In an unusual move, a Modesto man pleaded guilty Thursday afternoon to a murder charge for the fatal stabbing of a 19-year-old Tracy woman in unincorporated Livermore in February, prosecutors said.
Daniel Gross, 19, entered his surprising plea at a routine pretrial hearing in Alameda County Superior Court in Dublin in connection with the Feb. 12 death of Lizette Cuesta.
Co-defendant Melissa Leonardo, 25, of Modesto, pleaded not guilty today and is scheduled to return to court on July 19 for a pretrial hearing.
The question of whether Gross' plea will be to first-degree murder or second-degree murder will be determined at his sentencing hearing, which will be scheduled when he returns to court on June 11.
The state prison term for a first-degree conviction is 25 years to life and the term for a second-degree conviction is 15 years to life.
A motorist found Cuesta stabbed near Tesla Road, roughly 2 miles west of the Carnegie State Vehicular Recreation Area, at 2:06 a.m. on Feb. 12, according to Alameda County sheriff's Sgt. Ray Kelly.
Cuesta was airlifted to Eden Medical Center in Castro Valley but was pronounced dead later that morning.
Investigators believe Cuesta was dumped from a vehicle and left for dead. She crawled on her stomach for about 100 yards before being found, Kelly said.
Cuesta made a "very compelling dying declaration" that led investigators to Gross and Leonardo, according to Kelly.
Authorities haven't disclosed a motive for Cuesta's stabbing death.
The charging document filed by the Alameda County District Attorney's Office alleges that Gross was the person who fatally stabbed Cuesta.
Gross' attorney, Alameda County Assistant Public Defender Eric Mirzaian, said in a statement, "From the very beginning of this case, Daniel has demonstrated that he is committed to accepting responsibility for his friend's death."
Mirzaian said, "He proved that when he confessed to the police, he proved it when he confessed to the media and he has proven it today by entering a guilty plea to these charges."
Mirzaian said, "It is Daniel's hope that his decision today to accept responsibility and not drag out the court proceedings for years, will bring some measure of peace and closure to Ms. Cuesta's family and loved ones."
The District Attorney's Office didn't respond to multiple requests for comment on the case Thursday