OC Shooting Suspect Enters Alford Plea; Court Hearing Reveals Incident Details

OC Shooting Suspect Enters Alford Plea; Court Hearing Reveals Incident Details
1 shooter

Shawn J. Soper
News Editor

SNOW HILL — A Reading, Pa. man charged with attempted murder and assault following last summer’s shooting in Ocean City was found guilty this morning and now awaits his fate pending the outcome of a pre-sentence investigation.

Elvin Mendez-Espada appeared in Circuit Court in Snow Hill on Tuesday to face multiple charges, including attempted second-degree murder and first-degree assault for his role in an altercation in downtown Ocean City on June 29 when he shot and wounded two men and fired other shots at a third man. Mendez-Espada entered an Alford Plea on Tuesday to one count of attempted second-degree murder, two counts of first-degree assault and one count of using a firearm in the commission of a felony. In an Alford Plea, a defendant does not admit guilt, but acknowledges the state has enough evidence to prosecute the case.

In this particular case, however, the entry of an Alford plea to the four counts was somewhat unconventional because there appeared to be differing versions of the statement of facts read into the record. After a plea is entered, prosecutors read into the record the agreed-upon statement of facts, and the judge then rules on the case and proceeds to the sentencing phase.

However, after Worcester County State’s Attorney Beau Oglesby read the statement of facts into the record on Tuesday, the defendant’s attorney, Eduardo Gonzalez, of Salisbury, agreed with the essential timeline of the events, but his client’s version was somewhat different then the version the state presented. Instead, Gonzalez attempted to tell the court the shooting victims were the aggressors and Mendez-Espada only fired the shots after he was punched and bear-hugged by the victims.

Nonetheless, Mendez-Espada and his attorney had entered the plea arrangement based on the agreed-upon statement of facts and did not dispute the timeline of events prior to it being read into the record. As a result, Circuit Court Judge Thomas Groton found Mendez-Espada guilty of one count of attempted second-degree murder, two counts of first-degree assault and the use of a firearm in the commission of a felony.

The attempted second-degree murder count carries a maximum penalty of 30 years, while the two first-degree assault counts carry a maximum sentence of 25 years. The firearm charge carries a maximum penalty of 20 years, with a minimum mandatory sentence of five years without the possibility of parole. Following the plea agreement and subsequent finding of guilt, Groton ordered a pre-sentence investigation.

According to the agreed-upon statement of facts, around 2:10 a.m. on June 29, OCPD officers in and around the 18th Street area on different patrol assignments heard shots fired nearby. According to the statement, one OCPD officer outside his patrol vehicle actually heard a shot whiz by. The investigation revealed a group of six individuals, including four males and two females, had gotten off a bus at 28th Street and were walking south along Coastal Highway toward 11th Street.

When the group passed the Islander Motel at 18th Street, they interacted with another group of individuals in and around the motel pool, which sits in a fenced-in courtyard adjacent to the highway. Words were exchanged, but no physical altercation occurred at that time. However, one member of the group walking south heard the members of the group in and around the pool discussing going after the other group.

According to the statement of facts, Mendez-Espada followed the group and more words were exchanged, at which point he lifted his shirt and revealed a semi-automatic handgun in his waistband. He then pulled out the gun and pointed it at one of the males in the group and said something to the effect of “what are you going to say now,” according to the statement of facts.

When male members of the group saw the gun pointed at their friend, one of them punched Mendez-Espada, knocking him into a fence. Mendez-Espada recovered and fired two shots, neither of which struck any of the victims. Two male members of the group then grabbed Mendez-Espada, who was still holding the gun, and put him in a bear hug.

Mendez-Espada’s friend, later identified as Carwin Duarte, 19, also of Reading, Pa. then punched one of the male victims with Mendez-Espada in between them. Mendez-Espada then fired at least two more shots. One of the victims was shot through his pants leg and was grazed on his calf. Another victim was shot in the thigh near the groin. It was later determined the shot narrowly missed a major artery in the victim’s leg. The victim was transported to PRMC.

Following the shootings, Mendez-Espada and Duarte fled the scene, but Duarte was found a short time later. Mendez-Espada ran north to the area of Dolphin Street where he jumped in the bay. OCPD officers surrounded the area blocking all escape routes and waited until daylight to retrieve Mendez-Espada from the canal where he was found hiding near a bulkhead.

Mendez-Espada had spent several hours in the water and was treated for hypothermia when he was finally apprehended. Mendez-Espada told police he had the gun in his waistband when he entered the water, but lost it at some point. Two dive teams searched the water for the weapon to no avail, but shell casings recovered from the scene matched the gun Mendez-Espada owned and admitted carrying.

Following the reading of the statement of facts, Mendez-Espada and his attorney, Gonzalez, were asked if there were any changes or omissions. At that point, Gonzalez attempted to portray a different version of the events. He agreed the incident started with an exchange of words and that Mendez-Espada confronted the group. However, the defense version differed on what occurred next.

“Mr. Mendez-Espada was punched, bear-hugged and pushed against a wall,” said Gonzalez. “Only then did he fire the gun as a warning shot.”

When asked why he and his client were entering an Alford plea and not pursuing the self-defense claim at trial, Gonzalez said his client was willing to accept the plea agreement rather than facing the alternative.

“For the purpose of the Alford plea, my client agreed it was a roll of the dice to take it to trial,” he said. “It would be a roll of the dice to try to present these facts to a jury.”

Nonetheless, Mendez-Espada and Gonzalez had freely entered into the plea agreement based on the agreed-upon statement of facts, leaving Groton with little choice but to accept the Alford plea and find Mendez-Espada guilty on the attempted second-degree murder, first-degree assault and firearm charge.

“I’m faced with two different versions of the facts,” he said. “Once you agree to abide by the statement of facts, I’m obliged to make a ruling based on those facts.”

Groton found Mendez-Espada guilty and ordered a pre-sentence investigation. A sentencing date has not been set. Mendez-Espada was ordered to be held without bond pending sentencing. Meanwhile, Duarte, who was charged with second-degree assault for his role in the incident, is scheduled to appear for trial next week.