Six months after Rosa Avina was bound, doused with gasoline, set on fire and left for dead, more questions than answers still linger about the fate of the five men accused of murdering her.
Sheriff's officials made the arrests two weeks after Avina, 27, was discovered barely alive outside a farm in Ballico on Oct. 24. She died two days later.
In an interview this week, District Attorney Larry Morse II said it remains uncertain whether the defendants will accept a plea bargain or stand trial. If the case goes to trial, it's also uncertain whether the five would be tried together or separately and whether prosecutors would seek the death penalty, Morse said.
"There's still a lot to sort out about how this case will be prosecuted," he said.
Morse declined to say whether he thinks his office will ultimately make deals with any of the defendants to testify against any others, but suggested it's trying to. "I can say that we've had discussions with some of the defendants about cooperating with the District Attorney's Office, and those discussions are ongoing," he said. "There are certainly different levels of culpability here."
The five men accused of killing Avina are Alvaro Montanez Reyes, 29, of Livingston; Omar Cebrero, 18, of Turlock; Luis Alberto Valencia, 24, of Delhi; Urbano Ortega, 27, of Livingston; and Luis Vazquez, 18, of Delhi.
Authorities say the men are drug dealers who targeted Avina in retaliation for failing to pay for $750 worth of marijuana and methamphetamine.
Avina was tricked into going willingly from Livingston to a house on Clifford Avenue in Turlock, investigators say. There she was bound and gagged and forced into the trunk of a car. She was then driven to a remote spot on South Avenue in Ballico. There, in the early morning hours, she was forced inside an abandoned boat, doused with gasoline from a plastic soda bottle and set on fire.
After her captors fled, Avina walked nearly a mile before collapsing outside a farm down the road. Farmworkers discovered her later that morning. She died two days later in the burn unit at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose.
Avina's hands were still tied behind her when authorities arrived, according to a sheriff's report. The plastic zip ties used to bind them had melted into her flesh, as had black plastic that covered her face. "The victim asked numerous times if she was still alive," a responding sheriff's deputy wrote in a report.
All five suspects are charged with murder, kidnapping, torture and mayhem. Four are in jail in Merced County and have pleaded not guilty. One, Valencia, has yet to enter a plea. He's in jail in Stanislaus County facing unrelated charges.
According to sheriff's reports, at least two of the defendants have confessed to playing a role in Avina's death.
Though he told investigators that it was Cebrero's idea to kill Avina, Ortega said he was the one who actually lit her on fire, according to a sheriff's report.
The report also says Ortega told authorities that Cebrero and Valencia pulled Avina from the trunk of the car and forced her to the abandoned boat. After they had trouble lighting Avina on fire, Ortega used his lighter to set a stick on fire and threw it on her after she'd been doused with gasoline, he told investigators.
He told them he didn't know who poured the gasoline, but that Cebrero got it from Valencia's house. "(Ortega) said (Cebrero) planned on burning Rosa all along, and that he got the gasoline from (Valencia's) house," a sheriff's report says. "(Ortega) saw (Valencia) pour the gasoline in the plastic bottle at his house."
Ortega told investigators that Cebrero and Valencia wore gloves during the killing, but that he didn't have any. He also said he was sorry for what he did.
Investigators recorded Ortega's confession, the sheriff's report says.
Vazquez told investigators that Reyes is the one who duped Avina into leaving Livingston, a sheriff's report says. Vazquez said he helped kidnap Avina, but that he wasn't there when she was set on fire.
Attorneys for four of the defendants didn't return phone calls this week. Michael Fagalde, who was appointed to represent Vazquez, said he's not ready to predict whether the case will go to trial. "I think (plea) offers will be made, but at this point, there's no way to know if they'll be taken." He declined to discuss specifics of the case.
A tip from an anonymous caller and another confidential informant helped lead investigators to the suspects who were arrested, according to sheriff's reports.
Morse is prosecuting the case with Assistant District Attorney Mark Bacciarini.
Reyes, Cebrero and Ortega are scheduled to appear in Merced Superior Court for a hearing May 15. Vazquez's next hearing is scheduled for June 4.