Jury recommends death penalty for two convicted killers in Indio

Daniel Cervantes and Carlos Contreras robbed then executed Indio resident, Daniel Kuzawa in 2008

INDIO, Calif. - Jurors returned death penalty recommendations Thursday for two men convicted of carjacking, kidnapping, robbing and killing a 55-year-old Indio resident.

The panels -- one for each defendant -- rejected life imprisonment without parole for Daniel Cervantes, 35, and Carlos Contreras, 34.

The same juries convicted the pair of the May 7, 2008, murder of Daniel Kuzawa, along with other crimes committed in the weeks before and after the killing,and found true special circumstance allegations of murder in the commission of a robbery, kidnapping and carjacking.

Formal sentencing is scheduled April 12 for Cervantes and April 26 for Contreras.

Both defendants were tried together, but with separate juries. Cervantes' jury started deliberating Tuesday, a day after Contreras' panel, and both juries reached verdicts on Wednesday. The verdicts were sealed until this afternoon.

Kuzawa was found by a field worker. He had been shot at close range in the head and chest on the dirt shoulder of Pierce Street south of Airport Boulevard. His wrists and neck were bound with electrical cable.

Deputy District Attorney Manny Bustamante said Cervantes held a gun on the victim while Contreras tied up Kuzawa in his own truck as he pleaded for his life.

"I'm glad this is finally ending. I'm happy about the verdict, I think it was the right verdict, and I think the sentencing was the right sentencing," said the victim's wife, Esther Kuzawa. She and other family members wore buttons with Kuzawa's photo on them to court this afternoon.

"It's really a sad day for everyone," said the victim's younger brother, Mike Kuzawa. "The only really two good things that come from this are knowing these two will not victimize anyone else, and it'll serve as prevention for anybody who may consider this (sort of crime) in the future."

Kuzawa's credit card was used at a Shell station in Coachella early on the morning of his death. Surveillance video from the Fastrip station, where an ATM transaction was traced, showed Kuzawa's truck pulling up to the pumps. Cervantes, who was driving, got out to speak to Contreras, who was riding in another vehicle, Bustamante said.

Contreras was arrested that night, after authorities stopped a vehicle in which he was a passenger. While trying to flee, he disposed of a gun believed to be the weapon used to kill Kuzawa, Bustamante said.

Contreras had gunshot residue on his hands and was in possession of Kuzawa's wallet, a round of ammunition and a credit card belonging to a man he allegedly shot a few days before, the prosecutor said. He was also carrying Kuzawa's insurance and Costco cards, Bustamante said.

A search of the Coachella home where Contreras lived with his parents turned up an ATM receipt from the Fastrip station and spools of cable of the type used to bind Kuzawa, according to Bustamante.

He played parts of a taped interview, in which Cervantes described Kuzawa being put in his truck, being tied up and later pulled out of the vehicle and left in Thermal.

Contreras was additionally convicted of shooting Walter Garrett in the jaw and shoulder near Dillon Road and Vista Del Sur in Coachella, and stealing and burning his pickup truck on May 3, 2008, as well as robbing, kidnapping and carjacking Sandra Jaramillo on April 28, 2008, in Palm Desert.

Contreras was also convicted of having property stolen from a La Quinta man and unlawful possession of a firearm and ammunition.

Cervantes was additionally convicted of having the La Quinta man's stolen property, but acquitted of robbing and kidnapping a Thermal-area man, Diego Chavez, on May 11, 2008.

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