KENNEWICK — A 21-year-old man will spend the next 24 years in prison for his part in gunning down a pregnant woman in Kennewick in 2019.
Judge Jacqueline Stam said it was one of the most difficult decisions she has made as she considered the tragic history of Adrian Mendoza, and the impact of his crime on Andrea Nuñez’s family and the Tri-Cities.
“This has been a very difficult day for many people,” the judge said on Friday afternoon as she wrapped up an emotional two-hour long sentencing hearing. “My hope is that people can move forward from this day. My hope is that Mr. Mendoza takes this opportunity. … My impression is that he can be better.”
Mendoza pleaded guilty on Friday to second-degree murder in Benton County Superior Court. He also admitted to using a gun to commit the crime, which carries an additional five years in prison.
With the additional time, Mendoza faced between 16 years and two months and 24 1/2 years in prison.
Stam decided to follow Deputy Prosecutor Anita Petra’s recommendation for the maximum sentence.
Petra described a youth who was out of control in the years leading up to the murder, who was able to quickly get a hold of guns and then fled to Oregon after the shooting.
When he was initially charged, Mendoza was a 17-year-old gang member with a history of using a gun to commit crimes.
“The state submits the only just sentence is 24 1/2 years,” Petra said. “A sentence of 294 months is what is needed to protect the public. The defendant poses a great risk to the community.”
Defense Attorney Shelley Ajax asked for leniency for her client, pointing out that Mendoza was introduced to methamphetamine when he was a young teen, and didn’t have a structure around him to support him.
“He was a young (gang) member and when I talk to all of my clients about why they make that choice, it’s always devastating to hear and it’s heartbreaking,” Ajax said. “And this case is one of the worst. The foster care system failed him. His family failed him. The school system failed him. … And being touched by all of those systems, that could have helped him, not one did.”
While she believed he should bear some responsibility, she asked for an eight-year and five-month sentence, which would keep him in the juvenile rehabilitation system.
Mendoza also asked for leniency from the judge while apologizing for his actions.
“I never had a chance your honor, since I can remember, I’ve been around horrible people and situations,” Mendoza wrote in a letter that was read by Ajax. “I never had any role models or people to look up to, so I had no choice but to follow or get left behind.”
Mendoza was at a party in a house in east Kennewick on May 5, 2019, along with Marin Rivera, another 17-year-old who would also be charged in connection with the shooting.
The party had about 15 to 20 people there, with many of them using drugs.
Rivera, who pleaded guilty to first-degree rendering criminal assistance, told investigators that he had been hanging out with Mendoza for a few days before the shooting.
About 4 a.m., someone saw Nuñez and her boyfriend walk past the home, and alerted others at the party. Rivera said someone at the home handed out guns, but since Rivera wasn’t part of the gang, he didn’t get one.
While Rivera was initially reluctant, Mendoza urged him to come along.
As he and Mendoza started down Seventh Avenue, others from the party joined them, converging on the couple. As they approached, Nuñez told them to leave her and her boyfriend alone.
“And they kept walking, and like Adrian … was like, ‘F-k that. West Side,’” Rivera said in a statement to prosecutors. “And she turned around and said, ‘South Side.’”
When she responded the first person opened fire, then a second, finally Mendoza fired.
One of those bullets hit Nuñez in her upper body, killing her.
A home security camera captured some of the attack.
Minutes later two men walked past the camera. One of them, believed to be Mendoza, had a shirt with the number “18” on the back in large numerals.
Nuñez died before police arrived.
Days later, Rivera, who turned 17 three days before the slaying, was arrested during classes at Southridge High School. Mendoza was arrested in Hermiston.
A lengthy sentence
Petra portrayed Mendoza as a hardened gang member who was nearly 18 at the time of the shooting.
When he was arrested on the day after the shooting, he was evasive with detectives, lied several times, misidentified people on the video and tried to divert blame onto others including Rivera.
She went on to explain that Rivera was caught and provided a statement to police that was corroborated by the physical evidence.
“Your honor, these are the actions of a very dangerous individual,” she said. “One who fully understood what he did and the consequences at stake.”
She pointed out that in the years and months prior to the crime, Mendoza had a history of being involved with guns. When he was 14, he pointed a BB gun at another teen during a fight.
Then when he was 16, he went to an emergency room with a gunshot wound in his hand and said he had shot himself. He didn’t give any more details about the gun. A search of his home turned up the gun and blood, Petra said.
Months later, he was involved in a fight, where he used a padlock tied to a bandanna as a weapon.
Then slightly more than a month before the shooting, he allegedly pointed a gun at someone in Pasco. The vehicle was later searched and a gun was found. He is still facing charges in Franklin County on that count.
“This is an aggressive violent history that involves a firearm,” Petra said. “What is so scary and concerning is how quickly he is able to get another firearm when police seized the firearm that he had.”
Nuñez’s mother, Janet Nuñez, cried as she remembered her daughter during the hearing.
“I have missed the fun I had with my daughter. I miss her everyday,” she told Stam. “In the end, we all know what’s right and wrong, no matter how much we try to justify the wrong things that we do.”
She asked Stam to follow Petra’s recommendation, saying that she was angry when she realized that he would go free at one point.
“I got angry at one point because I can’t go unbury my baby and bring her home, but he gets to go home,” she said. “My daughter has gone through a lot of things when she was young. He’s not going to be the first or the last person who has gone through things, your honor.”
A traumatic history
Ajax presented a different image of Mendoza, as someone who lacked good role models, was abused, introduced to drugs at a young age, and found comfort in the wrong people.
Some of the things that he had to endure were too horrible to talk about out loud, she said.
Even though he was involved with the juvenile justice system, he never had the support necessary to follow through.
“Even if he had gone to all those classes, he was still a man alone on an island for a long time with nobody to help him,” she said. “He had no driver’s license. He had no education other than in the ninth grade. He had no way to get anywhere. No way to clothe himself. No way to feed himself. … This was one of the worst situations I’ve seen.”
Ajax said it’s only been the time he’s spent in the Benton County jail that has seemed to chance his perspective. In recent years, he’s asked for self-help books, moved away from gangs and is haunted by what he’s done.
She said sending him to prison will only turn him into a hardened criminal, and it is better to keep him in the juvenile rehabilitation system.
“He knows that he wants to straighten out. He knows that he needs help,” she said. “He’s made great advancements.”
She said he has left behind the gang influences.
Mendoza was going to speak, but couldn’t bring himself to, so he gave his letter to Ajax to read. He said he regretted his decisions and wished that there was some way to take it back.
“If there were words to express how much I regret my decisions, I would say them,” he wrote. “I was doing and reacting the only way I knew how. I truly couldn’t grasp or understand that what I was doing was so bad at the time. … Please see in what I have written that this isn’t me any more.”
He said he wanted to get his GED and perhaps become a counselor.
Two of his sisters also spoke on his behalf. They didn’t live with him at the time, but said that he had been abandoned by his parents and didn’t have a chance to have support.