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Companion Called Triggerman : 1 Accused of Killing Migrants Denies Guilt

Times Staff Writer

One of two San Diego men arrested last week and charged with the possible hate-crime slayings of two Mexican farm workers pleaded not guilty Monday.

The two alleged killers were characterized as “aspiring Rambos” by A. David Stutz, the San Diego County deputy district attorney prosecuting the case.

“There has been some indication that they were going out and ridding San Diego County of anyone with darker skin than theirs,” Stutz said in a telephone interview.

The two victims were shot a number of times Nov. 9 with a South Korean-made semiautomatic assault weapon, said San Diego police, who said they recovered the weapon.

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Reportedly Boasted of Crime

After committing the killings, officials said, the two boasted about the crime to friends and acquaintances. However, San Diego Police Sgt. Frank Martinez said one of the two, Dennis Bencivenga, 19, of San Diego, who entered the not-guilty plea Monday, apparently felt remorse later and reported the incident to police, leading to the arrests last week.

Police and the district attorney’s office said there was no evidence that either man was affiliated with any white supremacy hate group, such as the Skinheads, who have been active in the San Diego area.

Until Bencivenga came forward Jan. 13, police said, the investigation of the slayings had been stalled. In statements to police, Bencivenga said he did not at first think his friend, Kenneth Kovzelove, would actually follow through on threats to shoot and kill some “Mexicans,” according to a police affidavit on file in San Diego Municipal Court.

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‘Talked About Killing People’

Bencivenga told police that he was behind the wheel of a pickup while Kovzelove, 17, fired the shots that killed the two migrants, according to the affidavit. Kovzelove, who pulled his shirt over his face as he committed the crime, fired from the bed of the pickup, the document states.

“Kovzelove had talked about killing people before, but Bencivenga thought it was just because he was going into the Army,” stated the affidavit, which is signed by police Officer P. A. Ruffner.

The two had driven to the site after Kovzelove had talked about robbing some “Mexicans” in the area, according to the affidavit. Bencivenga said he was going to ask his companion for a loan if he managed to obtain some money, according to the affidavit.

The two victims, who died at the scene, were found with more than $300 in their possession, according to the deputy district attorney. The suspects drove off shortly after the killings when they noticed other vehicles approaching, Martinez said.

“It’s unclear if they intended to kill and then rob,” said Stutz, the deputy district attorney. “All that’s clear is that they killed.”

Arrested in Georgia

Kovzelove, who is being held in lieu of $100,000 bail, was arrested Thursday at Ft. Benning, Ga., where he was in training as an Army paratrooper. He was scheduled to be arraigned today in Juvenile Court in San Diego. Prosecutors intend to seek court permission to try Kovzelove as an adult.

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“If he’s old enough to fight for his country, he can be tried in adult court,” Stutz said.

However, Stutz said that, because Kovzelove is a minor, prosecutors are prevented by state law from using a “special circumstances” sentencing argument, which is necessary for a death penalty. It is also unlikely that the death penalty will be sought for Bencivenga, said the prosecutor, who noted that the older suspect helped break the case by coming forward.

Bencivenga, who is being held on $250,000 bail, entered his not-guilty plea before San Diego Municipal Court Judge Patricia A. Y. Cowett.

The two victims--Hilario Casteneda Salgado, 22, and Matilde Macedo de la Sancha, 19--were killed along an isolated stretch of Black Mountain Road in a rural area near San Diego’s northern city limits. They were shot a total of 11 times, according to police. Both were legal residents of the United States, possibly having qualified for legal residence under the farm-worker amnesty program, according to Stutz. Both are believed to have lived in migrant camps near the slaying site, police said.


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