Detectives: Killing of Washington family linked to drugs

Jun 7, 2022, 4:16 AM | Updated: 4:21 pm
Kitsap County Sheriff's Detective Lt. Chad Birkenfeld takes a question from the media during a news...

Kitsap County Sheriff's Detective Lt. Chad Birkenfeld takes a question from the media during a news conference, on Tuesday, June 7, 2022, in Port Orchard, Wash., about the arrests of Danie J. Kelly Jr., Robert J. Watson III, and Johnny J. Watson, for the murder of members of the Careaga family. (Meegan M. Reid/Kitsap Sun via AP)

(Meegan M. Reid/Kitsap Sun via AP)

PORT ORCHARD, Wash. (AP) — Three men accused of killing a Washington state family five years ago pleaded not guilty Tuesday, as detectives asserted the killings were about “drugs and money” and warned that further arrests could come for “people who were dishonest with us.”

The four members of the blended Careaga family were found executed in January 2017 — Christale Careaga, 37, and two 16-year-old boys, Johnathon Higgins and Hunter Schaap, inside their burned-out home on the Kitsap Peninsula west of Seattle; and Christale’s husband, John Careaga, 43, in his torched pickup truck at a tree farm two days later.

Kitsap County sheriff’s detectives on Monday arrested Danie J. Kelly Jr., 43; Robert J. Watson III, 50; and Watson’s brother Johnny J. Watson, 49. The trio pleaded not guilty to felony counts that include aggravated murder, arson and burglary on Tuesday. Superior Court Judge Kevin Hull ordered them held without bail.

“We’ve wanted answers for the past five years,” Carly Schaap, Hunter’s mother, said Tuesday, according to the Kitsap Sun newspaper. “These are awful individuals who committed heinous crimes against four people and shook our community.”

The Careagas owned Juanito’s Taqueria, a successful Mexican restaurant in Bremerton. In court documents reported by the newspaper, detectives described John Careaga as “a family man” who “stood up for himself” — but who also had a sideline bringing a kilo of cocaine from California every couple months to sell locally.

A close friend of Careaga began selling the cocaine to suspect Robert Watson, whom detectives identified as a leader in a local chapter of the Bandidos motorcycle club, authorities said. Careaga’s friend eventually stopped selling, and the next time Careaga went to California to get the drugs, Watson took a trip there “on John’s heels,” and dialogue between the two intensified until the day of the homicides, according to investigators.

John Careaga’s attorney told authorities that Careaga had hidden hundreds of thousands of dollars underneath his home, but that money was never found, investigators said.

According to the court records, Robert Watson, an employee of Kitsap County Public Works, stopped going to work and was ultimately fired in September 2017. Detectives said about $303,000 was deposited into his accounts that year, and that there were “numerous cash deposits that the source could not be identified.”

One of the defendants, Kelly, was associated with the Bandidos as a “hang-around” — Robert Watson was sponsoring his membership in the organization, detectives said. He also was once a good friend of Careaga, even serving as the best man at Careaga’s first wedding, before a falling out.

“The motive for the crime is complicated — it’s involving drugs, money, there’s definitely some personality conflicts,” Kitsap County Sheriff’s Detective Sgt. Lissa Gundrum said at a news conference Tuesday.

Gundrum said she had long known of Kelly’s involvement in the case, but that extensive investigation involving cellphone location data, interviews and other evidence was required to help determine who else might have been culpable.

Kelly bought a prepaid mobile phone that was used to communicate almost exclusively with John Careaga for the 10 days leading up to the killings, court documents said. Further, detectives wrote, a neighbor of the Careagas who heard the gunshots at the house reported seeing John Careaga’s truck speeding away, with Kelly at the wheel and another car following close behind.

“Danie and John hated each other such that Danie would have no business being at John’s house or driving his truck,” detectives wrote in a probable cause statement.

Unanswered questions remain about the case — including where John Careaga and his truck were held before being found at the tree farm, Gundrum said: “We know that there is another crime scene somewhere. We know that there is more people that are either involved or have information.”

She also warned that more arrests could come.

“Those people who were dishonest with us or maybe held back, we’re requesting they step forward now and provide the information we need,” Gundrum said. “I understand why maybe they had some misgivings initially, but now is really the time.”

The president of the local Bandidos chapter cooperated in the investigation, she said. She heard from club members that they won’t stand for a member who kills women and children.

“I don’t necessarily think this is club-related,” she said. “I think these just happen to be members of the Bandidos club.”

Aggravated murder carries a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of release.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Detectives: Killing of Washington family linked to drugs