Closing arguments begin in slaying of Fla. family

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) -- A family of four gunned down on a dark stretch of Florida's Turnpike could have been killed by Mexican drug dealers over an unpaid debt, a defense attorney said Wednesday during closing arguments in the trial of two men charged in the shootings.

The bodies of Jose Luis Escobedo, 28; his wife, Yessica Guerrero Escobedo, 25; and their sons, Luis Julian, 4, and Luis Damian, 3; were found alongside the road in October 2006.

Daniel Troya and Ricardo Sanchez Jr., both 25, are charged with armed carjacking resulting in deaths, conspiracy, weapons counts and drug offenses. Both have pleaded not guilty and face the death penalty.

Prosecutors claim Jose Luis Escobedo was involved in a drug ring with Troya and Sanchez, who killed him and his family to settle a debt. They're also are accused of stealing 15 kilograms of cocaine from Escobedo that night.

Two others - Danny Varela, 28, and Liana Lopez, 20 - are on trial in the same case for drug conspiracy and weapons charges. They also have pleaded not guilty and face life in prison.

Troya's attorney suggested Wednesday the family may have been killed instead by Mexican drug dealers looking to collect a cocaine debt from Jose Luis Escobedo. The Escobedos had moved to Palm Beach County from the Brownsville, Texas, area just a few months before they were killed.

A ledger found in their home included a notation that Escobedo owed $187,000 to someone in Matamoros, Mexico, just across the border from Brownsville, a major cocaine corridor for Mexican drug cartels.

Escobedo "had a big problem if he owed $187,000," Troya's attorney, Ruben Garcia, told jurors. "And he leaves Brownsville because he's afraid ... Did somebody come to collect? I don't know.

"Those people don't play. You don't owe those people money and just move out of town."

Garcia focused on the lack of witness testimony and evidence directly linking his client to the killings.

The prosecution's case relies on testimony from jailhouse informants, highway video surveillance, drug ledgers and guns found in the suspects' home.

Earlier in the day, prosecutors took jurors down what they described as "an expressway to murder" as they presented their closing arguments.

Prosecutor Stephen Carlton told jurors the case was about "large-scale drug trafficking, guns and violence." He called the killings "brutal and savage" and reminded jurors of the "arsenal of weapons" found in the defendants' home, 14 in all, including handguns and assault rifles, and "a huge amount of drugs."

He asked jurors to consider witnesses who testified about buying cocaine from the defendants and seeing kilograms of it and thousands of dollars in cash in the home they called "Thug Mansion."

Prosecutors say Escobedo secured drugs for Varela, who ran the gang that included the other defendants, and debts were owed to Escobedo. They say the motive for the killings was to cancel those debts and to steal drugs.

"The massacre of an entire family in the middle of the night ... was a particularly despicable and cowardly act," Carlton said. The victims had 26 gunshot wounds.

Just minutes before, a nearby resident heard gunshots, Carlton said, adding that cell phone records indicate Sanchez called Escobedo as he and Troya followed the family on the turnpike. Sanchez and Troya convinced Escobedo to pull over, and the family was killed, he said.

Carlton said the children were shot because they knew Sanchez.

"They were eliminated because they were witnesses, executed," he said.

In addition to witness testimony and other evidence, Carlton said, the drug ledger found in Escobedo's home listed debts the defendants owed him.

"Records speak for the dead," he said.

Varela's attorney, Robert Gershman, questioned "unsubstantiated" testimony from government witnesses seeking to gain favor from prosecutors in their own, separate criminal cases. He also worked to be sure the jury understands that his client is not charged with murder.

Garcia was set to conclude his arguments Thursday, followed by attorneys for the two other defendants. Prosecutors will then give their rebuttal before the case goes to the jury.

(Eds: This version UPDATES with details from defense closing arguments; CORRECTS number of times victims shot; ADDS photo link.)

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