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Family feuds over murdered dad

Two brothers fear their butcher father may have been killed by someone in the family

BY DANIEL BLACKBURN

When the decomposed body of Paso Robles’ Benjamin "Benji" Mendoza Sr. was finally retrieved earlier this year from under a forest’s thick humus layer, at least two of his five sons feared the worst: the killer may have been family.

The bleak circumstances of the slaying have sparked a bitter internecine feud, replete with far-flung accusations, threats of deadly revenge, and unfettered anger.

And complicating matters further, the relative suspected by some of his siblings of carrying out the slaying was apparently a longtime informant for one or more San Luis Obispo County law enforcement agencies, a man who mysteriously evaded one third-strike prosecution after another, any one of which could have put him in prison for life.

The 67-year-old victim–by all accounts a hard-working and independent man prone to possessing huge amounts of cash at any given time–had been missing for two years from the small, comfortable, well-tended bungalow he owned at 1806 Pine St.

Then, on March 11, Monterey County police authorities located Benji’s remains in a shallow grave in Andrew Molera State Park, a popular remote campground in Big Sur. Sources say the skull had been pierced by a bullet of yet-undetermined caliber–right between the eyes.

Benji departed his home early in the evening of Dec. 8, 2000, ostensibly on a quest for groceries. He never returned. Several hours after his wife, Ruby, reported his absence to police, Benji’s abandoned truck was found on a dead-end dirt road in Creston.

Police immediately suspected foul play, but an inquiry into his disappearance would only sputter along until a shadowy tip led investigators to Benji’s second-to-last resting place, scant inches under the park’s dreary shroud of decaying pine needles.

It wasn’t as though the search for Benji had lacked leads; there was a rich abundance of tips, rumors, speculation, and hearsay evidence showered on Detective Butch Cantalupo, the Paso Robles police investigator eventually assigned full-time to solving the mystery.

* * *

In 1998, things were not going well for the younger Martin Mendoza. Already a two-strike felon, the Paso Robles man had gotten himself arrested in Fresno on two counts of rape involving a young, developmentally disabled woman, and possession of methamphetamine for sale.

Staring at a mandatory life term, Martin scrambled for a deal with prosecutors.

He told detectives in the Central Valley farm town, according to court documents, that he previously had been an informant for law enforcement in San Luis Obispo County. But when local county drug officers were contacted, they turned thumbs down on the notion of a continuing association with Martin, saying he had become "unreliable, unpredictable; a nightmare confidential informant."

So, how did SLO County drug agents come to believe that Martin was all those things?

Perhaps, said Martin’s brother, David, it was because Martin was well known in this county, and certainly in Paso Robles, as a man whose information about meth "tweakers" and other wrong-side-of-the-law miscreants had led detectives down many dead ends but also had proven valuable in some cases to a variety of drug enforcement agents and other cops.

Joe Benson, news director for radio station KPRL in Paso Robles, said he asked Paso Robles Police Chief Dennis Cassidy last year if Martin had worked as a snitch for Paso Robles cops, most notably Detective Butch Cantalupo.

When Cassidy denied that, Benson said he told Cassidy, "If I find out you are lying, it’s not going to look good for you." Cassidy, according to Benson, then hedged, "Well, there might have been something like that … " and declined further comment.

Cassidy was out of town all week and out of contact, said Ince, who noted, "We have had more than one meeting regarding the speculation of Martin being an informant, and to my knowledge no officer here ever used him as an informant. Now, there is information that the county did, but the city did not. We did some checking, and there is no written documentation that we have been told about that suggests he was used. But the possibility is out there."

Denied the opportunity to squirm out from under the rape and drug charges by resuming his career as an informant, Martin searched for another avenue of cooperation with the cops.

Brandishing the threat of a three-strike penalty, prosecutors and police in Fresno plumbed Martin for something–anything–that might help convince them he could be of some help.

Court records from the 1998 proceedings show that Martin, "in desperation, claimed he knew about a 1980 San Jose homicide. He claimed his friend, Tim Fletcher, had tried to rob [a] gas station and had shot the attendant. Mendoza said he had witnessed this while he was out for a walk looking for Fletcher. Mendoza said the killing was committed with his [Mendoza’s] gun, and that he was an employee of the gas station."

That story got the interest of cops, quickly.

"In February, 1999, Mendoza entered into a formal written Confidential Agreement ‘to assist the San Jose Police Department.’ Pursuant to the agreement, Mendoza pled guilty to the drug charges and admitted to his prior prison experience. The third-strike count was stricken and he was released from jail with a promise of no further jail. Why the [sexual assault] charges were dismissed, whether they were part of the agreement, and whether they can be re-filed are uncertain."

That wasn’t the end of law enforcement’s apparent gift to Martin, either. A few weeks after the deal was reached with Martin to help build a murder case against Tim Fletcher, according to court records, "a burglary case in San Luis Obispo County was resolved favorably for Martin, after contact from the Fresno District Attorney to the San Luis Obispo District Attorney."

WHAT’S THE WORD FROM THE SLO DA ON THIS?

That, too, saved Martin from facing a third-strike trial.

Martin fingered Fletcher in the gas station attendant’s murder, and probably even notified investigators that Fletcher was traveling to Paso Robles. Fletcher was arrested after a brief standoff with the Paso Robles police SWAT team.

Fletcher wrote in a letter to an aunt while he awaited trial: "I’m still having trouble believing all this shit is happening to me. I’m hanging tough, though. All I can do is pray and trust in the Lord to see me through the fight of my life. I’m scared to death. I can’t believe these white boys are getting away with this."

Martin was the prosecution’s chief witness in Fletcher’s murder trial, which ended in conviction WHEN WAS THE CONVICTION? Fletcher is serving a life sentence.

* * *

Benji Mendoza was either a freelance butcher or a custom meat cutter, depending on who’s doing the remembering. He was a cash-and-carry kind of man, and he always had currency–lots of it–to take care of whatever business he had. That was a widely known fact among friends and family, and when Benji disappeared, his pocket money alone probably would have been enough to tempt many a lawbreaker.

Benji kept a safe in his bedroom closet, and family members interviewed for this article generally agree the senior Mendoza kept anywhere from $200,000 to $400,000 in cash in the safe. He had a small, battered, leather briefcase he carried everywhere, never letting it out of his sight. He did not believe in banks, credit cards, mortgages, or taking loans. He was prone to wearing expensive jewelry, although that appeared to be his only bit of ostentation.

Benji lived in a house separated by one block from the house where his widow, Ruby, presently resides. The pair got along well, and even their boys weren’t sure of a reason for the separate lodging. Ruby told reporters last year that she and Benji had been married for 48 years and got along "pretty good."

Following Benji’s disappearance, police had a "family meeting" with each member of the immediate Mendoza clan sitting around a large table. As investigators queried each, the cops watched faces and searched for visual clues. Ruby and Martin held hands.

Chief investigator Cantalupo stood at a podium and asked each when they had last seen Benji alive.

Shortly after that incident, police arrived at Benji’s Pine Street house, by then occupied by Martin and another brother, Ruben, and dug up the backyard to a depth of 4 feet. They found nothing in the dig, but the elder Mendoza’s wallet and the battered leather briefcase were discovered under the house. Both were devoid of valuables.

The wallet may have fallen out of his father’s pocket during one of several reported violent altercations Benji and Martin had at the residence in the days leading up to Benji’s disappearance.

However, David, 47, doesn’t think so.

He learned of the wallet and briefcase find in a visit to police headquarters when Cantalupo showed him a paper bag full of items recovered during the police search of the elder Mendoza’s home.

"I said to Butch, ‘What else do you need to know?’" said David. "I know all I need to know." David figured it must be obvious that his father had not put the items under the house. That, with all of the other information provided by David to cops, should have been convincing, he thought.

Among those tips was a beguiling story about a situation that occurred Dec. 7, 2000. According to David, a Pine Street neighbor, Ed Ileff, told Paso Robles police that before Benji vanished, Martin and the old man had one of their most violent conflicts. The fight started in the house, rolled out into the front yard, and continued as Martin allegedly dragged his father into the backyard by his neck. That was only hours before Benji disappeared. Ileff has since moved, and police declined to comment on this report.

After Benji went missing and his truck was discovered in Creston, Martin reportedly told David he "saw someone in Benji’s truck going from bank to bank cashing Benji’s checks."

"That made me think of Martin’s MO [method of operation]," said David. "Normally, when Martin talked about a crime, it’s as if he’s across the street watching. Oh, he was just over there doing something else, and he happens to see someone doing something illegal."

Not unlike Martin "seeing" Tim Fletcher kill a young gas station attendant, David observed. THIS APPEARS T0 IMPLICATE MARTIN IN THAT MURDER AS WELL.

Several family members, including wife Ruby, reportedly told police that they thought Benji’s disappearance had an ordinary story line; that he had simply taken his money and gone to Mexico with a new girlfriend.

That story infuriated David, who said his father lived "a moral and a good life."

Actually, said David, the family member who went to Mexico after Benji’s disappearance was Ruby, to visit relatives.

That trip occurred just after she and Martin had a loud exchange in front of her Pine Street home. David said he was told by Paso Robles police investigators that the altercation took place in the presence of two neighbors.

Martin reportedly told his mother, "You kick me out of this house, I’ll burn it down, I’ll kill you, I’ll put you in the same place Benji is!"

Martin then noticed the neighbors watching, and repeated his threats to them. Both neighbors called police.

Martin was arrested on a parole violation, and David said he was later told by Paso police that Martin would be charged with making terrorist threats, a felony.

Shortly thereafter, Martin was back living at Benji’s house.

"There were numerous times that my brother should have been headed back to prison. Instead, he keeps slipping loose. I can’t help but wonder why," said David.

His mother told him that Martin was beating Benji throughout the month before the disappearance, said David, but Ruby was reluctant to repeat the charge to investigators. Police arranged for David to wear a wire when he next talked to his mother, and according to David, three detectives–Cantalupo, Rick Ince, and Casey Neall–eavesdropped from a vehicle parked down the street. His mother confirmed the beatings, said David.

Police comment?

David said he was told at one point by Cantalupo, after the elder Mendoza’s body had been found, that "he knew my dad was murdered, that it was a brutal beating."

While Benji was still missing, Martin was telling family members that he had $300,000 of his dad’s money "but couldn’t spend it," according to David.

"Martin told me the morning that the family learned that my dad’s body had been found that ‘Now that he’s gone, I’ve got plenty of money, I’m taking over,’" said David. "From that, I knew something was up."

David said he started documenting everything that Martin said to him, and turned his copious notes over to police investigators.

Ince agreed that David had done a lot of documenting of conversations with Martin "and others," and that police had those results in hand.

He, too, was considered a suspect by police, said David.

"From the beginning of the whole thing, I had been telling police that I wanted to take a polygraph test. So Butch [Cantalupo] put together all of the questions. An FBI agent did the test upstairs at the district attorney’s office," said David. "It lasted four hours. And the police told me, based on all the information, that I wasn’t involved."

Ince confirmed that, saying, "Yes, he passed. He volunteered, and he passed."

Investigators are "reluctant" to pin the murder on Martin because he learned too much during his informant career, theorized David. "But I’m only interested in finding out what happened to my father. Wherever it leads."

Recently, police caught Martin with drug paraphernalia and arrested him yet again, this time on a parole violation. As the arrest proceeded, Martin allegedly grabbed at the gun of one of the cops, and received a few bumps and bruises as a result.

Another result was that Martin was placed in a special cell in San Luis Obispo County Jail, separated from the jail’s main population because he is deemed to pose a threat to his jailers due to the gun incident. That also served to keep Martin away from inmates who might have been hearing stories about his possible involvement as a police snitch.

"He’s a very streetwise guy," said David, of brother Martin.

Martin recently lost his visitor privileges until May 23, but jailers declined to give a reason.

Ince, who was assigned the case after Cantalupo went on extended medical leave, said the passage of time has not been helpful.

"It was two years before information came forward which led us to the body," he said. There is a lot of forensic evidence, and we are kind of at the Department of Justice’s beck and call, waiting on results."

Ince added, "We are getting the case put together. We are getting into a position to go, and I am absolutely confident that an arrest will be made, sooner rather than later."

But, he said, "We have an indication as to who we will arrest. We want to walk out of court a victor."

Another of Benji’s sons, John, is particularly troubled by the events surrounding his father’s death, according to his spouse.

Debbie Mendez said last week, "It’s difficult for John, knowing deep in his heart that family was most likely involved."

John, the youngest of Benji and Ruby’s five boys, was "the only one who ever showed his parents any respect," said Debbie. "Well, God knows what happened, and I think the police do, too. We have to let the police do their work."

Debbie said she thought very highly of Benji.

"He was such a nice man," she said. "He was good to his grandchildren and they loved him. At Easter, he would hide $5 bills in certain eggs and then whisper to the youngsters which eggs had the big prize. He worked hard and he was always kind. He tried to raise his own sons with a sense of values, to teach them responsibility."

There were problems with some of the sons, said Debbie. "Several of the boys were in and out of jail, no jobs, and Benji wasn’t going to give them a free ride. I just hope the police can close this soon. At least we were able to have a funeral and say goodbye to him."

The elder Mendoza was laid to rest in Paso Robles Cemetery. Æ

News Editor Daniel Blackburn can be reached at dblackburn@newtimesslo.com.




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