Updated: March 29, 6:14 p.m.
LIMÓN — A Limón court delivered guilty verdicts for four of seven defendants in the 2013 killing of sea turtle conservationist Jairo Mora and the kidnapping and robbery of four foreign volunteers. The same defendants were acquitted in a previous trial last year, but the verdict was overturned on appeal.
Héctor Cash, Ernesto Centeno, José Bryan Quesada and Donald Salmón were found guilty; Donald’s brother Darwin Salmón, Felipe Arauz and William Delgado were cleared of all charges. All seven defendants were acquitted on charges of sexual assault against one of the female volunteers captured with Mora because prosecutors were unable to prove which of the defendants had committed the assault.
The four men found guilty on Tuesday received sentences ranging from 74 to 90 years for both the crimes on the night of Mora’s murder and another rape and robbery that was tried at the same time. Each of those defendants will serve 50 years in prison, the maximum allowed by Costa Rican law.
In an explanation of the ruling that lasted more than two hours, the court’s panel of three judges highlighted Mora’s work with sea turtles as the primary motivation for his murder.
“The court rejects that there is any other motive for this murder,” said Carlos Álvarez, the trial’s chief judge. “The killing of Mr. Jairo Mora Sandoval was the straw that broke the camel’s back in this war that was taking place between poachers and environmentalists on the beach.”
At the time of his death, Mora was working as a sea turtle monitor for the conservation group Widecast, now renamed LAST, on the crime-ridden Moín Beach in Limón. Notoriously headstrong, Mora had gained a reputation on the beach as a vocal advocate against turtle egg poaching, earning himself enemies among the beach’s poaching gangs.
Despite receiving numerous threats from poachers, Mora and four foreign female volunteers headed to the beach on the night of May 30, 2013 in hopes of catching a glimpse of a leatherback sea turtle. On their way back to the rescue center where they worked, their car was overtaken by a group of men in masks.
The attackers beat Mora and threw him in the trunk of the conservationists’ car before taking the women to an abandoned house and sexually assaulting at least one of them. The men then took Mora to the beach where they stripped him, beat him and dragged him behind a car in the sand.
Judges said witness testimony from Almudena Amador, a Spanish veterinarian kidnapped with Mora, and the victims of the previous rape and robbery provided consistent physical descriptions of each of the accused men along with each of their roles within the gang. Recorded phone calls, text messages and a cell tower investigation also placed each of the men on the beach at the time of the murder.
Though the phone evidence also placed Arauz and Delgado on the beach the night of the murder, judges said they could not convict based on a lack of witness testimony describing them participating in the crimes.
Weeks before the verdict, prosecutors had dropped charges against Darwin Salmón due to a lack of evidence.
“The phone evidence showed that they communicated with the other suspects, but it didn’t prove that they participated in the murder,” Álvarez said.
In his closing remarks regarding the judges’ decision to give the defendants the maximum penalty for murder, 35 years, Álvarez again looked to Mora’s work with turtles as a critical factor.
“Jairo was someone dedicated to the environment,” Álvarez said. “This crime is more than just a horrible murder, it has also damaged Costa Rica’s reputation as a green country. It has scared away environmentalists.”
Following the verdict, Arauz folded his hands and began to pray, Centeno put his head in his hands while the other convicted defendants wore blank stares.
On the other side of the courtroom, Mora’s parents, Fernanda Sandoval and Rafael Mora, began to cry.
“All that we wanted was for this crime to not go unpunished,” said Rodrigo Araya, the Mora family lawyer. “I believe this verdict can bring some peace to Jairo, to all of Costa Rican society and to environmentalists everywhere.”
See Why Jairo Died for the full story of Mora’s murder and the police investigation.