Oct 25, 2013 - By Eric Blom, Staff WriterTwo teenaged boys pleaded not guilty Thursday to murder and attempted murder charges from an attack Sept. 3 on a Riverton recreation path.
A judge joined their cases and set a trial for Jan. 13.
Roughly 25 members of the victims' families filled the courtroom behind Fremont County Attorney Michael Bennett and his deputy, Patrick LeBrun. Defendants John Potter, 15, and Santana Mendoza, 16, both of Riverton, had 15 relatives on their side of the gallery.
Prosecutors have accused Mendoza and Potter of killing David Ronald Moss, 25, and beating unconscious Aleeah Crispin on the Rails to Trials trail near 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. Both teens are being tried as adults.
On Thursday, District Court Judge for Fremont County Norman E. Young informed the young men of their constitutional rights and asked if they had questions about the charges they face.
Flanked by his public defenders, Kerri Johnson and Devon Petersen, Potter looked up at the judge and answered either "Yes, sir" or "No, sir" throughout the hearing. Seated next to his attorney, Sky Phifer, Mendoza kept his eyes pointed down at the table during most of the proceedings except to lean into a microphone to address the judge with, "Yes, your honor" or "No, your honor."
A jury trial in the case is set for Jan. 13, but it is eighth on the "stack," meaning seven other trials were already scheduled for that same day. If the others are not all cleared or postponed before then, the court would set a later date for Potter and Mendoza's trial.
Until the arraignment, the two defendants' cases were separate. Young joined the cases but said attorneys for either side could file a motion to split them again, which would trigger a hearing on the issue.
At a preliminary hearing Sept. 12, Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation Special Agent Andy Hanson described what Mendoza had told him about the attack in an interview.
Mendoza said he 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 said he was not excited about it but agreed to cooperate, Hanson said.
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, Potter kicked Moss in the face without any discussion immediately before the assault. 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 twice on Moss's head and recalls Potter swinging his bat downward onto the man's face.
Mendoza denied using the brass knuckles but said 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.
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