A Fresno man is on trial in Fresno Superior Court, accused of killing his estranged wife — and then cleaning the crime scene with bleach and driving around the city with her body in the back seat of her car.
But defense attorney David Mugridge told jurors Wednesday during opening statements of David Pena’s trial that his client didn’t kill Martha Mendiola inside her west-central Fresno home in November 2016.
Mugridge said Pena, 51, found his estranged wife with a knife in her back. After he took the knife out of his estranged wife’s back, he cradled her in his arms and heard her last wishes: “I love you. Please don’t let (my son) see me like this.”
That’s why Pena cleaned up the crime scene, Mugridge said, and drove around Fresno with her body, covered with a tarp, in the back seat of her car.
Mugridge said Pena gave this account in a videotaped interview with Fresno police detectives. Pena plans to give this account on the witness stand, Mugridge told the jury.
At the time of the killing Mendiola, 50, worked for the California Employment Development Department and lived with her son in a home on West Sussex Way near Marks and Ashlan avenues. She and Pena had been married nearly five years before she kicked him out of her house about 10 days before she was killed, prosecutor Nathan Lambert told the jury.
In openings statements, Lambert said Pena was angry at his estranged wife when he sneaked into her home and stabbed her in the back with a large knife that pierced a lung.
In addition to cleaning the crime scene, Lambert said, Pena made his estranged wife’s bed and took her purse and cell phone so it would appear to her son that she had gone to work.
Because the victim was tall, Lambert said, Pena had to bind her arms and legs to get her body in the back seat of her car.
With his wife’s body in the back seat of her car, Lambert said, video surveillance cameras captured Pena stopping at a store to purchase cigarettes and stopping at Walmart to buy a tarp.
And when Mendiola’s friends began sending her text message, Pena pretended to be her, and replied that she was safe at a restaurant eating and needed time to be alone, Lambert told the jury.
If convicted of murder, Pena faces a minimum of 16 years to life in prison.
The investigation began during the morning of Nov. 29, 2016, when coworkers called the California Highway Patrol to report Mendiola missing since she was never late for work. The coworkers also called her son, who was sleeping in the home when the killing happened, Lambert said.
The son got into his car and drove the route his mother typically took to work. But he couldn’t find her or her car. He then met the CHP at his mother’s home on Sussex Way.
Inside the garage, the son and CHP found evidence of blood smeared on the floor, Lambert said. Because the crime happened in Fresno, police were called to investigate. Detectives got a court order to start tracking Mendiola’s phone.
Meantime, the CHP found Mendiola’s car in central Fresno. Her body was still in the back seat, wrapped in a tarp, Lambert told the jury. Soon after, data from Mendiola’s phone led them to Pena who was staying at a home on Simpson Avenue near Fresno Street.
Lambert said Pena told police that “he was in the wrong place and the wrong time.” He then described how he found his wife with a knife in her back, the prosecutor said.
Pena, however, didn’t call 911, Lambert told the jury.
Police later found text messages on his phone that accused Mendiola of having an affair. In the text message, according to Lambert, Pena quotes “God and the Scriptures” and talks about his pending divorce that Pena says “will condemn them both to hell.”
Lambert said Pena had a motive to kill: “He’s angry, he’s desperate. He talked about an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”