SAN DIEGO - A man accused in the shooting deaths of two brothers and a woman who was engaged to one of them -- a crime that came to light when two of the victims were found mortally wounded in a parked car at a Mission Valley mall last Christmas Eve -- pleaded not guilty Wednesday to murder charges that could lead to the death penalty.
Carlo Gallopa Mercado, who is charged with three counts of murder and a special circumstance allegation of multiple murders, was ordered held without bail.
District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis will decide later whether the 29-year- old defendant will face the death penalty or life in prison without parole if he's convicted.
Mercado's arrest in Mira Mesa came nearly six months after Ilona Flint and Salvatore Belvedere, both 22, were found fatally shot shortly before 1:30 a.m. Dec. 24 at Westfield Mission Valley Mall on Camino del Rio North, which was open late for last-minute holiday shopping. Flint managed to call 911 shortly before she died at the scene. Belvedere died at a hospital two days later.
Gianni Belvedere, 24, was missing for several weeks following the shootings of his fiancee and brother. In mid-January, his body was found in the trunk of a car outside a fast-foot restaurant in Riverside. He also had been shot in the head.
Investigators found "substantial probable cause" linking Mercado to the slayings, San Diego police homicide Lt. Mike Hastings said. He declined to elaborate and provided few additional details.
In response to a question about whether the suspect and victims knew each other or had any other prior connections, the lieutenant said, "I'm not sure there was any relation."
Michael Berg, Mercado's defense attorney, told 10News, "I don't know what kind of a case they've built against him; a weak case, strong case. I'm just waiting until [Wednesday] so the district attorney will reveal to me as well as the rest of the public what they exactly have against my client."
Outside court Wednesday, Deputy District Attorney Brian Erickson would not comment on a possible motive.
"At this point, you know, motive can be anything," the prosecutor said. "It is an ongoing investigation."
Berg said his client was "dismayed" about being arrested and charged with the murders.
Berg said Mercado -- whom he called a gun aficionado -- was found with two pistols and an assault rifle in his car on Jan. 18 after target practice. Mercado pleaded guilty to possession of a silencer and was scheduled to be sentenced on that case next month, Berg said.
The attorney said he didn't know if prosecutors were alleging that Mercado's guns were used in the killings.
A status conference was scheduled July 10 to see if Berg will remain on the case.
The Belvedere family has been posting on a Facebook page: Justice for Sal Belvedere, Gianni Belvedere, and Ilona Flint.
The family thanked supporters and added, "We look forward to creating a nonprofit charity in Gianni, Sal, and Ilona's name that will help families who lose loved ones to violence … It's our goal to not let this tragedy define the legacy of our children."
There was also a statement from Mercado's family: "On behalf of Carlo Mercado, we would like the community to know how sorry we are for any pain the Flint and Belvedere family have suffered and are suffering."
10News learned from a source that Mercado was treated at a hospital over the weekend for overdosing on Tylenol.
Mercado worked at a Target store, though not the one in Mission Valley as had been reported elsewhere.