BANNING (CNS) – One of six people accused in the killings of a Coachella Valley couple reported missing three years ago pleaded not guilty Friday to murder and other charges.
Aaron Fernando Bernal, 28, of Indio, was arraigned via video conference from lockup at the Banning Justice Center before a judge, who scheduled the defendant an Aug. 4 felony conference and denied him bail. Bernal remains jailed at the Southwest Justice Center in Murrieta.
Bernal was arrested Tuesday along with Adilene Ines Castaneda, 27, and Eric Rios, 31, in connection with the killings of Audrey Moran, 26, and Jonathan Reynoso, 28, who disappeared on May 10, 2017.
Bernal and Castaneda were each charged with one count of murder and accessory after the fact. They are also facing a special-circumstance allegation of killing a witness of a crime, which could make them eligible for the death penalty if convicted, and if prosecutors opt to pursue it. Rios was charged with two counts of being accessory to murder after the fact.
Castaneda and Rios are slated to make their initial court appearances on Monday.
The trio were arrested after homicide investigators continued “working and processing investigative leads” in the case, but additional information was not provided. They join three other men previously charged in the killings — Manuel Rios, 28, Abraham Fregoso Jr., 32, and Jesus Ruiz Jr., 41 — all arrested last month stemming from a three-year investigation that included more than 50 search warrants and hundreds of interviews.
Sheriff Chad Bianco said at the time that investigators had discovered what were believed to be the couple’s remains in an unspecified location in the Coachella Valley. He said the DNA results, however, were pending. Bianco would not be more specific about where and when the bodies were found and offered few details about the investigation.
Sheriff’s officials this week said an update on the DNA results was still not available.
Manuel Rios is charged with two counts of murder. It was not immediately clear if he and Eric Rios are related. Fregoso is charged with one count of murder, and both defendants are also facing a special-circumstance allegation of killing a witness of a crime.
Ruiz is charged with being an accessory to murder after the fact.
Bianco said last month that the victims were known to their alleged killers but would not comment further.
Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin said last month he was “very confident” that the charges against the three men were warranted.
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.