Sep 12, 2013 - By Eric Blom, Staff WriterInsults to the assailants' families were the motivation for the Sept. 3 beating death and assault on the Rails to Trails path, authorities believe.
Charges against the alleged perpetrators were bound over to district court at a Sept. 12 preliminary hearing in Wyoming 9th Judicial District Circuit Court in Riverton.
"Having reviewed all the evidence and case law, it's my conclusion the state has met its burden for both defendants," Judge Wesley Roberts said.
Santana Mendoza, 16, and John Potter, 15, both of Riverton, are accused of killing David Ronald Moss, 25, and beating unconscious Aleeah Crispin at a location on the edge of Riverton.
Each defendant faces one count of second-degree murder and one of attempted second-degree murder. Both charges are felonies punishable by imprisonment for 20 years or life.
Sky Phifer, attorney for Mendoza, tried to diminish or have dismissed the charges against his client.
Potter's lawyer, Kerri Johnson, there was not enough evidence to bind over charges against hers.
"The state has not given this court any credible evidence that Mr. Potter was involved in any way in this," she said. "The only evidence Mr. Potter was involved in this was from Mr. Mendoza, and Mr. Mendoza's credibility should be in question."
The lawyers based their arguments on testimony by Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation special agent Andy Hanson and Fremont County Sheriff's Detective Sgt. William Braddock.
Mendoza described the attack in interviews with law enforcement including Hanson.
"He asked if he would be in less trouble if he were to tell the truth," Hanson said.
The special agent described what Mendoza told him.
Mendoza was jogging on the Rails to Trails path when he encountered Potter, who pointed out Moss and Crispin sitting under a tree drinking a beverage.
"(Potter said) the people under the tree had been talking poorly of their families," Hanson said. "Because of that, they wanted to beat (Moss and Crispin) up and assault them."
The assault was Potter's idea, and Mendoza was not excited about it but agreed to cooperate, Mendoza told Hanson.
Mendoza watched the two victims while Potter went to retrieve a metal baseball bat and a set of brass knuckles. Potter carried the bat behind his leg to conceal it from the victims.
Mendoza put on the brass knuckles and also hid them as Potter engaged the victims in small talk.
As Mendoza described the scene, without discussion Potter suddenly kicked Moss in the face. Moss tipped to one side and Mendoza kicked him in the head. Crispin tried to stand up, but Potter kicked her in the face, and she fell to the ground.
After that, Mendoza remembers stomping on Moss twice on the head and recalls Potter swinging his bat downward onto the man's face.
Mendoza denied using the brass knuckles but admitted he also kicked Crispin. He insisted both assailants only used kicks on the woman. In the interview, Mendoza said he blacked out for part of the assault but remembers Moss was breathing after it was over.
Braddock said that after police found Crispin she was transported to Riverton Memorial Hospital and flown to Wyoming Medical Center in Casper. The woman was still in a coma as of Sept. 11 and had suffered bleeding within her skull that required surgery.
Mendoza's lawyer Phifer wanted the attempted murder charge lowered.
"In regards to my client, it appears they certainly have an assault and battery but we don't have a weapon," Phifer said. "We don't have evidence (Mendoza and Potter) purposely and maliciously attempted a second degree murder."
An autopsy report called into question the murder charge as well, Phifer said.
Braddock testified an autopsy by a Loveland, Colo. physician found the preliminary cause of Moss's death was blunt force head injuries and manual strangulation.
No evidence suggested his client strangled Moss, Phifer said. Furthermore, the autopsy report listed a fatty liver as contributing to death, which Mendoza could not have caused, and Moss was alive when Mendoza left the scene.
Roberts said the fatty liver was listed as an underlying condition.
The only evidence connecting Potter to the crimes was Mendoza's interview, Johnson said, and she pointed to contradictory statements from an informant to impugn Mendoza's credibility.
Someone overheard Mendoza talking about the assault on his school bus the next day, Hanson said. That person contacted law enforcement.
Mendoza bragged about using a "Superman punch" during the assault, according to the informant. Hanson believes the punch is a mixed martial arts move. The special agent noted Mendoza in his interview denied using the maneuver or discussing the assault on the bus.
Mendoza could also want to implicate Potter to lessen his own culpability, Johnson said.
"He has every reason in the world to life about it," she said.
Roberts did not find their arguments convincing, and the two defendants will next have an arraignment in district court.
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