PHOENIX — The first man was found dead in the driver’s seat of his car on March 20. He’d been shot twice — once in the head and once in the back. He’d been led to the area, north of downtown Phoenix, for what authorities described as a sexual encounter with another man.
The second victim, who family members have said was openly gay, was discovered in a park eight months later, in November. He’d been shot and mutilated in a manner that a cousin said reminded her of a horror movie.
Last month, three people were charged with various crimes in the November killing of Bernardo “Bernie” Pantaleon, 30. A fourth suspect was arrested and later released after prosecutors asked police to continue investigating.
One of the suspects, Leonardo Santiago, 21, later confessed to the March killing of Osvaldo Hernandez Castillo, 20, officials said, and he has since been indicted on first-degree murder charges in both cases. He has pleaded not guilty. No one else has been charged in Hernandez Castillo’s death.
Authorities have not accused the suspects of targeting gay men — despite calls from Pantaleon’s family to charge them with hate crimes in connection with his killing.
Law enforcement documents allege Santiago initially told authorities he killed Bernie over an “unwanted advance.” The documents also suggest there was a sexual relationship between Santiago and Hernandez Castillo.
Juan Pantaleon said a conversation days after the November death leaves little doubt as to why his cousin was killed.
In the online conversation, which occurred in a group chat and was included in a probable cause statement from the Phoenix Police Department, some of the suspects made “derogatory remarks regarding the victim’s sexuality and a derogatory statement about homosexuals not being allowed in the northside” of Phoenix.
“There’s more than enough evidence here,” Juan said. “It’s clear as day to everybody who sees this — he was targeted for being gay.”
Juan said his family has pleaded with local and federal prosecutors to pursue hate crime charges. To their great frustration, he said, they’ve made little headway, prompting the family to call for a reform to the state’s hate crime statute.
In Juan’s view, calling the crime what he believes it is is key to heading off an inaccurate and demeaning portrayal of the murder — “another brown-on-brown gang crime,” Juan said. (Authorities have charged the suspects with assisting in a criminal street gang. Bernie, who worked for a local author and sold e-cigarettes for extra income, was “absolutely” not in a gang, Juan said.)
Another of Bernie’s cousins, Gasdeli Pantaleon, said she hoped the family’s effort might offer a measure of protection to Arizona’s LGBTQ community.
In an email to Juan last month, Jordan Uglietta, a Maricopa County prosecutor trying the case, said the state has no hate crime charge, but that state law allows prosecutors to allege bias against a person’s sexual identity as an “aggravating circumstance” that can help secure a stiffer prison sentence.
“The prosecution will continue to review the evidence obtained through the police investigation of this case and, in consideration of such evidence, determine whether to allege this aggravating circumstance in this case at the proper time,” Uglietta wrote.
A spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office declined to comment, citing the status of the case. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Phoenix — which could potentially file hate crime charges that are separate from the state’s case — declined to comment. A spokesman for the FBI’s field office said his office is aware of the killing but cited a policy barring the agency from confirming or denying the existence of an investigation.
NBC News could not reach Hernandez Castillo’s family.
Lawyers for Santiago, who is being held in lieu of $4 million bond, either declined to comment or did not respond to a request for comment. Lawyers for Santiago’s alleged accomplices did not respond to requests for comment.
Santiago’s next court appearance is scheduled for Feb. 1.
The family ‘rock’
Bernie’s family described him as their “rock.” Gasdeli said Bernie lost much of his childhood to familial obligations: His parents were deported and later died when he was a teenager, she said, so Bernie became the primary caregiver for his younger siblings and grandparents.
“Bernie just thought that he had to care for everybody,” she said. “He was a very caring person.”
The added responsibilities prompted Bernie to drop out of high school, she said. He worked with another cousin doing home remodeling and later began working for the author and selling e-cigarettes, she said.
Bernie had an eye for home organization and interior design, Gasdeli said, and had planned on launching a business. After his death, his family found business cards he’d made for the new venture.
Juan, who now lives in New York but lived in Phoenix as a teenager and was close with Bernie, remembered the moment his cousin came out. Bernie was 15, Juan said, and he and some other cousins were hanging out at a relative’s house.
“He just, like, took a deep breath,” Juan recalled. “He’s like, ‘Guys, I want to tell you something. He’s like, ‘I’m gay.’ And we’re like, yeah, ‘We know.’”
“We saw this weight come off of him,” Juan said. “And then from that point forward, little by little, he started becoming his true self.”
Juan, now 30, moved to New York in his teens, but when he returned to Phoenix for a visit two years ago, he said he and Bernie picked up like he’d never gone.
“When I left he was still wearing polos and closeted in his style,” Juan said. “When I went out there again, he was lashes up and nails on, and I could tell that he was happy.”
During the visit, Juan recalled, he and Bernie talked about their dating lives. At one point, he said, Bernie mentioned a man he was having sex with and showed Juan the man’s dating profile.
When Bernie said the man belonged to a gang, Juan warned his cousin to be careful, he said.
The conversation “echoes in my mind. It just haunts me,” Juan said.
A frantic search
On the morning of Nov. 26, a Sunday, Gasdeli learned that Bernie wasn’t answering his phone and no one had talked to him since Saturday.
Bernie was supposed to go to a bar Saturday night, she said, but the friends he planned to meet up with said he was a no-show. From Bernie’s younger brother, Gasdeli said, she learned someone had been messaging Bernie all Saturday, trying to make a deal for e-cigarettes.
The brother had warned Bernie against it, saying it seemed like a setup, Gasdeli said. But that afternoon, Bernie decided to go. He put on a hoodie and walked to a nearby park, she said.
When Bernie’s family couldn’t find him the next morning, Gasdeli said, they checked the location of his cellphone and discovered it was still at the park. When they drove by the area, she said, it was surrounded by police officers.
Investigators at the scene couldn’t confirm a body that had been discovered was Bernie’s, she said, but when they finally did, the moment left the family “shattering in pieces.”
“My whole family’s crying, screaming,” she said. “We’re trying to find answers.”
A few days later, on Nov. 30, the apparent answers came in a grim message. Another cousin who was close with Bernie, Roman Pantaleon, said someone sent him graphic and disturbing images of Bernie. There were other people in the images, as well.
One of the images, which were being shared on a messaging platform, showed Bernie’s body, Roman said. Standing over him was a man flipping off the camera, Roman said.
“It makes you really angry,” Roman said. “It enrages you.”
Roman said he shared the pictures with the Phoenix Police Department and then deleted them. Days later, on Dec. 2, three men were arrested in the killing. In the probable cause statement, authorities described the images the family had received — a second picture showed Bernie’s mutilated body — and said they were shared on Instagram. The statement says only that the profile that shared the image belonged to one of Santiago’s co-defendants.
Investigators obtained a warrant for the Instagram profile and discovered a group message that showed a conversation about robbing and killing Bernie, the statement says. A co-defendant was part of the thread, the statement says, where members “repeatedly asked for updates” about the alleged crime and “lamented they were not invited.”
An hour after the slaying, the statement says, Santiago’s co-defendants discussed returning to the scene to mutilate Bernie’s body.
The probable cause statement says that days after the slaying, the thread showed some of the suspects discussing news coverage of Bernardo’s death and making derogatory statements about his sexuality and stating that gay people were not allowed on Phoenix’s north side.
The statement doesn’t say if the suspects learned that Bernie was gay from the coverage or if they already knew.
‘It was personal’
After his arrest, Santiago told investigators that he’d met Bernie around 6 p.m. on Nov. 25. After an initial denial, Santiago allegedly told investigators that he killed Bernie over an “unwanted advance that made him uncomfortable,” the probable cause statement said.
Santiago later changed his story, the statement said, and said the original plan had been only to rob Bernie. He then blamed a person whom he couldn’t fully identify for the killing, the statement adds, and he blamed others for coming up with the idea to mutilate Bernie — although he acknowledged being there when it happened.
That effort to shift blame was "contradicted by the codefendant during their interview,” the statement says. “A second codefendant provided statements indicating the defendant” — Santiago — “was responsible for killing the victim."
To Gasdeli, her cousin’s horrific death appeared to reveal a crime that wasn’t just a robbery. He’d been shot multiple times and cut with a sharp-edged object, police said, and had suffered significant injuries to his head, neck and torso.
“It was personal,” Gasdeli said.
Juan rejected the claim that his cousin made an unwanted pass at Santiago and also believes Bernardo’s slaying was personal. He believed he recognized Santiago as the man from the dating profile Bernie showed him two years earlier — the man he warned his cousin about.
A police spokesman declined to comment on how or if Santiago and Bernie knew each other and referred the question to the prosecutor’s office. A spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office declined to comment. Santiago’s lawyer also declined to comment.
A confession in an earlier slaying
After Santiago’s arrest, authorities linked him to a second killing. A man who was arrested in what authorities described as an unrelated investigation on Dec. 4 told officials about a video he’d seen of Santiago fatally shooting a man inside a car, according to a probable cause statement reviewed by NBC News.
Authorities said in the statement they searched Santiago’s phone and found a clip of him fatally shooting Osvaldo Hernandez Castillo in March.
In an interview with investigators, Santiago admitted to the killing, saying he’d been forced by another man to carry out the murder and that he’d done so to be recognized by his gang, the statement says. Santiago also told investigators he’d threatened to rob Hernandez Castillo, according to the statement.
Santiago acknowledged using a Snapchat handle — “IPEEPNIKE10” — to message Hernandez Castillo, and a chat thread between them showed that they’d met up for sexual encounters, the statement says. On March 19, the day before Hernandez Castillo was found dead, the messages showed they’d planned to meet, according to the statement.
The affidavit pointed to evidence at the scene — including an unused condom — as well as interviews with Hernandez Castillo’s family and friends and said: “It is believed the victim was engaged in a sexual encounter with a male at or around the time of his murder.”
The statement does not provide additional information about the relationship.
At Santiago’s initial court appearance Dec. 8, he stood quietly at a lectern wearing an orange jumpsuit. Hernandez Castillo’s mother offered a brief, tearful statement.
Santiago had taken a piece of her, she said through an interpreter, and another man had to die before they found her son’s killer.
Brittany Morris reported from Phoenix. Tim Stelloh reported from Alameda, Calif.