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Was rancher mastermind — or acting out of fear?

Pinder is charged with plotting 2 gruesome slayings

SHARE Was rancher mastermind — or acting out of fear?

A Wasatch County jury must decide if Duchesne County rancher John Pinder masterminded the gruesome slayings of two former ranch hands or if he simply helped dispose of the bodies out of fear.

State prosecutors say Pinder, 42, killed Rex K. Tanner, 48, and June Flood, 59, on Oct. 25, 1998. Pinder is accused of killing the two because he thought they had stolen from him. He is charged with two counts of murder, a capital offense, and nine other first-degree felonies.

In opening statements Thursday in Pinder's murder trial, prosecutors asserted that Pinder and his right-hand man Filomeno Valenchia-Ruiz went to Flood's home where they beat her and Tanner with a bat, forced them into Pinder's truck at gunpoint and drove them to Pinder's ranch. There, about 20 miles southwest of Duchesne, Pinder shot the two and later blew up their bodies, prosecutors said.

However, Pinder's attorney Ron Yengich told the eight-woman, six-man jury that Ruiz is responsible for the killings and is pointing the finger at Pinder to get a better deal from prosecutors. Ruiz pleaded guilty to two counts of murder for his role in the killings and is serving two five-year-to-life terms in the Utah State Prison. The plea agreement with prosecutors requires him to testify in Pinder's trial.

Yengich said the state's theory that Pinder killed Tanner and Flood in an argument over stolen property "will fall flat on its face."

Yengich told jurors that Pinder admits helping blow up the bodies and then helping burn and bury body parts on his ranch. Pinder did so, however, because he was threatened by Valenchia-Ruiz and feared for his own safety if he did not cooperate, Yengich said.

"John Pinder, through me and witnesses, looks you in the eye and tells you, 'I did not kill these people,' " Yengich told jurors. The animated attorney told jurors that if they find Pinder guilty, he will become the third victim in this case. Pinder is no different than one of the state's key witnesses, David Brunyer, who helped Valenchia-Ruiz cover up the crime, Yengich said.

Utah Assistant Attorney General Michael Wims said state and federal agents searched Pinder's ranch after they were told by Brunyer, a part-time ranch hand, that he helped wipe down Flood's home of fingerprints and blood. Wims said that six days after Flood was last seen, state and federal agents found small pieces of bone and flesh among the sagebrush on Pinder's ranch.

"What they were finding was all that was left of Rex Tanner. All that was left of June Flood," Wims said.

Wims said evidence will show that Pinder decided when, how and where Flood and Tanner would die. Witnesses will also testify that Pinder went to great lengths to cover up the evidence that his explosives were used to destroy their bodies and his bulldozer was used to bury body parts, Wims said.

He said the only reason Pinder was not able to cover up the crime was that body parts were strewn over too large an area.

Prosecutors say they will present testimony and evidence corroborating their theory that Pinder was angry at Flood and Tanner and had threatened them for stealing from him.

Testimony in the trial is expected to last through the month. Pinder is being tried in Heber because of extensive publicity in Duchesne County. Prosecutors earlier decided not to seek the death penalty, but Pinder could still face life in prison without parole if convicted.

E-MAIL: jimr@desnews.com