Murder Trial in Case of Two Sailors Killed Nearly Two Decades Ago Expected to Begin Soon

The Scales of Justice

Two men accused of robbing and fatally shooting a pair of San Diego-based sailors 18 years ago in an area of Otay Mesa popular for after-hours drinking and bonfires plead not guilty to murder charges Wednesday in a South Bay courtroom.

Edward Jesus Elias and Leopoldo Castro Chavez II, both 35, are accused in the Sept. 25, 1993 deaths of 20-year-old Eugene “Cliff” Ellis and 23-year-old Keith Combs. The victims were stationed aboard the USS Constellation aircraft carrier.

Retired San Diego police homicide Detective David Swiskoski testified at a preliminary hearing earlier this month that both victims were shot twice in the head and once in the chest from close range.

The victims were found 10-12 feet apart in an area east of Palm Avenue and Interstate 805, where they went to have a bonfire and drink beer with other Navy personnel, Swiskoski said.

A status conference was set for Oct. 7, when the case is expected to be assigned to a judge for trial.

Both defendants are charged with two counts of murder and special circumstance allegations of murder during a robbery and multiple murders.

Because they were 17 at the time of the killings, Elias and Chavez are not eligible for the death penalty and would face life in prison without the possibility of parole if convicted, Deputy District Attorney Andrea Freshwater said.

A few days after the slayings, Chavez was caught driving Ellis’ stolen pickup in Tijuana and was arrested. He was questioned by detectives but they were unable to connect him to the murders, police said.

In November 2009, San Diego police laboratory personnel notified the department’s cold-case investigators of a potential match between the previously unidentified biological evidence recovered from the site of the slayings and Chavez’s profile in a national database. He was arrested in July 2010 at his home in Washington state and eventually extradited to San Diego.

Fingerprints found in the stolen vehicle pointed to Elias, who was arrested and charged in April, Freshwater said.

City News Service contribued to this report.