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August 18, 2019

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Death penalty sought for Salvadoran in Nevada killings


Scott Sonner / AP

Wilber Ernesto Martinez-Guzman, 19, of El Salvador, is escorted into the courtroom for his initial appearance in Carson City Justice Court, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019, in Carson City. Martinez-Guzman was arraigned on 36 felonies, including two dozen weapon charges. He’s a suspect in a series of four homicides in Reno and south of Carson City in rural Gardnerville.

RENO — Prosecutors said Thursday they will seek the death penalty against a 20-year-old Salvadoran immigrant in the U.S. illegally who has been charged with killing four people in Nevada, including an elderly couple.

Wilber Ernesto Martinez-Guzman is being prosecuted in Reno after authorities said he fatally shot the couple in their Reno home and two women in their homes south of Carson City during a 10-day crime rampage in January.

The case has drawn the attention of President Donald Trump, who says it shows the need for his proposed border wall.

Immigration status had nothing to do with the decision to pursue capital punishment in the case, according to district attorneys Chris Hicks of Washoe County and Mark Jackson of Douglas County, co-prosecutors in the case.

"His immigration status was not even discussed at all," Jackson said.

Hicks said Martinez-Guzman would be eligible for the death penalty because of aggravating circumstances that include the killing of more than one person during the commission of felonies aimed at obtaining money and other property.

His young age and absence of any prior criminal history in the U.S. and El Salvador were also considered, the prosecutor said.

A grand jury indicted Martinez-Guzman on Wednesday on murder, burglary and weapon charges. He could enter a plea to those counts at his first appearance in state court, scheduled April 11.

He has been held without bail in the county jail in Reno after being charged in previous criminal complaints. He was arrested Jan. 19.

His public defense attorney, John Arrascada, did not immediately respond Thursday to messages seeking comment.

Federal officials have said Martinez-Guzman is in the U.S. illegally but they don't know how or when he crossed the border.

The four slaying victims include Gerald David, 81, and his 80-year-old wife, Sharon David, a prominent Reno Rodeo Association couple who had employed Martinez-Guzman as a landscaper at their house last summer.

Police say they were shot with a .22-caliber handgun that Martinez-Guzman stole from them less than two weeks earlier.

Court documents allege that Martinez-Guzman's DNA was found on the same gun that was also used to kill Connie Koontz and Sophia Renken in their homes.

Martinez-Guzman was arrested in Carson City, where he also faces a series of weapons and burglary charges.

Hicks said prosecutors presented witnesses and an "extraordinary amount of evidence" during the grand jury proceeding Wednesday aimed at bypassing a preliminary hearing.

"We believe we cut off several months of time that would have been spent in Justice Court," Hicks said, noting the victims' families supported the strategy.

Jackson said it's the first time he has sought the death penalty in the 12 years he's been the district attorney in Douglas County. Hicks said it's the fourth time it's been sought in more than 10 years in Washoe County.

"We reserve the death penalty for the worst of the worst," Hicks said.