Defense attorney Peter Prusinski cross-examines forensic consultant Chris Robinson Monday, April 15, 2019, during the first-degree murder trial of Robin Mendez in Oneida County Circuit Court, as sheriff’s captain Terri Hook and Det. Sgt. Chad Wanta look on.
4/18/2019 7:28:00 AM Witnesses recall April 28, 1982 as Mendez murder trial continues
Heather Schaefer River News Associate Editor
Six witnesses testified Tuesday in the murder of trial of Robin "Bob" Mendez. All of the witnesses had contact with either the defendant, his wife, Barbara, or both of them on April 28, 1982, the day Barbara was bludgeoned to death at the former Park City Credit Union in Minocqua.
Mendez, now 70, was charged with first degree murder in February 2018, after the Oneida County sheriff's office reinvestigated the 37-year-old murder case with help from the television show "Cold Justice." Mendez has always asserted his innocence and his attorney, Peter Prusinski, has argued at trial his client has been "mistaken for a murderer" and that the real killer was a bank robber.
Before testimony began Tuesday, Judge Jill Falstad announced a scheduling change. She explained that she suffered an injury the day before and will need some follow-up care. All parties agreed the trial will resume Monday morning to give the judge time to address the matter.
The first person called to the stand was Ken Eades, a close friend of Bob Mendez and a fellow parishioner at the Lakeland Assembly of God Church in Minocqua.
Eades testified he arrived at church early on the evening of April 28 to take a piano lesson from the pastor's wife before the 7 p.m service. He said he watched Mendez arrive later that night.
"He seemed to just go right past me, he never said anything," Eades said. "I thought it was unusual he was in a hurry to get in church quickly. Being friends, that was kind of unusual (for Mendez to ignore Eades)."
Next on the stand was Shari Anderson, the pastor's wife. Anderson said she considered Barbara Mendez her best friend in the church and they shared confidences. Anderson said she had a phone conversation with Barbara on April 27, 1982 that lasted several hours. When asked to recount the conversation, Anderson said Barbara was very sad and frustrated over the state of her marriage.
"Barb told me that things were not very good between she and Bob," Anderson said. "She said that she had tried to talk to him, to ask him what was wrong or to get him to talk to her, he would not. She said that he had been going away from home often and she had asked him to take her with him and he would not take her with him. She told me that she could not take it anymore, that she didn't think she could handle it anymore. She was actually getting sick and the stress was causing her to have rashes on her legs. She was very, very upset with their relationship and the fact that she couldn't seem to solve anything with him and he wouldn't talk to her."
Anderson went on to say that Barbara confided that she planned to make her husband's favorite meal (a Mexican dish) that night and try again to talk to him about their relationship. According to Anderson, Barbara indicated she was at the end of her rope and was thinking of leaving if something didn't change.
"She was actually super super sad so I was extremely concerned about her well-being and where she was at," Anderson said. "We discussed quite a bit about options that perhaps she could visit family out west. She said she just couldn't take things the way they were anymore and said she was thinking of going away for awhile because she wasn't feeling well and that she didn't even think Bob would care if she did."
Anderson also indicated that Barbara was very concerned about her husband's interactions with a 14-year-old church member (Mendez was later convicted of sexually assaulting the girl) and on one occasion she picked up the phone in her home and heard her husband talking to the teen.
The April 27 phone call was the last time Anderson ever spoke to her friend.
"I was looking forward to seeing her at church (on Wednesday) to followup but didn't see her again," she said.
Anderson then described the scene at the church the evening of April 28 when members of the congregation became concerned that Barbara had not arrived for the 7 p.m. service. She said she asked Mendez where his wife could be.
"He told me that she had called the home at a quarter to 6 p.m. and she was still working and would be late," she said.
The witness testified she wanted to go looking for Barbara but Mendez stopped her.
"Because I was already worried about (Barbara), I was very concerned she hadn't shown up," Anderson explained.
Mendez later borrowed her car to search for his wife, she continued. A short time later Mendez called the church to advise that Barbara had been found dead at the credit union, she said.
Anderson and her husband hurried over to the credit union.
"Bob was sitting on the hood of my car, just sitting there, looking straight ahead," she recalled. "I went up to him, tried to get him to look at me, but he didn't say much."
The Andersons later drove Mendez home and stayed with the family to provide support, the witness said. Mendez was "silent and still, almost like a zombie," she testified.
As her direct examination continued, Anderson explained that she had doubts about Bob Mendez from the day Barbara was killed and her concerns only grew as the summer of 1982 wore on.
"Over the course of summer, I became increasingly concerned that he could have murdered his wife," Anderson said, explaining that she tried to keep a close eye on Mendez while not alerting him to her doubts. She also said she would often think about the conversation she had with Barbara on April 27 and thought it was "like a warning."
The witness also testified that she was initially confused about the time of Barbara's death because Mendez had told her that Barbara had called the family home at 5:45 that evening while newspaper coverage of the case had put the time of death at approximately 5:15.
"I was like, that can't be. The newspaper is wrong. They've got their information wrong because she called home a quarter to 6 and I was completely sure that she had called home a quarter to 6," said Anderson, adding that she later came to believe that Mendez was trying to create confusion over the timing of events on April 28.
Under cross-examination, Anderson admitted that she never witnessed any violence between Bob and Barbara Mendez and Barbara never said she was afraid of her husband. She also conceded that she does not know whether Barbara and Bob talked about their marital issues before the murder or not.
The third witness of the day, Karen Krajewski, testified that another church member, Richard Plourd, told herself and her husband that he saw Bob Mendez drive into the credit union parking lot the evening of April 28.
Plourd, who is now deceased, made the comment the night of the murder, she said. Under cross-examination, Krajewski admitted that she didn't believe Mendez was capable of murder at the time and didn't tell police what Plourd told her until 2018.
"We had told Dick he should go to police," she said.
The next two witnesses spoke with Barbara on credit union-related matters shortly before the close of business on April 28.
Jean Majerle testified she called the credit union just after 5 p.m. to ask about a check and was surprised someone answered the phone.
"I remember looking at the clock and being kind of surprised that someone did answer," she said.
John Smylie, a credit union board member, testified he went to Park City just before 5 p.m. to have a jar of change converted to dollars. He estimated he arrived two or three minutes before 5 p.m., Barbara poured his coins into a machine and he received $55 in cash.
Smylie was then asked about conflicting statements he has given to police over the years as to whether Barbara followed him to the door and locked it behind him. He testified Tuesday he now believes Barbara did, in fact, lock the door.
Under cross-examination, Smylie testified he did not see any motorcycles in the area when he left the credit union at approximately 5 p.m. that day.
The last witness Tuesday was Helen (Koepke) Gray, the manager of the Park City Credit Union Minocqua branch in 1982.
Gray testified that Barbara arrived for work at approximately 12:30 p.m. on April 28 and Gray soon decided to leave for the day.
"I just felt like I needed to go home. It was very rare. I never had sick days normally," she said.
As the office was very small and Barbara was her only employee, Gray's illness left Barbara to close the credit union by herself for the first time.
Later that evening, Gray testified she received a call from Bob Mendez asking her to go to the credit union and check on Barbara.
"When I got passed the cashier's counter going toward my office, I saw that she was lying on the floor," Gray said. "I went right straight to my office and call 911. There was blood coming out of her ear. My first thought was that maybe she had been shot."
Under cross-examination, Gray said she believed Barbara had told Bob that she was closing the office alone that night but cannot be sure.
"I understand she was on the phone with him somewhere during the day and had told him I was going to be going home," Gray said on direct examination.
"I assume she told him," Gray said later, in response to questions from Prusinski. "I can't guarantee it."
Forensic expert, ex-wife, brother testify
The state called four witnesses Monday, the defendant's brother and ex-wife, the victim's sister and a forensics expert.
First on the stand was Ben Mendez, the defendant's older brother.
Mendez, who worked for the Wisconsin State Patrol for 30 years after leaving the family upholstery business in 1985, testified he kept a pry bar from the business and later gave it to an Oneida County detective (who has since retired) because he was concerned that it might be the type of tool that was used in his sister-in-law's murder.
"I kept it because of its potential significance as a weapon that may have been similar in the one used in Barbara's death," he testified.
He also testified about a $3,700 check written on the upholstery shop's checking account in May of 1982. Mendez testified the amount was considerable, given the finances of the business at the time.
He also testified as to the distance between the shop, which was adjacent to Bob Mendez' home, and the credit union.
"We advertised our business as 7 miles west of Minocqua," he said, adding that the drive would take approximately 10 minutes in the offseason (between Labor Day and Memorial Day).
Finally, Mendez testified he did not know his brother was sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl back in 1982 but was concerned about his brother's behavior toward the teenager. He also testified his brother would look for excuses to make "town runs" into Minocqua and would often smell of cologne when he left.
Also testifying for the state Monday was the defendant's ex-wife, Lorri Domke.
Domke testified she met Mendez in May 1983 and married him in March 1984. She testified Mendez offered explanations as to why his hair or DNA might be found at the murder scene in the credit union.
"If his fingerprints were behind the counter it was because he was behind the counter all the time," Domke said. "He also said if there were any hairs found it was because they shared a jacket."
The couple divorced in 2004 and Domke attempted to help law enforcement investigate Mendez in the early 2000s. She said she wore a wire and asked him questions about coaching his daughter, Dawn and Christy, as to what time he was home the night of the murder. While he talked about going over stories with his daughters, he denied killing his wife, she admitted, in response to a defense question.
Barbara Mendez's sister, Diane Blazkowski, testified Monday she saw her sister's car in the credit union parking lot at 6:10 and 6:20 p.m. April 28, when she drove past the building on her way to a gas station and back. She also testified that she and her husband provided a burial plot for Barbara, as they owned a cemetery, but Bob Mendez refused to give them any money for a headstone and offered no input on the design or inscription.
Also on the stand Monday was a forensic consultant who testified as to what sort of weapon could have caused the unique injuries Barbara Mendez suffered.
Chris Robinson, a former Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent who now owns his own forensic consulting practice, testified he became involved in the case through "Cold Justice".
He said he first reviewed the case materials for the producers of the television show and was later hired by Oneida County.
In explaining his findings, Robinson focused on the parallel wounds found on the left side of Barbara's face. He said tests conducted using clay molds show that a pry bar would produce the irregular parallel lacerations found on the victim's face.
"They're rough, they're not like a knife so as you pull them across the skull it has irregular lacerations," he explained.
The unique parallel nature of the lacerations also rules out other instruments such as a knife, a hammer or a revolver, he testified.
"How could I strike someone with three sets of parallel marks perfectly with a rounded barrel," he said. "Any type of revolver would not create this type of bruising." A hammer leaves "a half moon or full moon indication" he added. A Bowie knife or similar knife would create a clean "filet-type" cut, he added.
"No type of hammer would have caused these wounds you see on Ms. Mendez' body," he testified.
Under cross-examination, Robinson admitted he did not conduct tests using the other weapons mentioned.
The state is expected to wrap up its case when the trial resumes Monday, April 22. As Mendez waived his right to a jury trial, Falstad will render the verdict in this case.
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