More Than A Quarter Century After Muñoz & Cardenas Killings, Banuelos Going To Trial

A little  after 2 a.m. on the morning of April 15, 1994, San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Deputy Walter Watterson was patrolling along a section of Highway 62, also known as  Twentynine Palms Highway. About a half-mile east of Canyon Road, he saw an eastbound van driving erratically, its high beams and emergency flashers on.  After effectuating a stop in which the driver, 22-year-old Enrique Muñoz, came to a halt in the middle of Highway 62 west of Rawson Road and then lost consciousness, Watterson strode up to the side of the van and peered inside.
Muñoz was covered in blood, and appeared to have suffered severe trauma to his head, what would later be determined to be a gunshot wound. More shocking still, in the back of the van were the dead bodies of two others, Muñoz’s brother Jesus Muñoz, 17, and Portorio Chavez Cardenas, 24.
After backup and an ambulance arrived at the scene, the still breathing and barely conscious Muñoz brother was transported to Desert Regional Medical Center, where he was treated for what turned out to be multiple gunshot wounds.
Initially, the department allowed the public to believe that Chavez and both Muñoz brothers were dead. In reality, Enrique Muñoz had survived, seemingly miraculously, and an armed guard was stationed in the hallway in front of his hospital room. As Muñoz was making his recovery, detectives were able to coax from him an approximation of what happened. According to Muñoz, he, his brother and Chavez, all of Los Angeles, had been lured to a house in the Coachella Valley by two brothers,  Mario Montes Banuelos and Noe Montes Banuelos. While in Coachella Valley, Muñoz,  Muñoz and Chavez were assaulted and overpowered, forced into the van and driven to Morongo Valley, whereupon they found themselves on a dark and remote dirt road. It was there that the Banuelos brother shot the victims multiple times, Muñoz related.
Muñoz, Muñoz and Chavez were left for dead inside the van. According to Muñoz,  another unidentified individual drove up the dirt road, picked up the Banuelos brothers, and they drove off in that vehicle. Through a Herculean effort, Enrique Muñoz was able to start the van and make his way down the dirt road and onto Highway 62.
Investigators were able to confirm the pertinent elements of what Muñoz had told them. Furthermore, they were able to connect the events of the evening of April 14/morning of April 15, 1994 to circumstances relating to another double slaying in the region that had occurred the previous month. In that case, the bodies of Sergio Robledo Magaña, 19, and Juan Francisco Morquecho, 14, had been found, bullet-ridden, on March 27, 1994 in Thermal, eight days after they had disappeared in the early hours of the morning on March 19, 1994 from the Copacobaña nightclub in Coachella.
Warrants were issued for the arrests of Mario Montes Banuelos and Noe Montes Banuelos in connection with the killings. After several weeks, however, efforts to locate them at any of their known haunts proved unsuccessful, and it was believed they had fled to Mexico. Over the next months and years the case grew inactive.
Twenty-four years passed. In July 2018, with the matter having long lain dormant, investigators learned from the U.S. Marshall’s Service Fugitive Task Force that Noe Montes Banuelos, then 45, had been fatally shot in Sonora, Mexico.
Eighteen months later, at the border crossing in Yuma, Arizona on January 19, 2020, authorities took Mario Montes Banuelos, 49, into custody on a long-extant warrant. When Banuelos waived extradition, San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies went to Yuma to retrieve him to stand trial in the Muñoz and Cardenas murders.
Banuelos was initially booked on murder and attempted murder charges into the  Central Detention Center in San Bernardino. The cold case file on the Muñoz and Cardenas murder case has been handed over to Sheriff’s Detective Art Alvarado. Deputy District Attorney Justin Crocker is prosecuting Banuelos.
Indications are that the district attorney’s office is ready to proceed with the case at the Joshua Tree Courthouse in rapid fashion, with a pretrial hearing set for 8:30 a.m. on April 28, and if no continuances are requested by Banuelos’s attorney, Gary Wenkle Smith, trial commencing on May 4.
Smith told the Sentinel Banuelos “is not” guilty based upon the facts of the case. “I’d rather give you the details when we have three counts of not guilty,” Smith said.
-Mark Gutglueck

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