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The Mission Valley Christmas murder and other sad tales

Other holiday homicides: Point Loma, Mira Mesa, Oceanside

To those with malice in their hearts and murder on their minds, Christmas Eve or Christmas Day are just two more squares on the calendar.
To those with malice in their hearts and murder on their minds, Christmas Eve or Christmas Day are just two more squares on the calendar.

It was December 24, 2013, Christmas Eve, shortly after midnight. Ilona Flint was excited. She was just finishing up a long shift at the Cathy Jean shoe store in the Mission Valley mall. As soon as she and a co-worker finished closing up, she would clock out and walk into the parking lot, where her fiancé, Gianni Belvedere, would be waiting to pick her up. The two had met seven years earlier in Provo, Utah. They were still in high school then; Ilona, a Russian immigrant, had been just fifteen. They had fallen in love and stayed in love and gotten engaged, and when Gianni moved with his family to San Diego, it wasn’t long before Ilona followed.

Her closing chores completed, Ilona clocked out at exactly 12:22 am. The moon was in its Waning Gibbous phase, and as she made her way to the parking lot, it hung over her head like a chunky crescent in the night sky. But when she arrived, there was no sign of Gianni. Ilona waited. She called her fiance’s number, but couldn’t reach him. She kept calling and calling, but still no luck. Finally, in desperation, Ilona called Gianni’s brother Salvatore, who promptly drove down toward Mission Valley, intending to pick her up.

At 1:14 am, Ilona Flint uttered her last words — to a 911 police dispatcher. “Ow, Ow! I think I’ve been shot!” When the operator asked for her location, Ilona answered, “At the Mission Valley Westgate Mall.” Then, nothing. Minutes later, police found Ilona and Salvatore in Salvatore’s car, on the east end of the mall, outside the Macy’s department store. Both had been shot. Ilona, who had a bullet wound to the head, was pronounced dead at the scene. Salvatore, shot in the head and torso, was rushed to a nearby hospital, where he died three days later.

The very naughty list

To those with malice in their hearts and murder on their minds, Christmas Eve or Christmas Day are just two more squares on a calendar. But to those of us for whom the holiday season is supposed to be a time of joy, a season of cheer, filled with good tidings and goodwill to all mankind, their actions shock the sensibilities and lodge in the memory, even when the violence is far away. On Christmas Eve, 2007, in the small town of Carnation, Washington, Michele Anderson and her boyfriend Joseph McEnroe killed six members of her family. After pulling up to the Andersons’ rural home in their pickup, McEnroe shot and killed Michele’s parents, Wayne and Judy Anderson. They dragged the bodies outside, cleaned up, and waited for older brother Scott Anderson and his young family to arrive. As the younger Anderson family got out of the car, Michele shot her brother several times, killing him, and then turned the gun on his wife, Erica. Erica managed to make it inside the house, grab the phone and dial 911 before Michele tore the phone out of her hands and threw it to the floor while McEnroe shot Erica to death. He then turned the gun on Scott and Erica’s two young children: Olivia, five, and Nathan, three. Police went to the house after receiving the 911 call, but couldn’t get past the locked gate. The bodies weren’t discovered until two days later, when a coworker of Judy’s went to the house to see why her friend had missed work. Michele Anderson and her boyfriend were brought in for questioning and confessed; their motive was money.

A year later, on Christmas Eve, 2008, in the Los Angeles suburb of Covina, Bruce Pardo, a forty-five-year-old unemployed electrical engineer, put on a Santa suit and showed up with a gun at his ex-wife’s family home — a week after his divorce had been finalized. He burst through the front door and started shooting, killing nine people, including his former wife, her parents, her two brothers and their wives. He also set the house on fire. Then he fled to his brother’s house, where the next day, on Christmas morning, he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

A decade and a half earlier, in 1992, six people were murdered and two injured between December 24 and December 26 in what the Dayton Daily News calls the worst killing spree in the Ohio city’s history. The “Christmas killings” began on Christmas Eve, when four teenagers — Laura Taylor, DeMarcus Smith, Heather Matthews and Marvallous Keene, a group known as the “Downtown Posse” — shot and killed Joseph Wilkerson, a thirty-four-year-old man, in the course of robbing his house. The next victim was an eighteen-year-old girl, killed in a phone booth for her Fila sneakers. Paranoia soon set in, and over the next two days, the other victims were killed because the group was concerned over potential snitches. The band of murderers was arrested on December 26. Taylor, Smith and Matthews are serving life sentences, while Keene was executed by lethal injection on July 21, 2009.

And who can forget sweet little JonBenét Ramsey, the curly-haired blond six-year old who was discovered dead on Christmas Day in the basement of her family’s home in Boulder, Colorado. Her skull had been fractured and she had been strangled with a cord, which was still wrapped around the neck of her lifeless body when it was discovered by her father, John. An autopsy revealed she also had been sexually assaulted. Police at first suspected her parents or brother, but all three were later cleared through DNA testing. The case remains unsolved.

Doing in Dad

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When the killings are local, they get even further under the skin. On Christmas Eve of 1976, the decomposing body of Donald Tubach, a wealthy forty-seven-year-old travel agent, was found stuffed into the wet bar of his Point Loma home at 3524 Lowell Way. His employees had become concerned when Tubach missed several days of work. On December 15, five days after they had last seen him, his associates, accompanied by police, went to Tubach’s house. A search of the residence found only blood and signs of a struggle, but no body. A day later, they received a telegram in Donald Tubach’s name, asking that his mail be forwarded to Mexico City. A second telegram requested $30,000 for a client’s travel arrangement. Their suspicions aroused, police returned to Tubach’s Lowell Way home on Christmas Eve, December 24. The moment they opened the front door. they knew there must be a dead body in the house.

The odd telegrams, plus a series of transactions on Tubach’s missing credit cards, led authorities to Mexico City, where Mexican police soon apprehended Tubach’s ex-wife, Isabel Zerda Beltran de Tubach, thirty-seven, along with her daughters, Patricia and Gloria — as well as Gloria’s twenty-two-year-old boyfriend. The three women were citizens of Colombia; the boyfriend, Federico Frank, was Swiss. Donald and Isabel had been married in February 1973 and lived together in Spain until December 1975, when Donald returned home to San Diego alone. The following June, Isabel returned to San Diego to participate in divorce proceedings. Interrogated by Mexican police, Frank finally confessed that he had stabbed Tubach to death on December 10 at the request of the three women, who were after his life insurance money. He had crawled into the home through an open window and plunged his knife into Tubach six times.

By October 1977, Isabel and Frank had been convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. The two girls were convicted of lesser charges — for being accessories to murder, and for conspiracy to commit murder — and while Patricia, too, was sentenced to life in prison, Gloria, a minor, was sent to the California Youth Authority. According to a January 1989 story in the San Diego Reader, “Isabel was sent to the California Institute for Women, where she remains. Patricia was paroled in February 1985 and discharged from parole February 20, 1988. Frank, the actual killer, was paroled March 20, 1986, and discharged from parole March 20, 1989.”

Isabel’s name last surfaced in April 2012, when a U.S. District Court judge dismissed a lawsuit she had filed against prison officials for “orchestrating poisonings up her nose, which will cause a heart attack,” as well as orchestrating orgies and failing to treat her tongue cancer. The court noted that Isabel previously “has filed over 150 actions and at least three actions that were dismissed as frivolous, malicious, or for failing to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.” Several of those suits also named as defendants then-California Governor Jerry Brown and then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris.

Underage rage

On Christmas Eve, 1991, a twenty-one-year-old Marine corporal, Lindell Mitchell, was shot to death by intruders who broke into his Vista apartment at 210 Cedar Road shortly before midnight. His roommate, Durvin Hammond, twenty-two, was badly beaten in the head. According to the district attorney’s office, Mitchell had invited a 16-year-old girl he had met and some of her friends over to his apartment for an impromptu holiday party. The party broke up after an argument between the woman and Hammond, Mitchell’s roommate, who allegedly slapped the young girl. Witnesses told police the girl threatened to come back with her relatives and shoot up the place.

Around half an hour later, a group of men burst into the apartment, brandishing weapons. Mitchell and Hammond were both beaten, while Mitchell — who had not been involved in the initial altercation with the girl — was also pistol-whipped and shot in the back. Hammond, who survived the attack, spoke at length with police about that fateful night, but they were unable to find any suspects and the murder investigation went cold. Years later, a joint cold case investigation by the San Diego Sheriff’s Department and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service found new evidence and leads that led to the July 2014 arrest, in Louisiana, of Kimberly Andrews, the girl whom Mitchell had invited over to his place. A second suspect, John Wesley Noble, Andrews’ uncle, was arrested in October 2015 in Hemet.

Andrews was subsequently convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to twenty-six years to life in prison. Noble pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to fifteen years to life in prison. “It took more than two decades for the defendant to be held responsible for her actions, but ultimately justice was served,” District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis told reporters.

Unsilent night

In the wee hours of Christmas Day, 2010, a confrontation over a holiday party in a residential Oceanside neighborhood led to the murder of one man and the arrest of another. Early on December 25, 2010, Elaine Weideauer arrived home from Midnight Mass and was eager to get to bed. She had lived in her little house in the 3900 block of Brown Street, just north of Vista Way and west of College Avenue, for thirty years. It was an older neighborhood of mostly single-story tract homes — the sort of place you might expect to find swathed in peace and quiet in anticipation of Christmas Day.

But across the street, forty-four-year-old Jimmy Misaalefua and his family were having a loud party that spilled out into the street, Weideauer later told police. So she stayed up. A short time later, police showed up. Apparently there had been a noise complaint. The cops left and the party went on. Around 2:15 am, the police returned, this time accompanied by a fire engine. And this time, they went straight to the home of another neighbor, Richard Pulley — forty-seven and a former Marine. “There were police everywhere and a fire truck and something had occurred next door at the Pulleys’ home. Whatever it was, it took a while but was resolved,” Weideauer told NBC News.

It was later revealed that Pulley, angered over the noise, had gotten into an altercation with Misaalefua and then punched his twenty-year-old son in the face. But that was not the end of it.

Just before 3 am, Weideauer heard a woman screaming and several loud gunshots. She called 911 and looked outside, where she saw Jimmy Misaalefua lying in the driveway in front of Pulley’s home. Misaalefua had been shot in the head and in the chest, in front of his family. He was taken to nearby Tri-City Medical Center, where he died of his injuries.

Pulley was arrested and later convicted of second-degree murder. Deputy District Attorney Tracy Prior told CBS that at around 2:45 am on Christmas Day, Pulley had gone back to Misaalefua’s house. The two men talked, then moved over to a cul-de-sac between their homes, where a witness overheard Pulley say to Misaalefua, “I’ve got something for you,” Prior said. At that point, Pulley walked into his home and came out with a loaded gun. He fired two shots at Misaalefua, who by then was standing in Pulley’s driveway. Pulley later testified that he had acted in self-defense, maintaining that he went for the gun only after Misaalefua, who was a much bigger man, had hit him. “I was attacked,” Pulley testified.

The jury didn’t buy it, and after Pulley’s conviction a judge sentenced him to forty years to life in prison. At Pulley’s sentencing, Misaalefua’s widow, Lefu Ena, addressed her husband’s killer: “You’re sitting here and Jimmy is six feet under,” she told him, according to a September 2011 article in the San Diego Union-Tribune. “Life without Jimmy is hard. I don’t want to be here.” She said she didn’t believe Pulley had acted in self-defense. “You sit there and look at me with that smile,” she said. “Are you sorry for what you did? Are you?”

Season of giving

On December 24, 2016, twenty-two-year-old Tyler Branon of Fallbrook was celebrating the holidays with family members at his uncle’s Christmas party in Vista. He went out to his car to get something, but never came back. Just before 8 pm, sheriff’s deputies – summoned by reports of multiple gunshots – found Branon sitting in the front seat of his car, parked outside his uncle’s home in the 1300 block of Morning Glory Lane, near South Santa Fe Avenue. He had several gunshot wounds in his torso. Paramedics were called, but their efforts to revive him were unsuccessful and he was pronounced dead at the scene.

Less than three days later, police arrested Kevin Phan, also twenty-two, an acquaintance of Branon’s. Police said the two men had had a “history of dispute.” Phan was apprehended at his family home in a gated community in Vista’s Shadowridge neighborhood. Phan pleaded guilty to a first-degree murder charge and in March 2018 was sentenced to twenty-five years to life in prison, plus three years.

Right after the murder, a GoFundMe account was set up to help Branon’s family with funeral costs. The account was set up by one of Branon’s cousins, who wrote, “Hello, my name is Catelynn Dumala and this Christmas Eve we lost my cousin in a senseless act of violence. While he was at my uncle’s Christmas Eve party, he went out to his car real quick and when he was at his car he was shot three times in the torso. Tyler Branon was only 22 years old. We lost him way too early. We need your help raising money for his memorial. It would be very appreciated if we earned this money within two weeks so we can celebrate his life. This means so much to me and my family because we could really use any extra help. Any donations help and would be greatly appreciated. Thank you. RIP, Tyler Branon, you will be missed.”

The fund raised $10,421, on a goal of $10,000.

Family gathering

Mom, stepdad, and son were all supposed to be together for the holidays. And, briefly, they were, until son allegedly attacked mom and stepdad shot and killed son. Fifty-nine-year-old Robert Dean died in a hospital on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2019, a day after he had been shot by his stepfather at the family home on Greenlake Drive in Encinitas. Police say Dean had threatened his eighty-year-old mother, Barbara Miller, with a knife, early on the morning of December 23. She screamed for help, and her seventy-four-year-old husband, William Miller, sprang to her defense. Dean, Miller’s stepson, was still clutching the knife when Miller grabbed a gun and fired it at Dean. No arrests were made in the case.

Christmas carjacking

But San Diego’s most senseless holiday homicide remains the one on that Christmas Eve 2013 in the parking of the Mission Valley shopping center — senseless because three innocent people died simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Yes, three people, not two. There was a reason Gianni Belvedere wasn’t answering his phone when Ilona Flint called shortly after midnight. He was dead.

Based on court testimony and newspaper reports, here’s what happened. As he had promised her, Gianni drove down to the Mission Valley mall late in the evening of December 23, 2013, to pick up his beloved Ilona. It had been a busy day; the mall was packed with last-minute holiday shoppers, and the Cathy Jean shoe store, like many other retailers, stayed open later than usual in the days leading up to Christmas.

Driving his green 2004 Toyota Camry, still with Utah plates, Gianni pulled into the parking lot a little early and slumped down in his seat, waiting for Ilona to get off work. At some point, he was approached by a frantic Carlo Mercado, age twenty-eight. A resident of Mira Mesa, Mercado drove a motorcycle and made his money by purposely getting into accidents and then trying to fleece the other drivers. But on the evening of December 23, 2013, Mercado wasn’t out to work his scam. He had crashed his motorcycle in a real accident and was desperate for a new ride.

Mercado apparently zeroed in on Gianni because his was the only occupied car he could see. It is believed Mercado tried to carjack Gianni, and that the two got into a scuffle. Mercado then shot Gianni, pushed his body into the passenger seat, and drove off in his car. As Mercado was driving back home to Mira Mesa, Gianni bled out; at some point Mercado transferred the body to the trunk. He stopped for gas, then returned to Mira Mesa about ninety minutes after he had left to retrieve his damaged motorcycle.

By then, Salvatore Belvedere had arrived at Mission Valley, and an increasingly worried Ilona ran to his car and sat down beside him, in the passenger seat. The two began calling and texting Gianni, wondering where he was. Then they saw his Toyota cruising around the parking lot. It was clear that something was wrong. “They confronted me because I had Gianni Belvedere’s car,” Mercado later said in a written statement. The car thief responded by firing a spray of bullets into their car from a .22-caliber handgun. And as she lay dying, Ilona called 911.

At first, police had no clue about who killed the two. Gianni was missing, and Crime Stoppers offered a $1000 reward for information that would lead authorities to the missing young man.

A tearful candlelight vigil was held for Ilona in La Jolla by a former boss, who blurted out to the crowd, “Some piece of garbage did this.” A few days later, on New Year’s Day, 2014, a vigil was held for Salvatore at Crystal Pier in Pacific Beach, which had been one of his favorite surfing spots.

Meanwhile, the search for Gianni continued. As his cell phone and credit cards had not been used, authorities began to fear the worst. They were right. On January 17, 2014, Gianni’s badly decomposed body was discovered inside the trunk of his car in Riverside. Police had found the car after receiving a phone call from a passerby of a foul odor emanating from a Toyota parked outside a fast-food restaurant. He had been shot in the head by a .22 caliber handgun, the same fate that had befallen his younger brother and fiancé. Boxes of baking soda, along with a can of air freshener, were found inside the trunk. The air freshener can was empty; the trigger had been taped down so it would spray on its own.

The following day, January 18, 2014, Mercado was stopped at a Border Patrol checkpoint on Interstate 5. Officers found three guns during the stop. Mercado was subsequently booked on weapons charges, and when his DNA profile was entered into a national database, it matched the unidentified DNA that had been lifted from the can, tape, and gas cap of the Toyota.

Mercado was finally arrested for the three murders in June 2014. Five months later, he was found incompetent for trial and dispatched to Patton State Hospital, a forensic psychiatric hospital in San Bernardino. More than a year after that, in December 2015, Mercado was deemed competent by a judge, who ruled criminal proceedings against him could resume. He initially pleaded not guilty to the murders, in February 2016. But the following January, he changed his plea to guilty and promptly received three consecutive sentences of life without parole, one for each murder victim.

The Belvedere brothers’ sister at the sentencing hearing read a letter from their mother, Grace, reminiscing about her two sons’ musical talents. Gianni played piano; Salvatore, guitar. They frequently performed at Sunday night family dinners. “Now it’s quiet,” Grace Belvedere’s letter said. “The laughter and loudness have been replaced by silence and sorrow.”

Ilona’s mother, Inga Flint-Jones, talked about her daughter’s early years in the Soviet Union and her love for Gianni. “Life held so much promise for her,” she said.

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To those with malice in their hearts and murder on their minds, Christmas Eve or Christmas Day are just two more squares on the calendar.
To those with malice in their hearts and murder on their minds, Christmas Eve or Christmas Day are just two more squares on the calendar.

It was December 24, 2013, Christmas Eve, shortly after midnight. Ilona Flint was excited. She was just finishing up a long shift at the Cathy Jean shoe store in the Mission Valley mall. As soon as she and a co-worker finished closing up, she would clock out and walk into the parking lot, where her fiancé, Gianni Belvedere, would be waiting to pick her up. The two had met seven years earlier in Provo, Utah. They were still in high school then; Ilona, a Russian immigrant, had been just fifteen. They had fallen in love and stayed in love and gotten engaged, and when Gianni moved with his family to San Diego, it wasn’t long before Ilona followed.

Her closing chores completed, Ilona clocked out at exactly 12:22 am. The moon was in its Waning Gibbous phase, and as she made her way to the parking lot, it hung over her head like a chunky crescent in the night sky. But when she arrived, there was no sign of Gianni. Ilona waited. She called her fiance’s number, but couldn’t reach him. She kept calling and calling, but still no luck. Finally, in desperation, Ilona called Gianni’s brother Salvatore, who promptly drove down toward Mission Valley, intending to pick her up.

At 1:14 am, Ilona Flint uttered her last words — to a 911 police dispatcher. “Ow, Ow! I think I’ve been shot!” When the operator asked for her location, Ilona answered, “At the Mission Valley Westgate Mall.” Then, nothing. Minutes later, police found Ilona and Salvatore in Salvatore’s car, on the east end of the mall, outside the Macy’s department store. Both had been shot. Ilona, who had a bullet wound to the head, was pronounced dead at the scene. Salvatore, shot in the head and torso, was rushed to a nearby hospital, where he died three days later.

The very naughty list

To those with malice in their hearts and murder on their minds, Christmas Eve or Christmas Day are just two more squares on a calendar. But to those of us for whom the holiday season is supposed to be a time of joy, a season of cheer, filled with good tidings and goodwill to all mankind, their actions shock the sensibilities and lodge in the memory, even when the violence is far away. On Christmas Eve, 2007, in the small town of Carnation, Washington, Michele Anderson and her boyfriend Joseph McEnroe killed six members of her family. After pulling up to the Andersons’ rural home in their pickup, McEnroe shot and killed Michele’s parents, Wayne and Judy Anderson. They dragged the bodies outside, cleaned up, and waited for older brother Scott Anderson and his young family to arrive. As the younger Anderson family got out of the car, Michele shot her brother several times, killing him, and then turned the gun on his wife, Erica. Erica managed to make it inside the house, grab the phone and dial 911 before Michele tore the phone out of her hands and threw it to the floor while McEnroe shot Erica to death. He then turned the gun on Scott and Erica’s two young children: Olivia, five, and Nathan, three. Police went to the house after receiving the 911 call, but couldn’t get past the locked gate. The bodies weren’t discovered until two days later, when a coworker of Judy’s went to the house to see why her friend had missed work. Michele Anderson and her boyfriend were brought in for questioning and confessed; their motive was money.

A year later, on Christmas Eve, 2008, in the Los Angeles suburb of Covina, Bruce Pardo, a forty-five-year-old unemployed electrical engineer, put on a Santa suit and showed up with a gun at his ex-wife’s family home — a week after his divorce had been finalized. He burst through the front door and started shooting, killing nine people, including his former wife, her parents, her two brothers and their wives. He also set the house on fire. Then he fled to his brother’s house, where the next day, on Christmas morning, he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

A decade and a half earlier, in 1992, six people were murdered and two injured between December 24 and December 26 in what the Dayton Daily News calls the worst killing spree in the Ohio city’s history. The “Christmas killings” began on Christmas Eve, when four teenagers — Laura Taylor, DeMarcus Smith, Heather Matthews and Marvallous Keene, a group known as the “Downtown Posse” — shot and killed Joseph Wilkerson, a thirty-four-year-old man, in the course of robbing his house. The next victim was an eighteen-year-old girl, killed in a phone booth for her Fila sneakers. Paranoia soon set in, and over the next two days, the other victims were killed because the group was concerned over potential snitches. The band of murderers was arrested on December 26. Taylor, Smith and Matthews are serving life sentences, while Keene was executed by lethal injection on July 21, 2009.

And who can forget sweet little JonBenét Ramsey, the curly-haired blond six-year old who was discovered dead on Christmas Day in the basement of her family’s home in Boulder, Colorado. Her skull had been fractured and she had been strangled with a cord, which was still wrapped around the neck of her lifeless body when it was discovered by her father, John. An autopsy revealed she also had been sexually assaulted. Police at first suspected her parents or brother, but all three were later cleared through DNA testing. The case remains unsolved.

Doing in Dad

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When the killings are local, they get even further under the skin. On Christmas Eve of 1976, the decomposing body of Donald Tubach, a wealthy forty-seven-year-old travel agent, was found stuffed into the wet bar of his Point Loma home at 3524 Lowell Way. His employees had become concerned when Tubach missed several days of work. On December 15, five days after they had last seen him, his associates, accompanied by police, went to Tubach’s house. A search of the residence found only blood and signs of a struggle, but no body. A day later, they received a telegram in Donald Tubach’s name, asking that his mail be forwarded to Mexico City. A second telegram requested $30,000 for a client’s travel arrangement. Their suspicions aroused, police returned to Tubach’s Lowell Way home on Christmas Eve, December 24. The moment they opened the front door. they knew there must be a dead body in the house.

The odd telegrams, plus a series of transactions on Tubach’s missing credit cards, led authorities to Mexico City, where Mexican police soon apprehended Tubach’s ex-wife, Isabel Zerda Beltran de Tubach, thirty-seven, along with her daughters, Patricia and Gloria — as well as Gloria’s twenty-two-year-old boyfriend. The three women were citizens of Colombia; the boyfriend, Federico Frank, was Swiss. Donald and Isabel had been married in February 1973 and lived together in Spain until December 1975, when Donald returned home to San Diego alone. The following June, Isabel returned to San Diego to participate in divorce proceedings. Interrogated by Mexican police, Frank finally confessed that he had stabbed Tubach to death on December 10 at the request of the three women, who were after his life insurance money. He had crawled into the home through an open window and plunged his knife into Tubach six times.

By October 1977, Isabel and Frank had been convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. The two girls were convicted of lesser charges — for being accessories to murder, and for conspiracy to commit murder — and while Patricia, too, was sentenced to life in prison, Gloria, a minor, was sent to the California Youth Authority. According to a January 1989 story in the San Diego Reader, “Isabel was sent to the California Institute for Women, where she remains. Patricia was paroled in February 1985 and discharged from parole February 20, 1988. Frank, the actual killer, was paroled March 20, 1986, and discharged from parole March 20, 1989.”

Isabel’s name last surfaced in April 2012, when a U.S. District Court judge dismissed a lawsuit she had filed against prison officials for “orchestrating poisonings up her nose, which will cause a heart attack,” as well as orchestrating orgies and failing to treat her tongue cancer. The court noted that Isabel previously “has filed over 150 actions and at least three actions that were dismissed as frivolous, malicious, or for failing to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.” Several of those suits also named as defendants then-California Governor Jerry Brown and then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris.

Underage rage

On Christmas Eve, 1991, a twenty-one-year-old Marine corporal, Lindell Mitchell, was shot to death by intruders who broke into his Vista apartment at 210 Cedar Road shortly before midnight. His roommate, Durvin Hammond, twenty-two, was badly beaten in the head. According to the district attorney’s office, Mitchell had invited a 16-year-old girl he had met and some of her friends over to his apartment for an impromptu holiday party. The party broke up after an argument between the woman and Hammond, Mitchell’s roommate, who allegedly slapped the young girl. Witnesses told police the girl threatened to come back with her relatives and shoot up the place.

Around half an hour later, a group of men burst into the apartment, brandishing weapons. Mitchell and Hammond were both beaten, while Mitchell — who had not been involved in the initial altercation with the girl — was also pistol-whipped and shot in the back. Hammond, who survived the attack, spoke at length with police about that fateful night, but they were unable to find any suspects and the murder investigation went cold. Years later, a joint cold case investigation by the San Diego Sheriff’s Department and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service found new evidence and leads that led to the July 2014 arrest, in Louisiana, of Kimberly Andrews, the girl whom Mitchell had invited over to his place. A second suspect, John Wesley Noble, Andrews’ uncle, was arrested in October 2015 in Hemet.

Andrews was subsequently convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to twenty-six years to life in prison. Noble pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to fifteen years to life in prison. “It took more than two decades for the defendant to be held responsible for her actions, but ultimately justice was served,” District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis told reporters.

Unsilent night

In the wee hours of Christmas Day, 2010, a confrontation over a holiday party in a residential Oceanside neighborhood led to the murder of one man and the arrest of another. Early on December 25, 2010, Elaine Weideauer arrived home from Midnight Mass and was eager to get to bed. She had lived in her little house in the 3900 block of Brown Street, just north of Vista Way and west of College Avenue, for thirty years. It was an older neighborhood of mostly single-story tract homes — the sort of place you might expect to find swathed in peace and quiet in anticipation of Christmas Day.

But across the street, forty-four-year-old Jimmy Misaalefua and his family were having a loud party that spilled out into the street, Weideauer later told police. So she stayed up. A short time later, police showed up. Apparently there had been a noise complaint. The cops left and the party went on. Around 2:15 am, the police returned, this time accompanied by a fire engine. And this time, they went straight to the home of another neighbor, Richard Pulley — forty-seven and a former Marine. “There were police everywhere and a fire truck and something had occurred next door at the Pulleys’ home. Whatever it was, it took a while but was resolved,” Weideauer told NBC News.

It was later revealed that Pulley, angered over the noise, had gotten into an altercation with Misaalefua and then punched his twenty-year-old son in the face. But that was not the end of it.

Just before 3 am, Weideauer heard a woman screaming and several loud gunshots. She called 911 and looked outside, where she saw Jimmy Misaalefua lying in the driveway in front of Pulley’s home. Misaalefua had been shot in the head and in the chest, in front of his family. He was taken to nearby Tri-City Medical Center, where he died of his injuries.

Pulley was arrested and later convicted of second-degree murder. Deputy District Attorney Tracy Prior told CBS that at around 2:45 am on Christmas Day, Pulley had gone back to Misaalefua’s house. The two men talked, then moved over to a cul-de-sac between their homes, where a witness overheard Pulley say to Misaalefua, “I’ve got something for you,” Prior said. At that point, Pulley walked into his home and came out with a loaded gun. He fired two shots at Misaalefua, who by then was standing in Pulley’s driveway. Pulley later testified that he had acted in self-defense, maintaining that he went for the gun only after Misaalefua, who was a much bigger man, had hit him. “I was attacked,” Pulley testified.

The jury didn’t buy it, and after Pulley’s conviction a judge sentenced him to forty years to life in prison. At Pulley’s sentencing, Misaalefua’s widow, Lefu Ena, addressed her husband’s killer: “You’re sitting here and Jimmy is six feet under,” she told him, according to a September 2011 article in the San Diego Union-Tribune. “Life without Jimmy is hard. I don’t want to be here.” She said she didn’t believe Pulley had acted in self-defense. “You sit there and look at me with that smile,” she said. “Are you sorry for what you did? Are you?”

Season of giving

On December 24, 2016, twenty-two-year-old Tyler Branon of Fallbrook was celebrating the holidays with family members at his uncle’s Christmas party in Vista. He went out to his car to get something, but never came back. Just before 8 pm, sheriff’s deputies – summoned by reports of multiple gunshots – found Branon sitting in the front seat of his car, parked outside his uncle’s home in the 1300 block of Morning Glory Lane, near South Santa Fe Avenue. He had several gunshot wounds in his torso. Paramedics were called, but their efforts to revive him were unsuccessful and he was pronounced dead at the scene.

Less than three days later, police arrested Kevin Phan, also twenty-two, an acquaintance of Branon’s. Police said the two men had had a “history of dispute.” Phan was apprehended at his family home in a gated community in Vista’s Shadowridge neighborhood. Phan pleaded guilty to a first-degree murder charge and in March 2018 was sentenced to twenty-five years to life in prison, plus three years.

Right after the murder, a GoFundMe account was set up to help Branon’s family with funeral costs. The account was set up by one of Branon’s cousins, who wrote, “Hello, my name is Catelynn Dumala and this Christmas Eve we lost my cousin in a senseless act of violence. While he was at my uncle’s Christmas Eve party, he went out to his car real quick and when he was at his car he was shot three times in the torso. Tyler Branon was only 22 years old. We lost him way too early. We need your help raising money for his memorial. It would be very appreciated if we earned this money within two weeks so we can celebrate his life. This means so much to me and my family because we could really use any extra help. Any donations help and would be greatly appreciated. Thank you. RIP, Tyler Branon, you will be missed.”

The fund raised $10,421, on a goal of $10,000.

Family gathering

Mom, stepdad, and son were all supposed to be together for the holidays. And, briefly, they were, until son allegedly attacked mom and stepdad shot and killed son. Fifty-nine-year-old Robert Dean died in a hospital on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2019, a day after he had been shot by his stepfather at the family home on Greenlake Drive in Encinitas. Police say Dean had threatened his eighty-year-old mother, Barbara Miller, with a knife, early on the morning of December 23. She screamed for help, and her seventy-four-year-old husband, William Miller, sprang to her defense. Dean, Miller’s stepson, was still clutching the knife when Miller grabbed a gun and fired it at Dean. No arrests were made in the case.

Christmas carjacking

But San Diego’s most senseless holiday homicide remains the one on that Christmas Eve 2013 in the parking of the Mission Valley shopping center — senseless because three innocent people died simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Yes, three people, not two. There was a reason Gianni Belvedere wasn’t answering his phone when Ilona Flint called shortly after midnight. He was dead.

Based on court testimony and newspaper reports, here’s what happened. As he had promised her, Gianni drove down to the Mission Valley mall late in the evening of December 23, 2013, to pick up his beloved Ilona. It had been a busy day; the mall was packed with last-minute holiday shoppers, and the Cathy Jean shoe store, like many other retailers, stayed open later than usual in the days leading up to Christmas.

Driving his green 2004 Toyota Camry, still with Utah plates, Gianni pulled into the parking lot a little early and slumped down in his seat, waiting for Ilona to get off work. At some point, he was approached by a frantic Carlo Mercado, age twenty-eight. A resident of Mira Mesa, Mercado drove a motorcycle and made his money by purposely getting into accidents and then trying to fleece the other drivers. But on the evening of December 23, 2013, Mercado wasn’t out to work his scam. He had crashed his motorcycle in a real accident and was desperate for a new ride.

Mercado apparently zeroed in on Gianni because his was the only occupied car he could see. It is believed Mercado tried to carjack Gianni, and that the two got into a scuffle. Mercado then shot Gianni, pushed his body into the passenger seat, and drove off in his car. As Mercado was driving back home to Mira Mesa, Gianni bled out; at some point Mercado transferred the body to the trunk. He stopped for gas, then returned to Mira Mesa about ninety minutes after he had left to retrieve his damaged motorcycle.

By then, Salvatore Belvedere had arrived at Mission Valley, and an increasingly worried Ilona ran to his car and sat down beside him, in the passenger seat. The two began calling and texting Gianni, wondering where he was. Then they saw his Toyota cruising around the parking lot. It was clear that something was wrong. “They confronted me because I had Gianni Belvedere’s car,” Mercado later said in a written statement. The car thief responded by firing a spray of bullets into their car from a .22-caliber handgun. And as she lay dying, Ilona called 911.

At first, police had no clue about who killed the two. Gianni was missing, and Crime Stoppers offered a $1000 reward for information that would lead authorities to the missing young man.

A tearful candlelight vigil was held for Ilona in La Jolla by a former boss, who blurted out to the crowd, “Some piece of garbage did this.” A few days later, on New Year’s Day, 2014, a vigil was held for Salvatore at Crystal Pier in Pacific Beach, which had been one of his favorite surfing spots.

Meanwhile, the search for Gianni continued. As his cell phone and credit cards had not been used, authorities began to fear the worst. They were right. On January 17, 2014, Gianni’s badly decomposed body was discovered inside the trunk of his car in Riverside. Police had found the car after receiving a phone call from a passerby of a foul odor emanating from a Toyota parked outside a fast-food restaurant. He had been shot in the head by a .22 caliber handgun, the same fate that had befallen his younger brother and fiancé. Boxes of baking soda, along with a can of air freshener, were found inside the trunk. The air freshener can was empty; the trigger had been taped down so it would spray on its own.

The following day, January 18, 2014, Mercado was stopped at a Border Patrol checkpoint on Interstate 5. Officers found three guns during the stop. Mercado was subsequently booked on weapons charges, and when his DNA profile was entered into a national database, it matched the unidentified DNA that had been lifted from the can, tape, and gas cap of the Toyota.

Mercado was finally arrested for the three murders in June 2014. Five months later, he was found incompetent for trial and dispatched to Patton State Hospital, a forensic psychiatric hospital in San Bernardino. More than a year after that, in December 2015, Mercado was deemed competent by a judge, who ruled criminal proceedings against him could resume. He initially pleaded not guilty to the murders, in February 2016. But the following January, he changed his plea to guilty and promptly received three consecutive sentences of life without parole, one for each murder victim.

The Belvedere brothers’ sister at the sentencing hearing read a letter from their mother, Grace, reminiscing about her two sons’ musical talents. Gianni played piano; Salvatore, guitar. They frequently performed at Sunday night family dinners. “Now it’s quiet,” Grace Belvedere’s letter said. “The laughter and loudness have been replaced by silence and sorrow.”

Ilona’s mother, Inga Flint-Jones, talked about her daughter’s early years in the Soviet Union and her love for Gianni. “Life held so much promise for her,” she said.

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