A judge today set a spring court date for a hearing that will determine whether five men and one woman accused of involvement in the murders of a Coachella Valley couple who vanished more than three years ago will be ordered to stand trial.
Manuel Rios, Eric Rios, Jesus Ruiz Jr., Abraham Fregoso Jr., Aaron Fernando Bernal and Adilene Ines Castaneda all previously pleaded not guilty to charges stemming from the murders of Audrey Moran, 26, and Jonathan Reynoso, 28, who disappeared on May 10, 2017.
Four of the defendants are accused in the killings, while two others are accused of being accessories after the fact.
All six defendants appeared Friday at the Riverside Hall of Justice before Riverside County Superior Court Judge Samuel Diaz, who scheduled their preliminary hearing for April 9. At that proceeding, prosecutors will present evidence that the judge will weigh to decide whether a trial is warranted.
The Riverside County Sheriff' Department announced in October that skeletal remains discovered at an unspecified location in the Coachella Valley months prior had been positively identified as those of Moran and Reynoso.
“It’s a match. It’s a match for Jonathan,” recalled Reynoso's mother in a post on Facebook describing her conversation with an investigator.
The six defendants were arrested and subsequently charged over the summer in connection with the couple's slaying following a three-year investigation that included more than 50 search warrants and hundreds of interviews, according to Sheriff Chad Bianco.
Bianco said in June that the victims were known to their alleged killers, but would not comment further.
Back in 2018, News Channel 3 I-Team investigator John White went to a Coachella home, where neighbors at the time said Bernal lived, then calling him Moran's ex-boyfriend.
Search warrants revealed authorities were looking for Bernal's car and found it burned in a field in Thermal just days after the couple disappeared in an apparent arson fire.
Manuel Rios, 28, of Coachella is charged with two counts of murder. Fregoso, 32, of Indio; Bernal, 28, of Indio; and Castaneda, 28, of Coachella, are charged with one count each of murder and being an accessory to a crime after the fact.
Those four defendants, who all remain jailed without bail, are also facing a special circumstance allegation of killing a witness of a crime, which could make them eligible for the death penalty if prosecutors opt to pursue it.
Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin confirmed that witness was Audrey Moran.
Ruiz, 42, who was arrested in Stockton but has spent most of his life in the Coachella Valley, and Eric Rios, 31, of Coachella, are each charged with two counts of being an accessory to a crime after the fact. Both men remain behind bars in lieu of $500,000 bail.
Moran was last heard from when she left her 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 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.
Stay with News Channel 3 for continuing updates on this case.