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Her throat cut, dying woman tells police she was attacked by two co-worker friends

Her throat cut, dying woman tells police she was attacked by two co-worker friends
Daniel Gross, 19, and Melissa Leonardo, 25, were charged with one count of murder each in connection with the fatal stabbing of a 19-year-old woman. (Alameda County Sheriff's Office)

Shortly before she was left bloody and dying along a remote California roadside, 19-year-old Lizette Andrea Cuesta had voluntarily entered a car with her killers, police say.

Cuesta, whose throat appeared to be cut or stabbed, had crawled 100 yards before a motorist stopped to help. Police say she used her final words to tell authorities who had attacked her — her two friends and co-workers.

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Daniel Gross, 19, and Melissa Leonardo, 25, have each been charged with one count of murder in connection with Cuesta's death early Monday, Alameda County court records show. The charge against Gross carries a special allegation that he used a knife.

Investigators are still working to determine a motive behind the killing.

Cuesta, Gross and Leonardo were friends and co-workers, said Alameda County Sheriff's Sgt. Ray Kelly. Cuesta grew up in San Jose and had recently moved to Tracy with her father, officials said. Gross and Leonardo lived together in Modesto.

Lizette Cuesta, 19, used her last words to identify two friends and co-workers as her assailants, officials say.
Lizette Cuesta, 19, used her last words to identify two friends and co-workers as her assailants, officials say. (Alameda County Sheriff's Office)

In a jailhouse interview with KTVU-TV published Wednesday, Gross told a reporter the fatal confrontation happened outside the vehicle, after he and Cuesta had sex inside the car as Leonardo drove.

Gross said he acted in self-defense after Cuesta elbowed him in the ribs. "It just happened like this," Gross said, as he snapped his fingers.

"I … hate myself, you know?" Gross told the reporter. "I wish I could go back in time and that this never happened."

Gross said that Leonardo was not involved in the killing. All three worked together at a Carl's Jr. in Tracy, and both women were aware Gross was having sex with both of them, he told KTVU.

For reasons authorities are still working to determine, the three were together before 2 a.m. Monday. Cuesta voluntarily entered a car with the other two, Kelly said.

"This is where identifying the suspect's intent is important," Kelly said. "For example, you may get in a car with me consensually thinking we're going to lunch, but in my mind … I'm not going to lunch. I may harm you."

When asked Wednesday about KTVU's interview with Gross while he was in custody, Kelly said, "I'm not happy."

"The reporter that obtained that information has now become a witness in our case, and now we're going to have to interview him," Kelly said. "He just inserted himself into a homicide investigation."

The attack took place in the foothills of Livermore on a remote, two-lane road with no cellphone reception in the Corral Hollow Pass.

"We have a very dramatic crime scene at the Tesla Road mile-marker location…. All indicators are that the attack took place on the side of the road," Kelly said.

The scene indicates Cuesta was probably attacked on a road turnout on the westbound side. Mortally wounded, she then crawled along the road east about 100 yards before she was found by motorists who stopped to help.

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The first driver to see Cuesta didn't stop out of fear for her own safety and instead continued through the foothills until she regained cellphone reception and called 911, Kelly said. Witnesses reported the young woman's throat appeared to have been cut and she was covered in blood. Subsequent drivers stopped and cared for Cuesta as she lay dying, with one man saying he covered her with a blanket and prayed with her.

Cuesta was able to communicate with the good Samaritans and provided some "compelling information on who attacked her," Kelly said.

Cuesta then was airlifted to the hospital, where she used her last words to again identify her killers to law enforcement before she died.

"This victim really, really tried to survive. She fought," Kelly said. "The last thing we believe she was able to do was point us in the direction of the people that killed her, and that's pretty remarkable."

Cuesta was a novice skateboarder who was learning the sport. A vigil was held for her at a park in her hometown of San Jose on Tuesday night. Family members said that while they're grieving her death, they're consoled by the fact she was able to identify the suspects in her death.

"I love her," the victim's father, Ray Cuesta, told CBS13. "She was always a fighter. She was always brave, strong, a leader. If she wanted to do something, she would get it done.

"I'm proud of her," he continued. "You know, she showed them that she didn't give up."

Authorities used the information Cuesta provided to arrest Gross and Leonardo later that morning at their home. Search warrants were executed on their home and car.

"That search did uncover a lot of evidence," Kelly said.

For breaking California news, follow @JosephSerna on Twitter.

UPDATES:

5:55 p.m.: This article was updated to reflect charges have been filed.

2:15 p.m.: This article was updated with details from a jailhouse interview by local media.

This article was originally published at 1:35 p.m.

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