By David Schwartz
PHOENIX (Reuters) - An Arizona man was sentenced on Monday to life in prison for killing a couple and burying them in his backyard in a 6-foot-deep grave he dug with a borrowed backhoe, his lawyer said.
Jose Valenzuela, 42, was spared the death penalty under a plea deal with prosecutors in the 2015 murders of Tina and Michael Careccia, each killed by a single shot to the head during an altercation at the shooter’s home.
Valenzuela, who admitted to taking methamphetamine at the time, pleaded guilty in July to first-degree murder in Tina Careccia’s death and second-degree murder in Michael Careccia’s killing, documents showed.
Pinal County Superior Court Judge Christopher O’Neil gave Valenzuela a life sentence without the possibility of parole for the first-degree charge and 25 years for the second-degree murder, the maximum allowed under state law.
Valenzuela attorney Bobbi Falduto told Reuters her client was remorseful for his actions, blaming the murders of his friends on his deep problems with substance abuse.
“This is certainly a tragedy for everyone involved,” Falduto said. “Drugs and alcohol can ruin a person’s life in a matter of minutes – that’s what happened here.”
Special prosecutor Gary Husk said he was pleased with the sentence.
"I do believe that justice was served,” he said in a telephone interview. “It will ensure the defendant is never released from prison.”
The crime shocked local residents and brought national attention to Maricopa, a desert community about 30 miles (48 km) south of Phoenix.
Authorities said Michael Careccia, 44, an airline pilot, and Tina Careccia, 42, an accountant, had been married for about a year when they vanished that June, triggering a widespread search.
Valenzuela was taken into custody at his residence after admitting to the crimes during his fourth police interview, according to court papers. He had the .22-caliber Magnum murder weapon with him.
Valenzuela said he killed the couple and then cleaned his home to remove any trace of blood, wrapped the bodies in a blanket and tarp and buried them with a friend’s backhoe, documents showed.
The badly decomposed bodies were discovered buried a few feet from his back door after the couple had been missing for 11 days.
(Reporting by David Schwartz; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Peter Cooney)