Three members of a self-described street gang have been arrested and charged with allegedly plotting to kill an openly gay man in Phoenix, Arizona.
Phoenix police arrested Leonardo Santiago, 21, Manuel Carrasco Calderon, 21, and Jose Rodriguez, 20, in connection with the murder of 30-year-old Bernardo Pantaleon, whose naked body was found by police in the city’s Mountain View Park on November 26, the day after he was killed.
Police say Pantaleon was shot multiple times and, after his death, mutilated with a knife.
After being notified of his death, family members told police that they had not heard from Pantaleon for at least one day, but were able to access his Snapchat app using a spare phone he had left them. The app indicated that his last location was at Mountain View Park. They turned the spare phone over to police.
Four days after his body was found, Pantaleon’s assailants sent photos of his mutilated body to his family numbers via Instagram, reports Fox News.
According to court records, the profile that sent the images of Pantaleon’s body belonged to Rodriguez.
Police exercised a search warrant and were able to uncover a group conversation on social media between members of the North Side 15th Avenue street gang, in which they discussed plans to rob and kill Pantaleon.
In those group chats, gang members made derogatory remarks about Pantaleon’s sexual orientation and talked about “homosexuals not being allowed” in Phoenix’s north side.
Police say the suspects were interviewed about the crime, with all three men confessing to the murder.
They were charged and imprisoned on bonds ranging from $500,000 to $2 million.
According to The Arizona Republic, police believe Santiago shot and killed Pantaleon while Calderon assaulted him. Court records allege that Rodriguez was reportedly present when the assault took place.
Based on court records, Santiago wrote in the group chat on November 25 that he was going to get Pantaleon that night. Other chat members, including Calderon and Rodriguez, requested updates and video/photo proof.
Police allege that Santiago, Calderon, and Rodriguez went back to the park nearly an hour after Pantaleon was murdered, which is when his body was mutilated.
A few days later, they talked about the incident on the group chat and made derogatory comments about Pantaleon’s sexuality.
According to court records, Santiago told police in a post-Miranda interview that he knew Pantaleon and had met him around 6 p.m. on November 25.
Santiago initially denied killing Pantaleon, but later changed his story, claiming to have killed the 30-year-old after he made a pass at Santiago.
Santiago later tried to change his story a second time, blaming an unknown third person for Pantaleon’s murder. He claimed he was present when Pantaleon was mutilated, blaming one of his co-defendants for coming up with the idea — although court records do not say which man he blamed.
Both Calderon and Rodriguez told police they knew Santiago had planned to kill Pantaleon and said they had discussed how the killing would happen. Both men claimed Santiago reached out to them for help after the murder, at which point they returned to Mountain View Park.
Rodriguez claimed that Calderon and Santiago mutilated Pantaleon’s body with a knife. He admitted to receiving photos of the murder from Santiago, but denied sending them to Pantaleon’s family members, despite them being sent through his social media account.
Santiago has been charged with first-degree murder, while the other two defendants were charged with conspiracy to commit first-degree murder. Santiago and Calderon have also been charged with crimes against a dead person, and all three men have been charged with assisting a street gang.
Phoenix police spokesperson Sgt. Phil Krynsky told The Arizona Republic that detectives were looking at multiple theories as to why the men targeted Pantaleon. But Pantaleon’s family members believe he was targeted and killed because he was openly gay, flamboyant, and attracted attention by growing out his hair and wearing glamorous clothing.
Pantaleon’s family remembers him as a source of steadiness and comfort, taking care of his three siblings after they lost their parents when they were younger. He also looked after several elderly people, including his grandmother, who had trouble walking.
“Bernardo used to take care of older people, that was his job,” his cousin, Anai Pantaleon, told the paper. “People who knew him would contact him like ‘Hey, can you come and watch my mom,’ and that’s what he used to do.”
The family has since set up a GoFundMe to help them through this difficult time. The page asks anyone with additional information about the case to leave anonymous tips via the Phoenix police department’s “Silent Witness” hotline at 480-WITNESS.
Bernardo’s cousins told local CBS affiliate “Arizona’s Family” (KTVK/KPHO) that they were pleased to hear that arrests had been made in the case but don’t understand why the suspects haven’t been charged with a hate crime.
“It’s a little bit of a relief, but then when we look at the charges and don’t see any type of hate crime, it hurts us,” Gasdeli Pantaleon said. “It’s clear that he got attacked because of his sexuality.”
Phoenix attorney Aaron Reed told “Arizona’s Family” that there is no hate crime statute in Arizona that the defendants can be charged with. Still, circumstances surrounding the crime can be taken into effect, resulting in longer prison sentences for those convicted of bias-motivated crimes.
“We have part of the sentencing statute that allows you to use hate crime as an aggravating factor,” Reed said. “It’s not like other states, or on the federal level. Here, they can use it as a number of factors to increase someone’s sentence.”
Regardless of whether Pantaleon’s assailants can be charged with hate crimes, his family wants people to understand that violence against members of the LGBTQ community is unacceptable.
“We absolutely ask for justice and want them to pay for what they did to him,” Anai Pantaleon said.
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