Special Reports

Ruiz opts not to take stand on final day of murder trial

SPOKANE -- Vicente Ruiz opted not to take the stand Wednesday on the final day of trial testimony in the 1987 deaths of five men inside a Pasco garage.

Prosecutors and defense lawyers wrapped up their cases and now are set to give closing arguments Friday in the six-week-long murder trial.

Jurors have today off so the attorneys can debate the legal instructions that will be read by Franklin County Judge Cameron Mitchell.

Deputy Prosecutor Frank Jenny asked for the extra day, saying it would be better "given the exhibits and complexity and length of the trial."

Defense attorney Kevin Holt said he agreed with Jenny and wouldn't be ready until Friday.

Mitchell had hoped to hand the case to the jury earlier, but said he understood there are differences in the proposed instructions that require research and arguments by each side.

He granted the one-day delay after a lengthy pause, noting that "it has been rare" in this case to have a joint motion by both parties.

The jury should begin deliberations Friday afternoon on five counts of aggravated first-degree murder and one count of attempted first-degree murder.

Ruiz, 46, is charged in Franklin County Superior Court.

This is his third trial in the 23-year-old case, after the first two ended in mistrials. It was moved to Spokane County because the court felt it would be difficult to find an impartial jury in Franklin County given the extensive media coverage.

Ruiz maintains his innocence and suggests that he was misidentified by people who confused him with either two of his brothers or two cousins.

Ruiz was returned to Pasco in 2007 after spending two decades in Mexico. He told investigators after his arrest that it was coincidental he left the same night six men were gunned down inside Medina's Body Shop, and said he eventually decided to stay in his native country,

He left behind a pregnant girlfriend and a son.

His attorneys on Wednesday called three witnesses, including his cousin from Burbank.

Socorro Aguilar testified that in 1987 she had a close relationship with Ruiz.

Aguilar -- speaking in Spanish through court interpreter Ana Armijo -- said her immediate family lived in Pasco, but Ruiz and his brothers Nicolas and Reymundo were the only members of their family to live outside of Tecomn in Mexico. Ruiz had 11 siblings.

She told jurors that the three brothers had been planning for some time in late 1987 to drive home to attend their sister's quinceaera, or 15th birthday celebration. It is important for family to be at those events, she said.

Aguilar initially agreed with the defense that the party was in early November, but then upon further questioning from prosecutors admitted that she was confused about the month and only remembered that it was the first week of a month.

If the birthday was in November and the siblings had left Oct. 13, the trip would have taken "about three days, four, depending how long you stop to rest" but they would have had plenty of time to get to their hometown, she testified. Aguilar also acknowledged that she wasn't sure how far Tecomn was because it's been more than 30 years since she was there.

Deputy Prosecutor Brian Hultgrenn asked if she was surprised when they never returned to Pasco.

"No, because that's where they're from. People leave and if they want to come back, they do. And if they want to stay ...," said Aguilar, who added that she's visited Ruiz maybe seven or more times in jail since 2007. She said they never discussed the quinceaera or the murder case.

Asked about the Spanish nickname given by the lone survivor to identify the suspects, Aguilar told jurors that it was a term used for one of her uncles and his children. She never heard the name used for Ruiz or his brothers, who were in a different family.

The defense had told the court earlier this week that they would be calling Ruiz's sister, Leonor. However, she didn't appear Wednesday to talk about her brothers' travels to her birthday party.

Aguilar identified Ruiz, his two brothers and another cousin from a number of old family photos and police mugshots. One of the pictures showed Ruiz with Leonor in her quinceaera dress.

When shown a photo of a younger Reymundo, Aguilar said it was him but admitted for Holt that when she looked at it the night before she had a hard time recognizing him. She incorrectly said another picture was of Ruiz, when it was actually of his other brother, Nicolas, who in 1987 had lived next door to her.

"They get confused. A lot of people do because a lot of the family look alike," Aguilar testified. She added that her own brother, Antonio Mendez, was sometimes confused with Ruiz and his siblings.

The similarity is in their eyes. "They have big eyes and their eyelashes are black," she said.

Nancy Gillen of Pasco testified that in 1987 she knew Nicolas' wife, Donna Ruiz. Gillen said she is a Jehovah's Witness who would conduct Bible study with Donna Ruiz. She had seen her husband either walking in the house or sitting down, but only knew him as Nico.

After the body shop slayings, Gillen saw stories in the Tri-City Herald with a picture of Vicente Ruiz. When she ran into Donna Ruiz a while later, "I asked her if that was her husband in the paper because I wouldn't remember his name, even as of now."

Gillen -- who the defense found when she was a prospective juror in Vicente Ruiz's second trial -- was asked if Nico Ruiz had any distinguishing features. "He had dark eyes and was real similar to Mr. Ruiz that I saw in the picture in the paper," she testified. "Obviously like brothers would have."