Closing arguments heard in pub homicide trial

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Richard Byrd/Columbia Basin Herald Deputy Prosecutor Kevin McCrae, left, presents key evidence during his closing statement before Judge John Knodell, right, on Wednesday.

EPHRATA — Who shot and killed bystander Robert Cook after he left a Moses Lake bar in June 2016? Prosecutors believe they charged the right man with the crime and believe the evidence shows 27-year-old Ismael Ortiz is guilty of murder. The defense contends the prosecution made a mistake and Ortiz was not the person who shot and killed the victim.

Ortiz is charged with first-degree murder and first-degree unlawful possession of a firearm in connection with Cook’s death outside of Neppel’s Dockside Pub – since renamed Midway Pub and under new ownership and management – in June 2016. Ortiz opted to have a bench trial, which came to a close on Wednesday when the prosecution and defense presented their closing arguments.

The state’s case relies heavily on circumstantial evidence and testimony from a key witness. What is not in question, according to the prosecution and defense, are some of the events leading up to Cook’s death. On that night Ortiz, his friend Jose Rodriguez and a group of women arrived at Neppel’s. At some point in the evening Rodriguez encountered rival gang member Loren Meade and the two men got in a fight, with Ortiz later joining the brawl and throwing punches at Meade as well.

The fight caused all three men to get tossed from the bar. Deputy Prosecutor Kevin McCrae said Meade left the bar, went to his car, waited for his friend and later fired a number of shots in the direction of the two men he had just fought with.

Meade and his friend drove off and started heading down Broadway Avenue about the same time Cook and his female friend were leaving the bar in Cook’s pickup truck. The state believes Ortiz, in retaliation after just being shot at, went out into the Ash Street/Broadway Avenue intersection and fired numerous shots in the direction of a fleeing Meade.

Cook, who was driving in the same direction as Meade, was fatally struck in the back of the head by a bullet. The woman Cook was with thought the bullet came from the side and was fired from Meade’s vehicle, which McCrae said does not stack up based upon expert testimony that the bullet that hit Cook was fired from behind his truck, not the side. McCrae also said bullet fragments found in Cook’s truck match the shell casings that were found at the Ash Street/Broadway Avenue intersection.

“The bullet that killed Mr. Cook clearly came from behind and was a .45-caliber bullet,” McCrae stated on Wednesday.

After the shooting Ortiz and Rodriguez ran from the area and attempted to convince two nearby fishermen to tell officers that they had been fishing with them all night, but they were ultimately taken into custody.

The state’s key witness testified to seeing the man who was shooting from the intersection. The witness was able to give police a description of the pants and shirt the shooter was wearing, which was similar to the shirt Ortiz had on when he was caught by police. The witness gave police a weight description of the shooter that was about 100 pounds less than what Ortiz weighed at the time.

In addition, the witness was later shown a photo lineup that included Ortiz, who was wearing the shirt in question, and the witness was not able to pick Ortiz as the man who was firing the shots. Judge John Knodell questioned why the police and prosecution never brought the witness in to view the shirt and question him about it, opposed to waiting for a number of months to have him view the shirt again, as the prosecution did.

“(The witness) could have been showed that T-shirt back in June of 2016,” Knodell remarked.

McCrae admitted some of the presented evidence over the course of the bench trial could lead an observer to theorize that Rodriguez, not Ortiz, was the shooter. McCrae believes however the evidence surrounding the shirt is the final piece that proves Ortiz was the shooter.

“Clearly Mr. Rodriguez had a white shirt on that wouldn’t match the description,” McCrae remarked. “Before (a MLPD sergeant) even saw Mr. Ortiz that night (the witness) was describing the shooter as having a shirt with a grey insignia. Your honor, (the witness) would have no reason to make that up. No real ability to make that up, because he didn’t see Mr. Ortiz in the bar.”

During his closing statement defense attorney Michael Morgan torn into the state’s case, asking how the prosecution knows the shooter wasn’t Rodriguez or someone else, as the shooting happened in the direct vicinity of over 60 people. Morgan also spent time analyzing the testimony of the state’s key witness and his credibility.

“If he (the witness) got it (the shooter’s weight) right, it’s not Mr. Ortiz. If he got it wrong, then he’s not credible,” Morgan remarked. “I think he’s confused and mistaken...It’s understandable based on the stressors involved.”

“Our theory was that Mr. Rodriguez was the shooter,” Morgan later stated.

Rodriguez pleaded guilty in May to tampering with a witness and was sentenced to 30 days in jail, with credit for time served and 11 days converted to 88 hours of community service. The state theorized that after the shooting the gun was stashed in Rodriguez's girlfriend’s vehicle, who can been seen on a nearby surveillance camera, leaving the bar in a SUV in the moments after the shooting. The gun is yet to be found.

McCrae hinted the state could possibly be filing charges against Rodriguez in the future for manslaughter in connection with the shooting. Ortiz’s case has been handed over to Knodell, who will make a ruling in the coming days.

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