Nearly 20 years after the murder of Eugene “Cliff” Ellis, his killers may face life in prison.
Edward Jesus Elias and Leopoldo Castro Chavez, both 36, were convicted on Monday of the Sept. 25, 1993, murder of Ellis and Keith Combs, Ellis’s friend and fellow Navy sailor.
Ellis, originally from Columbus and the son of Charles and Muffie Ellis, and Combs were murdered in San Diego. The two were serving on the USS Constellation and had been out that night with fellow sailors.
Ellis had just bought a new truck, a Toyota pickup, and once he and Combs dropped off their two buddies, the duo decided to drive the new truck down into a canyon and build a fire.
According to Packet #888, the area that Ellis and Combs drove into was considered a dangerous area and a sailor had been shot in the leg the week prior to the two murders.
Investigators with the San Diego Police Department believed that the murderers watched Ellis and Combs from a higher point on the canyon before confronting them. The events that unfolded that night are still unclear, but the bodies of Ellis and Combs were discovered the next morning by a doctor who was out on a bike ride.
Chavez, who was 17 years old at the time, was discovered driving Ellis’s Toyota in Tijuana, Mexico ten days after the murders. He told police he found the vehicle with the keys in it. At the time of the murder, Chavez, a U.S. citizen, had been hiding out with his parents after he escaped from jail. Chavez had been sentenced to jail for his role in a strong-arm robbery. Chavez was held in Mexico before being extradited back to the U.S. He was questioned by San Diego officials but, despite his being in possession of the Toyota, he was released due to the lack of physical evidence.
Seventeen years after the death of the two sailors, he was officially charged with the murder.
Ellis was a beloved son, friend and student and was loved by nearly everyone he met. An excerpt from Packet 888 describes Ellis by saying:
Cliff Ellis graduated from Heritage Academy in 1991. He had grown up idolizing Charles and following in his footsteps. Charles had joined the Navy right out of high school (he enlisted with classmate Steve Guckert) and Cliff wanted to join the Navy, too. After high school he worked and went to MUW for a while but then followed his heart and joined the Navy. He took his basic training at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Chicago. His high school girlfriend, Lucy Hardy, went to the graduation with his parents. Cliff then went to San Francisco to specialize in carrier elevators. He was the A-1 Engineering Division—the same unit his dad had been in. After finishing the course he was assigned to the Constellation, which was then in dry dock in Philadelphia, Pa., just two hours from Scranton, where Muffie’s brother lived. When Cliff had time off he would make the trip to Scranton to see his relatives.
The Constellation finally left for San Diego, taking a leisurely path through the Caribbean and taking on planes over the ocean. The great ship reached its home port in July 1993 and Cliff bought his new pickup the next month. At the time of his death he had just been promoted to Petty Officer Third Class and he and Lucy Hardy were talking about engagement.
His mother remembers, “He was just a laid-back, easy-going, kind of guy.” She said that one night he was driving on Ridge Road and leaned over to kiss Lucy and hit a mailbox. She said that at 8:30 a.m. the next morning he went back to the house and rang the doorbell and said that he was the one who hit their mailbox and that he would fix it.”
Elias and Chavez will be sentenced in May. In the state of California, the penalty for first degree murder is a mandatory 25 years to life.