With his life on the line, the accused murderer of a Maricopa couple has signed a plea agreement rather than go to trial.
Jose Ignacio Valenzuela, now 42, has been behind bars since the summer of 2015, charged with the homicides of husband-and-wife Tina and Michael Careccia. It was being prosecuted as a capital case and would have gone to trial Sept. 10. Had a jury found him guilty, he could have faced the death penalty.
The plea agreement, filed Monday, has Valenzuela pleading guilty to the first-degree murder of Tina Careccia and the second-degree murder of Michael Careccia. Both were shot to death.
In the plea agreement, Valenzuela agreed to a sentence of natural life for the first-degree murder. He also agreed to pay restitution of up to $150,000.
There is no agreement on the sentence for the charge of second-degree murder, though Valenzuela agreed to pay another fine for restitution of up to $150,000. In Arizona, second-degree murder has a sentence of 10-25 years, with a presumptive sentence of 16 years.
The original charge in the death of Michael Careccia was first-degree murder.
Formal sentencing is set for Aug. 13. Special Prosecutor Gary Husk said he would have no comment until sentencing.
The Careccia disappeared from their Hidden Valley home the evening of Father’s Day 2015. The family, community members and law enforcement searched the area by ground and air for weeks. Valenzuela was arrested as a person of interest July 1, and the bodies were uncovered that night in Valenzuela’s backyard, where they had been buried with a backhoe. At the time Valenzuela lived in a house belonging to his parents on Papago Road.
The case developed to include drugs, an eye-witness and a hidden car containing a victim’s blood.
The prosecution of the case became complicated when Kent Volkmer was elected county attorney. As a private attorney he had been involved in the Valenzuela case, so he had the entire department recused from prosecuting the case upon taking office in 2017. Instead, the case was sent to Navajo County, which assigned Husk to be special prosecutor.
In the subsequent months and years, the case has gone through changes in defense attorneys and judges, as well.