A Fresno County juray on Thursday found David Pena guilty of first-degree murder in the stabbing death of his estranged wife, Martha Mendiola.
She was found dead and tied up in the back seat of a car Nov. 29, 2016 — exactly two years ago to the day before the jury rendered its verdict.
After stabbing his wife with a large knife, Pena cleaned up the crime scene with bleach and drove around with the body, investigators said.
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Pena faces 26 years to life in prison when he is sentenced. Judge Jonathan Skiles set the sentencing date for Dec. 28.
When the clerk read the verdict, Pena, 51, nodded.
Defense attorney David Mugridge told reporters Pena was mentally prepared for a guilty verdict.
“When the jury read the verdict, I can’t say he was surprised, certainly disappointed, but not surprised,” said Mugridge, who added his client has been “very circumspect about this entire thing” and had told police that his fate “was in God’s hands.”
Some of the victim’s family members and friends gasped and held back tears as the verdict was read.
“We were relieved that finally justice was being done,” said Henry Mendiola, the victim’s brother.
A tribute for Mendiola was held at noon at her workplace, and another was scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday at the home where she was murdered, her brother said.
He described Pena as “a very jealous individual. ... He told her he’d kill her before he divorced her.”
The family attended the trial daily and had to relive the details of his sister’s death. The family believes Pena should never be let out of prison, he said.
During the trial’s opening statements, Mugridge told jurors that his client didn’t kill Mendiola inside her west-central Fresno home.
Mugridge said Pena found her 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.
The interview tapes were played for the jury, but Pena did not testify, Mugridge said after the verdict.
A charge of residential burglary was dropped by the prosecution after the jury did not reach a verdict on the charge, he said.
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.
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, 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, the prosecution said.
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 the body in the back seat of the car, Lambert said, video surveillance cameras captured Pena stopping at a store to purchase cigarettes and stopping at a Walmart to buy a tarp.
And when Mendiola’s friends began sending her text messages, 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.
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. Because the crime happened in Fresno, police were called to investigate. Detectives got a court order to start tracking Mendiola’s phone.
Meanwhile, 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 Pena’s phone that accused Mendiola of having an affair. In the text message, according to Lambert, Pena quotes “God and the Scriptures” and talks about their pending divorce that Pena said “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.”