HEBER CITY — A 4th District jury is deciding whether Duchesne County rancher John R. Pinder is responsible for the gruesome deaths of two former ranch hands in 1998 or if he simply assisted in disposing of their bodies as he claims.
A month of testimony wrapped up last week in Pinder's murder trial, and attorneys gave closing arguments Monday. The jury began deliberating Monday afternoon.
If the jury convicts Pinder, 42, of two counts of murder, capital offenses, he could face life in prison without the possibility of parole. Prosecutors decided last year not to seek the death penalty.
The trial was held in Heber City because attorneys believed they could not seat an impartial jury in Duchesne County.
Pinder is accused of killing Rex K. Tanner, 48, and June Flood, 59, on Oct. 25, 1998, and blowing up their bodies in an attempt to cover up the crime. Attorneys for Duchesne County and the state say Pinder drove to Flood's home that night near the Strawberry River, beat her and Tanner with a bat, drove them to a remote section on his ranch about 15 miles southwest of Duchesne where he shot them and then blew up their bodies with explosives he kept on his ranch. He then burned some of their body parts, tossed some in the river and buried some with a bulldozer.
Prosecutors allege that Pinder was upset at Flood for assisting his estranged wife in stealing from him documents vital to his ranch.
From the witness stand, Pinder admitted assisting his own personal ranch hand, Filomeno Valenchia-Ruiz, in disposing and blowing up some body parts of Tanner and Flood. However, he said Valenchia-Ruiz killed the pair.
"I did not kill Rex Tanner and June Flood," he told jurors.
Valenchia-Ruiz, 36, is serving a life prison sentence for his role in the crimes. However, he told jurors he "accompanied" Pinder when Tanner and Flood were killed and blown up. He said the two were killed by "my boss, John Pinder."
Pinder, on the other hand, said he only helped Valenchia-Ruiz dispose of body parts out of fear and mistrust. He said if he didn't help he feared Valenchia-Ruiz's connections to the Mexican Mafia.
"I had to or I would have been shot," Pinder said.
He also said he didn't seek the help of Duchesne County authorities because he believed they were trying to set him up and seize his ranch.
Basically, he said he did not trust them.
Even though most physical evidence of the crimes was destroyed, prosecutors presented several witnesses who testified Pinder talked of the killings. Valenchia-Ruiz testified he saw Pinder beat Tanner and Flood, watched Pinder shoot both moments after they stepped out of his truck and then saw him place bags of explosives on their bodies.
Ranch hand David Brunyer, who helped Pinder and Valenchia-Ruiz gather body parts, testified Pinder said he killed the two because they were "maggots, liars and thieves and now they are vaporized." A former cellmate of Pinder also testified Pinder admitted killing the two and saying it was a rush "knowing" he was going to "get away with it."
The daughter of Barbara DeHart, Pinder's girlfriend, testified her mother told her Pinder had admitted killing the two. DeHart's father also testified he was told a similar story.
DeHart, who served nine months in jail following a conviction for helping Pinder destroy evidence, and ranch accountant Joe Wallen testified Pinder stayed home the night Tanner and Flood were killed.
For Pinder to be acquitted, jurors would have to believe the defense's theory that Valenchia-Ruiz killed Tanner and Flood over a drug dispute and that Pinder was intimidated into helping dispose of body parts. The defense attempted to show that Valenchia-Ruiz was a dangerous, powerful member of the the Mexican Mafia involved in drug and weapons smuggling rings.
A conviction would mean jurors believe the testimony of those who said Pinder confessed to the killings.