PLEASANTON -- A Stockton man convicted of killing his 25-year-old girlfriend and stuffing her in a Pleasanton trash can was described Wednesday by one prosecutor as "the closest thing to a serial killer" he's seen in his career.
Javier Sandoval, 35, pleaded guilty June 12 to the murder of Ana Flores-Pineda, who remained unidentified for close to five months after her badly decomposed body was discovered inside the 45-gallon trash can on May 24, 2012. Sandoval was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison for the murder of his live-in girlfriend, whom he began dating in 2008 while working at a San Bernardino market.
Family members say the two were in love for close to three years and that only near the end did their relationship become shaky.
Prosecutors, however, say they believe that Flores-Pineda may be the third woman Sandoval has killed for the sake of getting out of a relationship. They are compiling evidence on the suspicious deaths of other women in his past with the hope that he will be denied parole when eligible in 2028.
Covering his tracks
Flores-Pineda's identity remained a mystery for months until Stockton police revisited the report on her disappearance and considered the possibility that the Jane Doe in Pleasanton may be their missing person.
Pleasanton police forged an exhaustive effort to pinpoint where the woman came from, including subpoenaing the SKU number from every matching garbage can in the Bay Area, doing clay reconstruction on her skull to analyze her facial features, and even performing forensic analysis on her hair follicles to see if the kind of water she drank could point to her hometown.
While investigators found that Sandoval's cellphone had been used in the Pleasanton area May 3, they did not make the connection to the unidentified body until August, when the case was reopened after a misdirect prompted by Sandoval himself.
According to San Joaquin County Deputy District Attorney Mark Ott, Sandoval tried to stave off questions from Flores-Pineda's employers at Sahuayo Market by telling them she had to go to Mexico to care for her mother, who he said had stomach cancer. She was not reported missing until June 12, after friends watched Sandoval repeatedly request her paychecks.
It had been nearly six weeks since her body had been dumped and three weeks since police had discovered her body.
Ott said the missing persons case was briefly called off when investigators contacted the woman's family in Mexico, who at one point had confirmed she was there. The family admitted to authorities a month later that Sandoval called them and told them to lie, saying that Flores-Pineda was working in Las Vegas and that Immigration and Customs Enforcement was looking for her.
Investigators traced the SKU number found on the bottom of the trash can and discovered it had been purchased at the Big Lots store within two miles of Sandoval's Stockton home.
The cellphone tracking, trash can purchase and deliberate misdirection of the family were enough for police to build a case against Sandoval, and he was arrested on Halloween night.
While Sandoval strongly denied allegations that he had killed Flores-Pineda during police interrogation, he began to cave once investigators showed him photos of her foot sticking out of the trash can.
He eventually described kneeling on top of his girlfriend with one hand over her throat until she stopped moving, then hauling her out to the trunk of his car, where she remained overnight while Sandoval's new girlfriend, Natalia Diaz, came over to spend the night.
Seeking an 'upgrade'
In early 2012, Sandoval met Diaz, who was working as a waitress at BJ's Restaurant, where he also worked, Ott said. By late April 2012, the two were in a romantic relationship that Ott believes prompted Sandoval to get rid of Flores-Pineda the only way he knew how.
"He wanted an upgrade," Ott said. "And he always thinks the best thing to do is just off them."
Ott also noted that early in the police interrogation, Sandoval said he and Flores-Pineda had considered splitting up once before and that she said he could have all of their possessions, including their home and both vehicles, and she would take their $10,000 in savings and go back to Mexico.
Ott believes Sandoval, who he describes as a man who is "all about his things," saw killing Flores-Pineda as an easy way to ensure he'd maintain full control of all of their possessions -- cars, money and more.
Even when he was headed to prison, he had his belongings in mind, Ott said.
"He was wondering about who was going to get his bookshelves," Ott said. "Someone that's going to go to prison for the rest of their lives is generally not concerned about bookshelves or couches."
Diaz, who Ott described as extremely devoted and "almost cult-ish in her God-fearing ways," continues to date Sandoval despite his extended stay in prison. At one point, she told him "we are passing through fire, and we will come out pure on the other side," Ott said
Still, investigators aren't convinced that Diaz was exempt from the pattern they believe Sandoval had established in ending his relationships.
"There's no doubt in my mind we saved that girl's life," Ott said.
In late 2012, the Mexican niece of Sandoval's deceased wife, Jaqueline Estrada, began searching for him on the Internet; Sandoval had fled to the United States in 2008 after Estrada's death.
The woman soon discovered that Sandoval had been arrested for Flores-Pineda's murder. She contacted Stockton authorities and sent them Estrada's death certificate, which noted her cause of death as manual strangulation -- the same way Sandoval killed Flores-Pineda.
Prosecutors told Sandoval during interviews they had learned his wife died in Mexico, to which he replied, "That was an accident." He told detectives that he had pushed her down the stairs during an argument, an account inconsistent with the autopsy results.
Investigators went on to discover the man fled with his then-3-year old son Leni, whom he left in a Mexican town square before calling his parents to go pick up the child. He promptly crossed the border into the United States, landing in San Bernardino, where he met Flores-Pineda.
According to Flores-Pineda's sister, Ancelma Flores, conversations between the Estrada and Flores families also revealed Sandoval told Jacqueline Estrada he was mourning the loss of a girlfriend when they met in the early 2000s, leading investigators to consider the possibility of there being more victims.
"He's a threat to the women he dates, and he's proving it," Ott said. "He takes the term 'Til death do us part' very literally.
Despite U.S. investigators' progress in getting Sandoval to confess to his role in Estrada's death, it is not known whether he was ever arrested for the crime in Mexico, and he cannot be prosecuted for the crime in the United States.
"We have no jurisdiction over crimes that occurred in a foreign country, though prior domestic violence can be used as a motive," Ott said. "I'm hoping all of this information will be in the hands of the parole board 15 years from now.
"I've been prosecuting these kinds of cases for a long time. And this is the closest thing to a serial killer I've seen in my career."