Alleged Gunman Denies Killing Migrants

Times Staff Writer

The 17-year-old San Diegan accused of being the triggerman in the possible hate slayings of two Mexican farm workers denied the charge Tuesday in Juvenile Court.

During a brief hearing, Kenneth Kovzelove denied the juvenile petition, or complaint, through his court-appointed attorney, James Morse. The denial amounts to plea of not guilty.

Meanwhile, as expected, San Diego County Deputy Dist. Atty. Carlos Armour, chief of the juvenile division, moved to try Kovzelove as an adult. The suspect turns 18 in July.

Kovzelove, who was arrested last week at Ft. Benning, Ga., where he was in training as an Army paratrooper, is expected to contest the motion that he be tried in adult court. A hearing on the matter was scheduled for April 14 before Juvenile Judge Lawrence Kapiloff.


Charged as an Adult

The other suspect, Dennis Bencivenga, 19, also of San Diego, is being charged in the adult system. Bencivenga, who is being held in lieu of $250,000 bail, also has entered a not-guilty plea.

Prosecutors, citing the heinousness of the crime and Kovzelove’s age, have expressed confidence that the juvenile judge will permit the suspect to be tried in adult court.

In deciding such matters, jurists take into account a wide variety of factors, including the severity of the offense and suspects’ previous records. Authorities would not say whether Kovzelove has had any substantial previous run-ins with police.


Could Face Life in Jail

As adults, both Kovzelove and Bencivenga could be sentenced to up to life in jail if convicted of first-degree murder. However, Armour noted that state law only permits juvenile offenders to be held until age 25.

The two victims--identified by the coroner’s office as Hilario Casteneda Salgado, 22, and Matilde Macedo del la Sancha, 19--were killed Nov. 9 along an isolated stretch of Black Mountain Road in a rural area near San Diego’s northern boundary. Both are believed to have lived in nearby migrant camps. The area is frequented by farm laborers seeking work in nurseries and fields.

In court papers, authorities have alleged that Kovzelove positioned himself in the bed of Bencivenga’s pickup and gunned down the two victims. The weapon used was a South Korean-made semiautomatic assault weapon, say San Diego police, who have recovered the alleged slaying weapon. The two men were shot 11 times, according to court papers.

Authorities have raised the possibility that the slayings may have been provoked by the two suspects’ hatred for Mexicans. Robbery also was a possible motive, police say, although the district attorney’s office has said that the victims’ bullet-riddled bodies were found with more than $300 in cash.