Hugo Leonel Hernandez, declaring his girlfriend “a rat,” choked her to death before wrapping her body in carpet and dumping her off Highway 74 in Orange County under the cover of darkness in July 2019, according to details in a sworn affidavit filed in Riverside County Superior Court.
The victim, 33-year-old Katherine Mary Neitzke of Hemet, has not been found, even though the other defendant in the case — a longtime friend of Hernandez — led investigators to the area where her body allegedly was left, described as two to five miles east of Quest Diagnostics in San Juan Capistrano.
Hernandez, 44, was arrested in Oceanside on Jan. 26, and has been charged with murder. He is due to enter a plea on Feb. 17 at the Riverside Hall of Justice. The affidavit was written by a Riverside County sheriff’s investigator to obtain an arrest warrant for Hernandez’s friend, Edilberto “Eddie” Avena, 42, who was still at large Thursday. He has been charged with accessory to murder.
The Sheriff’s Department began investigating the case in December 2019 when relatives reported Neitzke missing from the barn-like structure where she had been living for three weeks in the 29600 block of Mapes Road in Romoland. Relatives had not heard from her since that July 25, when Neitzke placed a frantic call to a friend, begging her to “please just come” and pick her up. Neitzke told the friend that she’d first call her back. But Neitzke never did.
Sometime in 2019, Avena met Neitzke, he told investigators. A few days later, he drove up from his home in Vista to deliver furniture to the Mapes Road home where family members lived and Hernandez and Neitzke also were staying.
“She is a rat and I had to take her down,” Avena said Hernandez told him, according to the affidavit.
A third person who was with Hernandez and Avena and who has not been charged in the case “told Eddie and Hugo to … wrap Katherine in the carpet and dump her in the hills,” the affidavit says, paraphrasing Avena from a Dec. 31, 2021 interview. John Hall, a spokesman for the District Attorney’s Office, said that person’s actions did not “rise to the level needed to file any charges.”
On July 28, 2019, Hernandez and Avena loaded Neitzke’s body into Avena’s GMC Yukon and drove through Lake Elsinore to Highway 74, also known as Ortega Highway, and cast the body over the side of the mountain road, Avena told investigators.
Avena additionally was linked to the body disposal through his phone, the affidavit says. Records from cell towers showed he was at the south end of the lake in Lake Elsinore that date, heading toward Highway 74 between 8:20 p.m. and 8:27 p.m. Records also showed him moving away from Highway 74 between 9:36 p.m. and 9:43 p.m.
At the time he was being questioned, Avena twice accompanied investigators to the area, but the body could not be found. Avena then vanished, and the arrest warrant was issued on Jan. 28, 2022.
Hernandez is being held in lieu of $1 million bail at Robert Presley Detention Center in Riverside. A motive for the killing has not been disclosed.