Man found dead in Ceres freezer married to suspect

04/25/2014 11:52 AM

04/25/2014 10:20 PM

A man found dead inside a freezer at an abandoned auto body shop in Ceres last week was married to the man accused of killing him.

Ceres police identified the victim Friday as Thomas Kroger, who changed his last name to Cervantes when he married the suspect Jacob Cervantes on Aug. 13.

In the couple’s marriage license, Kroger, 49, noted that his previous marriage ended when his partner, Bernabe Garcia, died 2½ weeks before his marriage to Cervantes. Garcia filed for divorce June 21, but died of cancer a month later, according to court documents and his obituary.

Cervantes, 26, signed the license to wed Kroger claiming he had no previous marriages, but public records show he married Mindy Gutierrez in 2009.

Reached last week by phone, Gutierrez said she did not want to comment on her husband’s case but said she did not plan to attend any of his court hearings.

Cervantes was arrested at the Ceres Police Department on April 14 after he voluntarily went to the station for an interview with detectives. He was charged with murder and pleaded not guilty during his arraignment April 18.

None of Cervantes’ family members attended the hearing. Modesto Bee reporters went to his parents’ south Modesto home Friday; the man who answered the door said, in Spanish, “Look, please leave us alone” and shut the door.

Kroger was found in a chest-type freezer at the auto body shop April 14 while Ceres police assisted the property owner of the industrial complex off Railroad Avenue, south of Whitmore Avenue, with a civil complaint against Cervantes.

Investigators are awaiting autopsy reports to determine how Kroger died. According to the criminal complaint against Cervantes, Kroger was killed sometime between Dec. 1 and April 10.

Police said Kroger recently lived in the Modesto and San Francisco areas and previously resided in Oklahoma and Texas.

Detective Darren Venn said officers went to the shop with the industrial complex owner after customers had complained that they’d paid Cervantes for work that had not been completed and that no one was answering the phone at The Shop Customs, which advertises custom paint jobs, frame restoration and mechanical work.

Detectives also are investigating Cervantes’ business history. The recent complaints about failing to render paid services were not the first. Cervantes has owned multiple auto body shops throughout Stanislaus County, Venn said.

Cervantes is scheduled to return to court for a pretrial hearing Thursday.

Detectives are asking for the public’s assistance locating Kroger’s next of kin or other family members, people who knew him, and potential witnesses. Anyone who is related to or knew Kroger, had contact with him or has any information about him is encouraged to contact Detective Derek Perry at (209) 538-5730 or derek.perry@ci.ceres.ca.us. You can also call Crime Stoppers at (209) 521-4636. Callers to Crime Stoppers can remain anonymous and may be eligible for a cash reward. Tipsters may also text information to Crime Stoppers at 274637; type TIP704 along with the message.

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