Leatherbury Murder: How cell towers, Facebook, a bed sheet and gift card led police to suspects

Suspect said he killed man in self-defense

EL PASO, Texas - An El Paso man killed a friend temporarily staying with him after the friend "came on to him in a homosexual manner," criminal complaint documents obtained by ABC-7 state. 

On Thursday, June 21, 2018, investigators arrested 55-year old Richard Zelonis and 27-year-old Aaron Anthony Zelonis for the 2016 murder of Devon Leatherbury.  Both men were initially charged with Murder. The father was booked into the county jail on a $750,000 bond. The son was booked on a $1-million bond.  In July 2018, the district attorney's office downgraded the charges against Richard Zelonis, now facing the lesser charge of Tampering with Evidence. 

On August 16, 2016, the 26-year-old Leatherbury was found dead in the desert area near the 12700 block of Dyer in far Northeast El Paso near the Texas-New Mexico state line. At the time, police did not say how Leatherbury died. Criminal complaint affidavits obtained by ABC-7 state ATV riders found Leatherbury's body. An examination revealed Leatherbury had been shot in the head, but no weapon was found at the scene where his body was found.

Police said a review of the victim's social media activity and cell phone records indicated he was temporarily staying with Aaron Zelonis at 4012 Porter Avenue in Central El Paso. When detectives interviewed Aaron Zelonis, he told them he learned about Leatherbury's death on Facebook. Aaron Zelonis allegedly confirmed Leatherbury was staying with him and the last time he saw Leatherbury was on August 12, 2018 at approximately 5 a.m. Leatherbury left with duffel bags, Aaron Zelonis told police. "He (Aaron) said he did not see the victim again and was adamant he did not leave his residence after the victim's departure," the criminal complaint states. 

During the police interview, Aaron Zelonis provided police his phone number. A review of cell phone tower records revealed Aaron Zelonis was not where he told detectives he was at the time Leatherbury was killed. The cell phone tower data revealed Aaron Zelonis was in the Northeast area of El Paso in between 7:41 a.m. and 8:41 a.m. on August 12, 2016. 

When police interviewed Richard Zelonis, he also provided his cell phone number. Detectives reviewed cell phone tower records and learned Richard Zelonis was allegedly near the site where Leatherbury's body was dumped in between 7:41 a.m. and 8:41 a.m. on August 12, 2016. Cell phone towers then tracked Richard Zelonis' cell phone to the Lowe's at 11950 Rojas in Far East El Paso, where he was allegedly captured by a surveillance camera purchasing tools with a gift card that belonged to Leatherbury, the complaint affidavit states. 

In the criminal complaint filed against Richard Zelonis, police state a search of the defendant's residence allegedly turned up a pillow case that matched the bed sheet found with the body at the dump site, adding "The set (bed sheet and pillow case) are unique in style and design." When asked where the bed sheet for the pillow case was, the defendant allegedly said the sheet may have been in a "tote box" his wife used as a laundry hamper.  The crime scene where Leatherbury's was found "revealed two impressions, or lines in the sand ... the impressions were unique as they appeared close to each other and the pattern was consistent with the description of the tires on the 'tote box' described by the defendant," the document states. 

When asked about the inconsistencies in his story on June 21, 2018, Richard Zelonis allegedly told police his son, Aaron Zelonis, shot and killed Leatherbury after they had argued for some time. Further, the father said he learned Leatherbury had come onto his son "in a homosexual manner" and his son "did not welcome the advances." Richard Zelonis allegedly confessed to transporting Leatherbury's body to the site where it was dumped and to using Leatherbury's gift card.  Further, Richard Zelonis said he helped his son place Leatherbury's body inside the "tote box," then driving to the desert, where the body was dumped. The father allegedly told police his son buried the murder weapon somewhere in the desert. 

Later on June 21, 2018, Aaron Zelonis met with detectives at police headquarters and allegedly confessed to shooting Leatherbury in the head "in self-defense." Aaron Zelonis claimed Leatherbury pointed the gun at him, and during a struggle for the gun, he shot Leatherbury in the head. Further, Aaron Zelonis allegedly told detectives he, his father, and his father's girlfriend, Tina McKenzie, cleaned up the crime scene, then drove the victim's body to the desert, where it was dumped. Aaron Zelonis allegedly admitted the gift card his father used belonged to Leatherbury. The son told police his father drove to a car wash on Lee Trevino and Pebble Hills, where they washed and cleaned the tote box and the interior of the vehicle used to transport the victim's body. 

Police have not charged McKenzie. 

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