‘I don’t remember’: second co-defendant testifies in Sundberg murder trial

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Emry Dinman/Columbia Basin Herald Ambrosio Mendez Villanueva testified in court Monday that he remembered almost nothing of the night Jill Sundberg died, nor of the conversations with investigators four months ago.

EPHRATA — Wrists and ankles bound together by short chains, a faded barbed-wire tattoo wrapping around his right arm, Ambrosio Mendez Villanueva grimaced as he entered the Grant County Superior courtroom Monday. He is the second of two co-defendants to testify in this case, Julio Albarran Verona having testified last week.

It had been a little over a year since Mendez Villanueva, 27, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for his role in the December 2016 death of 31-year-old Quincy resident Jill Sundberg. Mendez Villanueva reiterated in court Monday that after Sundberg was shot and killed, he plunged a knife through a cardboard sign and into Sundberg’s back after she was deceased — but that was about all Mendez Villanueva said he remembered.

Mendez Villanueva appeared opposite Gustavo Tapia Rodriguez — the alleged ringleader accused of shooting Jill Sundberg 13 times in the back of the head and leaving her for dead in a frozen parking lot off the old Vantage highway.

After being placed under oath, however, Mendez Villanueva told the presiding judge and 12-person jury that he could not remember much of anything of the night Sundberg died or proceeding interviews with investigators over the course of two years.

At one moment, Mendez Villanueva told prosecutors he had never possessed drugs, seconds after saying he had been smoking crystal meth the night of Sundberg’s murder. Though Mendez Villanueva told prosecutors that he clearly remembered attaching the sign to her, he also told prosecutors that he did not know who Sundberg was, who killed her or where she was killed.

This contradicted statements given to law enforcement by Mendez Villanueva after he was arrested in connection with Sundberg’s death, statements that Mendez Villanueva said he could not recall but which he insisted nonetheless were lies.

“I spoke because I was desperate,” Mendez Villanueva told the court through his Spanish-language interpreter. In response to questions from the defense attorney, Mendez Villanueva explained that he thought he would be released if he told officers what they wanted to hear.

But, by and large, Mendez Villanueva was no more cooperative with the defense, which represents Tapia Rodriguez. Mendez Villanueva was unable to recall almost any details of conversations he had with the defense’s investigator in Oct. 2018, just over three months ago, except for a single detail — he remembered telling the investigator that he had lied when he told police that Tapia Rodriguez was the murderer.

Mendez Villanueva responded “I don’t remember” through his interpreter dozens of times during his testimony Monday. So egregious was the co-defendant’s lack of memory that presiding Judge John Antosz — out of earshot of the jury — told the prosecutor and defense attorney that it was within his authority to tell the jury to consider Mendez Villanueva’s testimony a false statement, though he did not immediately make that decision.

Mendez Villanueva is currently serving an 18-year prison sentence as a result of his guilty plea, after which he will be deported. Mendez Villanueva, fellow co-defendant Albarran Verona and Tapia Rodriguez are all in the country illegally, according to law enforcement, and will consequently be deported at the end of legal proceedings.

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