Murder mystery: Person of interest sought in Mission Valley mall parking lot shooting case

Salvatore Belvedere, Ilona Flint shot Dec. 24

SAN DIEGO - San Diego police announced Friday that they are searching for a person of interest seen at the Westfield Mission Valley mall around the same time two people were fatally shot.

Police said the man is being sought for questioning in a murder mystery investigation that has captured the attention of not San Diegans, but nationally as well.

It was around 1:15 a.m. on Dec. 24 when police found Ilona Flint and Salvatore Belvedere, both 22, inside a car outside the mall. Both had been shot in the head, according to police.

Flint, who managed to make a 911 call after being shot, died moments later. Salvatore Belvedere died in a hospital several days later.

Gianni Belvedere, Flint's fiancee and Salvatore Belvedere's brother, was reported missing following the shootings. He was not named as a suspect in the killings, but was considered a missing person at-risk.

On Jan. 17, Gianni Belvedere's body was by authorities in Riverside. They had received a report of a foul odor coming from a car parked near a fast-food restaurant on Van Buren Boulevard.

"There has been some confusion with Gianni Belvedere's autopsy and exactly what the manner of death was," Lt. Mike Hastings with the San Diego Police Department said during a brief news conference Friday. "I do not have specifics because the autopsy report is not completed yet and probably won't be for several weeks. However, the preliminary manner of death is homicide."

The suspicious man police are looking for was wearing a black hoodie with unique white bands in the bicep area, tan pants and all white tennis shoes. His race is unknown, but he was described as being around 5 feet 10 inches to 6 feet tall.

The man is believed to have been at the mall around 11:15 p.m. on Dec. 23 and then again around 12:15 a.m. on Dec. 24.

A $10,000 reward is being offered for information that leads to an arrest in the case and a conviction. Anyone with information about the killings was asked to call SDPD homicide detectives at 619-531-2293 or San Diego County Crime Stoppers at 888-580-8477.

Meanwhile, investigators are working hard to determine what happened.

"I would like to extend our sincerest desire to the Belvedere and Flint family for a speedy recovery for the grieving process," Hastings said. "It's important for us to remember the families and what they are going through right now."

San Diego police officials said they are taking the lead in the Mission Valley investigation and the Riverside probe.

"I understand the want for information in this case. ... I can assure you that if this case can be solved, this case will be solved, and it will be solved lawfully, morally and ethically," Hastings said. "I expect to be releasing additional information if it is significant and as it comes about."

A police source said investigators have a working theory that the deaths of the Belvedere brothers and Flint may have a drug connection.

Hastings did not deny the report but said everything is on the table during the investigation.

"We look at all things," said Hastings, who added that investigators don't have tunnel vision when it comes to motive.

Hastings said detectives are working with family members to re-trace the steps of all three victims.  

"We're re-creating three people's lives," he said.

Hastings promised that as new information becomes available he will share it with the public, which has shown great interest in this bizarre case.

Former FBI special agent weighs in on the case

According to former FBI special agent Brad Garrett, who is now a law enforcement consultant for ABC News, those responsible for the deaths of the Belvedere brothers and Flint likely have ties to Riverside.

"Bad guys typically drop cars in the proximity of where they hang out because they know it, it's familiar to them," he said. "So is there a connection as far as the shooters are concerned? My guess is the answer is yes."
 
Garrett told 10News the way Gianni Belvedere died will be critical to the investigation, and he added, "If he was tortured, that tells you one thing. If he was shot with the same caliber or even identical weapon, that tells you something else. So all of the forensic comparisons are extremely important as to directions the police would be pursuing."

"Clearly, these were targeted kills," Garrett explained, adding that it's likely the Belvederes owed someone a lot of money or were involved in the drug trade.

"They had gone on credit for too long, probably had been warned, and they weren't going to take it anymore - the bad guys weren't. And that's not uncommon, particularly if it has something to do with the drug trade, to start taking people out," Garrett said.

If that happened, Garrett said there has to be a trail hidden in cell phone records, text messages and emails.

10News has learned the family's restaurant business was floundering and there were bankruptcies, liens and other financial issues in their background.

Garrett said friends and associates might have some answers.

"There's something not right with this puzzle and that's what the detectives have to get to," he said. "What under the surface is going on here? Were they making money some other way, other than the obvious through a restaurant business?"

San Diego police homicide detectives were seen questioning people at Mario's Italian Restaurant in Lakeside Thursday. They told 10News they are now "widening the scope" of their investigation.

Christmas tree lot attendant talks to 10News

A Christmas tree lot attendant at the Westfield Mission Valley mall on Christmas Eve when two people were fatally shot spoke to 10News about what happened following the gunfire.

Jerry Hill, who now lives in Arizona, told 10News he was sleeping in a trailer at the Pinery Christmas Tree Lot, about 50 feet away from where the shooting of Salvatore Belvedere and Ilona Flint occurred.

Hill said his dogs woke him up, but he said he didn't hear any gunshots, maybe because of the caliber of gun used and noise from the neighboring freeway.

He said detectives told him, based on the shell casings found, that a .22 or .25 caliber pistol was possibly used.

"They were searching everywhere for a bullet. If it would have been a big bang, I would have probably heard it because apparently there was like five, six shots that went off," said Hill.

Mall security would not tell 10News what, if anything, was captured on surveillance cameras.

In the mall parking lot, 10News found at least one camera on the roof of Macy's that could have captured what happened before, during and after the shootings.

10News also noticed a few additional cameras posted throughout the parking lot, including one on the Bank of America building that could have captured the suspect or suspects leaving the scene.

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