Most Wanted list: Authorities put violent offenders at the top
By Nathan Hardin
As fire crews and emergency personnel checked a scorched single-wide mobile home in February 2003, they had no idea a body was in a shallow grave 200 yards behind them.
The body, later identified as 20-year-old Miguel Gonzales-Macias, wouldn’t be found for another 10 days. Investigators said the man died from multiple stab wounds and the body was burned in the grave.
Looking back, investigators said they weren’t able to make up what they lost in those 10 days. Leads were old when they got them and the men eventually named as suspects were gone.
More than eight years later, Jose Antonio Betancourt and Valentin Sanchez Ramirez — the two co-workers of Gonzales-Macias who authorities believe killed him — remain abroad.
Betancourt remains one of Rowan County law enforcement’s most wanted. Ramirez, despite having outstanding warrants for arson and murder, is not on the list because authorities do not have a photo or strong description.
The case was a perfect storm of difficulty for the murder investigators.
The body of another Hispanic man had been found one week before Francisco Gonzales-Macias discovered his brother’s 30-inch grave near the ruined mobile home at 655 Geneva Drive. Detectives spent several weeks determining if the two killings were related, eventually deciding they were not.
Gonzales-Macias didn’t have many family members or friends, outside of the two who were accused of killing him, investigators said. And any evidence had been destroyed in the arson that gutted the trailer he planned to sleep in the night he was killed.
“He was missing a whole week before we ever got a start on it,” Lt. Chad Moose of the Criminal Investigations Division said. “The people that knew something didn’t come forward with information immediately.”
According to Moose, Betancourt, Ramirez and Gonzales-Macias were all living at the mobile home. Moose said all the evidence points to the killing resulting from an argument.
“They got mad,” he said. “It wasn’t a drug deal gone bad or anything like that.”
Francisco Gonzales-Macias loaned his 1995 Nissan to his brother Feb. 1, according to the report. On Feb. 2, he tried to file a missing persons report but was told he had to wait 24 to 48 hours.
See Wanted, 11A
That day, the inside of the trailer was found burned. Investigators said minimal evidence could be collected from the scene.
“He was in the ground when the house was on fire,” Moose said. “Betancourt was gone. He was long gone.”
After being told to wait by authorities, Francisco Gonzales-Macias went to Concord police and took out a warrant for unauthorized use of a vehicle, hoping that would spur officers to help find his brother.
On Feb. 12, the Nissan was found abandoned in Stanly County. But investigators never made it to the vehicle that day because as they left the station, heading for Stanly, they received a call that a body had been found behind the mobile home.
‘A few steps behind’
Ramirez, Betancourt and Marcias-Gonzales worked together at Southern States Rebar.
Jamie Beach was the lead detective assigned to the murder and now works as a detective for the Kannapolis Police Department. He said Betancourt was seen at work by a supervisor shortly after authorities found the burned trailer.
The supervisor told Beach that Betancourt, who would now be 36 years old, “looked like he had been in a fight.”
The supervisor told authorities Betancourt had scratches and bruises on his face and arms, and his work glasses were broken.
“He had to leave work to go get another pair of glasses,” Beach said.
Beach tracked Betancourt to the Walmart at 2865 N. Cannon Blvd., where Betancourt purchased glasses. The trail went cold after the purchase, though, and Betancourt and Ramirez never returned to work.
“I was just a few steps behind him,” Beach said.
Beach became involved in the case Feb. 12 when deputies took out a warrant for arson on Ramirez, around the same time Gonzales-Macias’ body was found.
Francisco Gonzales-Macias had been out to the burned trailer several times, but was there that Wednesday hoping to see something new that would lead him to his brother.
He later told investigators that he previously saw a patch of freshly dug dirt and went back to see it again. Hours later, deputies were driving down the dirt road to 655 Geneva Drive.
Sex offenders a priority
Betancourt, whose last known address is 300 No. 4 Gaddy St., Kannapolis, is one of the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office 15 Most Wanted and is the only case in the county with active murder warrants.
But authorities are continuing investigations in two dozen other Most Wanted cases.
Robert Junior Gray, 57, is wanted by deputies and the Salisbury Police Department on sex offender charges.
Salisbury Police Capt. Shelia Lingle said the department’s investigators take violent offenders seriously on the Most Wanted list, which was started almost three years ago. But she said they are equally vigilant in searching for alleged sex offenders.
“Robert Junior Gray has been on it for a good while now,” Lingle said. “He has five indecent liberties with children warrants and one first-degree sex offense warrant, and he’s been on the run since September 2010.”
Lingle said the Salisbury Police Department places a special emphasis on sexual predators because they’re known to continue threatening communities.
“There’s one or two on there that are with indecent liberties with children charges,” Lingle said. “They prey on young children. Until you get them stopped or locked up, they’re going to continue.”
Detective Brent Hall manages Salisbury’s Most Wanted list. Authorities have arrested 90 people from the list since its creation.
“He confers with the other detectives and they come to a census of who needs to be put on there,” Lingle said. “He gets feedback from everyone in the department.”
At the Sheriff’s Office, Moose handpicks the offenders for the Most Wanted list but said he doesn’t rank them.
“I want to give my detectives time to look for them,” he said.
The list was started in 2010, and Moose said it’s helped make the community aware of the people deputies are concentrating on finding.
“If things keep going like they’re going, I’d like to cut it down to a top 10,” Moose said.
Moose said he’s especially determined to find those wanted for sex offenses.
“Anything involving kids makes the list,” he said.
The most recent addition, Juan Antonio Molino, is wanted for trafficking cocaine and felony trafficking in heroin. Molino was added in August after he escaped when the Sheriff’s Office narcotics unit raided several Rowan homes, arresting alleged drug kingpin Joel Alejandres Santibanez.
Moose said he still gets tips on Betancourt and last heard the 36-year-old was in Acapulco, Mexico.
“He comes in and out of the country,” Moose said.
Anyone with information on a Most Wanted list suspect is asked to call Crime Stoppers toll free at 866-639-5245 or your local law enforcement agency.
Contact reporter Nathan Hardin at email@example.com or 704-797-4246.
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