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; email@example.com