Crime

Man who pleaded guilty in body shop slayings says he won't testify

PASCO -- A man serving a life sentence for his role in the killing of five people at a Pasco auto body shop in 1987 indicated Monday that he would refuse to testify in the murder trial of his cousin, Vicente Ruiz.

Ruiz, 45, is charged with five counts of aggravated first-degree murder and one count of attempted first-degree murder in the body shop killings. His cousin, Pedro Mendez-Reyna, who was arrested in 1993, pleaded guilty to the slayings to avoid the death penalty and named Ruiz as the second suspect as part of his plea agreement.

Attorneys for Ruiz said they were just provided several items of evidence Monday by prosecutors. They said they may ask Superior Court Judge Cameron Mitchell today to declare a mistrial or a continuance of the trial, which started last month and already has had several delays.

Jurors heard no testimony Monday as prosecutors and defense attorneys argued over procedural and evidentiary issues, including whether Mendez-Reyna should testify.

Mendez-Reyna, who is serving his time at a prison in Western Washington, was brought into court amid heavy security but never answered any questions. His attorney, Zenon Peter Olbertz of Tacoma, told Mitchell his client would not testify if called as a witness.

Olbertz also said Mendez-Reyna wants to withdraw his guilty plea, and forcing him to testify would violate his Fifth Amendment protections against self-incrimination. The attorney argued Mendez-Reyna essentially was without effective assistance from his lawyer at the time he pleaded guilty.

"I've never seen a transcript like that, where the defense essentially conducted an examination for the state," Peter Connick, one of Ruiz's three attorneys, told the judge.

But Deputy Prosecutor Frank Jenny argued, and Mitchell agreed, that he was afforded no Fifth Amendment protections because he already was convicted of the slayings. Mitchell also said the time window for Mendez-Reyna to move to withdraw his guilty plea had long passed.

"The court will order him to testify in the presence of the jury," Mitchell ruled, adding Mendez-Reyna could be found in contempt of court if he refuses to testify.

When that might be is uncertain. Defense attorneys Bob Thompson, Kevin Holt and Connick said they just received notification from prosecutors Monday of the existence of several more items of evidence, including a four-page synopsis of a meeting at a Phoenix restaurant that prosecutors and Pasco police detectives held in 1994 with a mechanic who did repair work in the yard of Medina's Auto Body Shop.

That man, Gilbert Rodriguez, testified last week that he didn't remember identifying anyone present at the body shop. He also testified he learned about the slayings when he saw a report on TV.

Holt told the court Monday that Rodriguez never made any identification of suspects in interviews with police right after the slayings. But in the meeting in Phoenix, he reportedly was shown a photo montage of possible suspects in the killing, including Ruiz, and allegedly pointed to him.

"It's the only document we've received that has identification by Gilbert Rodriguez of our client," Holt said.

The case is scheduled to continue this morning at the Franklin County Courthouse.

-- Kevin McCullen: 582-1535; kmccullen@tricityherald.com

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