Judge to Decide If 2 Men Stand Trial on Murder Charges in 2012 Body Dumping

Judge to Decide If 2 Men Stand Trial on Murder Charges in 2012 Body Dumping

Martín Di Felice

A judge is scheduled to decide Tuesday whether two men will stand trial in the shooting death of a man whose body was dumped on a Coachella roadside more than seven years ago.

Samuel Carrillo Ortiz Jr., 45, is accused, along with Hector Castaneda, 30, in the killing of Joel Lerma, whose body was found alongside Avenue 44, west of Dillon Road, about 3:30 a.m. on Nov. 29, 2012.

Sheriff’s investigators allege that just prior to his death, Lerma was in a car with Ortiz, who was driving, and Castaneda, who was in the backseat. During the drive, Ortiz allegedly signaled for Castaneda to shoot Lerma multiple times through the front passenger seat, according to a declaration in support of an arrest warrant. Ortiz then allegedly pulled over, tossed Lerma out of the car and shot him one more time before running him over with the car and driving off. The men allegedly torched the car elsewhere.

A motive for the shooting has not been disclosed.

Both men were in custody for unrelated crimes when prosecutors charged them with Lerma’s killing in 2017. They both pleaded not guilty to murder charges in connection with Lerma’s death.

Castaneda has been incarcerated in Calipatria State Prison since 2014 for an unrelated, undisclosed offense.

Ortiz is currently in custody on attempted murder charges for allegedly firing on two California Highway Patrol officers and a Border Patrol agent — none of whom were struck by the gunfire — three days prior to Lerma’s slaying.

Ortiz was charged in February 2017 with three counts of attempted murder for allegedly firing on CHP officers after they pulled over 39-year-old David Hurtado at the corner of Cabazon Road and Avenue 48 in Indio.

Hurtado was seen making phone calls during the traffic stop, allegedly to Ortiz, after which a barrage of gunshots was aimed at the officers from another vehicle at the intersection, according to the declaration filed in support of an arrest warrant.

Hurtado was sentenced to nearly nine years in state prison for arranging the shooting. He pleaded guilty in 2015 — while the actual shooter remained at large — to one count each of assault with a semiautomatic rifle on a peace officer, assault with a firearm on a peace officer and discharging a firearm. Three counts of attempted murder on a peace officer were dismissed.

The investigation revealed that the phone calls Hurtado made went to Ortiz’s phone, which was tracked from a different part of Indio to a location within 150 yards of the shooting scene after the calls were made, according to the declaration.

Trial is scheduled to begin for Ortiz on those charges in January.

Ortiz’s preliminary hearing scheduled for Tuesday begins at 8:30 a.m. in Department 3R at the Larson Justice Center in Indio.