3 appear in Vegas court in drug torture-arson slayings case

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — Three men appeared in a Las Vegas courtroom Tuesday in a brutal torture, arson and double murder case that police say stemmed from missing drug shipments mailed to the Philadelphia area.

Hakim Rydell Branche-Jones, Malik Niem Watson and Darrin Rafael Wilder are accused of stabbing and burning 45-year-old Mario Jimenez and killing 27-year-old Angelica Jimenez, who died of burn injuries three months after the November 2015 fire.

A 71-year-old man survived with serious stab wounds and burns, according to court documents. A woman is still being treated for severe burns and a neighbor rescued a 10-month-old girl who police said was put outside the house before the fire, police said.

Throughout the attack, survivors told police, the assailants demanded money and drugs, and mocked the victims for threatening to send members of an unspecified Mexican drug cartel to find Branche-Jones, Wilder and Watson to collect some $80,000 that was in dispute.

Las Vegas police said U.S. Postal Service investigators had intercepted the drugs during an ongoing investigation of drugs mailed in packages from Las Vegas to Philadelphia.

"They used weapons to cut and stab the victims to force (one of them) to tell them the location of the narcotics and (cash) in the residence," the police report said. Names of the victims were redacted. One man gave them $500 and said it was all the money he had.

Attorneys for the three defendants declined Tuesday to comment outside court.

Branche-Jones and Wilder, both 26, were already in federal custody in Nevada on other charges when Watson, 27, was arrested in the Philadelphia area, police said.

Watson was returned to custody in Nevada last week, and is being held without bail at the Clark County jail in Las Vegas.

Each defendant is accused of murder, attempted murder, conspiracy, kidnapping, arson, robbery and burglary. Most charges include weapon enhancements.

Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson is expected to decide in coming weeks if they'll face the death penalty.

Security was unusually tight for the court appearance. Las Vegas Justice of the Peace Conrad Hafen ordered the courtroom cleared of spectators other than the defendants, attorneys, court officials, police investigators and media. Three uniformed police SWAT officers guarded the courtroom doorways.

The judge said he'll meet next Tuesday with the attorneys to set a date for a preliminary hearing. None of the men was asked to enter a plea.

Police say the victims were each bound with plastic ties on their wrists and duct tape over their mouths, stabbed, and doused with gasoline that was then ignited.

The first 911 calls reported the house exploded. Authorities said a neighbor was able to get three victims out of the house through a rear sliding glass door.

Police said that after seeing news reports that there had been survivors in the fire, Watson, Wilder and Branche-Jones bought airline tickets and flew to Philadelphia.

Branche-Jones and Wilder have also been indicted with three other people in U.S. District Court in Las Vegas on federal drug, weapon and money laundering charges. They've pleaded not guilty.

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