Three years after shooting, cops charge two men in murder of college student

Brandon Figueroa, left, and Jonathan Rivera-Gunera
Brandon Figueroa, left, and Jonathan Rivera-Gunera Miami-Dade Department of Corrections

For more than three years, Miami detectives struggled to find clues in the murder of a college student from India gunned down late one night outside his Little Havana apartment while talking on his cellphone.

They had some grainy video. A couple of the Aila Sai Kiran’s friends had heard a commotion. But the evidence in the murder of the 22-year-old was too sketchy to trace.

The case was “Antarctic cold,” said Miami Detective Ezra Washington.

Then, about three weeks ago, Washington’s phone rang with a tip. A caller told the detective about hearing someone discussing Sai Kiran’s killing.

Three days later, Brandon Figueroa, 23 and Jonathan Rivera-Gunera, 21, were arrested and charged with the murder of Sai Kiran. He had moved here from India only a month before he was killed to attend a small technological college in downtown Miami.

Detectives said both admitted to trying to rip off Sai Kiran and getting into a scuffle with him. Neither, however, admitted to the pulling the trigger, each claiming the other was the gunman.

“They pointed the finger at each other,” said Washington.

According to their arrest reports, Figueroa claimed Rivera-Gunera shot Sai Kiran after the student overpowered both of them. Rivera-Gunera told police he was waiting in the getaway car when Figueroa shot and killed Sai Kiran. Figueroa told police both men discarded their bloody clothes somewhere in Broward County.

Both Figueroa and Rivera-Gunera were charged with first-degree murder and denied bond.

Aila was killed on a Saturday night in June of 2015 after a dinner party with two friends at his Little Havana apartment. He was chatting with them in the hallway of his apartment when he got a phone call, lit a cigarette and went outside to talk.

He never made it back inside. Police determined Aila was killed for his cellphone after speaking with the person on the other end of the line: A friend from India who had moved to Mississippi, also to study in the U.S. Aila was shot several times and the shooter left the cellphone and some jewelry behind after a struggle.

The student on the other end of the line when Aila was shot told police he heard someone say “give me your cellphone,” before losing contact with Aila.

Aila moved to Miami from Hyderabad, a hub of India’s technology industry. He was trying to obtain a master’s degree in information technology from Atlantis University. The school, with a large Indian presence, recruits heavily from Asia.

When he was shot, police had grainy video from the building, but little else to go on, until they contacted Aila’s friend in Mississippi. His friends who were at the apartment the night Aila was shot, said they were so naive about the dangers of Miami that they heard a commotion outside, but thought nothing of it.

One of Sai Kiran’s friends said they chose to live in the Miramar apartment complex in Little Havana because it was inexpensive and near Atlantis University on Biscayne Boulevard and Northeast 14th Street. The shooting left his friends in shock and his family begging that the body be returned quickly to India for burial.

“It was kind of heart-breaking,” said Miami Police Chief Jorge Colina. “He was a student here looking for a better life.”