A Mexican citizen who claimed he was in debt to a Mexican drug cartel pleaded guilty to the 2014 murder of a Cathedral City resident during a Craiglist car purchase and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office confirmed Monday.
Gabriel Gaytan Cardenas, 34, was sentenced Friday immediately after entering into a plea deal, in which he avoided a potential death sentence initially sought by prosecutors, according to district attorney’s spokesman John Hall.
Cardenas was charged with murder and two special circumstance allegations in the Nov. 11, 2014, slaying of 46-year-old Victor Mendoza, whose body was found in a desert area of Coachella one week after he met with the defendant. He had been shot once in the back of the head.
The pair met after Cardenas, who was living in Fontana at the time, responded to a Craigslist ad Mendoza had posted to sell his Mercedes-Benz, according to a declaration filed in support of an arrest warrant submitted by sheriff’s Investigator Sean Freeman.
After initially expressing concerns about Cardenas, Mendoza asked a friend to accompany him to the sale. She told authorities she saw the defendant, who was waiting outside a Del Taco in Palm Desert, enter Mendoza’s car before the two quickly drove off, according to the declaration.
Mendoza’s friend talked to him on the phone shortly after and said he was acting strangely. The defendant later called her on Mendoza’s phone, saying Mendoza had inadvertently left it behind after selling him the car, according to the declaration.
Mendoza was reported missing the following day.
Authorities arrested Cardenas on Nov. 17, 2014. He was driving a vehicle he had stolen that day from a father and son, who had posted a Craigslist ad.
The father told authorities Cardenas was driving Mendoza’s Mercedes- Benz the first day they met, according to Freeman.
According to the declaration, the father told authorities that while his car was being stolen at gunpoint by Cardenas, the defendant admitted to killing Mendoza. Investigators later found his cellphone number in both victims’ phone records.
“This is where your life ends,” Cardenas told the father and son, before letting them go and driving off in their car, according to the declaration.
Once arrested, Cardenas told investigators he was in debt to a Mexican drug cartel, according to Freeman. He then led authorities to the location of the body near Avenue 47 and Tyler Street. After initially saying the cartel made him deliver Mendoza to a cartel member who actually did the shooting, he admitted to killing Mendoza, according to Freeman.
“Cardenas told Mendoza to get on his knees and to say a prayer for Cardenas. Cardenas then shot Mendoza in the back of the head and left the body,” Freeman wrote in the declaration. “Cardenas still claimed that he committed the murder on behalf of a drug cartel that he owed money.”