BANNING (CNS) – One of three men accused in the killing of a Coachella Valley couple who went missing more than three years ago pleaded not guilty Wednesday to two felony counts of being an accessory to murder after the fact.
Jesus Ruiz Jr., 41, is suspected of helping two other men after they allegedly killed Audrey Moran, 26, and Jonathan Reynoso, 28, sometime after the couple disappeared on May 10, 2017.
Ruiz was arraigned over video conference Wednesday from lockup before Riverside Superior Court Judge James Hawkins, who scheduled a felony settlement conference for July 13 and set his bail at $500,000 from a courtroom at the Banning Justice Center.
Ruiz, who was convicted in 2013 in Riverside County for a being a felon in possession of a firearm, remained in custody at the Riverside jail as of Wednesday afternoon.
Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco said Tuesday that arrests in the case stemmed from a three-year investigation that included more than 50 search warrants and hundreds of interviews. He said investigators had recently discovered what were believed to be the couple’s remains, which were located somewhere in the Coachella Valley.
He said the DNA results, however, had not yet come back to verify their identity.
“The investigation that led us to the remains indicate we did find them,” Bianco said, but he would not be more specific about where and when the bodies were found.
Bianco told reporters that the victims were known to their alleged killers, but would not comment further.
The three defendants were taken into custody over the weekend. Ruiz was arrested in Stockton, but he has spent most of his life as a Coachella Valley resident, Bianco said.
Manuel Rios of Coachella, 28, had been looked up in a Riverside County jail since February in an unrelated case when he was charged in the killings.
Abraham Fregoso Jr. of Indio, 32, was serving time in a state prison in San Luis Obispo when he was transferred back to a Riverside County jail to face this charge. Fregoso was convicted last year of possessing a controlled substance for sale in Riverside County, a felony.
Rios is charged with two counts of murder, and Fregoso is charged with one count of murder. Both face a special circumstance allegation of killing a witness of a crime, which make the defendants eligible to receive the death penalty if convicted, although Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin said Tuesday that a decision on whether to seek capital punishment has not yet been made.
Rios and Fregoso are scheduled to be arraigned Thursday afternoon at the Banning Justice Center.
During the news conference Tuesday, Bianco deflected most of the questions posed by reporters, citing an ongoing investigation he said could yield additional witnesses or the identities of additional people involved. He declined to discuss a motive for the killings.
Hestrin said he was “very confident” that the charges against the three men were warranted.
At least two digging operations were reported in east valley residential neighborhoods recently, including one in Indio and another in Coachella, where sheriff’s deputies were seen evacuating large swaths of earth with heavy machinery. Bianco confirmed these digs were related to the investigation.
Moran was last heard from when she left her Coachella home to pick up Reynoso, who may have been returning to the Coachella Valley from the Brawley area the day the couple went missing, according to investigators.
Moran said she was going to give Reynoso a ride to his Palm Desert home, but the SUV she drove was found parked on the side of Interstate 10 in Beaumont two days after the pair were last heard from.
A police bloodhound detected their scent near the SUV, but the trail disappeared about 50 feet from the vehicle, authorities said.