The last player in the events surrounding the murder of Brendan Butler was sentenced Tuesday to five years in Idaho prisons.
Nearly two years ago, Justin Miller, a 24-year-old aspiring hockey player from Spokane, introduced Butler to Giovanni Mendiola, the man who would later kill Butler on a remote dirt road on the eastern shore of Hayden Lake.
According to police and court documents, the 20-year-old Butler, a Gonzaga Preparatory School graduate and son of a prominent Hayden Lake family, is believed to have organized a group of drug traffickers who smuggled Canadian-grown marijuana, known as B.C. bud, into the area.
Facing competition from a rival smuggling ring, Butler is said to have sought out a crew of enforcers to intimidate his rivals. In the summer and fall of 2002, plans were laid to kidnap, rob and kill the leaders of the rival drug group.
But Butler was the one who wound up dead. On a warm autumn afternoon, police believe, Butler took Mendiola and three others for a drive in his Cadillac to scout places to dump the bodies of his rivals. On a dead-end road near the Mockins Bay campground, Butler and Mendiola began fighting over how much the crew of enforcers would be paid.
In the scuffle, police say, Mendiola choked Butler to death and then used a knife to slice open his throat before hiding his body in bushes along the road. Mendiola pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced last fall to life in prison, eligible for parole after eight years.
Miller was in Tennessee, at a National Hockey League tryout, when Butler was killed. Prosecutors have said Miller, among seven people arrested in the case, was involved as a peripheral figure in a June 2002 break-in and kidnapping at the house of Ben Scozzaro, one of the two men targeted by Butler. Miller waited at a Coeur d’Alene motel where the enforcers stashed clothing and weapons to be used during the break-in.
“I introduced Giovanni to Brendan and I really didn’t think it would result in anything like this,” the dark-haired Miller said in a statement to 1st District Court Judge John Mitchell on Tuesday afternoon. “I thought it was just ego to have some people around to scare the competition.
“When they came back up for the robbery I realized it was here, it was real, and I wanted to get out desperately,” Miller said.
Miller has said he met Mendiola about eight years ago when he moved from Spokane to Southern California to live with his mother. As the new kid in an Orange County high school, Miller said, he was harassed and involved in numerous fights. He was introduced to Mendiola through one of the latter’s younger siblings and when the word got out Miller was a friend of the Mendiola family, the fights stopped.
“They have a reputation down there,” Miller said.
After his arrest in late April 2003, Miller provided information to detectives that Kootenai County Prosecutor Bill Douglas on Tuesday called vital to wringing guilty pleas out of other people arrested in the case. Miller agreed to be interviewed by detectives even though, as he told them, he had been threatened by Mendiola and feared for his life and the safety of his family. His sentencing was delayed so others in the case would clear out of the Idaho prison boot camps before he arrived.
Douglas joined Miller’s Spokane defense attorney, Carl Oreskovich, in asking Mitchell for a light sentence of local jail time and probation.
Originally, Oreskovich and Douglas had agreed to what is called a Rule 11 plea agreement, calling for six months in prison and a year-and-a-half of probation. Rule 11 means the judge is bound to the terms of the deal.
But the attorneys, impressed with Miller’s cooperation, his statements of remorse and his clean lifestyle since his arrest, “decided to roll the dice,” Miller said Wednesday, and withdrew the rule 11 plea deal, hoping for an even lighter sentence.
After a short recess, however, Mitchell delivered the sentence of five years, allowing Miller to serve 180 days in a prison boot camp to determine if he would qualify for probation.
“What troubles me is that you put Brendan Butler in the charge of Mr. Mendiola … You brought him here for a purpose. That purpose was for no good, and you knew it,” Mitchell said. “This is a horrible, serious crime and you need to be held accountable.”
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