Mon. May 20th, 2024

A 46-year-old California man who authorities say choked his girlfriend to death, wrapped her body in a carpet and helped throw her off of an Ortega Highway mountainside in Orange County under the cover of darkness in 2019 has been convicted of murder.

Hugo Leonel Hernandez is scheduled for sentencing on Feb. 16 after getting convicted on Dec. 29 in Superior Court in Riverside. After a 10-day trial, jurors reached a decision in one day.

A friend of Hernandez, Edilberto “Eddie” Avena, pleaded guilty to being an accessory to a crime last March and is scheduled to be sentenced on Feb. 9.

The body of 33-year-old Katherine Mary Neitzke, a Hemet resident until moving to Romoland, had not been found at the time the men were arrested, even though Avena led investigators to the area where he said her body was left, described as two to five miles east of Quest Diagnostics, in Orange County.

On Friday, it was unclear if her body was ever found.

Hernandez was arrested in Oceanside a year ago. The Sheriff’s Department began investigating the case in December 2019 when relatives reported Neitzke missing from the barn-like structure where she had been recently living in Romoland. Relatives had not heard from her since that July 25, when Neitzke frantically called a friend, asking to be picked up. Neitzke then told the friend that she’d call her back but never did.

Sometime in 2019, Avena met Neitzke, he told investigators, according to a sworn affidavit written by a sheriff’s investigator to obtain an arrest warrant for Avena. A few days later, he drove up from his Vista home to deliver furniture to the Mapes Road home where family members lived and Hernandez and Neitzke also were staying.

“She is a rat, and I had to take her down,” Avena said Hernandez told him, according to the affidavit.

A third person suggested that the men wrap Neitzke in carpet and put her in the hills, the affidavit says, paraphrasing Avena. That person was not charged.

On July 28, 2019, Hernandez and Avena loaded Neitzke’s body into Avena’s GMC Yukon and drove through Lake Elsinore to Highway 74, also known as Ortega Highway, and cast the body over the side, Avena told investigators.

Avena was linked to the body disposal through his phone, the affidavit says. Cell-tower data showed he was at the south end of the lake in Lake Elsinore on that date, headed toward Highway 74 that night.

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By Buffy Gunner

Independent Journalist + Business Owner | Lover of all things true crime. Mantra: Only YOU can be YOU. | Los Angeles Born |