Trial Begins in 1996 Santa Ana Killing

Court of Law and Justice Trial Proceedings: Law Offender in Orange Jumpsuit is Questioned and Giving Testimony to Judge, Jury. Criminal Denying Charges, Pleading, Inmate Denied Parole.

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SANTA ANA (CNS) - A 52-year-old man fatally stabbed his roommate in Santa Ana to steal from the victim and then fled to Mexico nearly 27 years ago, a prosecutor told jurors Wednesday, while the defendant's attorney said her client acted in self-defense.

Edgar Ortega Cervantes is charged with murder with a sentencing enhancement for the use of a deadly weapon.

Cervantes is accused of killing 24-year-old Julio Franco on June 26, 1996.

Deputy District Attorney Seton Hunt showed jurors a series of crime scene photographs of the home at 510 S. Spruce St. showing blood stains on doors and walls as well as alleged evidence of attempts to clean it up.

Police responded to a 911 call of "suspicious circumstances" at about 1:05 p.m. that day. When they arrived they found Franco's bloodied body in a shower-bath, Hunt said.

"He was beat up, head down," in the bath, Hunt said, adding that "his pants are blood stained" as if he bled while standing up at one point.

Franco lived in a converted garage on the property and Cervantes lived in a room in the home with his then-girlfriend Elvira Luzan, Hunt said.

Luzan left the home and returned to Mexico with her 3-month-old daughter a few days before the murder, according to Hunt. By the time police responded to the bloody scene, Cervantes "disappeared the day of the murder, gone and left with everything (in his room) left behind," Hunt said.

Police found a buck knife in the yard where there was a crawlspace entrance to the house, and a blood-stained boot and light blue shirt were also found, he said.

Franco sustained a "jugular" knife wound in the neck and a blow to the head among multiple knife wounds, Hunt said.

The original pathologist is "not available" so another one will testify in the case, Hunt said.

"There's no DNA back then so the cold case goes cold," he said.

Police reopened the investigation when a cold-case unit was formed in 2008, and DNA testing at that time confirmed the blood was Franco's, according to the prosecutor.

The testing also shows DNA from another man, who was then unknown to investigators but later turned out to be Cervantes, Hunt said. Police made the connection to Cervantes after tracking down his daughter and using a discarded piece of gum from her, according to court papers in the case.

Police also tracked down Luzan, who is expected to testify in the case. She told investigators that Cervantes followed her to Mexico and told her he killed Franco to "get his money," Hunt said.

Cervantes was arrested in Mexico in October 2020 and extradited to the U.S. in July 2021.

Cervantes' attorney, Alisha Montoro of the Orange County Public Defender's Office, criticized the law enforcement investigation as "sloppy." She noted that DNA was a central part of the evidence against former NFL running back O.J. Simpson in his double-murder trial in 1994.

"It was a thing -- it just wasn't a thing for Santa Ana in this case for whatever reason," Montoro said.

She said police responding to the crime scene made a series of "sloppy mistakes."

Cervantes moved from Mexico to California in 1995-96 and met Luzan, who had a daughter from another relationship and then conceived a child with the defendant, Montoro said. The home they lived in had three bedrooms and had about 10 men and two women living there, Montoro said.

One of the men had been released from jail, but police never questioned him, according to the attorney.

Franco was known as the "Junk Man" because he was known to collect items he would sell, Montoro said.

"No one's really sure who he is," she said, adding Franco was considered "paranoid" by his neighbors.

Some of the evidence from the crime scene has since been destroyed, including the original 911 call, Montoro said.

"What do they do? Absolutely nothing for 12 or 13 years. Nothing," Montoro said. "There's no investigation and there's no attempt to find them or to interview any witnesses."

After Cervantes was arrested he told police he was defending himself when Franco was killed, Montoro said. Franco had a truck, but Cervantes did not take it or anything else belonging to Franco, she said.

Cervantes' ex-wife, Luzan, has children in the United States and every time she crosses the border she keeps getting deported, Montoro said. She alleged that police paid her money and gave her a phone to entice her cooperation.

Montoro sarcastically suggested that while the memories of others have faded over the years, Luzan's has "improved."

"I think she's going to remember even more than she told police," Montoro said.

Police have financed her trip to the U.S. for the trial "and she's going to want to pay them back for the favor," Montoro said.

Luzan told police in 2009 that she left Cervantes because he was abusive and that Cervantes was later arrested for murder and robberies in Mexico and was sentenced to 18 years behind bars there, Hunt said in court papers. Jurors are not expected to consider that in the trial.

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