CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — A suspect in four fatal shootings in Nevada was accused in court Thursday of being in the U.S. illegally and possessing weapons and selling jewelry stolen from some of the dead.
Wilber Ernesto Martinez-Guzman, a 19-year-old immigrant from El Salvador, appeared before a judge in Carson City in shackles with a Spanish-language interpreter and a public defender at his side.
The judge spent more than 25 minutes reading aloud a 36-count criminal complaint that suggested property theft as a motive for the slayings. He set bail at $500,000.
Martinez-Guzman was not charged with murder and did not enter a plea to burglary, stolen property and weapon charges that are punishable by decades in prison. Authorities in nearby Douglas and Washoe counties, where the four victims lived, have said they plan to file murder charges against him soon, perhaps as early as Friday.
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The Carson City case focuses on possession and sale of stolen property and alleges that, because of his immigration status, Martinez-Guzman was prohibited from having 12 guns that were stolen from a couple found dead Jan. 16 in their south Reno home.
Prosecutor Melanie Brantingham told The Associated Press that she could not say if any of those guns was used in the slayings. The weapons included several shotguns and bolt-action rifles, at least one military-style weapon and a handgun.
Carson City Sheriff Ken Furlong said the rifles and shotguns were found buried off a road on the edge of the Ambrose Carson River Natural Area, a rural spot in the hills overlooking the state capital city. The handgun was found in a BMW in which Martinez-Guzman was arrested Saturday.
“This is not your run-of-the-mill property crime,” Brantingham told the judge. “Most of the property alleged in the complaint belonged to homicide victims.”
Even if Martinez-Guzman posts bail, immigration authorities could take him into custody pending deportation proceedings. The judge scheduled a Feb. 8 hearing to determine if there is enough evidence to send the case to trial.
A pawn broker told AP that Martinez-Guzman used his passport for identification at the Carson City store where he is accused of selling jewelry allegedly stolen from some of the dead.
Martinez-Guzman did not speak English well, “but there wasn’t anything that just made us say, ‘This is odd or weird,'” said Allen Rowe, owner of several Northern Nevada Coin stores. Rowe said routine receipt paperwork that goes to local sheriffs, along with store video, led authorities to Martinez-Guzman last week.
“We had him on camera. We had his ID. They could pinpoint who he was,” Rowe said. “Because we do everything aboveboard, it led to this person being caught. Had he sold it online or met someone somewhere else, it could have gone unreported.”
Court documents allege that between Jan. 12 and Jan. 17, Martinez-Guzman made $412 selling jeweled rings from one victim and $126 selling an engraved ring that belonged to another.
The murder investigation began Jan. 10, when 56-year-old Connie Koontz was found dead in her home south of Carson City. Three days later, the body of 74-year-old Sophia Renken was discovered in her home not far from Koontz’s house.
The dead Reno couple were found less than a week later. Gerald David and his wife, Sharon, who were 81 and 80, respectively, were prominent members and officers of the Reno Rodeo Association. One felony charge against Martinez-Guzman alleges he had several belt buckles bearing their names that were valued at up to $3,500.
Furlong has said federal immigration authorities told investigators that Martinez-Guzman was in the U.S. illegally. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have not provided details about how he entered the U.S.
The killings became part of the national immigration debate when President Donald Trump cited them as evidence of the need for the proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall at the heart of a partial government shutdown.
Since the first days of his presidency, Trump has repeatedly pointed to crimes committed by immigrants in the country illegally to argue that the U.S. needs a border wall and tougher immigration policies.
Many academics and Trump’s critics have pushed back on this narrative, citing studies that have found immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than people born in the United States.
Ritter reported from Las Vegas. Associated Press writers Scott Sonner in Carson City, Nevada, and Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to fix the spelling of the suspect’s first name to Wilber, not Wilbur.