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Murder Suspect Surrenders

Woman had fled to Mexico after Highland couple who accused her of scam were killed.

April 07, 2004|Lance Pugmire | Times Staff Writer

A woman who fled to Mexico after being named a suspect in a Highland double homicide two years ago called the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department on Tuesday morning to turn herself in, and authorities took her into custody in Calexico later in the day.

If convicted, Ernestina Bernal, 31, could receive the death penalty.

A second suspect was to go on trial in May for the 2002 slayings of longtime real estate agents James and Sue Moller.

After receiving the telephone call, sheriff's detectives, working with U.S. customs and immigration officials, rushed to the border town of Calexico, where the woman was living.

They escorted Bernal back to San Bernardino County, where she refused to answer investigators' questions about her alleged involvement in the home-invasion killings, authorities said.

Bernal was booked without bail at West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga on suspicion of two murders, armed robbery and burglary.

"[Bernal] called and said, 'Do you know me? You know, they're looking for me?' " said Sheriff's Sgt. Gerrit Tesselaar. "I told her we knew who she was and asked her if she wanted to turn herself in, and she said, 'Yeah.'

"I don't think she knows she's facing the death penalty."

Officials at the Sheriff's Department and San Bernardino County district attorney's office said they had been resigned to the belief that Bernal would never return to face charges.

Mexican authorities had refused to extradite her, citing their opposition to the death penalty.

"I'm just surprised; I never thought we would see her again," said Anne Marie Duncan, the deputy district attorney handling the case.

Tesselaar and Duncan said Bernal may have been persuaded to return by relatives who knew that her cousin, Ernesto Barajas, was scheduled to be tried May 3 for his alleged involvement.

Barajas, who authorities said was paid by Bernal to go with her to the Mollers' home, is charged with two counts of murder. If convicted, he could receive 50 years to life in prison.

"I don't know if she brought Barajas along for courage, backup or to be the driver, but he went inside the home and saw both of those dead bodies," Duncan said.

Bernal broke into the Mollers' home in the 28000 block of Terrace Drive about 9:30 p.m. on Sept. 20, 2002, authorities said. Sue Moller, 56, died of a gunshot to the head. James Moller, 64, was shot three times, including once in the head.

Bernal is believed to have killed the Mollers, who had a real estate company in Highland for 20 years, because they reported her to the district attorney's real estate fraud division, Duncan said.

They alleged that she ran a real estate scam while processing home loan applications.

Duncan said she expects "a lot of twists and turns" in the case but will try to make Bernal a co-defendant of Barajas instead of having to try them separately.

Bernal could be arraigned in San Bernardino County Superior Court today.

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