SPOKANE -- Defense lawyers told jurors Wednesday that they don't want to downplay the "horrendous event" in which five people were shot to death in 1987 but said police got the wrong man when they arrested Vicente Ruiz.
"We want you to know that in no way did our client commit that offense," attorney Bob Thompson said in opening statements in Ruiz's murder trial.
The investigations of the slayings at Medina's Body Shop have extended more than 23 years, yet not once have police given a reason why Ruiz would gun down a group of men, Thompson said.
The "true motive" was drug dealing and trafficking, counterfeiting and money laundering, yet nothing points to Ruiz playing a role in it, he said.
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Ruiz, 46, is charged in Franklin County Superior Court with five counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted first-degree murder.
Prosecutors want the jury to believe Ruiz "out of the blue" went to the shop and killed five people, but "nothing could be further from the truth," Thompson said. He said a number of people "aren't available for us" to find out what happened, adding that there might be some evidence that links his client to it but nothing to show he pulled the trigger.
"It's going to be that jigsaw puzzle because there are bits and pieces that we can't recreate because it took so long to get where we're at," Thompson said. "Some other individual murdered these individuals. Somebody had a motive, and it wasn't Vicente Ruiz."
He described it as "a case of mistaken identification or perhaps much worse."
Of the 26 cousins in the Ruiz family who lived in Pasco, many have "remarkable facial characteristics" and dark eyes so that it is difficult to tell them apart, Thompson said.
But prosecutors -- who spent a half-hour addressing jurors on the first day of testimony in the trial -- said identification by the "lone survivor" and evidence collected from several locations place Ruiz at the crime scene on Oct. 13, 1987.
Aldo Montes told officers he had been working on a car inside the shop at 1105 E. A St. just before 7 p.m. when Ruiz and his cousin walked in. Montes "didn't know the two but certainly recognized them," said Deputy Prosecutor Brian Hultgrenn.
The two men chatted with a couple of mechanics outside and then left. Montes didn't know anything was wrong until he "felt someone prodding him on his back" and looked up to see Ruiz with bloodshot eyes and holding two handguns, Hultgrenn said.
Ruiz told Montes to "get up," and when Montes questioned why, he was told, "It's over," Hultgrenn said.
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.
Magallon was reportedly dropping off a wedding invitation at the shop. Barajas and Lamas were sweeping up the paint room when the shooters grabbed them and told them to line up, Hultgrenn said.
Montes, then 20, who also uses the name Jesse Rocio, said he was in disbelief about what was happening and turned back to work on the car and then there was gunfire. He dived under the car and survived a gunshot wound to the stomach, which likely was from a ricocheting bullet.
Montes then drove to the Pasco police station, which was then in the public safety building at the Franklin County Courthouse, and ran up to the window asking for help.
Judy Johnson, who was then a police services specialist, said she saw a man with a large amount of blood on his shirt near his waist and on his hands.
"He was asking for an ambulance to be sent to the location because five of his friends had been shot, some shot to death, and he too had been shot," Johnson testified.
Montes, who was then using the Rocio name, appeared "almost too calm," which Johnson believed was because he was in shock and didn't seem aware of his injuries. He had planned to drive himself to the nearby hospital, but Johnson said she had to reach under the glass at the counter and grab his forearm because "he looked like he was going down."
While Johnson and Undersheriff Kevin Carle -- whose office was just down the hall -- waited for an ambulance, Montes said the shootings had occurred after a drug raid not far from the shop. Johnson said she hadn't been aware of a federal investigation that led up to the events earlier that day, but said such raids in those days happened every few months.
"We were known as the drug and murder capital of the Northwest at the time. That was our title," she said.
At the hospital afterward, Montes reportedly gave a nickname to a police detective for Ruiz's family, then picked Ruiz as the shooter from a group of six photos.
"Pasco police had a suspect. That was the beginning of the investigation but certainly not the end," Hultgrenn said in his opening.
The prosecutor gave jurors a timeline of what occurred in the hours before the shootings through to the next morning. Neither Ruiz nor his cousin, Pedro Mendez-Reyna, could be found.
Ruiz was taken into custody by Pasco police in October 2007 at Los Angeles International Airport and denied any involvement in the shootings. When investigators asked why he left the Tri-Cities for Mexico and never returned, Ruiz answered that he was on a long vacation, Hultgrenn said.
Since his arrest, law enforcement has been trying to locate witnesses while further scientific tests have been done on key evidence, all leading up to the trial, Hultgrenn said.
"Time can be a powerful thing. It can have a definite effect on people and places. It can blur things and fade them, but there are some events in life so tragic, time doesn't have that power on them," he said. "Twenty-three years have passed, but some events are so profound that even 23 years later, the results of those events echo."
The trial was moved to Spokane County because of extensive media coverage during his first two trials that ended in mistrials.
This trial started Nov. 9 with jury selection and is expected to last through December.