Gruesome apartment slayings: One year later

Thursday will mark one year since Shelby County sheriff’s deputies made the gruesome discovery of five bodies inside an Inverness apartment, the result of six-figure drug deal gone bad.

Authorities today are still investigating the deaths of Angel Horacio Vega-Gonzalez, Gustavo Vega-Gonzalez, Ezequiel Rebollar-Terevan, Jaime Echeverra and Armando Ibarra Mendoza. The victims, all illegal immigrants from Mexico, were found with their throats slashed after being bound, beaten and electrocuted at Cahaba Lakes Apartments off U.S. 280.

The murders were revenge killings for more than $400,000 in drug cartel money, and the largest homicide in county history.

“There hadn’t been five murders in any one related case,” said Sheriff Chris Curry. “In terms of the sheer number of victims, it was the largest number of victims in a homicide situation.”

Six men have since been charged with two counts each of capital murder. Alejandros Castaneda, Juan Francisco Castaneda, Christopher Scott Jones, Jaime Duenas-Rodriguez, Derrick Renone Green and Torre Jovan Gholston – all of whom have pleaded not guilty to the murders – are being held in the Shelby County Jail without bond. Assistant District Attorney Bill Bostick said a trial date has not been set, and it hasn’t been determined whether the defendants will be tried together or individually.

Curry said the sheriff’s office and the district attorney’s office are working together to review all evidence associated with the case.

“We’ve spent a good bit of time doing paperwork and following up on every detail, every interview and every scrap of evidence we have, which is a lot,” Curry said.

Curry said sheriff’s investigators and evidence technicians are working the case with federal agencies. The sheriff’s office has also appointed a deputy to the Drug Enforcement Administration Task Force, and encouraged local police departments to join the Shelby County Drug Enforcement Task Force to monitor drug activity.

“(Drug cartels) are still out there. There’s no question about that,” Curry said. “The particular group here was disrupted, but now the question is, ‘Who’s moving in their place? Who’s taking up the void?’ We are looking at any evidence or intelligence we can gather.”

OPEN COMMUNICATION

In hindsight, the murders helped further open communication between county officials and the Hispanic community, said Isabel Rubio, founder and executive director of the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama.

“We never didn’t have a good relationship, but this incident strengthened the relationship we were beginning to develop and really laid the foundation for a lot of future work,” Rubio said.

HICA, a Birmingham-based non-profit, opened an office inside the Shelby County Services Building in Pelham in February. Rubio founded HICA in 1999 to improve the lives of Hispanics by providing transitional and referral services. HICA also offers a 24-hour Spanish-language victims’ hotline, which gives immigrant crime victims access to information seven days a week. HICA lent its victims’ hotline to the sheriff’s office to help solve the murders.

Rubio said more than 100 people are served at the Pelham office each week.

“We are serving a population that before we opened was completely unserved,” Rubio said. “We’re the 911 and the 411 for the Hispanic community.”

“Our relationship with Shelby County is a great model that can be duplicated in other counties. We know the need is out there by how we’ve been received in Shelby County.”

Curry agrees communication is better. The sheriff’s office has maintained contact with HICA, and has hired Spanish-speaking employees since the murders. Curry said Hispanics questioned in the murder investigation have been forthcoming.

“We’re going to continue to have interaction with the Hispanic community, but hopefully nothing at the level this murder case was,” Curry said.