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Rails to Trails suspect pleads to manslaughter charge
John Potter, shown here at a court appearance in 2013, pleaded guilty Thursday to the September beating death and assault on the Rails to Trails path. Photo by Wayne Nicholls

Rails to Trails suspect pleads to manslaughter charge

Feb 7, 2014 - By Eric Blom, Staff Writer

The case of his alleged accomplice has yet to be resolved.

One defendant charged in a May attack on the Rails to Trails path in Riverton pleaded guilty Thursday to manslaughter and aiding and abetting aggravated assault.

Speaking in Lander District Court, John Kalani Potter also gave an account of his crimes.

Potter, 16, of Riverton, was prosecuted as an adult. He gave the guilty pleas in exchange for an agreement with prosecutors lowering the charges from second-degree murder and attempted second-degree murder.

The boy and a friend, Santana Mendoza, then 16, of Riverton, attacked David Ronald Moss Jr., 25, and Aleeah Crispin, who was in her 30s, on Sept. 4 with a metal bat and brass knuckles on the recreation path near the All Nations Trailer court, prosecutors alleged.

Moss died as a result, and Crispin was put into a coma and suffered bleeding within her skull.

Under the new charges, Potter faces a maximum of 30 years in prison. He would have seen 20 years to life in prison for each his original counts if he had been convicted of them.

A sentencing date will be set after a pre-sentencing investigation is complete.

Mendoza's case has not been resolved.

Stories differ

In court Thursday, Potter gave a description of the attacks differed from what investigators at a previous hearing said Mendoza told them. District Court Judge Norman E. Young found that Potter's story supported a guilty plea to manslaughter in relation to Moss's death and in aiding and abetting aggravated assault for the attack on Crispin.

In Wyoming, killing a person is manslaughter if it is reckless and unintentional, but it would be second-degree murder if it is intentional and malicious.

A person aiding and abetting an aggravated assault if the only help someone seriously injure another, whereas the defendant would have to try to do something that could have killed someone to be guilty of attempted second-degree murder.

In September, a Division of Criminal Investigations special agent said Mendoza told police Potter asked him to help attack the two victims.

In contrast, Potter on Thursday told the judge the attack was Mendoza's idea, as about 25 people filled the gallery behind the defendant. On the afternoon of May 4, Potter was playing video games at his cousin's home by himself before he left, walked out on the Rails to Trails path. There he ran into Mendoza who was walking with two other people and eating food from McDonald's.

'You want to help me out?'

"He said, 'You want to help me out?'" according to Potter.

In another difference in their stories, Mendoza told investigators he was out jogging when he ran into Potter.

In the Thursday hearing, Potter said the other individuals left, and Mendoza pointed out Moss and Crispin where they were "chilling" down the path a short distance away, and said they had been insulting his mother.

"You just knock out the guy; I'll take care of the girl," Mendoza told him, according to Potter.

Potter said "OK," and Mendoza asked if he had a "bar or something," according to Potter.

Potter got a bat from his cousin's residence and gave the to Mendoza. The other boy decided he needed "a rock or something," however, and gave back the bat to Potter., Potter said. Potter gave Mendoza his brass knuckles belt buckle, and they approached Moss and Crispin.

They chatted for a bit before Moss said to Mendoza, "Tell your mom I said 'Hi,'" according to Potter.

Attack details

At that point, Mendoza looked at him, and the two boys attacked, Potter said.

His friend kicked Crispin, Potter said. He kicked Moss and struck him in the face until "he was snoring," Potter said.

The boys started to leave but returned, and Santana kicked both victims again, Potter. Potter kicked Moss one last time, he said.

Potter never mentioned striking Crispin, but Mendoza told investigators Potter kicked the woman as well. Potter said Moss was "snoring" when he and Mendoza walked away.

The penalty for manslaughter is up to 20 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. The maximum penalty for aiding and abetting aggravated assault is 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Potter also could be ordered to pay restitution.

Per the plea agreement, the judge can decide the sentence for both charges and have Potter serve them at the same time or one after the other. The deal stipulates Young could also sentence the boy to a boot camp program for young, first time offenders involving education and therapy.

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