Attorney floats murder-for-hire theory
Detectives are investigating more leads in the slaying of Heber resident Aniceto Armendariz after a man who helped kill the popular Catholic deacon told authorities he and his father were paid to commit the murder.
Months of speculation about a motive for the killing ended Thursday when a prosecutor revealed a possible connection between the killers and a Utah prison inmate.
"There is always that risk that he’s just talking," Wasatch County Attorney Thomas Low said in a telephone interview Friday. "But there is at least a portion of it that has been able to be corroborated and it appears to be reliable."
According to Low, the trigger man, Wasatch County resident Cunny Antonio Pelaez, 20, who authorities believe received a cash payment in exchange for killing the deacon, provided information about the transaction to the authorities. Pelaez was sentenced March 7 to six years to life in prison for his role in the murder.
This week his father, Antonio Pelaez-Vasquez, 56, who pleaded guilty to first-degree felony murder, was sentenced to serve five years to life in prison.
"These guys are just thugs who had nothing more to do with their lives," Low said.
The incarcerated man who may have orchestrated the murder-for-hire plot likely had help from someone on the outside, he explained.
"With someone incarcerated, if they’re trying to solicit something like this, someone’s got to actually communicate messages, deliver money and that kind of stuff," Low said. "There has got to be some cooperation on the outside."
When asked if the inmate wanted Armendariz dead because of information the deacon may have provided about the man to police, Low insisted Armendariz never worked as a confidential informant for officers in Heber.
His death resulted from a tragic misunderstanding, the prosecutor added.
"[Armendariz] was merely a good citizen," Low said. "He never did any more than you or I would do if we noticed a house had a lot of late night traffic or peculiar smells coming from it."
Early reports indicated that the murderers might have killed Armendariz because they were jealous of the deacon’s status in the community. Armendariz worked with Holy Cross Ministries in Heber and St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Park City.
Low wouldn’t release the names of other suspects possibly involved in the alleged contract killing or how much money may have changed hands.
"We’ve had this information for about a year and have been looking into it," the prosecutor said. "We sure hope we can get the others involved."
In 2005 Pelaez-Vasquez and his son, believed to be illegal immigrants from Mexico, killed Armendariz with a shotgun from a moving vehicle as the religious leader drove with his wife on U.S. 40 from Park City to Heber.
"There is no reason for us to be with anger our whole life, otherwise, we won’t be happy," said Alma Armendariz, the deacon’s widow about how she has forgiven the men who killed her husband.
After surviving the violent crash that followed the shooting, she asked prosecutors not to seek the death penalty, but wants the men to spend the rest of their lives behind bars.
"It’s because I believe in God," she said. "They have to pay, of course, for what they have done, but I don’t think there is a reason to kill them."
Though her husband’s murderers are being sent to prison, the case is not over, Armendariz lamented in a telephone interview Friday while explaining that police must continue surveillance at her home.
"There could be someone else out there so we need protection."
Still, intimidation she experienced after the murder has stopped, she said.
"There were a couple people out there who were trying to obtain information from us," Armendariz said. "They were acting weird, but this has been taken care of."
Those in the Anglo and Latino communities appreciated the work of her husband, who never was an informant for the police, she said.
"He was a link between both communities," she said. "He was really, really involved in the community because we wanted others to feel accepted in the way we were accepted."
The couple had several children together during their marriage that lasted 24 years.
"We really, really enjoyed life together," Armendariz said.
“If you cannot love your neighbor as yourself, no matter who they are, start by looking in the mirror and see what changes need to be made from within.”