Case suspended against man accused of killing police officer; competency questioned

A Stanislaus County judge on Wednesday suspended a criminal case against the man accused of killing Newman Police Cpl. Ronil Singh because the defendant’s mental competency has come into question.

The defendant accused of murder in the police corporal’s death on Wednesday told Superior Court Judge Ricardo Córdova that Paulo Virgen Mendoza is his real name; Virgen his father’s last name and Mendoza is his mother’s last name.

Authorities say Mendoza shot Singh Dec. 26, shortly after the police corporal pulled him over on suspicion of driving under the influence near the intersection of Merced Street and Eucalyptus Avenue in Newman.

Mendoza Court Sketch 1.jpg
Courtroom artist sketch of Paulo Virgen Mendoza leaving department 8 of the Stanislaus County Superior courthouse after a hearing Wednesday January 2, 2019 in Modesto, Calif. Mendoza is a suspect in the shooting death of Newman Police Cpl. Ronil Singh that occurred on December 26th. Vicki Behringer

When the defendant was arrested last week, authorities identified him as Gustavo Perez Arriaga, but that name was just one of his aliases, his court-appointed attorney, Stephen Foley, told the judge.

The Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office on Wednesday morning filed a criminal complaint against Mendoza, 32, charging him with murder and a special circumstances enhancement that makes the case eligible for the death penalty.

Deputy District Attorney Jeff Mangar, who has been assigned to prosecute Mendoza, told the judge that the District Attorney’s Office has not decided whether to seek the death penalty.

Mendoza Court Sketch 2.jpg
Courtroom artist sketch of Paulo Virgen Mendoza’s hearing in department 8 of the Stanislaus County Superior courthouse Wednesday January 2, 2019 in Modesto, Calif. Mendoza is the suspect in the shooting death of Newman Police Cpl. Ronil Singh that occurred on December 26th. Vicki Behringer

Crowded Courtroom

All but one seat was taken in the courtroom’s audience. Several members of the defendant’s families attended Wednesday’s hearing; they sat in the first available row on the left side of the courtroom behind the defendant.

About two dozen members of Singh’s family were in attendance, most on the right side of the courtroom, joined by several Newman police officers.

Outside, roughly 75 people staged a rally in support of Singh, his family and law enforcement officers in general. They lined the walkway into the courthouse with signs reading “Back the Blue”, “Enough is Enough”, and “All Lives Matter.”

Several Stanislaus County sheriff’s deputies provided security inside the courtroom, along with Sheriff Adam Christianson.

Mental competency questioned

Mendoza entered the courtroom Wednesday afternoon wearing a red-and-white jail inmate jumpsuit and shackled at the wrists and ankles. He was assisted in court by a Spanish language interpreter.

Foley told the judge that he has some doubt about his client’s mental competency based on the brief conversation he had with Mendoza before Wednesday’s hearing.

Judge Ricardo Córdova then suspended the case against Mendoza until a doctor can conduct a mental health evaluation. The court will have to determine whether Mendoza can understand the criminal case proceedings and assist his attorney in his legal defense. The case cannot continue until Mendoza is declared mentally competent.

Córdova scheduled Mendoza to return to court Feb. 7, giving the doctor five weeks to conduct the mental health evaluation and submit a report to the court. Mendoza did not enter a plea Wednesday. He will remain at the Stanislaus County Jail without bail, where he has been held since he was returned from Kern County, where he was captured Friday morning.

The criminal complaint against Mendoza also includes enhancements for allegedly using a gun in Singh’s death and acting with premeditation.

(Click here to see the criminal complaint).

Accessory defendants

Four people were arrested in Stanislaus County and charged with accessory. Authorities said they helped Mendoza in his efforts to evade capture by slipping through to Mexico, destroyed evidence and lied to detectives after the police corporal’s shooting death. They made their first court appearance Monday.

Mendoza’s girlfriend Ana Leyde Cervantes, 30; his brothers Conrado Virgen Mendoza, 34, and Adrian Virgen, 25; and his co-worker Erik Razo Quiroz, 35, have pleaded not guilty to the felony accessory charge. They remain in custody at the Stanislaus County Jail, the bail amount set at $100,000 for each of them.

The four defendants returned to court Wednesday afternoon for a pretrial hearing. Deputies ushered those defendants into the courtroom after Mendoza was taken back to the jail.

They also were assisted in court by a Spanish language interpreter, who spoke to them through a microphone-headset system. Judge Córdova scheduled the four defendants to return to court Friday. The judge has to make sure their court-appointed attorneys have no conflicts of interest and the defense has received the evidence prosecutors have gathered in this murder case.

Mangar said the District Attorney’s Office will likely file a motion to consolidate the cases against the five defendants, but the cases remain filed separately, for now.

The judge told Mangar that before filing such a motion, the District Attorney’s office should consider the court’s security concerns. Córdova said having all five defendants in one courtroom at the same time can be “unwieldy.”

A 55-hour manhunt for Mendoza ended Friday morning, when he was found and arrested at a home near Bakersfield. Three people accused of helping Mendoza evade capture also were arrested at the Bakersfield home and face accessory charges in Kern County.

The booking mug of Gustavo Perez Arriaga, 32, who was arrested Friday in Lamont, California, in connection with the shooting death of Newman Police Department Corporal Ronil Singh on Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2018. Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department

Mendoza has been held without bail at the Stanislaus County Jail since Friday. Authorities say Mendoza entered the country illegally, and he had two DUI arrests in the Madera-Chowchilla area.

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Rosalio Ahumada writes news stories about criminal court cases in Stanislaus County for The Modesto Bee, issues related to immigration and immigrant communities and breaking news related to crime and public safety. From time to time, he covers the Modesto City Council meetings. He has worked as a news reporter in the Northern San Joaquin Valley since 2004.