Four of six people accused in the killings of a Coachella Valley couple who vanished nearly five years ago were ordered Thursday to stand trial, with authorities claiming during a preliminary hearing the victims were killed in a “drug deal gone bad.”
Manuel Rios, 29, of Coachella; Aaron Fernando Bernal, 29, of Indio; Adilene Ines Castaneda, 28, of Coachella; and Abraham Fregoso Jr., 33, of Indio; are scheduled to be arraigned March 17. Rios is charged with two counts of murder, while the others are each charged with a single count of murder for the killings of Audrey Moran, 26, and Jonathan Reynoso, 28, who disappeared May 10, 2017.
Bernal, Fregoso and Castaneda had previously been charged with a single count of being an accessory after the fact, but Judge Samuel Diaz dismissed those counts following a preliminary hearing that began Monday and ended Thursday.
The murder charges against the four defendants, who are all jailed without bail, include a special-circumstance allegation of killing a witness of a crime, making them eligible for the death penalty if prosecutors opt to pursue it.
Two other defendants in the case — Eric Rios and Jesus Ruiz Jr. — previously pleaded guilty to being accessories to the killing.
During the preliminary hearing, Riverside County sheriff’s Deputy Carlos Mendoza testified about a conversation undercover cops had with Fregoso while posing as jail inmates. According to Mendoza, Fregoso admitted in the conversation that Reynoso died while being punished for a “drug deal gone bad.”
Fregoso said Reynoso was only supposed to be beaten, but he wound up dying, Mendoza said.
According to Mendoza, Fregoso admitted to strangling Moran, who became hysterical after seeing Reynoso being beaten to death. Fregoso then said the bodies were placed into containers to be buried, Mendoza testified.
Co-defendant Ruiz, 43, who pleaded guilty to two counts of being an accessory to a crime after the fact, testified during the hearing that he was asked by Fregoso to dig a hole to “bury trash” in the backyard of his home. He testified that he saw two large containers and bags of cement, but could not recall the specific date and was not sure what exactly was buried in the hole.
Ruiz testified that he had later to dig the holes up, and that while “unburying” the victims he saw bones.
Ruiz later help authorities track down the remains, Riverside County sheriff’s Deputy Dan Moody testified. Moody described driving Ruiz to various locations where sections of dirt, concrete and bones were found. The remains were later identified as those of Reynoso and Moran.
The other co-defendant in the case, Eric Rios, 32, also pleaded guilty to the same charges as Ruiz in February, but did not testify in the preliminary hearing.
The six defendants were arrested and subsequently charged over the summer of 2020 in connection with the couple’s slaying following a three-year investigation that included more than 50 search warrants and hundreds of interviews, according to Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco.
Moran was last seen when she left her home to pick up Reynoso, who may have been returning to the Coachella Valley from the Brawley area the day the couple went missing, according to investigators.
Moran said she was going to give Reynoso a ride to his home, but the SUV she drove was found parked on the side of Interstate 10 in Beaumont two days after the pair were last heard from.
The sheriff’s department announced in October of 2020 that skeletal remains discovered at an unspecified location in the Coachella Valley months prior had been positively identified as those of Moran and Reynoso.