Jose Joel Mendoza says he escaped to Spokane from California three years ago, looking to avoid the guns-and-gangs lifestyle that nearly had killed him.
Instead, he got caught up in a drive-by shooting that led to one of the stiffest prison sentences of its kind in Washington state.
Last August, the 21-year-old Mendoza pumped 10 bullets from a handgun into a car with five teenagers, wounding three of them on Sprague Avenue in the Spokane Valley.
The quiet-spoken Mendoza claims he acted in self-defense, his judgment marred by the use of PCP, a hallucinogenic drug.
But a Spokane County Superior Court jury concluded he had aimed to kill when he shot his victims with a 9 mm pistol.
Thursday, Mendoza received a 100-year sentence for five counts of first-degree attempted murder.
Before handing down the maximum prison term, Judge Neal Rielly heard Mendoza and one of his victims argue for different levels of punishment.
“Last Aug. 20, my life was completely ruined,” said Sabrina Lewin, 18, who was wounded in the shoulder, knee and hip and spent nearly a year recuperating.
“Please give him the maximum sentence you can,” she said.
Mendoza then rose from the defense table and apologized for the harm suffered by those wounded in the shooting. It had followed a shouting match between a friend of Mendoza’s and the driver of the other car, Torrey Lowery.
“I’m a victim of circumstances,” Mendoza said, claiming his friend, Jeremy Johnson, had put him in a situation in which he thought his own life was in danger.
“I did what I had to do to protect myself,” Mendoza told Rielly. “I cannot apologize for what I did.”
Johnson, driving the car Mendoza was riding in, was convicted earlier of one count of first-degree attempted murder. He received a 30-year prison sentence.
The night of the shooting, police said Johnson and Lowery got into an argument over a traffic maneuver. Johnson then drove to Mendoza’s house and convinced him to come back with him in the car.
They later drove alongside Lowery’s car parked in a supermarket parking lot. Johnson fired one shot and Mendoza fired 10 times, hitting Lowery and two passengers.
Mendoza’s attorney, Greg Sypolt, argued the sentence should be just 40 years because Mendoza didn’t instigate the fight.
“But for Jeremy Johnson, we wouldn’t be here today,” Sypolt said.
The judge responded later: “The evidence was overwhelming that Mr. Mendoza fired first and fired of his own volition. But for Jose Mendoza, we wouldn’t be here today.”
Following the sentence, Sabrina Lewin said: “I’m relieved. I’m real happy. It’s time to move on.”
Her mother, Darlene Lewin, exulted in the maximum sentence imposed by Rielly: “I sat through the entire trial and proceedings. And he (Mendoza) never once showed remorse,” she said.
Mendoza’s aunt, Vernia Birdsbill, sat in the courtroom and watched deputies lead her nephew away.
“I don’t want people to think he’s some kind of monster. Jose was always respectful to me and his uncle,” she said. “He used to offer money he earned at work to give to my children.”
Birdsbill said Mendoza’s parents are in California. He lived with her and her children after moving to Spokane.
After less than a year he moved out, then got involved in drugs, Birdsbill said.
The night of the shooting, he lost control, overcome by memories of being shot at twice while a member of a southern California Latino gang, she said.
“I’ll always believe he was scared at the time,” said Birdsbill. “I might have done the same.”
Prosecutors said Mendoza must serve at least 80 years of his sentence with time off for good behavior.
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