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June 15, 2019

Jamie Taylor/River NewsMarathon County Circuit Judge Jill Falstad listens to testimony in the first-degree murder trial of Robin Mendez. Mendez, 70, of Minocqua, is accused bludgeoning his wife on April 28, 1982.
Jamie Taylor/River News

Marathon County Circuit Judge Jill Falstad listens to testimony in the first-degree murder trial of Robin Mendez. Mendez, 70, of Minocqua, is accused bludgeoning his wife on April 28, 1982.
4/16/2019 7:30:00 AM
Mendez trial continues with testimony from sexual assault victim, inmates
Heather Schaefer
River News Associate Editor

Accused murderer Robin Mendez came face to face Friday with the woman he was convicted of sexually assaulting more than 30 years ago as well as two former cell block mates who claim he bragged to them about killing his wife with a tool from his motorcycle repair kit.

Mendez, 70, is charged with bludgeoning his 33-year-old wife, Barbara, from behind as she closed the former Park City Credit Union office in Minocqua on April 28, 1982.

He was charged with first degree murder in February 2018, after the Oneida County sheriff's detective bureau re-investigated the case with the help of the television show "Cold Justice."

As Mendez waived his right to a jury trial, Marathon County Circuit Judge Jill Falstad is hearing the evidence and will render a verdict.

Testimony began Thursday with retired Minocqua Police Chief Norb McMahon, who was the first officer to see the body of Barbara Mendez in a pool of blood on the floor of the credit union, forensic pathologist Dr. Adam Kovach and the defendant's oldest daughter. Dawn Mendez Shape.

The trial resumed Friday with testimony from the defendant's younger daughter, Christy Mendez Wadas.

Like her sister on Thursday, Wadas began her testimony with a recitation of her recollection of the afternoon and evening of April 28, 1982. She said she got home from school at approximately 3:40 p.m. and watched "Gilligan's Island" on TV shortly thereafter. She testified she does have an independent recollection of when her father came home from work that night but knows that her sister believes it was 4:45 p.m.

Wadas also corroborated her sister's testimony that their father coached and manipulated them over the years as to the timing of the events of that night to the point where they are confused as to certain details.

"At the time we were just going with what we were instructed and led to do to protect our family," she said, adding that she was led to believe the police were the enemy.

As a result of the "coaching" Wadas testified she cannot say for sure that her father was in their home the entire time between 4:45 p.m. and 6:15 p.m. when he left for the regular Wednesday church service the family attended. The timing is important because it is believed Barbara was killed at approximately 5:15 p.m.

"My memories are so convoluted as to what I actually remember and what we rehearsed that I can't speak to whether he was home or not home," she said.

Wadas, who was 11 years old when her mother was killed, also spoke of an incident that took place in 2002 that prompted her to look into her mother's death.

She testified she was working on a home improvement project with her husband when she stepped on a rake and suffered an injury that reminded her of what happened to her mother.

"The rake came up and hit me in the head really hard and in the moment I instantly thought about mom," she testified. "For whatever reason, it made me remember about her because of her being bludgeoned. Instantly, I had a flood of feelings and thoughts come over me and I decided I wanted to find out more about what happened to my mom."

She began by reading old newspaper articles about the case, which included details she was unaware of or could not understand when she was 11. For instance, she knew that her father had been charged with child sexual assault in the fall of 1982 but was told that what her father had done was "barely illegal" as the victim in the case was "17 almost 18." From reading the news coverage, she learned the victim had actually been 14 years old when Mendez assaulted her.

"That was a surprise and that was a shock," Wadas said.

After making additional discoveries about her father, she testified she called a hotline that connected her to the Oneida County sheriff's office. With the assistance of the sheriff's office, she recorded conversations with her father about the case but he would only tell her that he couldn't talk about it.

Around the same time, Wadas said she became interested in true crime television shows and began watching "Cold Justice" which focuses on old crimes committed in small communities.

Eventually, she reached out to the producers of "Cold Justice" and the Oneida County sheriff's office agreed to work with them to re-investigate the case.

On cross-examination, defense counsel Peter Prusinski, who has argued throughout the trial that Barbara Mendez was actually killed by bank robber and her husband has been "mistaken for a murderer", questioned Wadas about the importance of her role as an alibi witness.

"You knew if you could testify and not be your father's alibi that would help state's case?" he asked.

"I am here to tell the truth and if the truth helps bring justice, whatever that looks like, is up to the court," she replied.

Next on the stand was the woman who accused Mendez of sexual assault back in 1982. (He was later convicted). Because the woman was a minor when the assaults took place, the River News is not identifying her.

Her voice trembling, she testified that she met Robin Mendez and his family through church.

She then recalled a day in the summer of 1981 when he gave her a note "like a riddle" that said "I've got a good recipe for mush, me and you."

The woman testified her first thought was that Mendez, who was a youth group leader for the congregation, was testing her as he had previously asked the teenage girls whether they would remain "pure" for their husbands.

She wrote back and soon Mendez was visiting her while she was babysitting for neighbor children. Very quickly, the physical contact progressed from kissing to intercourse, she added, noting that she had no real experience with relationships at the time and thought they were in love.

"I thought I was in love and I thought he loved me I thought he was going to marry me some day," she testified. "He offered to buy me an engagement ring. Told me we would be together someday and couldn't wait for that to happen."

The woman also testified that she was one of several people who came to the Mendez home the night of the murder to offer support. At some point that evening she said she had an opportunity to ask Mendez how he was doing.

"His countenance changed and he said, 'I'm footloose and fancy free,'" she said, explaining that "fancy free' was a reference to a song and that Mendez had talked about wanting to be "fancy free from Barb so we could be together."

The sexual assaults continued until October of 1982 when the woman was called to the high school office to speak with police. During that interview, she admitted to the sexual contact but asserted that Mendez could not have killed his wife because she had been on the phone with him between 5 and 5:30 p.m. April 28.

Now aware of the assaults, the woman testified her father went to their church to confront Mendez. Although she had been told to stay home, the woman said she rode her bike to the church and found her father and Mendez in the sanctuary. Mendez asked to talk to her alone and she testified she believed he was going to profess his love again, but instead he was angry, she testified.

When he asked her what she told police, she said she realized everything he had told her about the future "was all just a bunch of lies."

In a subsequent interview with the police, she admitted that she had lied about the timing of the phone call on April 28.

"For the last 14-15 months of my life, I lied to a lot of people and I lied to the police and I decided from that moment on I wanted to live my life with integrity and I've tried to do that," she said.

Also as part of her direct testimony, the witness was asked to read three notes Mendez wrote to her in 1982. Her body shook with sobs as she read the decades-old letters.

On cross-examination, the witness testified she never told Mendez to kill his wife, but did encourage him to divorce her.

Prusinski also asked the witness whether Mendez confessed to her in their first conversation after Barbara was found dead.

"He didn't say 'I just killed my wife who you hate?'" he asked.

The last two witnesses of the day were two inmates who once shared a cellblock with Mendez.

Pursuant to an order from Falstad, the news media is prohibited from identifying the two witnesses.

Both men testified they were upset to learn that Mendez was a sex offender and the story about the murder came out after Mendez explained that his sex offenses happened many years ago.

"He was a pastor and he was sleeping with a girl in his church. Like a girl, not a woman, a girl," one of the men said in a recorded interview with detectives. The witness went on to say that Mendez told them the girl came on to him and he "couldn't help himself."

"He was like she wanted me to kill my wife so I did," the witness said, "He was like bragging about it he beat the cops," he added.

Both men said Mendez told them the murder weapon was a tool from his motorcycle breakdown kit. Mendez stored the weapon, along with the trunk and saddlebag of the motorcycle, for two years before burning it a big bonfire, both men testified.

Under cross-examination, both inmates were asked if they had seen or read any media accounts of the case or, in the case of one of them, if a girlfriend could have fed them the information. Both insisted all of the information they recited had come from Mendez himself. However, when asked about potential bias, one of them admitted to being a member of white supremacist group.

During cross-examination, Prusinski focused on the inmates' statements that sex offenders are worse than murderers.

"He needs justice doesn't he," Prusinski asked one of the men.

"She (Barbara) needs justice," he responded.

The trial resumed Monday morning with testimony from the defendant's brother, Ben Mendez, and the state's forensic consultant Chris Robinson. Information about their testimony will be published in the Thursday edition of the River News.

Mendez faces life in prison if convicted.

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