BILLINGS — A judge sentenced a 20-year-old man to life in prison Thursday for killing a couple who stopped to help him alongside a road on Montana’s Crow Indian Reservation.
U.S. District Judge Susan Watters said Jesus Deniz Mendoza represented a lasting menace to society because of his inability to control the “demons” of mental illness and drug use that he blamed for the killings.
The sentencing comes days after the close-knit Crow reservation along the Montana-Wyoming border was again wracked by violence. Three people were killed and two others wounded by gunfire last week at a house in Lodge Grass.
Mendoza of Worland, Wyoming, pleaded guilty to shooting Jason and Tana Shane in the back of the head on the side of a road after they stopped to help him with apparent car problems on the reservation in 2015.
He shot the couple’s grown daughter in the back as she was running away and fired or pointed his rifle at several other people who tried to help the family.
“I hope he dies in prison so the Lord can take care of him,” Jason Shane’s brother, Robert, testified during Thursday’s hearing. “I wouldn’t call him a man. I call him a coward.”
Defense attorney David Merchant II asked for a 60-year sentence. Prosecutors said Mendoza would kill again if he were released from prison.
Merchant had argued that a shorter sentence would be merciful given that Mendoza was 18 at the time of the shootings, has schizophrenia and a history of drug abuse, and was physically and sexually abused as a child in his native Mexico.
But Mendoza told the judge during brief remarks at his sentencing that he agreed with the recommendations of prosecutors and would accept whatever punishment was handed down.
“I think I do deserve life,” he said after apologizing to about two dozen family members and friends of the victims who were at the federal courthouse in Billings.
Mendoza previously waived his right to appeal under a plea deal reached in February that saw charges in the case reduced from first degree murder to second degree murder.
He faced a potential death sentence under the original charges. Former Attorney General Loretta Lynch decided against pursuing capital punishment in April 2016 after Mendoza’s defense attorneys brought in a death penalty specialist to assist them in the case.
Jason Shane’s mother, Clara Hugs, wept as she told the court that Mendoza had robbed her grandchildren of their parents. Others said the shootings had traumatized the entire Crow community and caused lasting sorrow.
Bryce Hugs, a Crow tribal legislator from Pryor who was related to the victims, said Mendoza’s sentencing on the heels of the triple killing last Friday in Lodge Grass had compounded the grief among the tribe’s roughly 11,000 members.
In addition to the life sentence, Mendoza received 60 years for several weapons charges and was ordered to pay $12,713 in restitution to the victims
Despite the abuse Mendoza suffered as a young child, the judge noted that he had been adopted at age 4 and had a good upbringing after that. She said that if he had his way, there would have been six people dead that day in the city of Pryor.
“Your mental health issues make you a danger to the community, to any community you live in. You can’t help them, but the bottom line is they make you a dangerous person,” Watters said..
He faces a separate accusation of attempted second-degree murder in Wyoming, where authorities say he shot a man at a campground near the small town of Ten Sleep during a 2013 robbery attempt.
Mendoza’s involvement was revealed during interviews with federal agents following the killings. That case is pending.