Crime

Opening statements in Garner homicide trial offer different accounts

Jonathan Santillan, the teen accused of murdering a couple in Garner who investigators contend were the unintended victims in rival gang warfare, listens to opening arguments Tuesday at the Wake County Justice Center in Raleigh.
Jonathan Santillan, the teen accused of murdering a couple in Garner who investigators contend were the unintended victims in rival gang warfare, listens to opening arguments Tuesday at the Wake County Justice Center in Raleigh. tlong@newsobserver.com

Jose and Maria Mendoza came to this country from El Salvador looking for a better life than they had in Central America.

They ended up in Wake County and worked different shifts at the same Golden Corral restaurant in south Raleigh for 14 years so one of them could always be home for their sons.

But in the early hours of Jan. 5, 2013, that family life was shattered by gunmen who entered their Garner home shortly after midnight and – while wearing hairnets, masks and gloves – sprayed gunfire into the living room and kitchen.

That was the scene described by David Saacks, the Wake County assistant district attorney and lead prosecutor in the trial of Jonathan Santillan, one of the teens accused of murdering the couple.

In a 30-minute opening statement on Tuesday, Saacks laid out for the six men and six women selected for the jury an account of that shooting that he thought will emerge during the trial.

Defense attorney Jeff Cutler used fewer minutes to tell jurors what he thought will emerge during the next two weeks. Listen, he told the jury, to the state’s “pivotal witness,” a person the defense attorney contends has pointed the finger at Santillan to cover up his own involvement in what prosecutors have described as gang warfare.

The Mendozas, prosecutors contend, were unintended victims – a couple gunned down by armed intruders at the wrong address intent on rival gang war.

On Jan. 4, not long before the shooting, Jose Samuel Flores Mendoza worked the closing shift at the Golden Corral on Grenelle Street, arriving home at 708 Colonial Drive near Garner shortly before midnight. He was hungry and cold from the winter temperatures.

The 34-year-old plunked down in front of the TV in the living room, pulling a blanket around him while his wife, Maria Saravia Mendoza, 34, was at the stove, cooking a late-night meal for him.

Prosecutors contend that a car was pulling up outside the home and two teens – Santillan, who was 15 at the time, and Israel Vasquez, not quite a year older – were pulling on gloves, masks and hairnets.

The gunmen burst through the door, according to Saacks, and some “40-odd shots” were fired from at least two guns, a .45-caliber handgun and a 7.62 mm rifle.

Jose Mendoza was shot 16 times in the head, chest and torso, according to medical examiner reports. Maria Mendoza, who was shot seven times, was hit while she was at the stove, then fell to the kitchen floor, according to Saacks. He said she was shot in the back while lying on the floor.

The gunfire orphaned two children – 3-year-old Jacob, who was home at the time, and 12-year-old Jorge, who was spending the night with relatives. The boys now live with extended family.

The trial, Saacks said, will bring forward a series of witnesses who testify in English and Spanish. Jurors will be shown photos of the gun casings left behind and the bullet-pocked walls.

“You’ll see the carnage,” Saacks said.

Investigators from the Wake County Sheriff Department also will provide an account of finding the co-defendants inside a home 10 days after the shooting. Santillan, according to Saacks, was hiding in an attic with guns and boxes of ammunition.

Santillan was initially accused in the Wake County juvenile court system. In May 2013, a Wake County district judge found that prosecutors had enough evidence and probable cause to transfer the case to adult court.

A Wake County grand jury handed up indictments in August 2013 accusing Santillan and Vasquez, his uncle, with first-degree murder.

In addition to the two counts of first-degree murder in the Mendoza case, Vasquez and Santillan also were accused of conspiracy to commit murder against David Gonzalez and Juan Hernandez.

Vasquez is scheduled to be tried later this year or early next year.

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