BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — 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…