New details have been released regarding a man accused of murdering a Cathedral City resident after posing as a potential buyer of the victim’s Mercedes-Benz on Craigslist.
Detectives from the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department arrested 29-year-old Fontana resident, Gabriel Gayton Cardenas, for the murder of Victor Mendoza.
Mendoza had met with Cardenas on November 11, 2014, in Palm Desert to sell his Mercedes. Mendoza never returned home and was reported missing. His body was found in the desert south of Avenue 47 and east of Tyler Street in Coachella on November 18.
Cardenas was charged with Mendoza’s murder on Wednesday, December 3. He told investigators that he committed the crime because he owed money to a drug cartel, according to court documents obtained Thursday.
Cardenas also faces special circumstance allegations of lying in wait, murder for financial gain and murder in the commission of robbery, kidnapping and carjacking, which could make him eligible for the death penalty if convicted.
Mendoza posted an ad on Craigslist for his Mercedes-Benz, and after an initial meeting with Cardenas about the car, called friends “and expressed concerns over selling the vehicle to Cardenas,” according to a declaration filed in support of an arrest warrant.
On Nov. 11, Mendoza asked a friend to be at a Del Taco restaurant on Varner Road and Washington Street in Palm Desert while he finalized a deal with Cardenas, and she watched as the defendant got into the Mercedes with the victim and drove off, according to the declaration.
Mendoza’s friend talked to him on the phone after the two men left and said he was acting strangely. Cardenas later called her on Mendoza’s phone, saying Mendoza had inadvertently left it behind after selling him the car, according to the declaration.
Mendoza was reported missing the following day.
On Nov. 15, Cardenas was driving Mendoza’s car when he met with a man and his son in the Thermal area in response to their Craigslist car ad, according to the declaration. Cardenas met the pair again two days later, again under the guise of buying their car. He allegedly brandished a gun and threatened to kill them, but let them go and took their car, the declaration states.
On November 17, Cardenas was arrested for driving the car he stole in Thermal, and investigators found his cell phone number in both victims’ phone records.
Cardenas allegedly told investigators that he was in debt to a Mexican drug cartel and was ordered by the cartel to meet Mendoza. He said he delivered Mendoza to a cartel member, who drove them to Coachella, and the cartel member shot Mendoza, then led investigators to the body, according to the declaration.
In a second interview, Cardenas told investigators that he met with Mendoza at the Del Taco in Palm Desert and had him drive to Coachella, the declaration says.
“Cardenas told Mendoza to get on his knees and to say a prayer for Cardenas. Cardenas then shot Mendoza in the back of the head and left the body,” the document states. “Cardenas still claimed that he committed the murder on behalf of a drug cartel that he owed money.”
Cardenas is being held in lieu of $1 million bail at the Riverside County Jail in Indio. No arraignment date has been scheduled, according to court records.
The vehicle Mendoza advertised for sale, a black 2005 Mercedes C-Class C230 Sport sedan, hasn’t been found, according to the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department.
Deputies want to warn anyone who is planning on meeting with a stranger to buy or sell a car, to meet in a public location.
“We ask that you meet them at a public place, meet them during the day time, do not carry a lot of cash, let someone know that you’re meeting them,” says Deputy Armando Munoz with the Riverside County Sheriff’s department. “We prefer you can meet them at a police station, you can meet them at the DMV,” say Munoz.
Anyone with any information concerning this investigation is encouraged to contact Investigator Freeman from the Central Homicide Unit at 760-393-3530.