Special Reports

Ruiz found guilty of 1987 Pasco killings

SPOKANE -- Mistaken identity wasn't really a question for the 12 jurors who decided Wednesday that Vicente Ruiz was the second shooter in Pasco's bloodiest massacre.

After reviewing each piece of evidence and their own notes from testimony from the seven-week trial, the Spokane County jury unanimously agreed the 46-year-old Ruiz killed five men and wounded a sixth in 1987.

At least three jurors clearly were emotional, dabbing tears from their eyes while the guilty verdicts were read by Franklin County Chief Deputy Clerk Cherryl Jones.

"The evidence spoke for itself," one juror later told the Herald. "I can go to sleep tonight knowing that I did my job to the fullest extent."

"We didn't come to this lightly," another added.

The conviction for five counts of aggravated first-degree murder and one count of attempted first-degree murder means Ruiz will spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of release.

But Kennewick lawyer Kevin Holt -- the only defense attorney in court Wednesday with Ruiz -- maintains Ruiz is not a killer and vowed the decision will be reversed by the Washington Court of Appeals.

"They've just tied another albatross around Franklin County that's going to be around for another 18 months until this comes back," said the upset Holt. "That's not a just verdict."

Co-counsel Peter Connick was in his Seattle office Wednesday morning drafting motions for Judge Cameron Mitchell, including one for a mistrial and to set aside the verdicts, he said.

Holt said he had advised his client not to show reaction or say anything as the six verdicts were read. So instead, Ruiz stood and stared at the ceiling while his attorney watched the jurors.

Holt told Ruiz they would talk about it back in Pasco, and the two hugged before Ruiz was led out of the room by three Spokane County jail officers. Ruiz has been held there during the trial, but will be returned to Franklin County to await sentencing in early January.

Holt said he was prepared for the verdicts when he saw the jury forewoman hand over a light stack of papers, consisting of six verdict forms and five more for the special aggravating circumstances.

Jurors had been given options of second-degree murder and first- or second-degree manslaughter if they felt Ruiz's involvement didn't rise to the level of first-degree murder.

If they had acquitted him of all counts, they would have handed up about two dozen pages, each filled out with "not guilty."

Holt said he was surprised to hear a few of the jurors crying, and accused some jury members of being bullies and forcing others to vote guilty.

The jurors said that they felt personally attacked after hearing the defense wants Mitchell to throw out what they are calling a thoroughly thought out decision.

Jurors agreed to talk to the Tri-City Herald as a group. They spoke on the condition they remain anonymous.

The case was moved to Spokane County because of extensive media coverage during Ruiz's first two mistrials in Franklin County. After 22 days of testimony and legal motions, it was handed to the jury Monday morning.

Jurors initially took a hand vote to see where they all stood and then kicked off the discussions. About two or three people were then unsure of Ruiz's guilt, they said.

They spent four hours Monday and 6.5 hours Tuesday locked in the room. The walls were plastered with notepaper, timelines, Post-It notes, statements by witnesses -- anything they needed to help piece together the puzzle of what happened in the hours surrounding the killings inside Medina's Body Shop on Oct. 13, 1987.

"We couldn't have come to this decision without thinking through everything," a female juror said.

Several jurors had considered the possibility of mistaken identity as claimed by the defense, but after reviewing testimony, their notes and talking it through, they realized it wasn't credible.

Jurors said more than one witness corroborated that it was Ruiz inside that shop when two gunmen opened fire. Pedro Mendez-Reyna admitted in 1994 to being one of the shooters and said his cousin Ruiz was there with him.

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, who testified against Ruiz, survived by squirming under a car in the small 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 in the stomach by a ricocheting bullet.

Ruiz's lawyers said either their client was mistaken for 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.

The jurors, who were seated Nov. 16, said having to sit on a six-count murder case put them in an awful position. But they added, "We felt like we took it extremely seriously."

"These people were all so young; a wasted life," a female juror said.

The group bonded over the weeks because they often were stuck in the jury room while the attorneys argued in the courtroom. Since they had been instructed by Mitchell not to discuss the case until deliberations, they got to know each other well and found laughter helped relieve the tense moments.

"It consumed our life, and during a very difficult time of year also," a man said.

One juror learned how to knit and together they ended up making 19 rugs during their down time to donate to an animal shelter.

But it still wasn't easy, particularly the past few days which they described as awful.

"I didn't get to sleep until 4 in the morning," a male juror said.

"I'm glad I had an opportunity (to serve), but I don't ever want to go through this experience again," added another.

The group returned Wednesday morning and immediately voted by secret ballot. One juror then read through the slips of paper and confirmed they all had agreed Ruiz was guilty of the murders.

At 9 a.m. they alerted the court they had made a decision.

The verdicts brought relief to Franklin County Prosecutor Steve Lowe.

"I am so very happy and proud of the work of my office and the Pasco Police Department that resulted in justice for five families today," he told the Herald shortly after getting word. "It was a long, hard and expensive road but this crime was the most heinous in the history of Franklin County and it is only right that those who perpetrated this atrocity will spend their lives in prison."

Deputy Prosecutors Frank Jenny and Brian Hultgrenn, who handled the trial in Spokane, said it was "a good team effort" and thanked their witnesses -- many who now are retired or live out of state -- for being flexible with the trial schedule and leaving behind their own families to find justice for the victims' families.

"It's definitely nice to have some closure on it, that's for sure," Hultgrenn said.

Jenny praised then-Pasco Detective Henry Montelongo for having "the case solved within hours of when it happened. ... It was his knowledge of the community that solved the case."

They also said "an awful lot of credit" is due to their boss, Lowe, who was defeated in November's election and leaves office next week.

"He has supported us all the way," Jenny said. "He's gotten us the resources we needed to prosecute."