 2014, police and prosecutors had another card weighing in their favor.
Strong had been convicted of another Yuma murder.
Rios, 35, only had met Heredia, 29, a few months before their deaths. Time has a way of blurring details for the couple’s friends and family. One said they probably met at the liquor store where Rios worked. Another said maybe it was playing softball.
Their romance was a new chapter for both. Each had children from previous relationships, each a difficult past with their exes.
Rios was in the throes of a bitter divorce. He and his estranged wife Becky had been married for five years, but friends said Rios had been fed up with Becky’s partying. The two were separated at the time of the murders, and Rios was attempting to gain full custody of Amanda, the couple’s daughter. Witnesses said Rios recently had told Becky he was cutting her off financially.
Amanda, who is nearly 21 now, said the split and blossoming romance with Heredia took a toll on her mom.
“I just think it’s the typical, ‘Oh, he left me for another girl,’ ” she said in a recent interview. “I think it’s just that typical bias of a divorce or a bad separation. … My mom did love my dad, though. I know she did.”
She was 9 when Rios died, and talking about her dad still brings Amanda to tears.
The two would watch cartoons and WWE together, or fake fight with Amanda in her pajamas and mimicking one of the wrestling stars. He was always making Amanda and her sister laugh, she said. He loved to dance, and looked like “a big ball” when he moved.
“He just always showed his love toward me, and made sure that I wasn’t like, left alone,” she said.
Heredia was a teenager when she got pregnant the first time, and still a teenager when she conceived her second and third children. Only Andreas and Enrique had the same father.
Heredia’s friends would chide her for her taste in men, but by all accounts Rios was different. He was the responsible parent, a successful manager of a nearby liquor store, and eager to care for Heredia and her young family.
“All of her other boyfriends were, like, thuggish,” said Richard Carabajal, a longtime family friend. “I’m pretty sure she got abused by one.”
Heredia was a tomboy, Carabajal said. She could change a tire, rode a motorcycle, and had joined a boxing club with her two oldest sons. She was a dedicated member of a softball team that she played on with Carabajal and had been the team’s first baseman for several seasons.
The team traveled often and played at least two to three times a week, Carabajal said.
Carabajal said he liked Rios. He helped Heredia out, financially and emotionally, and wasn’t out doing “stupid stuff,” he said.
“He would even show up at the ballfield,” Carabajal said, adding that the team let him play once or twice.
“He wasn’t that good,” Carabajal said with a laugh. “Adrienne was the more athletic one.”
Heredia and her ex Kenneth Crawford had passed down their athleticism to their children, Crawford said. Crawford was the father of the two oldest boys.
Crawford said although he and Heredia ended their relationship on good terms, he had a strained relationship with Andreas and Enrique because of distance. Crawford had lived in North Carolina on and off for years and only had moved back to Yuma about nine months before the murders.
His relationship with the boys was cementing, though, he said. Crawford starting joining them at the boxing gym.
“When I first got back with them, my sons would, like, lay behind me and hug me and we’d watch TV and stuff,” he said.
Andreas, the oldest, was the more outgoing and “fun-loving” of the two, Crawford said.
“But he was always emotional, too,” he said. “He liked to know you cared about him.”
Crawford said Andreas would tease him while he was lifting weights, calling his muscles “old man arms.”
“I think he was pretty proud of me,” Crawford said. “It wasn’t anything that he did, it was the way he looked at you. I noticed him looking at me out of the corner of his eye. It was really on its way to being a great relationship.”
Enrique was the more “behind-the-scenes” one, his father said. He was reserved, perceptive and a deep thinker. He was responsible too, Crawford said. There was a time where Crawford found his two sons’ wallets, and Enrique had saved up $27. His older brother had about 17 cents.
“I miss their smiles, really,” Crawford said. “Their competitiveness with each other, their smiles. They were one way out in public, but they were never apart from each other. They were like yin and yang, like a married couple.”
Inez Newman and Amanda Rios were the same age and took to each other immediately. The two got the same toenail polish when Heredia took them out for pedicure day, and they played on the same softball team, the Angels.
Amanda said all of Heredia’s kids treated her like a sister. Amanda’s biological sister is eight years older than her, so “I never really had someone to play with.” she said.
She remembers giggling to the video game Dance Dance Revolution together with the other kids, and she and Inez rolling their eyes when Heredia bought them matching Fourth of July outfits.
Danny was the typical little brother, annoying and wanting desperately to hang with the older kids, Amanda said. The two girls would let him play with them, up to a point, she said, laughing.
He had a toothless smile and was full of energy — “just everywhere,” she said. “He was just the sweetest.”
The killer found his way inside the La Mesa Street house between late morning and early afternoon that Friday, when only Andreas and Enrique were home. The timeline of their deaths was included in the police report on the case and in court testimony and detailed below.
A couple who had been hired to clean the pool said they arrived at the residence around 11:55 a.m. and left about 12:15 p.m. They later told police it was typical for the kids to come outside to chat while they were working. They always wanted to know when the pool would be ready for swimming.
On that day though, the boys stayed inside and only spoke to them through the sliding-glass door. The pool cleaners said the boys seemed “nervous.” The shorter one asked the cleaners to call his mother when they were finished. The taller one stood behind his brother and said nothing.
A few minutes after the couple left, one of the cleaners realized she had forgotten her purse and the pool test kit in Rios’ backyard. She was back by about 12:30, and the boys continued to act differently, she said.
She went back to the front door, where one of the boys opened the door only enough to hand over her belongings. The woman later would tell police that she believed the boys’ behavior was “strange” but thought little of it at the time.
Andreas and Enrique died first. They were discovered behind a locked door, lying next to each other in a northeast bedroom. It looked as if they had been separated at one point, as one of the boys appeared to have been dragged into the room. An autopsy later revealed that they had been suffocated.
Rigor mortis had set into their bodies by the time police arrived, but not the others.
Adrienne Heredia was the next to arrive home. Surveillance video at RC Liquor showed Heredia leaving the store about 4:19 p.m., and there is no indication she stopped anywhere in between.
Investigators would note that Heredia seemed to be in a rush to get inside, and that she didn’t plan on staying for long. She left her purse and a large deposit on the car seat, but brought her cellphone inside. That device would leave with the killer.
Heredia’s body was discovered in a southeast bedroom, under a pile of blankets. Her pants were partially pulled down, but her underwear didn’t seem to be disturbed. There was a large chunk of her hair inside her mouth, and more hair that was hardened by saliva.
Heredia died from asphyxiation, but a medical examiner couldn’t be certain of the weapon, according to testimony reported by the Yuma Sun. The killer could have used something like a plastic wrap to cover her face, or potentially strangled her with a soft material.
Prosecutors believe she was dead by 4:54 p.m., when incoming calls began going to voicemail.
For the past day, the younger two children, Inez and Danny III., had been cared for by Danny’s father, Danny Heredia II.
Heredia II later would tell police he typically would have kept the kids over the weekend, but he had wanted to attend a car show so brought them back early.
Danny Heredia II’s initial plan was to drop off the two at the La Mesa Street home sometime after 2:30 p.m., when Adrienne Heredia was to be back from work. He tried calling her several times that day to choose an exact time, but no one picked up. Nor did anyone answer the door when he brought them back shortly before 5:30 p.m., although her PT Cruiser was parked in the driveway.
After about 10 minutes at the door, Heredia II decided to load the kids back in his car and take them home. Had he left that porch a minute earlier or a minute later, his son and Inez may have escaped their fate.
But in a disastrous coincidence, Heredia II spotted Rios driving home just as Heredia II was about to turn off of La Mesa Street.
He made a U-turn and followed Rios back to the house, children in tow.
The two men had a brief conversation outside the house, both confirming that Adrienne Heredia hadn’t been answering her phone. Rios headed inside while Heredia II, Danny III and Inez waited outside for word. Heredia II figured everything was OK when Rios stayed inside, reasoning that Rios would come back out and report if Adrienne Heredia wasn’t home.
He sent the two children inside.
Inez’s body was found alone, in the southwest corner bedroom. She was lying on her stomach, brown hair splayed across the floor and still dressed her play clothes: a rainbow-striped tee and neon green shorts. There appeared to be ligature marks on both of her wrists, but the killer had pocketed her bindings.
Police discovered little Danny in the same bedroom as his mother. He was wearing all red, and his hands were bound to his feet by a curling iron cable and electrical cords. A medical examiner would testify that at the time of the autopsy, Danny III still had a T-shirt tied around his neck with two white plastic bags hanging from it. The official cause of death, though, was a gunshot wound to the head.
Rios also had been bound,. Paramedics would testify that Rios’ hands had been tied behind his back with an alarm clock, wires and a belt, his feet secured with wires. But he managed to free his left foot and make a break for it, running around the pool several feet before a spray of gunfire put an end to his escape.
Throughout the ordeal, police said a series of strange phone calls came from inside the La Mesa Street home. They are now believed to have been forced by the killer or killers, in an attempt to keep suspicion at bay.
About 7:10 p.m., Inez called Rios’ brother Lionel from Rios’ phone. Lionel said he had tried to call Rios about 15 minutes earlier. Inez told Lionel that Rios was busy and would call him back. Lionel said he initially remembered that Rios and Adrienne Heredia had a softball game scheduled for that night, so thought perhaps the children were in charge of the phones. Later the call struck him as unusual, as Inez never had called him before.
Danny Heredia II was the recipient of two other strange calls.
The first was a few minutes after the drop-off, around 5:50 p.m. Rios called to say Adrienne Heredia was “tripping”— potentially meant as an explanation as to why she wasn’t answering her phone. Heredia II told Rios to have her call him if she needed anything. Rios said OK and hung up.
Just before 8 p.m., Heredia II returned to the house to drop off some of the children’s laundry that he had done in the interim. Rios’ Durango was on the east side of the driveway and Adrienne Heredia’s PT Cruiser was on the west, but again no one answered when he knocked on the doors.
Heredia II said he again called Adrienne Heredia to tell her where to find the clothes that he’d delivered. Rios again was the one to call back, assured Heredia II everything was “OK” and that they weren’t at home. So again, Heredia II drove away.
The 911 calls began immediately after the gunshots. It was 8:29 p.m., and neighbors several houses away could hear them. The closest ones heard Rios’ screams, too.
One neighbor who lived behind the La Mesa Street home walked toward the alley between the houses to investigate while his girlfriend called 911. He jumped up onto the 6-foot wall around the house and met the eye of a short, heavy-set Hispanic man wearing a blue T-shirt and black shorts, the neighbor told investigators in 2005.
He said the man had a slightly smaller frame than that of Luis Rios, who was 5 feet 8 inches tall and close to 250 pounds at the time of his death.
The neighbor asked the man what had happened but only got a blank stare. The man then turned around and walked back into the home through the sliding back door.
The possibility that a cartel was involved in Yuma’s sextuple homicide wasn’t beyond the pale for the city’s police.
In 2012, DEA agents had discovered a sophisticated drug tunnel with a mouth that opened in Yuma County and a throat stretching 240 yards into the Mexican side of the border.
It was certainly possible that Rios or Adrienne Heredia could have become entangled with the drug trade or some other illegal activity.
For one, Rios’ financials didn’t add up. A detective who wrote about search warrants at RC Liquor and Rios’ ex-wife’s home began taking stock:
Rios appeared to be paying for Becky Rios’ home, as well as the rent for the house on La Mesa Street, as well as for a separate apartment on Madison Avenue. He was making car payments for both he and Heredia’s vehicles, and potentially the payment for her motorcycle, investigators wrote in the police report.
And it wasn’t unusual for Rios to carry as much as $1,000 in cash in his wallet.
Rios’ full-time job at RC Liquor generated a weekly check of $600, the report stated.
“He certainly was living well past his means, but he continually had money to spend,” one officer noted in the police report. “We believe this may be associated with the murders at the residence, with the connection of where this money was coming from.”
Further investigation may have cleared up the financial questions, though. Rios’ boss confirmed that he was regularly given a portion of the store’s proceeds. Amanda, Rios’ daughter, said her dad was flush with cash because he “worked his butt off.”
And Boyd said ultimately police never uncovered any illegal activity connected with Rios other than perhaps reselling inexpensive stolen goods at the liquor store.
“I think there were some bikes, some tools, stuff like that,” Boyd said. “By all appearances, it was very low-end property-crimes types of stuff. Nothing that should result in anything like this.”
Like many high-profile cases, investigators sifted through a salvo of tips, particularly after the sketch of the suspect was released. Some seemed promising, others outlandish.
There was the tipster who “got chills” because the sketch looked so similar to a painter who was an ex-employee. Another rumor delivered through U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was that someone with the Zambada drug cartel in Mexico had ordered a hit on the victims. The tipster said one of Adrienne Heredia’s family members possibly was connected to the cartel before he went to prison.
Throughout the investigation, one officer noted, the investigative leads have interestingly fallen into two buckets. There was what he referred to as the Becky Rios group, which consisted of 10 people, and then the second bucket with just two: Luis Rios’ boss, Ragheed (Ray) Shaya, and Preston Strong.
Strong wasn’t a suspect at first. He was Rios’ best friend, and if anything appeared helpful in the investigation, Boyd said.
Strong defended his friend when police probed about ties to drugs, money laundering or Mexican cartels.
“He appeared upset to talk about the rumors,” the reporting officer said of Strong. “He said without a doubt these rumors were all lies. He classified L. RIOS as a good guy and having no criminal ties.”
Asked what he thought happened, Preston echoed the suspicion of several others who were interviewed.
“I hate to say it, but Becky,” he replied, referring to Luis’ estranged wife.
Confidential informants provided rumors about Becky Rios and her group of friends. One said they heard she was going to get someone to kill him because she was bitter about the pending divorce. Another said Becky was upset because Rios had just obtained custody of Amanda.(Police reports said Rios and Becky actually were in the midst of a custody battle.)
A federal agent relayed similar information from another informant. According to this scenario, Becky had hired a man known as Manuel to go over to the house and scare them, but “things got bad.”
Family and friends also cast suspicion on Becky. Lionel Rios, Luis’ brother and co-worker, said Becky had recently threatened the two at a softball game. A friend of Adrienne Heredia corroborated this account.
The account of Becky’s words seemed ominous: “Just wait,” she had reportedly said. “Just wait and see what happens.”
Officers confronted Becky directly, and she didn’t necessarily deny the threats. She also blamed herself for the marriage dissolving. She wasn’t home a lot, she said, and liked doing things as a “single person” rather than being married.
Becky also recalled her breaking point.
In the police report, Becky described a recent fight she had with Rios. He had told her he was cutting off her funding and would pursue full custody of the couple’s daughter.
Rios left angry. Becky jumped into her car and chased him to the park where their daughter was playing softball. An argument ensued about who would take their daughter home. When Amanda was asked to decide, the 9-year-old chose her father.
Becky admitted to police that she was getting “kind of desperate” and “may have said something to him to watch his back or something to that effect.” She insisted she didn’t mean it as a threat though, just more of a “watch out in court” kind of thing.
Other tips tied people linked to Becky to the La Mesa Street crime, with robbery as the motive.
Police reports are often dry and clinical. But in a rare moment of candor, one officer summed up his experience with Becky Rios’ crew.
“These people in themselves are unreliable in any information that they provide,” he said. “Their full motivation (is) covering up their drug addiction and their involvement in meth.”
The officer offered a window into what had become an expansive investigation. The FBI had received a court order for electronic surveillance on Becky and her friends, he wrote in November 2005.
“To date, well over 1,000 phone numbers have been registered and identified as being associated with these individuals. Most of the phone numbers are either business contacts or social contacts with these individuals, and these people are not related to the homicide, although as the case has progressed, some of these numbers are connected to criminal activity such as narcotics, money laundering and possibly smuggling of illegal aliens across the border.”
But after months of phone and physical tracking, the officer wrote, there was “no direct evidence linking those subjects to the murders.”
In an interview with The Republic, Becky Rios said it’s taken years to regain the trust of her community.
“There are certain people that believe that,” Becky said. “It was stupid. It would be the stupidest thing for me to do. He was still paying my bills. He was paying everything. It’s just, it was really hard to swallow all that, because of how people can instantly turn against you.”
Becky today still accepts blame for their marriage dissolving. She said she still loved Rios; he was a good man and a good father.
“I was out doing stupid stuff and he just got tired of it,” Becky said. “I thought he would put up with it for the rest of our lives.”
Investigators talked with several people who credited Rios with turning the liquor store into a success. He introduced a new business model: Rather than acting as a convenience store, RC Liquor became a one-stop shop for vices.
It began selling sex toys, pornography and knives. He also opened the store to check cashing, which drew big business when the migrant field workers came into town.
At some point in the investigation, police began suspecting that someone at RC Liquor was involved in money laundering. There were several bank accounts tied to the business, police said, and there appeared to be large amounts of money passing through these accounts and disappearing.
Police also tied Shaya to men suspected of housing people in the country illegally at a home in San Luis and then transporting them using a taxi service.
The investigative focus on Strong came gradually, as the other leads fizzled through alibis and DNA testing.
Strong and Rios had become friends in about 2000, when they both used to hang out at the Sunshine Market, another liquor store owned by Shaya.
The two bonded over the NFL’s Oakland Raiders and Madden NFL on PlayStation. Becky said she encouraged the friendship; it gave her freedom to go do what she wanted, she said.
Detectives frequently made note of Strong’s odd behavior throughout the police report, with one officer calling him an “interesting character.”
Depending on who you ask, Strong saw Rios hours or moments before his slaying.
Strong says the last time was in late morning. He didn’t work at RC Liquor, but was around so often he was frequently mistaken as an employee. He also ran errands for the store, making withdrawals and deposits at a nearby bank.
One of these trips amounted to the last confirmed sighting of Strong until after the family was found dead.
This much everyone agrees on: Strong arrived at RC Liquor late in the morning. Surveillance video shows that he left the store after noon and went to National Bank, a four-minute drive away. He withdrew $17,000 at 12:14 p.m. and was back at RC Liquor by 12:23 p.m. Footage shows Strong handing what appears to be a small bank bag over to Rios.
The rest of the day is a mystery. Alibis lose credibility in the absence of digital footprints, and none was presented to the jury for Strong in the hours after he left RC Liquor around 12:35 p.m.
Strong said he probably went to Mexico, though couldn’t say for certain when he left for Mexico and when he returned. He also said he may have stopped at Yuma Landing beforehand, a bar and grill downtown.
Strong said when he got back into town he visited Shaya at the Quality Market, another Yuma liquor store Shaya owned. By the time Strong had arrived at the Quality Market, Shaya had already caught wind of something awry at Rios’ house.
Yuma was pleasantly cool on Feb. 7, 2017, when Strong’s trial began.
Attorneys like to get creative during opening arguments. While a case can dwell on minutiae for months on end, the openers are where prosecutors and defense attorneys get their first shot at a connection with the jury.
John Tate, a Yuma County prosecutor, opened with toast.
The case, he said, was kind of like when someone burned toast in the kitchen. Even if you weren’t there at the time, you arrive and you smell it and you know what happened.
“On June 24, 2005, the defendant in this case, Preston Strong, murdered six people,” he said. “He didn’t leave any witnesses, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any evidence.”
William Fox, one of Preston’s defense attorneys, picked up on his opponent’s thread.
“Mr. Tate talked to you about burnt toast,” he said. “You can tell that it happened, that I agree. You can tell. But if you live in a big family, you don’t know who did it.”
The prosecution’s case is circumstantial. Some physical evidence points to Strong, but there isn’t much of it. And Strong’s constant presence in Rios’ life gives defense a ready explanation for why it’s there.
Aside from the DNA on the Durango’s steering wheel, Preston’s fingerprints were found on a plastic bag in the home feet away from where Danny III’s body was discovered. It was similar to the one tied around his neck.
As Yuma police Lt. Boyd had predicted, defense attorneys offered explanations as to why traces of Strong were found at the crime scenes. He ran errands for RC Liquor, and was trusted handling thousands of dollars in deposits. Couldn’t he have borrowed the Durango? The family had just moved into the La Mesa Street house. Couldn’t Strong have helped them move? Couldn’t he have touched that bag?
The plausible deniability factor likely was one reason why it took prosecutors nearly a decade to charge him.
A 2009 email from Detective Clay Pouquette to the Arizona Department of Public Safety shows Yuma police’s quest for a work-around.
In the message, Pouquette asks the DPS lab to process DNA from a man called an “associate” of Strong’s. Pouquette explains that although the physical evidence against Strong was “extremely important,” Strong “is or was a family friend so he had access to the locations his presence was confirmed.”
However, Pouquette says, “placing an associate of STRONG … at the crime scene could make all the difference. (Name redacted) has no ties to the victims, the victim home or the victim vehicle in this case.”
In the end, Strong’s associate was not tied to the scenes.
As the trial continued, prosecutors emphasized two key points: Strong’s disastrous finances were offered up as a motive, and the time spans when Strong’s phone records went dark were presented as an opportunity.
Strong was a prolific cellphone user. He preferred talking to texting and had clocked more than 3,000 phone calls in the two months before the murders. Strong talked on his phone plenty the day of the murders as well. But prosecutors noted that there were gaps in his communications that corresponded with the times the victims were arriving home and making calls.
Yuma County prosecutor Karolyn Kaczorowski hammered this point home for the jurors during closing arguments.
She pointed to a 22-minute gap in Strong’s phone records, with no calls from 5:32 p.m. to 5:54 p.m.
Rios had arrived at the house right about 5:30 p.m., Kaczorowski reminded the jurors. Before this, Strong had called Rios repeatedly, reportedly asking to borrow money.
“And then coincidentally, he stops calling him the second he walks in the door?” Kaczorowski asked, her tone incredulous. “He knew Luis had walked into that house, because he was there.”
Prosecutors say the motive for the crime was greed and jealousy of Rios’ success. They are unsure how successful of a robber that the killer was, because there was little knowledge about how much money could have been missing.
There was, however, a $2,000 purple money wrapper found in the front yard, and wallets and two cellphones were missing from the home.
Strong was unemployed at the time, had a lapse in his worker’s compensation and was known to borrow money from Rios. Some would later tell police that Rios had recently cut off Strong’s supply.
“(Strong) had an intimate knowledge of the amount of money that flowed through the liquor store, where Luis worked,” Boyd said in his Republic interview. “And we can show, we can demonstrate, that he had a need for the money. Now again, that alone doesn’t mean that he was willing to kill anybody. But it falls in with the theory.”
At the beginning of the trial, prosecutors promised jurors the testimony of a woman, Ada Harris, a friend of Strong’s who likely had given him a ride back to his car after he had ditched the Durango after the murders.
Tate told jurors that Harris had received a call from Strong at 8:39 p.m., 10 minutes after the murders were reported to police.
But that theory crumbled when Harris took the stand in late March.
Harris told jurors that she did indeed receive several calls from Strong asking for a ride to his car, and that she did give him a ride from a gas station to Sanguinetti Park. The park is near where the Durango was found.
But then she said she couldn’t remember the exact day or time this ride took place. According to news reports in Yuma, Harris said it was sometime between 1 and 3 in the afternoon — well outside the timeline initially presented by prosecutors.
The testimony offered by Adriana Ozuna Guzman, Strong’s then-girlfriend, was probably the best day for Strong’s defense. But even she second-guessed herself on pressure from prosecutors.
On the stand, Ozuna said that on the night of the murders she came back to the house after work and left for the casino around 6 or 7 p.m. At some point during this time, she said, Strong came home and took a shower. She said Strong was still there when she left.
But prosecutors aimed to discredit this account with Ozuna’s own words. Tate pointed to an earlier police interview in which Ozuna had said she did not see Strong that night. He also noted that Strong had never offered Ozuna as an alibi himself.
When pressed, Ozuna said it was possible that she was mistaken on the dates but denied that she had been pressured to change her story. Ozuna is now married to another man.
“I believe that I was home and then he arrived and I left,” she said on cross-examination. “So I can’t say where he was after I left.”
Prosecutors weren’t the only ones to take a blow on the stand.
One of the most powerful witnesses for the defense — the neighbor who looked the killer in the eye and described him to the sketch artist as a squat Hispanic man — changed his story just days before the trial.
Yuma County Superior Court Judge Maria Elena Cruz ordered the witness’ name withheld from media reports until the culmination of proceedings. At the time of his testimony, the man was serving a sentence at the Yuma County Detention Center.
In the police report, the witness doesn’t waver on his description. He sits for two sketches, and for years the community was on watch for the Hispanic man from his memory. He maintained this account for years after the murders, telling a private investigator that he was “more than sure” the man was Hispanic. He even later pointed police to a man who went by the name of “Porky,” telling them to look at him as a suspect.
But on the stand in late February, the witness said that was all a lie. It was actually Strong he saw that night, he said. The description he gave was actually that of Rios, because he couldn’t stop thinking about the victim’s face, he said.
The witness said he lied for 12 years upon pressure from his then-girlfriend not to cooperate with police. He also recalled that the suspect was wearing a blue T-shirt — that part remained the same from his initial interview — which was what Strong was wearing on the day of the murders.
Defense attorney Ray Hanna asked why, after all these years, the witness would decide now was the time to change his story. He noted that the witness had recently been sentenced to jail for a misdemeanor conviction. Was it possible he was hoping for a deal with prosecutors?
The witness denied the suggestion and said he just wanted to do the right thing.
Defense attorneys also questioned the witness’ then-girlfriend Rocio Lopez, who said the witness had relayed to her at the time that the suspect was “Mexican.” Cruz later ordered this portion of the testimony stricken upon prosecutors’ objection that defense hadn’t laid a foundation.
Lopez later denied that she had dissuaded her former boyfriend from cooperating with police.
Another man serving time — this one in an Arizona prison — testified against Strong as well. Cruz also ordered his identity withheld from media reports.
The witness’ involvement in the case came in 2015, when he wrote a letter to prosecutors from the Department of Corrections.
Strong had all but confessed to the murders to him, he said. The two had been acquaintances, and the witness said the subject of the Yuma murders came up sometime in 2013.
The witness recalled saying something to the effect of, “Aren’t they trying to get you for that?”
The man said Strong’s reply was serious, with no trace of humor:
“They are, but they’ll never get a conviction,” the witness said Strong told him. “I was too careful.”
By the end of the letter though, the witness may have discredited himself.
“If my testimony will be helpful, I would have to ask for the remainder of my sentence to be commuted to parole,” he wrote.
Defense attorneys also challenged prosecutors’ version of a motive. Strong, they said, had paid Rios’ brother $19,500 months after the murders, with money he had received from worker’s compensation.
Strong said the money was repayment for what Rios had loaned him and was to be put in a trust for Rios’ daughter.
“He paid it back,” Fox said. “Which doesn’t make any sense if he was trying to make the money. No one said, Mr. Strong, ‘You owe us more money.’ No one said, ‘You owe us more cash than that.’ ”
The defense has some physical evidence in its corner, too.
While prosecutors highlight the physical evidence tied to Strong, Fox countered by listing the other places where Strong’s DNA wasn’t found.
It wasn’t on a Kittamor knife that was left near the Durango. Rios and Heredia owned a set of Kittamor knives and were missing one by the time police investigated. It wasn’t on the bindings used to tie up Danny III or on a nearby water bottle. And aside from Strong and Rios, two other DNA profiles were left on the Durango steering wheel.
“He was specifically excluded from 37 items of evidentiary value,” defense attorney Ray Hanna said during closing arguments, recalling the DNA expert’s testimony. Hanna acknowledged that he was unclear on what those items were made up of, “but presumably (they were) all the things the officers thought were important.”
A presence looms over the La Mesa Street trial, likely known to everyone in the courtroom aside from the jury.
His name was Dr. Satinder Gill, and he was a Yuma cardiologist who was bludgeoned and strangled in his home on Nov. 1, 2007.
Preston Strong was convicted of his murder. He is serving a life sentence for it in the Arizona Department of Corrections.
As with the La Mesa Street case, Strong said he was innocent of this crime, too. And like the La Mesa Street case, little but circumstantial evidence points to Strong.
Kristi Riggins, Strong’s defense attorney in the Gill case, spoke with TheRepublic about her former client last year.
Riggins is a retired public defender who would take on an average of 150 cases per year. She called Strong’s conviction the “greatest miscarriage of justice” in her career.
She put it like this: When Riggins would first get assigned a case, she would look at the overview before meeting with a client. She would present to the defendant what police had alleged, and ask if it was true, or if investigators were missing anything.
“And a lot of times clients go, ‘Yeah, yeah, that’s pretty much right; that’s what happened. How are we going to deal with it?’ ” she said. “But in Preston’s case, I kept looking, and looking. Where’s the evidence? Where’s the evidence? Where’s the evidence? No evidence. And evidence leading elsewhere. In both cases.”
Gill was murdered more than two years after the family on La Mesa Street. But other than sharing the same city borders and the same investigators, the crimes initially seemed to have little in common.
While the La Mesa Street murders targeted a young family with deep roots in the community, Gill was 62 and divorced. He had no family in the area and kept to himself.
First responders smelled the natural gas before they found the body. It was Nov. 2, 2007, and a family friend of the physician had called for a welfare check after failing to reach him, according to police reports.
Using the friend’s keys, two officers entered the stately home and scanned for movement. The gas was detectable by the time the two passed the living room, and overwhelming as they proceeded inside. The two retreated and called the fire department.
Fire crews found the gas stove’s burners dialed to near full blast, and lit candles dotted the kitchen table and nightstand in the master bedroom.
Gill was in the master bathroom, slumped over the bathtub with his head underwater, police reports said. He wore a white tank top and pajama pants. Two belts looped his neck. One was leather and the other terrycloth, like it came from a robe.
Stephanie Baer, the woman who had unsuccessfully tried to reach Gill the day he was found, told police about a series of strange communications with him the previous day.
Baer said about 4:30 p.m. on Nov. 1, Gill had called her for a favor. He asked her to pick up a check from under the doormat of his house and to go to the bank and to cash it.
The check was for $24,000. Baer did as she was asked, and at some point during the errand called Gill to make sure everything was OK. Gill assured her he was fine and said the money was for an emergency, police reports said.
Baer returned with the cash and knocked on Gill’s door. The doctor emerged and opened the door just enough to reach for the stack of bills. Baer later would recall it as a strange encounter, as Gill normally would have invited her inside, she told investigators.
Baer said she again called to check on her friend’s welfare. Gill returned her call around 6:30 p.m., asking her to meet at Applebee’s at 9 that night. He would explain everything there, he said.
He called her again shortly thereafter, with yet another confusing request. Gill asked Baer if she “had any friends that would like to date him,” Baer reported to police. “I said I would look around.”
Gill never turned up at Applebee’s. He also failed to answer Baer’s numerous follow-up calls.
It wasn’t until the following day about 4 p.m. that Baer at last saw Gill’s number calling her phone. The voice wasn’t Gill’s, though; it was an unknown woman who said she had found the phone near a canal and wanted to return it to its owner.
Baer called police.
A group of onlookers began to gather at Gill’s home as police and fire crews worked. One was Gill’s co-worker, Adriana Ozuna, who worked in the medical office’s finance department. Ozuna said she had received a call from Baer earlier, asking for Ozuna and her sister to check on Gill with her.
Ozuna was crying, a sergeant at the scene would later report. Ozuna told the sergeant that she was worried that her ex-boyfriend was somehow involved with Gill’s death. His name was Preston Strong, she said.
There was bad blood between Strong and Gill. The two had met at least once, at a quinceañera for one of Ozuna’s family members earlier that year.
Ozuna had learned that Gill was interested in her romantically. She laughed it off, saying Gill was too old for her and not her type. But Ozuna said the offer upset Strong, who stormed out of the party. Ozuna told police she heard that Strong was seen kicking Gill’s Mercedes Benz in the parking lot.
Ozuna didn’t see it happen but could believe it, she told police, “knowing Preston.”
Ozuna then divulged what would be the linchpin of prosecutors’ case against Strong. The morning after Gill’s murder — but before his body was found — Strong paid back Ozuna $9,500 that he had owed her.
Strong had been receiving worker’s compensation checks and had worked at a car dealership. Ozuna said Strong frequently would borrow money from her, and that she helped pay his living expenses. It was rare that Strong ever would have cash on hand, she said.
Yet on Nov. 2, at around 7:20 a.m., Strong met Ozuna at her house with a wad of money.
“You got me all ones?” she asked, before seeing the bills were $100s. After he left, Ozuna remembered thinking to herself: “Where did (he) get $9,500 this early in the morning?”
That day, Nov. 2, was a significant one in Strong’s life. He was getting sentenced for another crime. He had stolen payroll checks and deposited them into his own account.
Strong paid the court for restitution that day, with money orders totaling $4,300, and was sentenced to 3½ years in prison on the theft conviction.
To police, there was more than enough motive to name Strong as a suspect. In late November 2007, they went public with it.
“He’s not charged in the crimes; he’s simply a suspect,” Yuma police spokesman Clint Norred told the Associated Press.
Detectives also noted similarities between the Gill case with the La Mesa Street case.
“There’s some obvious connection between the two killings,” Norred said.
Gill and four of the La Mesa street victims died of asphyxiation. Money appeared to be a motive in both crimes. The killer spent some time in both homes, likely cleaning up after himself.
And Strong — at least peripherally — knew all of the victims.
But none of Strong’s DNA was found in Gill’s house. None of Gill’s DNA was found in Strong’s house or on his belongings.
No one saw Strong at the crime scene. In fact, multiple witnesses from a nearby bail bondsman’s remembered him being at their office nearly all day long, preparing for his sentencing the next day.
And as Riggins would later argue, while there were no traces of Strong in Gill’s home, there was plenty of potential forensic evidence.
There was unknown male DNA found on the robe belt, and more than 30 fingerprints at the crime scene that did not belong to Strong, Gill, Baer or others in Gill’s circle.
Although Strong paid back court restitution and several associates the next day, prosecutors couldn’t account for the rest of the $24,000.
Riggins also pointed to other potential theories she said weren’t followed by police. Gill had gone through a divorce in which his ex-wife had gotten nearly all of his money. And his partner at the practice, Dr. Sudheer Gogte, was going through a divorce as well.
It took nine years to make an arrest in the La Mesa Street murders in Yuma, Arizona. Here’s what you need to know about the killing of a mother, her four children and her boyfriend in June 2005.
The defense attorney pointed out that Gill made another odd call on Nov. 1, just before he reached Baer. Gill had first called his office around 4 p.m., asking for someone to give him $30,000. When an employee denied his request, Gill said it had been a joke and that his medical partner’s wife had put him up to it.
Before the trial began, Riggins struck a deal with prosecutors. Strong gave up his right to a jury trial in exchange for taking the death penalty off the table.
Riggins attempted to point the judge’s attention to other, non-Strong scenarios. What about the Gills’ divorce? What about the other odd call about the $30,000?
In his opening statements, Yuma County prosecutor William Katz said Gill’s death was the result of three factors: Strong’s “greed, jealousy and need for respect.”
In her closing arguments, Riggins counted down from 10 the “reasons to find doubt,” starting with the lack of eyewitnesses and physical evidence and ending with the third-party DNA on the murder weapon.
Yuma County Superior Court Judge John Nelson found Strong guilty of the murder, as well as kidnapping, burglary, attempted arson and aggravated assault, in October 2012.
An appeals court upheld the conviction, but Strong is now pursuing post-conviction relief.
There’s a lot the jury doesn’t know about the defendant besides his murder conviction.
For one, Strong has been caught in lies.
Several people told investigators in the La Mesa Street case that Strong had bragged to them about playing in the National Football League. There is no record of such an accomplishment.
Strong was said to cheat on his girlfriend. He reportedly had claimed to be a professional gambler, a street debt collector and a man with Mexico drug connections.
But being a liar, a cheater or a criminal does not mean a man is a murderer.
For this reason, judges often rule that damning character traits cannot be broached in trial, said Timothy Franklin, an Arizona State University criminology and criminal justice instructor, a former Secret Service agent and a retired detective.
“It keeps irrelevant facts, or irrelevant opinions out of the courtroom and away from the jury,” he said. “The very slightest suggestion of character flaws, prior convictions, any of this, would obviously turn a jury against somebody.”
In October, Cruz ordered that Strong’s background was inadmissible at trial under what is known as a 404(b) ruling. The rule is designed to give a defendant a fair shake by withholding evidence that could sway a jury but is otherwise irrelevant to the case at hand.
Strong’s claims, Cruz wrote in her ruling, “are highly evocative professions that are likely to compel jurors to decide the case based on emotion or horror.”
“Affairs with multiple women, some married and some not, during the same period, similarly is likely to invoke antipathy towards the defendant,” she continued. “As probative value diminishes, the potential increases that it will be substantially outweighed by the dangers identified in Rule 403.”
The Gill case stayed off-limits to prosecutors as well. The murders were not so similar that they could imply a signature style of crime, Cruz found.
Strong grew up in Washington, D.C., one of two boys. His mother, Evelyn Strong, raised Strong and his brother on her own after leaving his cheating father.
“I said I don’t need the lies, don’t need the headaches,” Evelyn told me in a recent interview. “We parted as friends. (I said) I’m leaving you keep from killing you.”
Strong loved sports and maintained a pristine appearance, his mom said.
“I called Preston ‘GQ’,” she said. “He always had himself a set standard.”
Strong would sometimes call his mother before he brought friends over, inquiring about what she was wearing. Often, she said, it would be “raggedy pants.”
“When I’d say that, he wouldn’t show up,” she said.
Strong played football as a teenager and graduated from McKinley High School in Washington, D.C. He wanted to play pro ball but hurt one of his knees, she said. He started his career as a youth counselor and as a volunteer, she said.
Strong got in trouble in D.C., Evelyn said, for a robbery. A judge sentenced him to probation, she said.
“He said, ‘Preston, the track record that you have and the track record that your mother has …'” Evelyn recalled. “He said, ‘If I ever see you in my courthouse again, I’m going to give you 99 years and one dog day.’”
Evelyn said her son eventually moved to Arizona to be with his girlfriend and daughter.
Evelyn said she had largely lost touch with him but can’t believe he could be responsible for a murder.
“For what it’s worth, I do love him,” she said. “No one can convince me that he killed anybody.”
I had never heard of Dr. Gill, La Mesa Street or Preston Strong before Strong pitched me his own story.
He reached me on my office landline early last year with his cousin on a three-way call.
“This is going to make your career,” he told me.
Crime reporters often get desperate letters from inmates, pleading for a look at their case. Strong didn’t try to flatter me. He said he had tried, unsuccessfully, to plead his case to non-profits who specialize in aiding the wrongfully accused.
He then took his story to the Washington Post, where an employee told him to look for a more local media outlet, like The Arizona Republic.
So, here we were.
I have spoken with Strong dozens of times on the phone and once from his jail cell. He’s affable and outgoing, but at times dizzying.
When he calls, he’s often breathless. He’s complaining about a detail in the case that won’t be presented in court, or how police were lying. He can sound conspiratorial.
He doesn’t readily talk about the victims or his personal life and is vague when pressed on these points.
But it’s hard to say how you would act if you were guilty of killing seven people compared with how you would act if you were innocent.
He called me on April 14, clearly upset. The defense had just rested its case.
“My legal team did not bring up key issues,” he said.
He said important but unexplored areas would have included cellphone records that his call to Harris for a ride actually went to voicemail.
Defense attorneys offered little evidence to show why Strong’s DNA and fingerprints in Rios’ car and at the house were understandable given his relationship with Rios, he said.
And his attorneys failed to call a crime-scene investigator who would have testified that footprints found near the ditched Durango were not linked to Strong, he said. (Hanna did mention the footprints during closing arguments the next week.)
“I don’t know what the hell is going on,” he said, noting that his attorneys had told him they would call the investigator. “That really pissed me off. I gave them an earful after court today.”
Strong did not testify. It would have opened him to scrutiny about his criminal record, a damning factor for someone convicted of murder
At the La Mesa Street trial, no one aside from Strong’s defense team showed up on his behalf. The prosecutors’ case included testimony over two months, including breaks. Defense attorneys took one week.
A handful of people are in Strong’s corner but none from the victims’ families.
Before her father’s death, Amanda Rios viewed Strong as an uncle. She remembers him hanging out at the house, giving her a “real” Raiders hat and taking on a protective role.
There was the time when a neighbor boy gave Amanda a rose, and the two ran back to Rios to show it off. She remembered Strong sitting with her dad at the computer, both giving the boy a hard time.
“’You better treat her good, or we’re going to come get you,’” she said they joked.
For years after the murders, Amanda said she never would have suspected Strong was involved.
She remembers running into him at a video store with her mother about two years later and jumping into his arms.
“It was, ‘How have you been, it’s been a long time,’ ” she said. “He didn’t really seem too off, but after discussing that with my mom, she kind of got that feeling.”
Amanda said she’s confident in the prosecution’s case.
“I would say it’s pretty solid, because they had DNA there … that identifies that he was there at the murder,” she said. “So I think that’s enough. You can’t deny DNA.”
On the day of the murders, Strong said he was in Mexico. Strong also says this in the police report, and tells police he was visiting another girlfriend there.
When I ask him about this other woman, he gets defensive.
“It wasn’t like that!” he said, claiming it was a platonic relationship.
Asked what he was doing in Mexico, Strong said it was “probably the same thing I usually do. Talk to some friends, go down to a bar.”
Asked why he couldn’t remember, Strong said police didn’t try to nail him to an alibi until months later. He also said that he did see his ex-girlfriend Adriana Ozuna on that night. I asked Strong why he didn’t offer this information to police.
“They never asked!” he said. “They don’t ask you one question, they ask very vague questions. They didn’t ask who I was with, what I was doing, nothing like that. Not specific or anything.”
In most of our conversations, Strong steers me toward court records, interviews and evidence that favors his case.
“Look at Page 33,” he’ll say. A minute later, “The crazy thing is, I called a minute prior to the 911 calls. I called the victim’s brother two minutes after the 911 calls. So what the hell is going on?”
Strong isn’t a “big-picture guy,” said Riggins, his former attorney.
“He’s somebody who focuses on — forget the forest, forget even the tree,” she said. “I’m going to look at this little twig on this branch. Not the other branch, but this branch.”
Our chat on April 14, after the defense rested its case, was no different. He talks about the witness who changed his description and vents about his attorneys.
There’s a long silence at the end of our conversation. I asked him which way he thinks the jury will sway.
“I don’t know,” he said.
THE VERDICT:See what the jury decided
Megan Cassidy is a public safety reporter covering Phoenix police and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, among other agencies. She also digs into interesting crime stories across the state.