UTAH STATE PRISON Filomeno Valenchia Ruiz had a deal.
The ranch hand pleaded guilty to a pair of first-degree felony murder charges and testified against John Pinder, who was convicted of killing two people and blowing up their bodies in 1998. In exchange, prosecutors recommended a very lenient prison term.
Ruiz, 44, is scheduled to be released on Oct. 28, but the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole questions if he is living up to his end of the bargain. During a hearing on Friday, the parole board said Ruiz had originally agreed to serve out the remainder of his sentence in Mexico, but no paperwork had been filled out to transfer him there.
"You have decided not to seek that transfer," parole board member Curtis Garner said. "Why did you do that?"
"Because I have a little bit of time left," Ruiz replied.
Ruiz spoke over the phone from a California prison, where he is being housed for safety reasons. He gave short, clipped answers to Garner's questions never elaborating on anything.
"We scheduled this hearing because we felt like if you were not already in Mexico, we would like to consider putting you on parole rather than just giving you a termination date," Garner said. "The parole would have some conditions. Among those conditions would be a requirement that you not re-enter the U.S. illegally."
Asked if he planned to re-enter the United States, Ruiz replied: "Nope. Not right now."
Federal immigration officials have already said they plan to deport Ruiz when he is released from prison. Ruiz said he has family in Utah and in Mexico.
A decision on whether to terminate Ruiz's sentence or put him on parole will be made in the next few days, when the five-member parole board reviews the hearing.
"I still have my Oct. 28 date, right?" Ruiz wanted to know.
Garner said there is a good chance Ruiz will be paroled, rather than just walking free. If he were to be arrested again, he would be returned to prison, where he could ultimately spend the rest of his life behind bars.
Garner told the Deseret News after the hearing that it was an "extraordinary thing" that a convicted murderer was given such a light sentence.
"He helped make the case against John Pinder," Garner said.
Ruiz was the star witness in the case against Pinder, who is serving two life sentences for the slayings of Rex Tanner, 42, and June Flood, 59, on his Duchesne County ranch. The couple were beaten and shot and their bodies were blown up with explosives in an attempt to hide the evidence.
Ruiz has insisted that he didn't kill the two but helped Pinder blow up the bodies because he was afraid the eastern Utah rancher would kill him, too. During Pinder's trial, defense attorneys repeatedly painted Ruiz as the mastermind. They said Pinder, who gained notoriety for an African lion he once owned, lived in fear of Ruiz. Pinder tried to use a prison informant's claim that Ruiz was the real killer to seek a new trial, which was denied.Pinder has his first parole hearing scheduled for November 2028.