Marathon County Circuit Judge Jill Falstad stares at Robin “Bob” Mendez of Minocqua Tuesday, April 30, 2019, as she finds him guilty of the 1982 murder of his wife Barbara Mendez at the former Park City Credit Union in Minocqua.
Oneida County district attorney Michael Schiek makes his closing argument to Marathon County Circuit Judge Jill Falstad Wednesday, April 24, 2019 in the court trial of Robin “Bob” Mendez. Falstad issued an oral ruling Tuesday finding Mendez guilty of murdering his wife, Barbara, in April of 1982.
5/1/2019 4:31:00 PM GUILTY Mendez convicted in 1982 cold case murder
Thirty-seven years and two days after Barbara Mendez was struck from behind while wrapping up her workday as a teller at the former Park City Credit Union in Minocqua her husband, Robin "Bob" Mendez, was convicted of delivering the fatal blows, bringing closure to one of the Northwoods' most enduring cold cases.
In a 90-minute oral ruling Tuesday afternoon delivered before a hushed courtroom packed with observers, Marathon County Circuit Judge Jill Falstad found Oneida County district attorney Michael Schiek had proved beyond a reasonable doubt it was the victim's husband, and not a robber as the defense argued, who bludgeoned Barbara Mendez on April 28, 1982.
Mendez, now 70, was charged with first degree murder in February 2018 after the Oneida County detective bureau, with assistance from the television show "Cold Justice," reopened the unsolved case.
Her manager, Helen Koepke Gray, found the 33-year-old Mendez on the floor of the credit union at approximately 7:30 p.m. April 28, 1982. However, her time of death was estimated to be approximately 5:15 p.m. as computer records show she was completing her final tasks at 5:13 p.m.
At trial, the state argued Bob Mendez took advantage of a unique circumstance - April 28 was the first and only time Barbara was responsible for closing the credit union by herself - to remove his wife from his life before she could make public his illegal sexual involvement with a 14-year-old girl.
Falstad was charged with rendering a verdict in the case as Mendez waived his right to a jury trial.
The judge's decision came after she listened to seven days of testimony spread out over just under two weeks. The trial begin April 11 with testimony from former Minocqua Police Chief Norbert "Mac" McMahon, the first law enforcement officer at the scene, and ended with closing arguments and rebuttal April 24.
Falstad began her recitation by outlining why she did not find the defense argument that Barbara was killed by a bank robber to be persuasive. The defense put forth two potential suspects, Raymond Norris, who once confessed to being a getaway driver for someone named Scott who he said committed the murder, and the late Thomas Boze, who visited the credit union the afternoon of the murder and had a loud, attention-getting argument with his brother over the amount of a check to be cashed.
The defense evidence regarding Norris "is easily rejected because it's not credible nor was it corroborated," the judge said, noting that the timeline Norris offered does not fit with the other evidence and the injuries Barbara suffered were not consistent with being stabbed with a knife or pistol-whipped, as Norris suggested his accomplice did. Finally, photos of the scene and other evidence show Norris's statements about his accomplice being "covered in blood from his kneecaps to his chest" had to be false.
"There's no reasonable hypothesis or basis that Norris or accomplice Scott had any involvement with robbery or murder of Barbara Mendez," Falstad said, noting that Norris later recanted his story and admitted that he made it up in an effort to reduce his sentence in an unrelated federal matter.
As for Boze, Falstad said the evidence shows Thomas and his brother, Michael, visited the credit union between 1 and 1:30 p.m. April 28 at which time they had an argument about how much of his railroad settlement Michael should give Thomas. Thomas wanted $1,000 but Michael was only willing to write a check for $500. The two also ran into a roadblock because Thomas did not have the $5 necessary to open an account at the credit union. However, from the totality of the evidence, Falstad found the brothers, or at least Thomas, had to have returned later with the $5, (an individual membership card was submitted by the state has evidence) opened an account and cashed his check for $500.
"Once he got the cash money he simply had no reason to come back to the credit union that day," the judge said. "The court finds there's no reasonable hypothesis that Thomas Boze was involved in death of Barbara Mendez."
Falstad then turned her attention to the question of whether the state had proved its case that it was Mendez who killed his wife.
She began with Shari Anderson, a close friend of Barbara Mendez who testified that she had a long phone conversation with Barbara on April 27, 1982 in which Barbara confided that she planned to make her husband's favorite meal that night and attempt to talk to him about the problems in their marriage.
Falstad noted that Anderson described Barbara as "super sad and depressed" over the state of her marriage. "She was sick and upset because she could not solve their problems," the judge said, adding that it is reasonable to infer that Barbara did indeed speak to her husband that night about her concerns.
"Any disclosure (of his illegal sexual involvement with a minor) would have huge repercussions for Bob Mendez," the judge noted.
Falstad also found that it's reasonable to infer that Barbara told her husband that her boss had gone home sick on April 28 and that she would be alone at the credit union for the rest of the day. She also said it's reasonable to conclude that Barbara locked the door behind her last customer of the day, John Smylie, as he testified she walked him to the door.
"In applying common sense, the only reason she would walk him to the door would be to lock the door and he said she walked him out," the judge said. "The court finds the bank doors were locked."
The judge also noted there were no signs of forced entry to the credit union and no defensive wounds on Barbara's body, indicating that she allowed her killer into the building.
Falstad went on to explain that she believed the defendant's daughters, Dawn Shape and Christy Wadas, when they testified that their father coached them so extensively in the weeks, months and years after the murder that they can no longer provide independent information as to whether he was home with them during the time the murder was committed or if he might have left at some point.
Mendez, she said, used his daughters, who were 13 and 11 when their mother was killed, to "construct an alibi" for himself, convinced them that law enforcement was the enemy and they would lose their only remaining parent if they did not repeat the timeline he gave them.
Falstad said she also found the testimony of the woman Mendez was sexually assaulting in 1982 (he was later convicted) to be credible. The witness testified she believed the defendant was in love with her and they would get married someday. She also relayed a comment she claimed Mendez made to her the night of the murder that he was "footloose and fancy free" now and admitted that Mendez had (illegal) sexual contact with her in the Mendez home approximately 24 hours after the murder.
As she continued reciting her findings, Falstad noted that the state's forensic consultant, Christopher Robinson, offered "sound, well-reasoned and credible" evidence that the parallel wound marks found on Barbara's head are consistent with a wonder bar, an item commonly used to upholster furniture which is the Mendez family business.
Also credible was the testimony of another woman who was involved with Mendez in the months after the murder who relayed a disturbing comment she said her then-boyfriend made to her while they were out dancing in Park Falls.
"How does it feel to dance to with a murderer?" Mendez asked her, the witness testified.
Finally, Falstad said she believed the testimony of two inmates who said Mendez confessed to the murder while they were sharing a cell block.
"The court finds that the information (from the inmates) is credible and the source would have to Robin Mendez himself," she said. "With that the court finds Robin Mendez did confess or admit that he is the person who murdered Barbara Mendez on April 28, 1982."
In summarizing her findings, Falstad closely mirrored Schiek's final rebuttal in which he argued that the defendant is the only person who had motive, intent and opportunity to commit the murder.
Schiek argued Barbara would have opened the door for her husband and felt comfortable enough to turn her back on him long enough for the fatal blows to be inflicted.
"Once you get through Boze and Norris, there's nobody else left, Judge. There's no other suspects," Schiek argued in his rebuttal. "There was a lot of people investigated, law enforcement did their job, but all of the leads have been exhausted. Boze didn't work out, Norris didn't work. There's only one person left, judge, and that's Robin Mendez. He's sitting right over there. He's the one who murdered Barbara Mendez on April 28, 1982. He had the motive, he had the intent, the opportunity."
Schiek then paused for a moment before explaining that he struggled to understand how someone could savagely murder their wife and then calmly go about the rest of their evening.
"Judge, there was a time that I paused in preparing for the case (and thought about) how can somebody murder their wife, go home, greet their kids, have tacos and watch (TV), shower quick before I grow to church and look for my wife. And I as I thought through this, it's the same person that would have sexual intercourse with somebody 24 hours after his wife was murdered in the home that he lived in with his wife and children. It's that same mindset, Judge. There's nothing there, there's no conscience, there's no guilt. It was as easy for him as lying to everybody else, the same thing he's been doing for years."
Indeed, Falstad said the state showed Mendez had ample time to ride his motorcycle to the credit union, strike his wife over the head while her back was turned and get home in time to take a phone call from the 14-year-old before showering and heading to church.
"On April 28, 1982 Mr. Mendez saw an opportunity and he took it," the judge said. "Barb was alone at the bank. He went armed with a weapon with the intent to kill. He gained entry and killed his wife. He took some money but left $17,000 behind because this act was not truly motivated by money but was necessary to continue his sexual pursuit of a minor and not get caught."
Mendez sat stock-still through the judge's entire 90-minute recitation and showed no emotion as she uttered the word "guilty".
After announcing her verdict, Falstad said she intends to order a pre-sentence investigation and a sentencing hearing will likely be scheduled within the next 60 to 90 days.
In a brief interview after the verdict, sheriff's captain Terri Hook credited all of the law enforcement officers who investigated the case from 1982 to her current crop of detectives and noted that the assistance of the "Cold Justice" investigators was extremely valuable.
She expressed relief that the department had accomplished its goal of ensuring that Mendez will never hurt anyone again.
"I've known this family and been involved with this family for 5 or 6 years now and to be here at the end of this today is wonderful," she said.
Holding back tears, Dawn Shape offered a statement on behalf of her family.
"This has been a tremendous season of great transition, great shaking and great waiting," she said. "The wise King Solomon writes, 'there is a time for everything under the sun.' He also writes that, 'God will call the past to account.' Today, that past has been brought to account. The prophet Amos wrote 'let justice rain down like an everflowing stream of waters.' My faith is in those waters of justice that are not only flowing but will be flowing with mercy into one of the darkest places any man could ever live. It is in this hope that the light of repentance and the fullness of redemption wins."
Because the charge is based on the homicide statutes in place in 1982, Mendez faces the possibility of life in prison.
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