Israel Vasquez, a 19-year-old accused of murdering a couple inside their Garner duplex in 2013, was acquitted Monday after the jury spent less than an hour deliberating his fate.
The Wake County Superior Court jury found Vasquez guilty of the firearm charge that his defense attorney, Johnny Gaskins, conceded during his closing arguments.
The verdict brings to close a two-week-long trial in which Gaskins raised doubts about the prosecutor’s key witness, a man who admitted being outside the Garner duplex on Colonial Drive where Jose Samuel Flores Mendoza and Maria Saravia Mendoza were gunned down shortly before midnight on Jan. 5, 2013.
Assistant District Attorney David Saacks argued that Vasquez was one of two shooters who blasted through the duplex where the Mendozas had lived for nearly a year, firing an assault rifle and a .45-caliber handgun so many times that a cloud of thick smoke lingered in their wake.
Saacks contended that the couple were the unintended victims in a gang war by gunmen who were unaware that their targets, two rival gang members, had moved from that address before the Mendozas moved in. Vasquez is scheduled to be sentenced Tuesday for the firearms charge, possession of a stolen gun with an altered serial number.
The jury reached a different verdict from one a little more than a year ago when another teen accused of killing the Mendozas, Jonathan Santillan, was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder.
The key witness for prosecutors at the Santillan trial was Moises Reyes, who claimed to be the getaway driver but not a shooter. He has been charged with accessory after the fact.
Reyes, whom Saacks argued was a crucial link to the evidence at both trials, described a gang fight in December 2012 that prosecutors contended was the root of the retaliation. The intended victims, prosecutors said, had lived at the address where the Mendozas were found dead but not for at least a year before the shootings.
“The primary witness here was a member of a gang, and I don’t think they believed him,” Gaskins said after talking with several of the jurors. “I didn’t believe him.”
Vasquez faced the possibility of a lifetime prison sentence with no opportunity for parole if convicted of the murder charges that prosecutors filed 10 days after the shootings.
Investigators found Vasquez and Santillan in a home where the murder weapons were discovered. Santillan was in the attic, according to testimony, and Vasquez was standing on a chair in a locked closet with an opening to the attic.
Santillan and Vasquez lived across the street from each other, according to testimony, and spent many hours together after school, on weekends and even when Santillan moved back to Texas for a while.
During a police interrogation, videotaped and played for the jury late last week, Vasquez pointed the finger at Reyes and offered to call him while police listened to get him to provide a different take on the incident from the one Reyes had provided to investigators.
Vasquez said he knew the weapons found in his attic “were hot,” meaning they were either stolen or had been used in a crime. Vasquez said Reyes had asked him to keep them and was afraid of suffering retaliation if he refused.
“Why would somebody do that if you knew these guns were hot?” Saacks asked during his closing arguments.
“They’re more than hot, they’re reloaded,” Saacks added. “The smart thing would have been to get rid of them.”
Vasquez’s attorney told the jury during closing arguments that Vasquez was inside the locked closet when investigators found him because he was worried about marijuana stored there.
Gaskins argued that Reyes, who has not been to trial on the charges he faces, made up a story for prosecutors so he could “get his ticket punched” and perhaps get a lighter sentence.
Saacks argued that if Reyes simply needed his “ticket punched,” he did not have to include Vasquez in his effort because Santillan already had been convicted. “What benefit does Moises gain by adding Israel into that story?” Saacks asked.
The defense posed the theory that Santillan could have wielded both weapons inside the home or that Reyes could have been the second shooter.
“Israel had nothing to do with it,” Gaskins said.
Saacks countered that it would have been difficult for one person to kick in the door of the duplex and fire both weapons at the same time.
Samuel Mendoza worked the late-night shift at a Golden Corral restaurant on the chilly night in January 2013 that he was killed. The restaurant manager told the jury that both Mendozas worked there, but they tried to arrange their schedules so one of them could be home with their toddler son while the other was at work.
Maria Mendoza was shot seven times at the stove where she was cooking for her husband, who had finished his shift and driven a co-worker and friend home.
Their older son Jorge, a teenager, was spending the night at his uncle’s house. Jacob, his brother, was 3 at the time and inside the duplex when the gunmen came in. The boy was found crying on top of his lifeless father, who was shot 16 times while in front of the TV.
Saacks told jurors the toddler was trying to hug his father. “You have to know he was never going to get that hug back,” he said as he stepped away from the jury.