The Case of the Fatal Femme

Page 10 of 12

The Gila River cops drive her off the reservation to a Circle K at 35th Avenue and Baseline Road. A Phoenix squad car is waiting in the dimly lighted parking lot. Now, Samantha Somegustava is a prisoner of the Phoenix Police Department, subject to the legal authority of Arizona.

Ballentine calls Sergeant Kotecki as he and Schechterle return to police headquarters in downtown Phoenix.

"This is the most unbelievable thing I've ever experienced," he tells his sergeant. "She laid out every piece of evidence at the scene, even to the live shotgun shell and money on the ground. She's done."

As they ride back into town, the detectives speculate on how Samantha Somegustava possibly could have talked her way into Gabe Cruz's car.

Ballentine says the notion of a quick sexual interlude by Gabe with a stranger seems improbable, since Gabe's girlfriend was expecting him momentarily for the start of their weekend.

Ballentine says it's far more likely that Gabe had stopped in an area where smalltime drug dealers proliferate, perhaps hoping to score a little cocaine for his weekend.

Or maybe she'd just pleaded with Gabe, known as the trusting sort, to help her out by giving her a ride.

By 10:30 p.m., Samantha Somegustava and Mario Mendoza are in interview rooms across from each other at the police station.

Jason Schechterle observes the pair on separate television monitors in a nearby room.

"If you believe Jack, this guy is just an investigative lead and didn't have anything to do with the murder," he says, gesturing toward Mendoza. "That's the only place I'm not with Jack. I think Samantha made up Enos' name to protect this guy."

Schechterle's best friend, night detective Bryan Chapman, chuckles at that one.

"Just so you know, Jason," he says, "I'm going with Jack's version."

"Why?" Schechterle asks, slightly miffed.

"Well, for starters, he's got about 25 years' experience on you," Chapman says. "Got to run with the vet."

Ballentine speaks only briefly to Samantha, who adds little to what she's already said.

He moves across the hall to interview Mendoza, who was released from prison in August 2004, after serving almost four years on a robbery rap.

Mendoza says politely that his gang-banging days are behind him, and that he's been earning a little money by cleaning yards.

He says he last did illegal drugs just a few days ago, but adds proudly that he doesn't do meth.

"Cocaine, that's my drug of choice," he tells the detective.

Mendoza says he's been "dating" Samantha Somegustava for about a month, though they hadn't seen each other for four days before today.

"She'd told me something bad happened, but she never told me nothing [specific]," he tells Ballentine.

"She never told you she was wanted for murder?" Ballentine asks him.

"No, she never did. She don't tell me her business."

Mario Mendoza's analysis of his girlfriend's character is precise: "She has a hard heart, know what I mean?"

He volunteers to provide police with blood and DNA samples to help prove his innocence. Ballentine takes him up on that offer, even though the detective now is certain that Mendoza had no part in the murder.

At 11:08 p.m., Mendoza hears the best six words he may ever hear:

"Okay, man. You're free to go."

The detectives are exhausted, but Ballentine has one more task to complete before he calls it a night.

At 11:30, he calls Gabe Cruz's cousin, Rene.

"We've arrested her and charged her with first-degree murder," he says. "There's another guy involved, and we're going to get him soon."

He also calls Chris Ferschke, the bartender whose love for his missing friend was the catalyst for this sad case's successful resolution.

During the late morning of March 22, Phoenix police officer Bobby Madeira sees a young man near 29th Avenue and Buckeye Road who fits the description of murder suspect Richard Enos.

Madeira has been alerted that Enos' mother lives in the neighborhood, and he's been keeping an eye out for the youth.

Enos takes off running as the officer turns his squad car around, hopping fences and running through yards.

Madeira gives chase on foot, and eventually subdues the 17-year-old at a wall that the youngster is about to scale.

He won't give his name at first, but soon concedes he is Enos.

Word quickly gets to Jack Ballentine, who drives to the scene and introduces himself to Enos. He also speaks by phone to Enos' mother and says she can attend her son's interview at the police station if she wishes. She doesn't show up.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin