ROSAMOND — Two men have been convicted in the August 2001 murder of a Rosamond McDonald’s manager during a botched robbery.
A Kern County jury on Wednesday found Cedric Sutton, 37, and Darnell Wheat, 41, guilty of all charges, including first degree murder with special circumstances, attempted murder and kidnapping to commit robbery, according to a release from the Kern County District Attorney’s office.
The jury further determined that the crimes were committed in association with the “11-8 East Coast Crips,” a violent Los Angeles street gang.
The men will be sentenced on April 8 by trial Judge John Lua and are facing life in prison without the possibility of parole.
“The successful prosecution of a cold case murder is an important reminder that we must never stop working to seek justice for those affected by violent crimes. We remain committed to using new technology to shed new light on murder cases and bringing killers to justice,” Kern County District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer said in a statement announcing the convictions.
The former cold case involved the Aug. 11, 2001 murder of 37-year-old Maria Cruz Pina, who was killed at the restaurant on Rosamond Boulevard after she arrived just before 5 a.m. to open the restaurant with another co-worker.
Two masked men armed with handguns forced Cruz Pina, who was the morning manager, and the other employee inside and demanded money from the safe. Cruz Pina was nervous and fumbling with the safe, and one of the robbers shot her in the head, killing her instantly, authorities said.
Sutton and Wheat left the office of the business, but quickly returned, pointed a handgun at the surviving coworker, and tried to kill her as well. The handgun malfunctioned, failing to fire. The suspects fled the business, authorities said.
During the investigation on the day of the murder, citizen volunteers from Kern County Search and Rescue found articles of clothing discarded by the men on the freeway along their escape route, but there were no leads in the case, officials said.
A 2012 tip to the “secret witness” tip line implicated Sutton and Wheat in the murder. The Kern County Sheriff’s Department submitted the discarded clothing to the Kern Regional Crime Lab, where new DNA techniques identified Sutton and Wheat.
Further investigation led to the discovery of the murder weapons that had been seized by the Las Vegas Police Department nine days after the murder and had been kept by the police since that time.
“I cannot understate the importance of citizen tips to help solve crimes,” Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood said in a statement announcing the convictions. “Sometimes one tip that puts detectives on the right path can be the difference between a killer being captured or going free.”
Sutton and Wheat, both of Palmdale, were arrested in September 2016, and have been held in Kern County Jail without bail.
Wheat’s ex-wife, Dionna Williams, 34, was also arrested at that time. According to a news report in the Bakersfield Californian, the charges against Williams were dismissed after she pleaded no contest as an accessory to the murder in March 2017.
An annual walk takes place in the Antelope Valley to raise awareness of child abuse in honor of Wheat and Williams’ son, Darion Wheat, who was beaten to death in August 2006 at age 5. Williams pleaded no contest to child endangerment and was sentenced in 2009 to six years in state prison after testifying against her former boyfriend, George Tyler, who was convicted in a Kern County courtroom of second-degree murder and sentenced in 2009 to 25 years to life in prison.
Wheat was serving a 15-year prison sentence for spousal abuse against Williams when his son was killed.
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