Special Reports

Ruiz's fate in jury's hands

SPOKANE -- One by one Monday, lawyer Kevin Holt listed names of people who he believes could have been the real shooter inside a Pasco garage 23 years ago.

His client's cousin, who often was mistaken for Vicente Ruiz and was a confidential informant for a Pasco detective.

The lone survivor, who had taunted the subjects of a federal raid earlier in the day and ended up with superficial flesh wound, while his friends all were gunned down.

A "big-time drug dealer" who was targeted in the multi-jurisdiction investigation and likely became upset upon realizing there was a snitch in his employ.

And the owner of Medina's Body Shop, who could have been ordered to round up all of the possible leaks within the drug-trade and money-laundering organization and fix the problem.

"Ladies and gentleman, this case is reasonable doubt," Holt argued to jurors in the murder trial. "This case is a matter of fact that Vicente Ruiz is not guilty of these heinous crimes. Not guilty. Plain and simple, not guilty."

Ruiz, 46, is accused in the Oct. 13, 1987, body shop slayings.

He is charged in Franklin County Superior Court with five counts of aggravated first-degree murder and one count of first-degree attempted murder.

The trial started Nov. 9 with five days of jury selection, followed by 22 days of testimony and legal motions.

It was moved to Spokane because Judge Cameron Mitchell didn't think the lawyers would be able to seat an impartial jury in Franklin County after Ruiz's first two trials ended in mistrials.

Ruiz did not take the stand in this trial, but claims he is innocent and that he was mistakenly identified by witnesses that night.

Deputy Prosecutor Frank Jenny again questioned why Ruiz drove out of town just hours after the killings, leaving behind all of his belongings, an uncashed rent deposit check, 17 pounds of marijuana, and a son and pregnant girlfriend.

"There are holes in the theories that Mr. Holt has given you that are just so wide that you can drive a Mack truck right through them," he said.

Ruiz's oldest son with former girlfriend Diana Garcia was in court Monday for the end of his father's trial.

Jurors got the case at 10:39 a.m. and deliberated for four hours, with a lunch break in the middle, before calling it a day.

Holt, who already had talked to the panel for 51 minutes on Friday, spent another half-hour accusing victim Aldo Montes Lamas of being a liar, charging Pasco police with destroying evidence and attacking the federal government for failing to share reports from that 1987 investigation with the Ruiz defense team. He said the government's "gross mishandling" of that case resulted in their suspects killing each other with five dead.

And the facts of what happened inside the body shop just don't support the version of events told by Montes Lamas -- who then used the name Jesse Rocio.

Holt questioned how Rocio could tell the jurors that he had seen the bullets inside one of Ruiz's two handguns, and yet he wasn't shot. Rocio said he dove underneath a car to avoid injury.

"In fact, he was so unshot that all he has is a ricochet," said Holt, noting the minor wound to Rocio's stomach. "I imagine he was panicked. He thought, 'Oh my gosh, I shot myself and what am I going to do?' "

Rocio couldn't go to the hospital because he would be considered a suspect, so he drove himself to the police station where he was immediately labeled a victim, the defense lawyer said.

Holt pointed out how Cecilia Rivera, the girlfriend of one of the men killed, testified last week that Ruiz had been the driver of a car that had stopped by her home shortly before the shooting.

"She came in and gave Vicente an iron-clad alibi. If that is him, then he was not at that location," he said, referring to the body shop. "That is reasonable doubt, in fact, that Vicente was in any way shape or form involved in these shootings."

Holt disputed the inference that Ruiz's departure that night for Mexico, to attend his sister's quinceaera, "was a spur of the moment thing."

Ruiz didn't just drop his family and leave Pasco, Holt said. He and his brothers had been planning to go for months because, "It's like a bar mitzvah, you just don't miss those things."

However, once Ruiz learned in Mexico that he was the focus of a manhunt as a suspect in a five-person homicide case, he chose "not to come back to this state to face the death penalty." Holt said he would have done the same thing.

Jenny immediately objected to Holt's mention of the death penalty, which prosecutors had to take off the table for the Mexican government to agree to Ruiz's extradition four years ago.

The judge ordered jurors to disregard the statement.

Holt then continued: "It's unrealistic that (Ruiz) is going to come back here to risk the penalties, going to prison for the rest of his life."

Holt said the jury also should "look at family identifications." He displayed old pictures of Ruiz and his two brothers, Nicolas and Raymundo, and their cousin, Antonio Mendez Moreno.

"Even the family had difficulty telling them apart. ... Those are the four people that we've been talking about in this trial," he said. He encouraged the jurors to look at each man and compare the similarities in their eyebrows and eyes.

Holt then showed the 1987 picture of Raymundo next to a still picture taken from a convenience store video the day of the slayings.

The full video had been played for jurors earlier in the trial. Prosecutors suggested it was Ruiz wearing a straw hat with a black band and buying some beef jerky hours before he opened fire inside the garage.

But Holt, in showing that picture, said the side shot of the man looks more like Ruiz's brother than his own client, whose face in 1987 was "much fatter" based on family photos.

In his 38-minute rebuttal, Jenny said while listening to Holt's arguments he was reminded of the old television show The Twilight Zone.

Holt "just picks and chooses" which parts of witness testimony he wants the jury to accept and ignores other key facts, Jenny said. The defense tried to show evidence in trial that Ruiz had left town well before the shooting, yet also pointed out for the jury Monday that a witness placed him elsewhere in Pasco that night, and thus he couldn't have been at the body shop, he said.

Detectives didn't just accept Montes Lamas' identification of Ruiz, but used it to start their investigation. He said if Montes Lamas had known all the little details about evidence in different locations before giving his statement, it would have been "like knowing all of the numbers in the state lottery before they're even drawn. That's how incredible it would be."

Ruiz's cousin, Antonio Mendez Moreno, remained in the Tri-Cities for years and "we submit to you there is no evidence you've heard that (he) was in any way a participant in these homicides," Jenny said.

That comment led to an objection by the defense and a request for a sidebar without the jury. The defense said prosecutors can't make representations before the jury knowing them to be incorrect, argued that it is misconduct and requested a mistrial.

Mitchell overruled the objection, saying there has been no evidence that the cousin was "involved in this particular incident."

Once the jury was back, Jenny posed the question to them: "Is there any actual evidence that these people were shooters opposed to all these wild theories that Mr. Holt was throwing out here?"

Holt's arguments are inaccurate, he said.

"The defendant vanished into thin air immediately after these homicides had happened. He was gone. ... He had not made any contact with Diana Garcia, according to her testimony," Jenny wrapped up. "If Diana Garcia had some kind of information that would exonerate the defendant or given an alibi for the defendant, those would have been the first words out of her mouth in 1987."

Garcia and Ruiz's other family members could have given information to the police to help clear his name.

"Mr. Holt talks about what he would do if he were in similar circumstances," he said. "If I were accused of a heinous crime and my family could give an alibi, I would certainly hope they wouldn't wait 23 years to do it."