Leonardo Pimentel Sanchez. Photo via Orange County Sheriff’s Department

A 60-year-old man was sentenced Friday to 35 years to life in prison for killing an aspiring model and dumping her body in an orange grove near Irvine 25 years ago.

But a defense attorney argued the victim had sex for $50 with the man convicted of her death killer so that she could buy drugs, and that someone else killed her.

Leonardo Pimentel Sanchez was convicted of first-degree murder in March.

Sanchez, who was living in Mexico City at the time of his arrest in late 2012 in Tijuana, was first linked to the case in 2000, thanks in part to improved DNA technology, according to Senior Deputy District Attorney Steve McGreevy.

Cari Ann Parnes was found dead March 26, 1992, in what was then an orange grove off Jeffrey Road between Trabuco Road and Bryan Avenue, McGreevy said. The orange grove’s manager and a co-worker came upon the 19-year-old victim’s body, the prosecutor said.

Investigators suspect the defendant picked her up, bashed in her skull and dragged her into the orange grove, McGreevy said.

At the time, Parnes “was thin, and in the throes of addiction,” the prosecutor said.

“That was her life until this man, the defendant, brutally murdered her and left her for dead in an orange grove that no longer exists,” McGreevy said in his opening statement at the trial.

Parnes lived in an apartment complex in Stanton as a caretaker for an elderly tenant, McGreevy said. It wasn’t uncommon for her to go missing for weeks at a time as she chased drugs and sometimes worked as a prostitute, the prosecutor said.

On the day she is believed to have disappeared, March 14, 1992, her father had wired her $100 and she went out with a friend to do drugs in a motel room in Orange, McGreevy said. Later, the two went to a dicey neighborhood in Anaheim to get more drugs, he said.

Parnes talked of trying to rip off a drug dealer, but instead went to trade her coat for narcotics and never returned to her friend’s car, according to McGreevy, who said her “drug of choice” was cocaine.

DNA evidence was collected at the scene, though the technology was in its infancy, McGreevy said. The cause of death was “at least three individual blows to the head,” resulting in a fractured skull, broken jaw and other injuries, he said.

She wasn’t identified until April 17, 1993, when her father flew in from New York to look for his missing daughter, McGreevy said.

The following month, investigators isolated semen in sexual assault swabs taken from the body, but there was no match in any law enforcement databases and the case ran cold, McGreevy said.

It wasn’t until 2000 when investigators got a DNA match to the defendant, the prosecutor said, but it would be another dozen years before he was tracked down.

Jurors heard details of Sanchez’s prior conviction for raping a woman in May 1984, a crime that got him sentenced to eight years behind bars, McGreevy said. Sanchez was released from prison in 1989.

Sanchez met that victim at a party in Garden Grove, and after she went on a beer run with him for the gathering, he drove her to an orange grove near where Parnes’ body was found and raped her twice, catching her twice as she tried to run away, McGreevy said.

When Sanchez was arrested, Orange County sheriff’s deputies characterized him as a savvy criminal who used 27 known aliases and 13 recorded dates of birth to elude authorities over the years.

Sanchez’s attorney, Adam Vining, said investigators “oversimplified things,” and accused law enforcement of failing to run down multiple other leads that could have pointed to other suspects in the murder.

Vining said his client had “consensual sex” with Parnes for $50 “so she could buy drugs.”

The defendant “is only just the one person they can link to her with forensic evidence,” Vining said. “This case remains at this time unsolved.”

The defense attorney added, “There is no rape in this case.”

Vining raised the possibility that the victim was struck by a car and her body dumped in the orange grove, and also pointed to pimps, drug dealers, thieves and other assorted underworld characters she associated with as possible suspects and sources of information that law enforcement never consulted.

Five days after Parnes’ body was found, another body was discovered in the same orange grove, Vining said. The victim in that case also sustained blows to the left side of his head, Vining added.

Parnes had a reputation for “ripping off” drug dealers and even doing drugs with “johns” and then denying them sex, Vining said.

“She was leading a dangerous life that led her father to say, `You’re going to end up being tossed in the orange groves,”‘ Vining said.

— City News Service

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