Slain dad’s estate generously enriches his convicted killer
January 14, 2008
By DANIEL BLACKBURN
A repeat felon who executed his own father was the recipient of at least $150,000 from the Paso Robles man’s estate, according to a relative who witnessed the financial transactions
California law prohibits criminals from profiting from their crimes.
Martin Mendoza is serving a 23-year sentence in a California prison for shooting his father, Benjamin “Benji” Mendoza Sr., 68, between the eyes with a small-caliber pistol. The senior Mendoza’s body was found in a shallow grave in a popular Big Sur Monterey coastal campground more than two years after his December 2000 disappearance. A tipster led police to the burial site.
Martin Mendoza was considered a suspect, but had not yet been arrested, in the north Paso Robles slaying when his mother, Ruby, reportedly placed the money in an interest-bearing trust fund, in his name, with an Atascadero financial institution.
Numerous attempts by UncoveredSLO.com to contact Ruby Mendoza have gone unanswered. [Editor’s note: Should Ruby Mendoza contact UncoveredSlo.com after this posting, her comments will be reported without delay.]
Ruby and her husband were estranged at the time of the slaying, living in homes he owned on opposite ends of the 1800 block of Pine Street in Paso Robles. The elder Mendoza, a popular Templeton custom meat-cutter, vanished shortly after neighbors reported seeing a violent altercation the man had with Martin, one of his five sons.
A close relative of Ruby’s, now living out of state, said in an interview last week that she spent “lots of time hanging out” with Ruby in the months after Benji Mendoza’s body was discovered March 12, 2003. Family suspicions by then had long since focused on Martin, and even Ruby was being questioned by police. The relative said “no one else in the family would hang out with her [Ruby] after that. It [Martin’s possible culpability] was all out by then.”
Fear of reprisal prompted the relative to ask for anonymity just prior to this posting. Her version of events was confirmed by one of Benji’s sons, David Mendoza of Paso Robles. Because of raw family feelings and rampant suspicions during the slaying’s immediate aftermath, the relative was regularly reporting Ruby’s financial activities to David. His copiou handwritten notes were provided to UncoveredSLO.com.
The relative said she would often help Ruby with errands, many of which involved banking activities. Ruby was suddenly busy handling a lot of money, proceeds from sales of Benji’s property, several life insurance policies, and the contents of Benji’s bedroom safe, reportedly as much as $300,000. The dead man had not trusted banks, said David, and was known by many to carry a lot of cash with him.
The relative said that in mid-2003, about five months after Benji’s’ body was unearthed, Ruby showed her several documents that “appeared to be cashier’s checks” from an Atascadero Realtor’s office. She said the name printed on the checks “was really big and prominent. Ruby said she had gotten checks for all the boys… but Martin’s was the only name on these. [Ruby] said Martin’s cash share was bigger because the other boys were all getting something else, too, like property.”
Shortly after seeing the checks, the woman accompanied Ruby to the Morro Road financial institution, she said, and was asked by Ruby to read “a pile” of technical document’s details to her. The relative said she did so: the transaction created a trust account in Martin’s name. (Such an account would gain $6,000 or $7,000 or more annually in interest.)
California law expressly forbids criminals from profiting from their crimes. Complying with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, state lawmakers revised in 2002 a so-called “Son of Sam” statute permitting lawsuits seeking damages against defendants convicted of certain serious felonies. That includes the crimes for which Martin is now imprisoned.
An assortment of odd occurrences
There was good reason for family members and police to suspect Martin in the shooting and disappearance of his father; Martin’s criminal record, replete with convictions for violent offenses, was even then extensive. There also was good reason for Martin’s siblings to question why he had not been incarcerated at the time of Benji’s slaying. Martin was several felony arrests beyond being eligible for life imprisonment as a three-time offender long before he shot Benji to death.
Martin had been ducking the three-time designation for years with a little help from San Luis Obispo County-area law enforcement officials, who maintained him as a fountain of facts — an informant.
But even with his occasional assist from law enforcement, Martin eventually arrived at the point in his criminal career where one more felonious slip-up would place him in jeopardy of life without parole. So in 1999, when he found himself facing charges in San Jose, for drug peddling, and in Kern County, for reportedly raping a mentally disabled teenage girl, Martin had to come up with a plan, fast.
To fend off the life sentence possibility, Martin first offered to provide San Luis Obispo County officials with information on drug dealing in this county. When this proposal was rejected because of Martin’s “unreliability,” according to court documents, he dangled before Santa Clara County prosecutors a tantalizing story: He knew who had committed a 20-year-old unsolved murder in San Jose. (Martin eventually would finger a Paso Robles man named Tim Fletcher, and would be the prosecution’s key witness. Fletcher now serves a life sentence in a California prison for the murder.)
According to a brief filed by Fletcher’s public defender in a Santa Clara County courtroom, Martin had skated by entering into “a formal, written confidential agreement ‘to assist the San Jose Police Department.’ Pursuant to this agreement, Mendoza pled guilty to the drug charges and admitted his prior prison experience. The third-strike count was stricken and he was released from jail. Why the [sexual assault] charges were dismissed is uncertain.”
During this time, phone calls were flying back and forth between Santa Clara and San Luis Obispo county law enforcement officials, and then Martin, miraculously, arrived back in Paso Robles… not in custody, not on the streets, but at Benji’s house.
It wasn’t long before Benji had enough of the arrangement, though, because Martin became abusive and had invited one of his buddies to sleep on Benji’s couch.
The situation at Benji’s house deteriorated rapidly, according to David Mendoza. Police documents confirm that two days before he disappeared, Benji was dragged into a loud, violent and one-sided fist fight with Martin that spilled out onto the front lawn and was reported by neighbors.
Less than 48 hours later, on a chilly Sunday evening, Benji said he was going to the grocery store and drove off in his battered pickup truck. The truck was found a week later abandoned on a little-used dirt road in Creston.
Shortly after he disappeared, Benji’s empty wallet was found in the crawl space under his house. Also during his absence, while investigators treated the case as a search for a missing person, Benji’s home safe, located in his bedroom closet, was opened by a locksmith, probably in the presence of a Paso Robles police officer, and the contents removed. More than one of Benji’s sons attest to the family belief that the safe generally contained six-figure cash.
During the two years that Benji remained on the missing-person list, son David Mendoza prodded what he thought was a lackadaisical police investigation and pointed cops toward his younger brother as the probable killer. David also publicly criticized law enforcement agencies from two counties for collaborating in actions that resulted in Martin’s freedom… during which time Benji was killed.
Martin, during the time he was an active suspect, counseled his siblings to keep their thoughts to themselves, as he now had the money to take care of their needs. He was “in charge now,” he told several brothers, and made a display of newfound financial comfort.
After two years of investigation, police arrested Martin, saying he had shot his father in the aftermath of the fist fight. In April, 2004, Martin was permitted to enter a plea of no contest to the slaying. He was sentenced to 23 years for voluntary manslaughter with a firearm; prosecutors said at the time that he will spend at least 19 ½ years in state prison. That plea was the equivalent of a conviction, but with no admission of guilt. Mendoza family members expressed disappointment that Martin did not have to own up to his father’s slaying. A trial would not be held, and Martin once more avoided the life sentence mandated by a third strike conviction.
Last week, David Mendoza was returning from Carmel when he drove past Andrew Molera State Park for the first time since his dad’s body was found buried in the pine needle-covered grave there.
“I couldn’t stop,” said David. “I couldn’t even look.”