A veteran pulled over to help a stuck truck. Its driver was a hit man hired to kill him.
FLORIDA — When police found Carlos Cruz-Echevarria dead near his home last Veterans Day, he was lying face down in a ditch, shot multiple times in the head. Beside him was a truck stuck in the mud. Later, the 60-year-old army veteran's car was found several miles away, torched. It seemed like a random, senseless killing: authorities thought Cruz-Echevarria had been robbed and left for dead after stopping to help a stranger on a Daytona Beach roadside. But a year-long investigation has revealed that it was anything but random.
The Volusia County Sheriff's Department arrested two men and a woman this week in what they're calling a murder-for-hire plot to keep Cruz-Echaverria from testifying in a road-rage case. The three have been charged with first-degree murder, and prosecutors are considering the death penalty, Sheriff Michael Chitwood said in a Friday news conference.
"This is one of the most heinous, despicable, cowardly acts that I've ever witnessed," Chitwood said. "Somebody's gonna pay the ultimate price."
The killing was set in motion more than six months earlier, investigators say. Cruz-Echevarria honked at the car in front of him as it stood still at a green light in May 2017. The other driver, Kelsey McFoley, 28, pulled up beside Cruz-Echevarria at the next intersection and brandished a gun, investigators said at the news conference. Cruz-Echevarria managed to write down the car's license plate number and picked McFoley out of a lineup later, authorities say.
McFoley was a "thug of thugs," Chitwood said, with a lengthy criminal record that showed his capacity for violence. After the road-rage incident, McFoley was charged with aggravated assault and unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon. He was slated to go to trial in early December 2017. To avoid going back to prison, Capt. Brian Henderson said, McFoley hired someone to take Cruz-Echevarria out.
That's where Benjamin Bascom came in. The 24-year-old had a reputation as a killer, Henderson said, adding that investigators have tied him to open murder cases in Orange County, Florida. Bascom and McFoley were "criminal associates," investigators said, and McFoley reached out over the phone, offering Bascom money to silence Cruz-Echevarria.
Over the course of a few weeks, Bascom and McFoley, along with Melissa Rios Roque, 21, - who investigators believe is pregnant with McFoley's child - plotted to kill the army veteran, authorities say. The young woman's job was to help stalk the victim and to help Bascom escape once the man was dead. McFoley snagged the man's home address from court documents in the road-rage case. The suspects bought a stolen car and began stalking Cruz-Echevarria, driving past his home and staking out the area in Daytona Beach, Henderson said.
On the eve of execution, Bascom drove the stolen car to Cruz-Echevarria's house, but the man was not home, Henderson said. Bascom lay in wait, canvassing the street. But as he tried to turn around, his truck got stuck in a muddy ditch, Henderson said.
In a savage stroke of fate, a passing driver stopped to help him out: Cruz-Echevarria. As he bent to inspect the truck, authorities said, Bascom shot him multiple times in the head.
"The stars aligned, unfortunately," Sheriff Chitwood said during the news conference. "He didn't even see it coming."
In some ways, the plot worked: the charges against McFoley were dropped, and for months, it seemed there'd be no justice in Cruz-Echevarria's slaying. Investigators offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the killer's capture. Then DNA evidence tied the stolen car and Cruz-Echevarria's torched one to Bascom, but the real "smoking gun" in the case came from phone records, Henderson said.
All three alleged co-conspirators were arrested Tuesday in different parts of the state, Henderson said. Bascom was trying to flee - he'd bought a one-way ticket to Texas and was going through security check at Orlando International Airport when he was arrested. U.S. Marshals nabbed McFoley in Orlando. Volusia County detectives caught Roque on a Florida interstate highway.
Assistant State Attorney Ryan Will said prosecutors are considering seeking the death penalty for the three people charged in Cruz-Echevarria's death. In the next 30 days, prosecutors will talk with the victim's family and see what their wishes are moving forward, but as of now, capital punishment is a possibility, Will said.
Cruz-Echevarria was a hardworking, self-made man who was beloved by those who knew him, Volusia County Sheriff's Office Detective said in a video shown at the news conference. His slaying "brought the community to its knees."
Chitwood said he hopes the defendants get the death penalty, stressing that Cruz-Echevarria had not deserved to die.
"A road-rage incident where a man does what he's supposed to do: notify the police, cooperate with the system, and his thanks was to end up with multiple bullets in his head," he said.
This article was written by Taylor Telford, a reporter for The Washington Post.