(WB) The Loudoun County, Va., Sheriff’s Office announced on Wednesday it has arrested two men on charges of First Degree Murder and Conspiracy to Commit Robbery and a third man on an Auto Theft charge in connection with the July 8 murder of a gay man in Sterling, Va.

Last week, the Sheriff’s Office, which serves as the Loudoun County police force, announced that 24-year-old Jose I. Escobar Menendez, a resident of Winchester, Va., was found dead in a roadway along Emerald Point Terrace near Winding Road in Sterling around 3:30 a.m. on Wednesday, July 8.

A spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office told the Washington Blade the cause of death was a gunshot wound.

In an announcement on Wednesday, the Sheriff’s Office said Gavin C. Collins, 21, of Sterling and Joshua M. Hunter, 22, of Woodbridge, Va., were each charged with First Degree Murder, Conspiracy to Commit Robbery, and two counts of Using a Firearm while in the Commission of a Felony (Robbery and Murder) in connection with Menendez’s death.

A statement announcing the arrests says a third suspect, Handy N. Colindrez, 24, of no fixed address, was arrested as part of the investigation and charged with Grand Larceny (Auto Theft).

The announcement says Collins is also charged with Possession of a Schedule 1 Narcotic, Felon in Possession of a Firearm, and Possession of a Firearm while in Possession of a Schedule 1 Narcotic. In addition, it says Collins was found to have an outstanding arrest warrant for an unrelated case in Loudoun County and was charged with a Probation Violation for another unrelated case in Prince William County.

“During the early morning hours of July 6, the victim agreed to meet Collins in the area of Emerald Point Terrace,” the Sheriff’s Office says in its statement announcing the arrests. “During the course of their encounter a dispute occurred and the victim was shot and killed when Collins and Hunter attempted to rob him,” the statement says. “Both Collins and Hunter then left the area, taking the victim’s car,” it says.

The statement says that during the course of the investigation, Menendez’s vehicle was located in Prince William County and the third suspect, Handy N. Colindrez, was arrested as part of the investigation and charged with “Grand Larceny [Auto Theft].”

The statement doesn’t say how Colindrez became involved with the other two suspects or how he obtained possession of Menendez’s vehicle.

Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Michele Bowman told the Washington Blade the office could not release that information or other details in the case at this time because the investigation was continuing.

However, in response to the Blade’s question of how Menendez first met suspect Collins to enable him to arrange to meet Collins on the night of the murder, Bowman said “the two met online” but declined to provide additional details.

An arrest warrant for Colindrez filed by the Loudoun County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office accuses Colindrez of conspiring to commit grand larceny of Menendez’s vehicle, which other charging documents identify as a 2019 Nissan Sentra.

The arrest warrant for Hunter says “Joshua Hunter and another suspect did rob Jose Menendez of his 2019 Nissan Sentra passenger car” on July 8, 2020. “Hunter was present for the robbery and did drive another suspect, identified as Gavin Collins, to the area where they met Menendez,” the warrant says.

“Hunter also assisted in the transport and sale of the stolen car after the reported incident,” the warrant for Hunter’s arrest says. “This robbery resulted in the murder of Jose Menendez,” it says. The warrant suggests that Collins and Hunter may have sold Menendez’s car to Colindrez.

The warrant for Collins’ arrest says Sheriff’s Office investigators obtained a search warrant for a hotel room in Sterling and executed the search on July 11. It says investigators conducting the search found Collins and “another male subject” in the room. The investigators also found a .45 caliber firearm and a number of narcotics in the room, according to the warrant.

“Collins admitted to being in possession of the narcotics and that the narcotics were described to be crystal methamphetamine,” the arrest warrant says. “Collins also admitted to being in possession of the firearm,” the warrant says.

“This remains an active investigation and additional charges are possible,” the Sheriff’s Office statement says. “All three suspects are being held at the Loudoun County Adult Detention Center without bond.”

A woman who says she was a friend of Menendez told the Loudoun Times-Mirror she believes Menendez was the victim of a hate crime based on his sexual orientation.

“He was murdered & we believe it was due to his sexuality…We think he met up with someone off of a dating app…,” the newspaper quoted her as saying in a Twitter post.

The Times-Mirror, which did not identify the female friend by name, said she told the paper Menendez “was an amazing friend” of hers. “He was always that person to hype you up. He just wanted everyone to have a good time,” the newspaper quoted her as saying.

Heather Williamson, a spokesperson for the Loudoun County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, which is prosecuting the case, declined to say whether the office was considering prosecuting the case as a hate crime.

“This is an active case and continuing investigation and our office will not be issuing any comment at this time,” she told the Blade in an email.

If the Commonwealth’s Attorney decides to charge the case as a hate crime it could be the first time an LGBT related hate crime is prosecuted in Virginia. Earlier this year the Virginia Legislature passed a law expanding the state’s existing hate crimes statute to include protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The new law, which was signed by Gov. Ralph Northam, took effect on July 1.

The Sheriff’s Office is urging anyone with information about the case to call Det. M. Grimsley at 703-777-1021.