Wednesday, May 14, 1997 | 11:59 a.m.
Former Metro Police Officer Ron Mortensen was convicted today of first-degree murder in the drive-by shooting death of a 21-year-old man.
A District Court jury deliberated for 11 hours over three days before deciding that Mortensen, 31, gunned down Daniel Mendoza about 1 a.m. on Dec. 28 at 537 McKellar Circle, near Paradise and Flamingo roads.
Initially, Mortensen looked straight ahead and showed no emotion as the verdict was read by the jury foreman. A few moments later, however, as the jury was being polled, he leaned slightly forward and appeared to be trying to maintain his composure.
The seven-woman, five-man jury announced its verdict in Judge Joseph Pavlikowski's courtroom at 10:09 a.m.
Ramon Mendoza, the father of the slain man, and his mother, Maria Uvina, broke into tears and comforted each other outside the courtroom. But even the guilty verdict didn't bring much comfort.
"I have myself, I have (Daniel's brother) and I have my mother," Ramon Mendoza said through his tears. "Many people are gone from this world. Everybody wants to live in peace and love, not like this."
The family's attorney, Ken Roberts, said while he and the family were satisfied with the verdict, "it certainly doesn't bring back their son."
Mortensen's parents hurriedly left the courthouse as a throng of reporters followed them to the street. They didn't speak to the media.
Mortensen's attorney, Frank Cremen, however, disputed the credibility of the state's star witness, 25-year-old Christopher Brady, who fingered Mortensen as the shooter. Cremen said his client's testimony was much more credible.
"We're terribly disappointed," Cremen said. "We still think a not-guilty verdict would have been an appropriate verdict in this case."
The jury is set to return at 1 p.m. Thursday to determine Mortensen's sentence. It will decide between life in prison with or without the possibility of parole.
The sentence will be doubled because the jury found the crime had been committed with the use of a deadly weapon. If it's life with the possibility of parole, Mortensen will have to serve a minimum of 20 years before being eligible for parole.
A large crowd gathered outside the packed courtroom as the verdict was read, cheering when they learned the decision. Security was tight inside the courtroom, with half a dozen bailiffs standing guard.
Metro homicide Detective Brent Becker, who first interviewed Brady about the shooting, said as he walked out of the courtroom, "I'm satisfied with the verdict. The jury has spoken."
Sheriff Jerry Keller said in a prepared statement, "Now it is time for our department and the community to find closure with this issue."
During closing arguments, prosecutors said Mendoza was gunned down in a "thrill killing" by one of two off-duty Metro officers rampaging through the high-crime area just blocks from the Strip.
Mortensen's attorney maintained that the wrong officer was charged. He built his defense case on accusing Brady of firing the fatal shots.
The officers, who have since resigned, pointed the finger of guilt at each other but, as the attorneys pointed out, there were holes in both their stories.
Cremen portrayed the case as a credibility contest between Mortensen and Brady. Brady came forward 36 hours after the shooting and was interviewed by homicide detectives, who maintained he was a witness, not a participant.
Brady, a six-year Metro veteran whose detective father has been on the force for 27 years, was not charged with any crimes for his role.
Mortensen testified that after stopping to harass the men outside the apartment, Brady slid across the truck seat, picking up the defendant's pistol as he did, and fired several shots out the window.
Mortensen contended that he was elbowed out of the way by Brady, who later claimed he saw a gun in the hands of one of the men. Brady, however, testified that Mortensen shot Mendoza.
Deputy District Attorney Gary Guymon emphasized that Brady voluntarily came forward to break open the case -- naming Mortensen as the shooter -- at a time when police had no clues that might have pointed to the officers.
Cremen countered that the investigation was "slanted" and that evidence in the drive-by shooting actually suggested that Brady "had engaged in that type of activity before."
As evidence of the "slanted" investigation, Cremen argued that homicide detectives didn't fit Brady with a surveillance device and send him to talk with Mortensen about what they had done the night of Dec. 28.
"The significance of that is overwhelming," the veteran defense attorney said. "If that had been done, would that have been a serious challenge to Brady's story?"
Deputy District Attorney Bill Koot said the police were obligated to remove "a rogue cop" from the streets as quickly as possible, although trial testimony indicated they waited about four hours after Brady told his story to make the arrest.
Guymon cautioned the jury not to forget the testimony of other witnesses at 537 McKellar Circle, who described the killer as the bespectacled passenger of an aging blue pickup truck.
The witnesses said the gunman laughed as he sprayed the apartment building with six rounds from a .380-caliber semiautomatic pistol. One bullet hit Mendoza in the heart and he died despite efforts by his friends to revive him with CPR.
Guymon reminded the jury of the stories by the witnesses that the two men who rolled up in the blue truck looked like police officers, and paused only briefly before opening fire.
"We don't want to believe that a college graduate, husband and father would do such a dastardly thing ... but we've seen stranger things happen," he said.
As Guymon re-created the slaying for the jury from the words of witnesses, some of Mendoza's family and friends wept quietly.
Cremen, however, questioned the competence of the witnesses, suggesting it was unreasonable to believe that only one of the half-dozen gang members assembled at McKellar Circle had been drinking and none had been using drugs.
He reminded the jury that an autopsy on Mendoza's body showed he had "a toxic level of methamphetamine in his system."
"Are we going to discount the witness statements because of their lifestyle?" Guymon said. "They may have made choices differently than you and I, but they can testify about what they saw."
Cremen noted that "no witnesses saw the events as Brady described them."
He reminded the jury that Brady told of racing around the high-crime area near Paradise Road and Twain Avenue for 40 minutes, harassing gang members, drug dealers and "screwball people" when that couldn't have happened.
Cremen said the celebration of Mortensen's 31st birthday had broken up shortly before the shooting and an ATM machine had recorded both officers extracting cash less than 20 minutes before the deadly confrontation. The machine was located at Tropicana Avenue and Pecos Road, a few miles from McKellar Circle.
"Brady didn't tell anyone the truth about that night," Cremen said. "He forgot about that bank transaction. He was snared."
But Koot said the only issue is who shot Mendoza and he pointed out that Mortensen's gun was the murder weapon.
"He loaded it, he emptied it, and he killed a man," Koot said.