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May 1, 2014

Neighbor tells of last time he saw Modesto slaying victim found in freezer

The man suspected of killing his husband and stuffing him in a freezer at his auto body shop in Ceres appeared in court briefly Thursday.

The man suspected of killing his husband and stuffing him in a freezer at his auto body shop in Ceres appeared in court briefly Thursday.

Jacob Cervantes’ hearing was continued for several weeks so his attorney would have time to review discovery on the case. Cervantes, 26, was arrested and charged last month with the murder of 49-year-old Thomas Kroger.

Kroger’s body was discovered in a chest-type freezer at the auto body shop Cervantes rented in an industrial complex off Railroad Avenue, south of Whitmore Avenue.

Kroger married Cervantes on Aug. 13, just 2½ weeks after his previous husband of four years, Bernabe Garcia, died of gastric cancer, according to public records.

A former neighbor of Kroger and Garcia in west Modesto said the two were a quiet couple. He’d see them gardening in their front yard or playing with their dogs, but everything changed about a month before Garcia died.

The neighbor, who declined to give his name, said he noticed a sign posted on their front door noting that oxygen was in use inside the house, possibly an indicator of Garcia’s illness.

Around that time, Garcia filed papers with Stanislaus Superior Court to divorce Kroger, citing irreconcilable differences.

The neighbor said people he’d never seen before started coming and going from the couple’s home, including Cervantes. He said he saw Cervantes and another Latino man take furniture from the home and change the locks twice.

The neighbor said he last saw Kroger around August when he was yelling at some of the new people, who appeared to have taken over his home. As many as 20 people were there at a time, said the neighbor, drinking alcohol at tables that had been set up in the front yard.

The neighbor said he last saw Cervantes at Kroger and Garcia’s former Woodland Avenue home in January or February.

According to the criminal complaint against Cervantes, Kroger was killed sometime from Dec. 1 to April 10. Police have not said how Kroger died.

Officers found Kroger while helping the property owner of the industrial complex respond to civil complaints against Cervantes, who was accused of failing to render paid services.

Ceres police also are investigating Cervantes’ business history. He operated multiple auto body shops throughout Stanislaus County and the complaint that led to the discovery of Kroger’s body was not the first.

Cervantes has pleaded not guilty to Kroger’s murder. He will return to Stanislaus Superior Court court for a pretrial hearing May 14 at 8:30 a.m.

Detectives are asking for the public’s assistance in 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 Crime Stoppers also can be called at (209) 521-4636; callers to Crime Stoppers can remain anonymous and are eligible for a cash reward. Tipsters may text information to Crime Stoppers at 274637; type TIP704 along with the message.

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