Retired Minocqua Police Chief Norb McMahon gestures toward an exhibit during his testimony Thursday, April 11 at the first-degree murder trial of Robin “Bob” Mendez. McMahon, a patrolman at the time, was the first officer on the scene at the Park City Credit Union on April 28, 1982, after the body of Barbara Mendez was found on the floor.
4/13/2019 7:30:00 AM Mendez trial begins with testimony from daughter, medical examiner Defense claims Mendez was 'mistaken for a murderer'
By Heather Schaefer & Jamie Taylor Of the River News
The first-degree murder trial of Robin "Bob" Mendez opened Thursday morning with divergent theories as to what took place shortly after 5 p.m. April 28, 1982 when the defendant's wife, Park City Credit Union employee Barbara Mendez, was attacked as she closed the Minocqua office for the day.
In opening statements, Oneida County district attorney Michael Schiek told Judge Jill Falstad the evidence will show that Bob Mendez, now 70, killed his wife that day. Meanwhile, defense attorney Peter Prusinski argued Mendez has been "mistaken for a murderer" and his wife was actually killed by a bank robber.
As Mendez waived his right to a jury trial, Falstad will decide his fate.
Schiek's opening statement served as a roadmap of the 37-year-old case. The prosecutor set the scene in terms of the layout of the town of Minocqua in 1982 and methodically explained the testimony he expects to elicit from each of his witnesses which will include the defendants' daughters, several law enforcement officers, members of Mr. Mendez church and two people who claim Mendez told them he killed his wife.
"After you look at the facts and the evidence that we have against Mr. Mendez there will be no doubt that Mr. Mendez is guilty of first-degree murder," he said.
Prusinski, on the other hand, argued those who believe Mendez to be guilty don't know the whole story about what took place on April 28, 1982.
"This story revolves around three people, Robin Mendez, Thomas Boze and Ray Norris, and how this community has misunderstood, brushed aside or never knew what else happened 37 years ago," he said.
He then explained why he believes the evidence points to Boze committing the murder during the course of a robbery. In particular, he mentioned sightings of a man with a thin build and dark hair over his neck wearing a down jacket and denim cap.
"In the end, your honor, you will and are the judge what actually happened on April 28, 1982," Prusinski told Falstad. "And I will submit that for all of Robin Mendez manipulations, he was mistaken for a murderer. That the evidence best fits Thomas Boze and that Raymond Norris raises reasonable doubt."
First on the stand was retired Minocqua Police Chief Norb McMahon. A patrolman on April 28, 1982, he was the first officer to respond to the credit union after the manager, Helen Koepke, reported finding her employee, Barbara Mendez, dead on the floor.
McMahon testified there were no broken windows or signs of forced entry to the building.
"The front counter looked OK until you got behind the front counter," he said. There, he found Barbara Mendez lying in a pool of blood, her head turned to the side.
"There was a lot blood. It was just a bloody mess, if you will," he said.
The cash drawer was open and the credit union's safe ajar, he added, noting that officers later learned $2,626 had been stolen.
"That was ascertained from the adding machine tape," McMahon explained. "She apparently had been going through her closing."
During cross-examination, McMahon admitted he did not interview all of the people who lived and worked in the homes and businesses in the area near the credit union. He also had some difficulty remembering whether he told the newest detectives looking into the case that he saw blood splatter on the wall of the credit union.
The second witness of the day was Dr. Adam Kovach, Fond du Lac County medical examiner. Kovach was asked to review the autopsy of Barbara Mendez conducted by the late Dr. Robert Huntington III, and offer his opinion as to the cause of death.
Kovach testified Barbara suffered "at least nine distinct blunt force injuries to her head" and that the 10th injury, above her left eye, was most likely suffered when she fell to the ground during the attack.
The cause of death was multiple blunt force trauma, he said.
Under cross-examination, Kovach admitted that he cannot offer an opinion as to what sort of weapon caused the injuries.
"I have not been formally trained to recognize particular instruments that can be used to inflict injuries like this," he said. In response to questions from Prusinski, he also said he cannot offer an opinion as to which was the first blow to Barbara's head or whether she was lying on the ground when she suffered certain blows.
Next, Schiek called Dawn Mendez Shape, the oldest daughter of Robin and Barbara.
Shape, who was 13 years old on April 28, 1982, described close relationships with both of her parents. She said she cooked, picked berries and did laundry with her mother but also considered herself "daddy's little girl."
"I just really loved and adored him and felt close to him," she said.
Schiek then asked Shape to describe what happened on the afternoon and evening of April 28.
Shape testified that she and her sister, Christy, who was 11 at the time, got off the school bus at approximately 3:40 p.m. She did some homework and they both watched some TV. At 4:55 p.m. her father came home from the family business, an upholstery shop. She said he took a shower, they ate dinner (leftovers from a special Mexican meal her mother had prepared the day before) and prepared to go to the 7 p.m. service at their church.
Her father, who played in the church band, left the house at 6:15 p.m., she continued.
The sisters were left at home to wait for their mother who they expected would drive them to the church.
At that point, Shape described a tense scene as she and her sister became more and more concerned about their mother's whereabouts.
"I remember we were both sitting around waiting for mom and wondering where she was," Shape said. "We became worried in the vicinity of like 6:45 p.m. because it was getting late and we were supposed to be to church in 15 minutes... we started talking about what could have kept her. We really got worried that something could have happened to her."
Eventually, they decided to call the church to express their concern. Shape said she believed the adults at church would find out what happened. Later, when her father came home with the pastor and his wife but not her mother, she knew that her mother was not alive anymore.
In the days that followed, she described various interviews with the police and overwhelming fear that she would lose the only parent she had left.
"What was it like after (the murder)?," Schiek asked.
"Hell," she responded. "I was only 13 and I had to try to understand something really big like murder. I'd never been through something so horrible. I relied on dad, he was the only thing I had left."
She then described multiple conversations with her father and sister about the events of April 28.
"It was really, really important for us to figure out our story, we had to have a story to give to police, had to know all the times," she explained. "The thing that was most important was neither one of us got our story wrong and that we all had the same story. So we had to make sure we knew each other's story. The fear was that if any one of our stories weren't right, dad could be arrested for murder and I didn't want to lose another parent."
While she and her sister served as alibi witnesses for their father in 1982 and for years afterward, Shape said Thursday she is unsure whether her father was actually in their home the entire time between 4:55 to 6:15 p.m.
"I know that we did certain things between 4:55 and 6:15, but I can't sit here and say that I know he was home the entire time," she testified, noting that there was a period of time between 4:55 and 6:15 when she and her sister were in the basement searching for a folder and a Bible their father needed for the church service.
Finally, Shape testified to learning several months after the murder that her father had sexually assaulted a 14-year-old girl who was a close friend of the family.
She said she once found the two of them in her parents' bed and also witnessed her father touching the girl's genital area while they were in a swimming pool. In October 1982, Shape was told that her father had been charged with "statutory rape" related to his conduct with the girl. He was later convicted.
Under cross-examination, Shape admitted to having given various investigators a number of conflicting stories over the years as to the timeline of April 28, 1982. Although she testified her father watched the news that night, she couldn't remember what time the broadcast started or what time her sister turned on "Gilligan's Island". She also testified she couldn't remember where the three ate their supper (except that it wasn't together at the dining room table) and didn't remember whether her father dried his hair with a blow dryer that night, as she mentioned in some of her previous statements.
At Prusinski's direction, Shape also spent considerable time drawing a diagram of the house showing the various sight lines.
Shape was the last witness Thursday. Schiek indicated he plans to call two more witnesses Friday.
The trial is expected to continue until April 30.
Because the charge is based on the homicide statutes in place in 1982, Mendez faces life in prison if convicted.
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