Man involved in shooting death of St. George teen will spend decades in federal prison

Composite image with background photo by BlueAZ/iStock/Getty Images Plus, overlay photo of Nicanor Vasquez-Mendoza, booking photo posted in Washington County, Utah, Aug. 15, 2019 | Photo courtesy of the Washington County Sheriff's Office, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — The man who admittedly shot a St. George teen in 2019 was sentenced to spend two decades and federal prison during a sentencing hearing held Wednesday in U.S. District Court involving a case the judge called “senseless and tragic.”

Nicanor Vasquez-Mendoza, booking photo posted in Washington County, Utah, Aug. 15, 2019 | Photo courtesy of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, St. George News

Nicanor Vasquez-Mendoza, 34, of St. George, appeared for a sentencing hearing held in federal court Wednesday via video on two charges – possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime. The federal charges were filed Dec. 15, 2020 in connection with the shooting death of 18-year-old Skyler Armstrong that took place in the defendant’s home on 2700 East in St. George on Aug. 18, 2019. Mendoza pleaded guilty to both charges in December of last year.

The parties entered into a stipulated agreement that Mendoza would spend 240 months in federal prison if the sentence was approved and the order signed by District Judge David Nuffer.

On the day of the incident, officers were dispatched to the residence where they found Armstrong lying on the floor of one of the bedrooms suffering from a gunshot wound to the head. The teen was transported to the hospital where he died shortly thereafter. At the time of the shooting, police say the defendant’s girlfriend, 26-year-old Silvia Lopez, was in the living room when she heard a gunshot coming from inside the residence. She went toward the bedroom and saw several individuals running out of the room, including Mendoza.

Lopez entered the bedroom to find Armstrong on the floor bleeding from the head with a handgun on the floor next to his body. According to court documents, after checking to see if the teen was alive, she confronted Vasquez-Mendoza, who told her to have the other individuals in the room “get their stories straight” and tell police Armstrong was playing with the gun when he accidentally shot himself.

Mendoza fled from the residence immediately after the shooting but was stopped by responding officers and brought back to the scene before being placed under arrest. Lopez was also arrested and charged with obstruction of justice and five counts of tampering with a witness, each a felony, and her case is still pending in the courts.

He was later charged in 5th District Court on one count of first-degree murder and multiple other charges that include second-degree felony drug possession with intent to distribute and obstruction of justice. His bail was raised from $500,000 to $1 million after it was reported that Mendoza had cartel connections – a claim his defense attorney Ken Combs refuted.

Regardless, Mendoza has remained in custody in Washington County and the bail remained the same.

Silvia Lopez booking photo taken in Washington County, Utah, Aug. 15, 2019 | File photo courtesy of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, St. George News

As the case was making its way through state court, it was picked up by federal prosecutors who filed an information document, as opposed to indicting the defendant through a grand jury, charging Mendoza with the trafficking and firearms charges.

During Wednesday’s sentencing hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Dent, who was standing in for lead federal prosecutor Jay Winward, opened by saying the case involved the loss of life when Armstrong, who was a recent graduate of Desert Hills High School, was killed.

“He was over at a friend’s house one day and he was shot in the head and killed,” Dent said, adding that the shooting was a “cowardice and senseless act” that took the life of a young man “who had his whole life still ahead of him.”

Dent went on to say that Mendoza was smoking methamphetamine on the day of the incident when he pulled out the .38 Special and removed every bullet except one. He began playing Russian Roulette and eventually he pointed the gun at Armstrong and pulled the trigger, shooting the teen in the head.

He also acknowledged the importance of this particular case due to the level of violence involved.

“The United States prioritizes cases involving violent drug dealers,” Dent said. “And the drug trade is a scourge on our society.”

Immediately after the shooting, the defendant and his girlfriend, Lopez “tried to cover it up,” Dent said, by making sure the witnesses had their stories straight to tell officers Armstrong shot himself in the head.

During the search of the defendant’s car, investigators recovered an AR-15 rifle, along with meth, gun magazines, scales and other evidence of drug distribution. The weapons charge was filed since a firearm was used in the commission of the crime and on the premise that Mendoza used the assault rifle to intimidate others to further his drug trafficking scheme, Dent said. But he went on to say that this case was in no way linked to drug trafficking, but the weapon was still used by the defendant who “pointed it at a teenage boy and pulled the trigger.”

Dent said a long prison sentence would reflect the seriousness of the crime and also protect the community from the defendant who will be incarcerated for the next 20 years. Once he is released, Dent said Mendoza will immediately be deported so that he “never steps foot in this community again.”

He closed by saying in the event the defendant does enter the country again once he is out of prison, ” the U.S. Government will be waiting.”

Rudy Bautista, Mendoza’s defense attorney, said this case is unusual because the incident wasn’t a drug-deal gone bad or drug dealers being violent with each other.

“This was a tragic situation,” Bautista said.

Bautista said the defense agreed with the stipulated sentence as it reflected the seriousness of the offense. He closed by saying this case also symbolizes the adage that drugs kill and “we need to get drugs off the street.”

The attorney also requested that Mendoza serve out his sentence at Terminal Island in San Pedro, California where he can complete the federal inmate substance abuse program so that when his client returns to Mexico following his release “he can start over in a new life to support his family,” Bautista said.

Mendoza addressed the court saying the case has nothing to do with drug dealing and said the longer prison sentences , particularly on the federal side, are applied in cases involving minorities at a higher rate and that prosecutors “only hit other races with higher sentences.”

When the defendant was reminded the case involved the death of Armstrong and any comments should be directed to the facts as they relate to the death, the defendant said he was very sorry to the Armstrong family and if he could change what happened, he would. Mendoza went on to say the teen’s death will be on his conscience for the rest of his life and that he plans to work on changing himself during his time spent in prison.

District Judge David Nuffer opened by acknowledging the work that went into resolving the “unusual” case because it involved a death that occurred in the commission of the crime, saying both state and federal prosecutors worked together for months to bring the case to a close.

While the parties entered into a stipulated agreement prior to the hearing that involved a sentence of 240 months in federal prison, the judge still had the option of sentencing Mendoza to a longer term – up to 360 months – regardless of whether there was an agreement or not.

Ultimately, Nuffer agreed that a 20-year sentence in federal prison would reflect the seriousness of the crime, adding that two decades spent in federal prison “is a very long sentence” and it would also serve as a deterrent for future crimes and protect the public.

The judge then ordered Mendoza to serve 240 months incarcerated at Terminal Island Federal Correctional Facility and as an alternate, the judge said the defendant would be eligible to serve out his sentence at a federal facility in Colorado.

Nuffer also ordered that any sentence imposed in the state case to run concurrently with the federal case, adding that since the state sentence is expected to be shorter than 20 years, it means the defendant will serve out his time in federal prison.

Upon his release Mendoza would be put into the custody of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement to be deported back to Mexico. Nuffer also said that even though the defendant is prohibited from re-entering the United States once he is released from prison, if “for some reason” he is allowed to re-enter or is not deported, then additional release conditions will be ordered at that time.

Barring the above, Nuffer said, the only post-prison supervision recommendations available for the defendant is that he never enter the United States illegally again.

Mendoza will remain in the custody of the U.S. Marshal’s Service until he is transported to the federal facility as designated. He is scheduled to be sentenced in 5th District Court on the state case March 16.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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