Jose Esteban Cardenas Zuniga. Photo via Orange County Homicide Task Force

A 41-year-old man strangled a 24-year-old prostitute in Santa Ana a decade ago, a prosecutor told jurors Monday, but the defendant’s attorney said his client was innocent and a victim of a botched investigation.

Jose Esteban Cardenas Zuniga of Mammoth Lakes is accused of killing Yacschicka Watts on Second Street in front of some commercial buildings on Oct. 20, 2007.

“This is how she was left by the trash by Mr. Zuniga,” Senior Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Walker said, pointing to a crime scene photo of the victim.

A transient walking by saw the body and told someone at a nearby business to call 911, Walker said.

Investigators found a key card at the crime scene that led them to a nearby Days Inn hotel, where the victim was staying, Walker said. Surveillance video showed her in the lobby and going to the room in the early hours of the day she was killed, Walker said.

Surveillance video also showed a car parked for 15 to 20 minutes at 3:19 a.m. when investigators suspect the body was dumped at the crime scene, Walker said.

The surveillance video also showed Norberto Cardenas going into Watts’ room with her, Walker said. Cardenas was reluctant initially to admit to paying for sex, but he eventually acknowledged the truth, Walker said.

It took at least three minutes and possibly five minutes to strangle Watts, Walker said. The autopsy also showed signs of sexual assault with bruises on the hips, Walker said.

Semen found on her body matched the DNA of Zuniga, Walker said.

Evidence also indicates that Zuniga’s DNA was on the victim’s neck, Walker said.

Zuniga’s attorney, Mitch Timbanard, said his client had sex with the victim, but did not kill her.

“He had nothing to do with her death,” Timbanard said.

“This is a case about failed police work,” the defense attorney said. “It’s a textbook example of covering up for mistakes from the beginning and all along.”

Yacschicka had just started working with a new pimp, Marquis Allen, Timbanard said.

Cardenas had met the victim at a known area of prostitution along Harbor Boulevard in Santa Ana and then her pimp brought her back to the hotel, Timbanard said. Cardenas was then later seen at the hotel confronting Yacschicka, Timbanard said.

There was “no evidence of a struggle, which is unusual in a strangulation,” Timbanard said.

The defense attorney also claimed “there is no evidence of semen coming out of her body.”

Timbanard said the parked car that appears to be involved in the dumping of the body was at the site for 45 minutes, and that police never questioned a tow truck driver who drove by and could provide a description of the vehicle. Timbanard’s investigator did speak with the tow truck driver.

The defense attorney also questioned why the pimp never called police when he said he could not get in touch with the victim via a walkie-talkie device. If she had been busted, it was the pimp’s job to bail her out, so, under normal circumstances he would have called police, Timbanard said.

On Nov. 12 of that year, police received an anonymous call saying someone named Ruben was arrested for soliciting sex in the neighborhood the victim was killed in and had a scratch on the face, but investigators “never bothered to talk to that person,” Timbanard said.

The DNA of four other people was found on the victim’s neck, Timbanard said. He acknowledged his client’s semen was found on the pants of the victim, but not on her underwear because that was never tested.

“You’re going to hear from Mr. Zuniga and he’s going to tell you he did not kill or hurt” the victim, Timbanard said.

“He didn’t have a car at the time of the murder,” Timbanard said.

And the car he had access to did not match the description of the vehicle provided by the tow truck driver, Timbanard said.

— City News Service

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