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Sirens & Gavels

Medical examiner is ‘87 murder witness

A Pasco murder trial moved to Spokane because of extensive publicity featured testimony Monday from Spokane County Medical Examiner John Howard.

Howard performed autopsies on the five men killed in the 1987 Pasco body shop slayings and described their gunshot wounds to jurors.

Three of the men, who were all reportedly lined up inside a garage before being gunned down, were hit two times, Howard said. Another had four gunshot wounds and the fifth was struck seven times, with four bullets hitting the same area in his back, Howard said.

Some of the injuries were consistent with “being confronted and ducking or turning around,” Howard confirmed for prosecutors.

 Howard was a Washington State Forensic Pathology Fellow based at the University of Washington 23 years ago when the Franklin County coroner asked him to examine the five victims.

Howard was testifying in the trial of Vicente Ruiz, the second man accused in the killings in Medina’s Body Shop on Oct. 13, 1987.

Ruiz, 46, is charged in Franklin County Superior Court with five counts of aggravated first-degree murder and one count of attempted first-degree murder.

The case was moved to Spokane because of extensive media coverage during the first two trials, which both ended in mistrials.

This trial started Nov. 9 with jury selection, and has gone through 12 days of witness testimony. Prosecutors expect to wrap up their case later this week, with defense lawyers planning to call their first witness Friday.

The trial has included a refusal to testify by a convicted killer whose life was spared when he agreed to testify against Ruiz, his cousin. The Tri-City Herald reports Pedro Mendez-Reyna asserted his right not to incriminate himself 29 times before the jury last Thursday and was found in contempt of court for refusing to testify.

Read in-depth coverage from the Tri-City Herald by clicking the link below.


Expert describes gun shot wounds to Ruiz trial jury

By Kristin M. Kraemer

Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, Wash.

Dec. 07—SPOKANE — A forensic pathologist who performed autopsies on five men killed in the 1987 Pasco body shop slayings described their gunshot wounds to jurors Monday.

Three of the men, who were all reportedly lined up inside the Pasco garage before being gunned down, were hit two times, said Dr. John Howard. Another had four gunshot wounds and the fifth was struck seven times, with four bullets hitting the same area in his back, Howard said.

Some of the injuries were consistent with “being confronted and ducking or turning around,” Howard confirmed for prosecutors.

Now an employee of the Spokane County Medical Examiner’s Office, Howard was a Washington State Forensic Pathology Fellow based at the University of Washington 23 years ago when the Franklin County coroner asked him to examine the five victims.

Howard was testifying in the trial of Vicente Ruiz, the second man accused in the killings in Medina’s Body Shop on Oct. 13, 1987.

Ruiz, 46, is charged in Franklin County Superior Court with five counts of aggravated first-degree murder and one count of attempted first-degree murder.

The case was moved to Spokane because of extensive media coverage during the first two trials, which both ended in mistrials.

This trial started Nov. 9 with jury selection, and has gone through 12 days of witness testimony. Prosecutors expect to wrap up their case later this week, with defense lawyers planning to call their first witness Friday.

Ruiz, who’s been in custody since 2006 when he was arrested in Mexico, claims it’s a case of mistaken identity.

But his cousin, Pedro Mendez-Reyna, and lone survivor, Aldo Montes, both have pointed the finger at Ruiz.

Mendez-Reyna, 48, is serving a life term for his role in the shootings.

Montes, who also used the name Jesse Rocio, was hit in the stomach by a ricocheting bullet and drove himself to the Pasco Police Department that night for help.

Killed were Misael Barajas, 22; Juan Antonio Lopez Garcia, 20; Eliceo Guzman Lamas, 20; and Rafael Parra Magallon, 22, all of Pasco, and Francisco Venegas Cortez, 21, of Kennewick.

Two more relatives of the victims briefly took the stand Monday to describe the night they learned their loved ones were killed.

They were followed by Howard, who said he has performed “around 7,000” autopsies in his career but still clearly remembered his assignment in 1987. The examinations were done on Oct. 15-16 at two separate funeral homes in Pasco and Kennewick, he said.

Howard detailed the path each bullet took — whether it entered in the front or the back and what organs or bones it hit as it went through each body.

All the men died from gunshot wounds from both a rifle and “handguns or low-velocity weapons,” he said. Gunpowder residue was not detected on any of the bodies, meaning they were not close to the guns when shot.

Also Monday, Gilbert Rodriguez testified about contacting police after the slayings.

Rodriguez said he’d had a side job with his cousin in 1987 doing small jobs on cars. They’d been given permission to work in the yard at Medina’s but never went inside.

The agreement was between his cousin and Clifford Medina, said Rodriguez, who described himself as “the helper.” They would typically work all day until it got dark.

Rodriguez said he walked in the door of his house on Oct. 13 and his girlfriend said something had happened at the shop. He then watched TV for any details.

“I was surprised. I was just basically surprised,” said Rodriguez, who now lives in Arizona.

When he heard police were looking for two mechanics who’d been outside the shop just before the shootings, Rodriguez said he immediately called then-Detective Henry Montelongo.

“The only mechanics could have been us. I said, ‘Henry, anything you want to ask us?’ ” he told Montelongo, who came to Rodriguez’s Kennewick home to talk.

Rodriguez couldn’t remember what else he told investigators in 1987, when contacted again in 1994 or during another meeting with law enforcement and attorneys in 2008.

“Do you remember telling Henry at that time (in 1994) that Vicente Ruiz was there the night of the incident?” Deputy Prosecutor Brian Hultgrenn asked.

“No, I don’t remember,” Rodriguez responded. He also said he was shown a photo montage at the same time and picked out people who’d been at the shop, but did not recall who that was on Monday.

Rodriguez admitted for defense lawyer Bob Thompson that he “drank all the time” back in 1987, which may have affected his memory of events but added that he didn’t “remember drinking very much that day.”

Thompson also asked Rodriguez if he left town 10 days after the shooting because Montes had threatened his life. Rodriguez said he didn’t remember anybody not liking him and just felt like it was a good time to leave.

Kristin M. Kraemer: 582-1531; kkraemer@ tricityherald.com

Relatives of deceased take stand in Ruiz trial

By Kristin M. Kraemer

Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, Wash.

Dec. 04—SPOKANE — Jose Barajas was living in Bingen in 1987 when he got word that his younger brother “had an accident” in Pasco.

Only after making the more than 2 1/2-hour trip east did a relative tell him what had really happened — Misael Barajas and five other young men had been lined up and shot inside a body shop garage.

The 22-year-old brother had lived in Pasco less than a month. Doctors were unable to resuscitate him at a nearby hospital.

On Friday, Jose Barajas told jurors at the trial of Vicente Ruiz that he was the one who identified his brother at a Pasco funeral home.

He and the brother of another shooting victim testified Friday, as attorneys made their way through a confusing series of questions apparently aimed at establishing how the victims and accused knew each other, and how certain witnesses were of the identifications they made.

Ruiz, 46, is accused of helping kill five people and wound another inside Medina’s Body Shop on Oct. 13, 1987. He is on trial for five counts of aggravated first-degree murder and one count of first-degree attempted murder.

The Franklin County Superior Court case was moved to Spokane because of extensive media coverage of the first two trials, both of which ended in mistrials.

This trial started Nov. 9 with jury selection. Jurors have listened to 11 days of testimony so far; prosecutors are set to present more witnesses Monday.

Ruiz and his lawyers claim it is a case of mistaken identity and have suggested the shooter might have been a similar-looking relative of Ruiz’s.

The lone survivor of the crime identified Ruiz, along with his cousin, Pedro Mendez-Reyna. Mendez-Reyna was sentenced to life in prison in 1994 for his role in the shootings after agreeing to testify against Ruiz.

He refused to testify Thursday about that night and only said, “I plead the Fifth.”

Aldo Montes, who was hit in the stomach by a ricocheting bullet, was being treated in the hospital when he picked Ruiz’s picture out of a photo montage as one of the two shooters. He had driven to the Pasco Police Department after the shootings, then was taken by ambulance to what now is Lourdes Medical Center.

Police and paramedics then responded to the body shop around 7 p.m. to find the victims.

In addition to Misael Barajas, killed were: Juan Antonio Lopez Garcia, 20; Eliceo Guzman Lamas, 20; and Rafael Parra Magallon, 22, all of Pasco; and Francisco Venegas Cortez, 21, of Kennewick.

Barajas and Lopez Garcia were from the same village in the Mexican state of Zacatecas and likely had known each other since childhood, Jose Barajas said. He testified that after his brother’s death he met the people Misael had been living with, including Montes, who also was known as Rocio.

He said Montes came from a town in Mexico that was “about five hours on foot” from their own village, Jose Barajas said.

Like Barajas, Alfonso Lopez had to travel to Pasco 23 years ago after finding out “that my brother had been murdered.”

Alfonso Lopez said he had moved from Pasco to Brewster a month before, but made the drive with his father to identify his brother Juan Antonio Lopez Garcia’s body in the funeral home and make arrangements.

Lopez was joined in court Friday by his father and two sisters but was the only family member to take the stand.

Lopez testified that when he lived in Pasco with his older brother, they had hung out with the same people, including Misael Barajas. He said he did not know Montes.

Asked if he had known Ruiz or Mendez-Reyna, Lopez said through an interpreter, “I had seen them, only seen them from far away, never spoken with them.”

He said he had known the two men by a Spanish nickname but didn’t know other family members also were referred to by it.

Defense lawyer Kevin Holt showed Lopez a series of old pictures from Pasco police files to see if he could identify Ruiz and Mendez-Reyna.

One picture was a booking mug of Ruiz from 1983 and Lopez responded, “I don’t know who that could be.” He said he wasn’t sure but thought Ruiz — who he knew as Vicente Mendez — was in a different picture, and selected two others as possibly Mendez-Reyna.

Lopez said the last time he saw those men was in January 1987 at a dance, and he remembers Mendez-Reyna being thinner than Ruiz.

Deputy Prosecutor Brian Hultgrenn asked Lopez how certain he was of his identifications in court Friday. “As I said, I’m not very sure. I’m not entirely sure. As I said, too many years ago,” Lopez said.

When Pasco Detective Scott Warren was on the stand, defense lawyer Peter Connick asked him to look at each of the pictures and name the people. He confirmed that the photographed copy of a picture that Lopez could not identify was of Ruiz.

Warren — who was a teen when the slayings occurred and is the fourth detective assigned to the case — said he didn’t recognize the other men, but matched the pictures to a photo montage and booking mugs in evidence.

Two of the pictures, which Lopez had said were of Mendez-Reyna and Ruiz, were really Ruiz’s two brothers.


Cousin ‘takes 5th’ after agreeing to testify at Ruiz trial

MCT REGIONAL NEWS

By Kristin M. Kraemer

Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, Wash.

(MCT)

Dec. 03—SPOKANE — A convicted killer whose life was spared earlier when he agreed to testify against his cousin instead opted to “plead the Fifth” rather than talk about the night 23 years ago when six men were gunned down in a Pasco garage.

Pedro Mendez-Reyna asserted his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself 29 times before the jury Thursday, and was found in contempt of court for ignoring orders to testify.

It was only the second time in at least 17 years that he’s seen Vicente Ruiz, who’s accused of helping him with the killings.

Judge Cameron Mitchell told Mendez-Reyna that he no longer had protections against self-incrimination because he had pleaded guilty to his own involvement in the slayings, has exhausted his appeal rights and did not face potential jeopardy in testifying against Ruiz.

But Zenon Peter Olbertz of Tacoma, Mendez-Reyna’s lawyer, said, “With all respect to the court, we don’t agree with you.” He said he had advised his client to assert his rights.

Olbertz previously has said Mendez-Reyna wants to withdraw his guilty plea because he had ineffective assistance from his trial lawyer in 1994. However, Mitchell ruled that the time window for Mendez-Reyna to seek a plea withdrawal long since had passed.

“I’m not saying nothing,” Mendez-Reyna said out loud while talking with his attorney before the jury was brought in. “Let’s make this clear, I’m not answering to anything.”

Ruiz, 46, is on trial for five counts of aggravated first-degree murder and one count of attempted first-degree murder.

The Franklin County Superior Court case was moved to Spokane because of extensive media coverage during two previous mistrials.

Prosecutors allege Ruiz and his cousin opened fire at Medina’s Body Shop while a group of young men were sanding a car Oct. 13, 1987. Killed were: Misael Barajas, 22; Juan Antonio Lopez Garcia, 20; Eliceo Guzman Lamas, 20; and Rafael Parra Magallon, 22, all of Pasco, and Francisco Venegas Cortez, 21, of Kennewick.

Aldo Montes, then 20, survived a wound to the stomach.

Ruiz claims it is a case of mistaken identity, suggesting it might have been a relative with a similar appearance.

Mendez-Reyna was arrested in Texas in 1993 after returning to the United States, and he struck a plea deal with prosecutors to avoid the death penalty. He pointed the finger at Ruiz as being his partner in the shootings, then gave an open-court confession as part of the deal.

Mendez-Reyna, now 48, most recently was serving his life sentence in the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.

He was brought into court Thursday under heavy security from state Department of Corrections and Spokane County jail officers. He wore a white button-down shirt and slacks, and his handcuffs were removed so jurors wouldn’t know he is in custody.

Once on the stand, Mendez-Reyna confirmed his name but refused to give any more information.

“Referring to the defendant here in the courtroom today, the second man from the wall, is that gentleman your first cousin?” Deputy Prosecutor Frank Jenny asked.

“I plead the Fifth. I don’t know the man,” Mendez-Reyna responded as he looked at Ruiz, sitting with attorneys Peter Connick, Kevin Holt and Bob Thompson.

Mendez-Reyna last saw his cousin in June, when he was briefly brought into a Franklin County courtroom during Ruiz’s second trial. He indicated then that he wouldn’t testify, but never went in front of the jury because the trial was delayed for another issue.

Mitchell reminded Mendez-Reyna on Thursday that he no longer had the right to remain silent and directed him to answer the questions.

But Mendez-Reyna said, “I plead the Fifth to all of them.” He also told the judge to find him in contempt because he had no intention of talking.

Jenny already had told the judge they would not be introducing Mendez-Reyna’s 1994 confession because the convict likely would not make himself available to cross-examination by defense lawyers. A defendant has a constitutional right to confront his accuser.

Then, over 15 minutes, Jenny asked Mendez-Reyna a series of specific questions about his conduct 23 years ago and his observations of Ruiz.

Jenny had told the court he needed to ask the questions for “the jury to draw the inference that the co-defendant is refusing to testify in order to protect (Ruiz).” If not allowed, he said, Mendez-Reyna would succeed in thwarting the judicial process.

Mitchell allowed the questioning, saying it was supported by case law.

The defense had a standing objection to all questions asked of Mendez-Reyna.

According to the questions based on the earlier confession, Mendez-Reyna lived in Seattle in 1987 and was visiting his cousin in Pasco when he was asked for “assistance in confronting six individuals with whom (Ruiz) had problems earlier in the day. Mendez-Reyna reportedly went with Ruiz to Phil’s Sporting Goods Store to buy ammunition for a Mini-14 rifle, then left in a car that contained three firearms — the Mini-14 rifle, a .357 Magnum handgun and a .38 Special handgun.

The cousins stopped at a seafood restaurant in search of the people, then went to Medina’s where they ran into two mechanics outside, Jenny’s questions showed. Those men left before Ruiz, carrying two handguns, and Mendez-Reyna, with the rifle, walked into the body shop and rounded everybody up into one room, where an argument ensued.

They reportedly opened fire on the six victims, watching them fall to the ground, checked to see if they were still alive, then left the shop. Ruiz and Mendez-Reyna took off for Mexico via a route through Reno, Nev., and Los Angeles, Jenny’s questions indicated.

Mendez-Reyna repeated, “I plead the Fifth,” to each question.

“Mr. Mendez-Reyna, take a look at the individual in the courtroom today, second man from the right, your cousin, Vicente Ruiz. Was that the man who was with you on Oct. 13, 1987, and along with you shot and killed those other men?” Jenny asked in a raised voice while pointing toward Ruiz.

When Mendez-Reyna again gave his familiar response, Jenny said Mendez-Reyna should be found in contempt.

Jurors were then removed from the courtroom.

Connick then again moved for a mistrial, saying Jenny screaming at his own witness knowing he would not respond was uncalled for.

“We think it’s prejudicial to our client,” he said of Jenny’s conduct.

Jenny, an oft mild-mannered lawyer, responded, “I think I’m physically incapable of screaming.”

Mitchell denied the motion for a mistrial — the second such request from the defense in two days.

The judge then said Mendez-Reyna was in contempt of court, but added there were no additional sanctions he could impose on the incarcerated man.

Defense attorneys did not question Mendez-Reyna.

Also Thursday, jurors watched a video showing a man who looked like a younger Ruiz walk into a Pasco convenience store and buy beef jerky just hours before the slayings. He was wearing a straw hat similar to one found in a Mazda RX-7 believed driven by the shooting suspects.

Sharon Cannon and her husband had owned the mini mart at Eighth Avenue and A Street. She testified that when she read a newspaper story detailing the murders, she saw a description of the suspect vehicle and realized it was probably at her shop the day before. The color of the car, midnight blue, had caught her eye and she was familiar with RX-7s because her husband had just purchased two.

Cannon said she pulled the security video taken from a camera over the checkout area and called police to say she thought she had footage of the young men. She said they were regular customers, and thought they lived up the street.

Charlotte Supplee, the city’s retired evidence technician, also testified how she found the bloody scene that night and documented evidence and collected items. She described a number of up-close photographs of the victims that were then passed to each juror.

— Kristin M. Kraemer: 509-582-1531; kkraemer@tricityherald.com



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