Feds take over Gómez Saladín case
“We are assuming jurisdiction over all those implicated. This case is eligible for the death penalty,” U.S. Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Lymarie Llovet said.
Gómez Saladín, 32, went missing late Thursday night after apparently being carjacked while driving home to Juncos after a work-related event in San Juan. He was last heard from when he called his wife to say he was stopping for food and would be home soon.
His badly beaten and burned body was found at the shuttered penal camp in the Guavate area of Cayey on Monday night. Police were led there by one of the suspects in the case.
Earlier in the day police had found the torched remnants of Gómez Saladín’s Toyota Matrix abandoned in a wooded area of Caguas
Authorities say he was carjacked on Padial Street in donwtown Caguas in an area known for prostitution. Security photos show him withdrawing money from an automatic teller machine in Caguas. Later images show an unidentified subject trying to use the victim’s bank card at another location in that city.
Two male suspects were in custody by Tuesday morning and authorities had detained two women by the evening. The first detainee was turned in by his mother, who recognized her son from security camera photos that spread through social media sites like Facebook and were broadcast by media outlets. One of young men arrested told investigators that Gómez Saladín was killed at the Guavate site between midnight and 2 a.m. on Friday, within a few hours after he was carjacked.
Reports said Gómez Saladín may have let the two women into his car and that the male suspects got in a short time later. He may have withdrawn $400 from a bank machine and was then attacked as he reurned to his vehicle before being taken to Guavate where he was doused with gasoline, set on fire and beaten to death.
Federal authorities generally assume jurisdiction in carjacking cases under an accord with the island government aimed at cracking down on the problem.
Moving the case to federal jurisdiction opens the door to capital punishment in the killing of Gómez Saladín.
Puerto Rico’s Constitution explicitly bans capital punishment, but it is applicable in certain cases across the U.S. regardless of local capital-punishment statutes. Federal prosecutors in Puerto Rico have to announce plans to try for capital certification and get approval from the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington to seek the death penalty.
To date, no jury in a capital-certified case in Puerto Rico has returned with a death sentence, but federal prosecutors have generally sought capital punishment in cases that qualify such as fatal carjackings.
In September, convicted killer and drug trafficker Edison Burgos Montes dodged the death penalty on Thursday when a federal jury sentenced him to life in prison in the slaying of his informant girlfriend.
It was the third time a Puerto Rico jury had rejected a federal death penalty case.
However, it was reported that 11 of the 12 jurors had at one point voted for the death penalty in the Burgos Montes case.
Two other federal death penalty cases are expected to go to trial in January, including one involving a man accused of masterminding a 2009 bar shooting that killed eight people. The other centers on a man accused of killing an undercover police officer during a drug transaction.
Gov. Luis Fortuño has asked that federal authorities prosecute certain cases, including carjackings and drive-by shootings, to reduce violent crime. The island of nearly 4 million people reported a record 1,117 homicides last year. Incoming Gov.-elect Alejandro Garcia has said the death penalty has no place in Puerto Rico, signaling he won’t agree to funnel potential capital cases to federal jurisdiction.
Puerto Rico banned the death penalty in 1929, two years after farmworker Pascual Ramos was hanged for beheading his boss with a machete. The island reiterated its stance after approving its first constitution in 1952, calling the death penalty a human rights violation.
In 2000, U.S. District Judge Salvador Casellas ruled that applying the death penalty would violate Puerto Rico’s constitution as well as the federal statute concerning its status as a self-governing entity. His decision was overturned in 2001 by the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, which ruled that Puerto Rico is subject to federal law. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld that decision.
Puerto Rico joins 17 U.S. states that do not apply the death penalty.