Franklin County Prosecutor Steve Lowe said his office erupted in cheers Wednesday morning when news of the verdict in the Vicente Ruiz murder trial arrived.
"Today, we finally got justice," Lowe said, noting many people had worked the case for 16 years since Ruiz was first located in Mexico.
The suspect had been sought since shortly after the 1987 Pasco murders of five men and the wounding of another.
"It was a very difficult time, but we were able to finish this," Lowe said.
Ruiz wasn't arrested until 2006, largely because of Mexico's extradition treaty that used to protect criminal defendants facing potential death sentences from being returned to the United States.
FBI agents kept an eye on Ruiz until Lowe could assure the Mexican government he would not seek the death penalty and the treaty was changed. Ruiz then was extradited to Pasco in June 2007 and has been going through judicial proceedings since then.
Lowe said he and his staff made sure the victims' families were the first to know the outcome Wednesday of the lengthy trial.
"One victim's sister broke down when we told her," he said.
The verdict will bring some sense of justice to the families, Lowe said, before he slowly read the names and ages of the five victims aloud. The five men were in their early 20s when they were killed.
"These are about the ages of my children," Lowe said. "It's important to remember that these were people who lived in our community."
Capt. Jim Raymond, one of the Pasco officers first on the scene in 1987, called the murders "the most heinous crime Pasco has experienced."
Some people have questioned the expense of the investigation and prosecution, but, "It's something that needed to be done," Raymond said.
"People need to be held accountable," Lowe added.
He said there shouldn't have been two mistrials, but said this time "the defense ran out of excuses."
Having had the experience of two previous trials made it easier for the prosecution this time, Lowe said. He was certain the defense would stick to its strategy of mistaken identity.
Ruiz defense lawyer Kevin Holt, however, said this won't be the end for the Ruiz case and warned prosecutors that taxpayers will be happy for 18 months until the verdicts are tossed out.
"I'm pretty confident that there is some very serious legal error here that the Court of Appeals is going to have to take seriously on appeals," Holt told the Herald on Wednesday.
Holt said he has gotten to know Ruiz well during the last few years, and insists that he still can't tell him apart in pictures from his brothers Raymundo and Nicolas and cousin Antonio Mendez Moreno.
The jurors made a mistake when they dismissed the defense claims of misidentification and in believing the identification of Ruiz by lone survivor Jesse Rocio, he said.
"Vicente is not a murderer. His brothers are both still in the drug business conducting nefarious affairs on the border. And you can't tell me Jesse Rocio wasn't involved," Holt said. "I think it's coming back."
Superior Court Judge Cameron Mitchell should not have allowed Ruiz's cousin, Pedro Mendez-Reyna, to testify because he opted to "plead the Fifth" and not answer any questions, Holt said.
"His sole purpose was to say, 'Hey, I'm guilty so Vicente is guilty,' " he said of Mendez-Reyna, who is doing life for his role in the shooting.
Holt also argues that the jury was deprived of key information, including photo montages the defense says were destroyed by police and the criminal background of Rocio, whose birth name is Aldo Montes Lamas.
"With the limitations they placed on us I guess we did the best we could," said Holt, who defended Ruiz along with Bob Thompson of Pasco and Peter Connick of Seattle. "The bottom line is a jury on a five-count murder doesn't let anybody off when there is reasonable doubt. ... It's a five-body count that somebody's got to pay for."
Ruiz will be brought back to Franklin County and faces sentencing in early January.
Each of the five counts of murder -- with special verdicts that the crime was aggravated because it involved more than one victim and was part of a common scheme -- carries a mandatory sentence of life without parole.
Lowe was unsure in which prison Ruiz would spend the rest of his life.
Usually someone convicted of murder would go to the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, but Ruiz's cousin already is locked up there and co-defendants in a case typically aren't kept in the same prison, Lowe said.