Ruiz gets 5 life sentences for 1987 Pasco killings

PASCO -- Vicente Ruiz was ordered Thursday to serve one life term for each of the men he killed 23 years ago inside a Pasco garage.

Five men died that night in a crime that thrust Pasco into the national spotlight.

A sixth was wounded, and for that, Ruiz got an additional 20 years, though Judge Cameron Mitchell admitted Thursday that it is "perhaps somewhat redundant given the other sentences."

But the 46-year-old Ruiz -- who now has been behind bars for almost 4 1/2 years -- is confident he won't die in prison, and defense attorneys join him in the belief the case will be back for a fourth trial.

"We're optimistic that there is solid grounds for the appeal," said lawyer Kevin Holt.

Ruiz was convicted Dec. 22 by a Spokane County jury of five counts of aggravated first-degree murder and one count of attempted first-degree murder. The seven-week trial was moved out of Franklin County after the first two Superior Court trials ended in mistrials.

Mitchell had no discretion in the sentence because each count of aggravated murder carries a mandatory term of life in prison without the possibility of release. Prosecutors could not seek the death penalty as a part of their agreement with Mexico to extradite Ruiz in 2007.

Defense attorney Bob Thompson agreed the judge didn't have a choice about the five consecutive life terms. "Again, this was a matter that was hotly contested at this level, and we would expect that there would be some additional issues that will of course arise out of these proceedings," he told the court.

Nine relatives and friends of the victims attended the brief hearing, along with Franklin County Undersheriff Kevin Carle and retired Pasco evidence technician Charlotte Supplee, both of whom were witnesses in the case.

None of the family wished to address the court.

Ruiz maintains he is innocent in the Oct. 13, 1987, slayings, and Thursday continued to remain silent about that bloody massacre. The only thing he told the court is "just that my attorneys are continuing with the appeal."

Ruiz, who didn't testify at trial, claimed it was a case of mistaken identity. His lawyers said either Ruiz was confused with his brothers or cousin, who looked similar to him in 1987, or was framed by the owner of Medina's Body Shop and the shooting survivor.

Ruiz is the second man convicted in the slayings at Medina's Body Shop. His cousin, Pedro Mendez-Reyna, is in prison for life for his role.

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.

Barajas was found alive but died an hour later in a Pasco hospital.

The lone survivor, Aldo Montes Lamas, squirmed under a car in the garage. Once the gunmen left, he got out and drove to the Pasco Police Department to get help for his friends.

Montes Lamas, who then used the alias of Jesse Salas Rocio, was hit by a ricocheting bullet in the stomach.

Both Ruiz and Mendez-Reyna left town that night, claiming the timing of their departure was coincidental because they had a planned vacation in Mexico for their sister's 15th birthday celebration.

Mendez-Reyna was arrested in Texas in 1993, and the following year struck a deal in which he gave an open-court confession naming his cousin as being his partner in the shootings.

Now 48, Mendez-Reyna also agreed to testify against Ruiz as part of his guilty plea. But once on the stand in Spokane, he refused to give any more information after confirming his name.

"I plead the Fifth," Mendez-Reyna said repeatedly, claiming he had a Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself before the jury.

The judge found him in contempt of court for ignoring orders to testify because Mendez-Reyna no longer had protections against self-incrimination since he had exhausted his appeal rights and did not face potential jeopardy.

Then, Deputy Prosecutor Frank Jenny asked Mendez-Reyna a series of specific questions about his conduct 23 years ago and his observations of Ruiz that night. He wanted the jury to draw the inference that Mendez-Reyna was refusing to testify to protect his cousin.

Mitchell allowed the questioning, saying it was supported by case law.

The defense had a standing objection to all questions asked of Mendez-Reyna, particularly because they were not able to cross-examine him since he was refusing to talk. Ruiz's lawyers also asked for a mistrial after later finding different case law they thought made it clear Mendez-Reyna's testimony never should have been allowed.

Holt -- who defended Ruiz along with Thompson of Pasco and Peter Connick of Seattle -- said Thursday that probably is Ruiz's best argument on appeal. "Ruiz was briefed when Pedro testified that we thought the court had made an error, and he thinks we have strong grounds for appeal, and I tend to agree with him," he said.

The defense immediately filed a notice of appeal and an order of indigency, and asked that an attorney from an authorized appellate law firm in Seattle be appointed because Ruiz has no money. The appeal will be at the expense of Washington taxpayers.

However, Jenny and Deputy Prosecutor Brian Hultgrenn said they thought "there was a good record made by Judge Mitchell" throughout the case and are confident it will be affirmed on appeal.

"It feels good to be able to finish it and focus on other things. ... It's always good to get a homicide finished," said Hultgrenn, who got on the case after Ruiz's arrest in 2006. He added that the appeals probably will continue, even if the convictions are upheld by the Court of Appeals.

Holt of Kennewick has taken some criticism for saying jurors made a mistake and accusing them of convicting his client just because somebody has to pay for a five-count murder. He had also previously said the jury "tied another albatross around Franklin County" and vowed the verdicts would be tossed once reviewed by a higher court.

On Thursday, Holt explained that while an appeal is not 100-percent automatic after a conviction, it is part of the normal process and particularly necessary in a homicide case. If the lawyers didn't pursue an appeal, the case would end up coming back for ineffective assistance of counsel, and they could end up disbarred, he said.

"(Critics) seem to think that we're just appealing simply to slap the jury in the face, and that's not at all what it is," he said.

Holt still alleges, as he did at trial, that the lone survivor was one of the shooters.

"It still bothers me that Jesse Rocio has not been held accountable for his role in the shooting, but maybe we'll be able to do that in the next trial," he said. "... He walked out of that thing with a ricochet wound. It just doesn't add up."

Ruiz is ordered to refrain in any way from contacting the survivor. The anti-harassment order has no expiration date.

Ruiz, along with Mendez-Reyna, must help repay almost $10,000 in funeral costs for four of the victims.

Because Mendez-Reyna is doing his time in the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, prosecutors aren't sure where Ruiz will end up, since the state Department of Corrections doesn't like to put co-defendants in the same prison.