The Breaking Point

The girls all agreed: They went to Christi Mendoza's house to rob her. But something happened--and by the time it was over, she had died an unfathomably brutal death.

Exactly what happened in the downstairs duplex at 3109 36th Ave. in South Minneapolis in the late-night hours of July 9, 1996 may never be clear. What we do know is that there was a robbery; things got out of control; and there was a body. Christine Mendoza, a 20-year-old woman who earned her living as a stripper at the downtown Déjà Vu nightclub, was discovered three days later by her boyfriend, Courtney Rhines. He returned from a Las Vegas vacation to find her body lying face up in the dining room in boxer shorts, a tank top, and bedroom slippers.

There was a belt around her neck. She'd been strangled, and someone had stabbed her over a dozen times in the stomach and chest. Her throat had been slashed so deeply that it nearly decapitated her. A large bruise showed up on her right shoulder in the shape of a shoe print and her fingernails were ripped to the quick. There were signs she'd been kicked hard, a bloody shoe print between her legs, and circular bruises on one hand made by four fingertips. Even though her jugular was severed, the medical examiner figured that with the belt cinched round her neck like a tourniquet, it took "a while for her to bleed out and die." A good part of her face had been sliced away, as if whoever killed Christi meant not only to cause her death but to disfigure her. To erase her face.

Her apartment had been ransacked. The over-300 CDs Christi kept in order on her entertainment center had been cleaned out, and dozens of them were found outside in the street. There was a chair tipped over in Christi's dining room, and two bloody knives were found lying near her body. Her weed was missing from the wooden box where she stored it, and so were her credit cards and a lot of her gold jewelry--a Gucci watch, chains, earrings, pins, bracelets. The kitchen cupboards had been emptied, food and utensils strewn on the counters, and the matching cloth-napkin-and-ring set Christi kept arranged around a floral centerpiece on the table was scattered across the floor. In the back bedroom where she'd ordered her furniture ensemble to look like an interior decorating showroom, complete with vanity table and mirror, several of Christi's designer outfits, costumes, and accessories--including the belt used to strangle her--had been yanked off their hangers. A pillowcase was missing from her matching sheet set. When Christi's mother cleaned out the apartment later, she found $2000 in cash rolled up and stashed in the toe of one of her daughter's shoes.

Eight days later, three young women landed in the Hennepin County jail with $1 million bail on each of their heads. They wound up there because a 16-year-old named Valerie Martinez had gotten scared, either of police or of her own accomplices. Through relatives, she got the phone number of a lawyer; she called up and started to unburden herself of the awful details. She named names. Unfortunately it turned out that she had dialed the direct line of St. Paul Police Chief William Finney. Once she realized her mistake, she hung up. Then she got in touch with attorney Keith Ellison at the Minneapolis Legal Rights Center and told him a version of the story--one that differed from what she had told her stepmother. Ellison accompanied her to a garbage can on a Mississippi River bank where Valerie said she and the other girls had dumped a pillowcase full of Christi's things--jewelry, keys, a phone, a caller ID box, and a single black knit glove. Ellison turned it all in to a police officer late that night at City Hall--homicide's first break in the case. In the next few days, Valerie worked out a plea agreement and traded an 82-page statement for juvenile probation. She's set to be out of prison at age 21, unless the court revokes her deal.

In the first version she told investigators, she and three acquaintances--18-year-old Leah McGinley, 21-year-old Denetta Caldron, and 18-year-old Maia Diederich-Lee--had spent the evening of July 9 driving around South Minneapolis in Maia's car trying to score some pot. They all ended up at Christi's place late, intending to "jack" her--to steal her cash and weed--and get out. In the year since that hot July evening, Leah and Denetta have added their own accounts of the crime to the mix--stories that clash dramatically with Valerie's and are so riddled with discrepancies that only one woman has been tried to date, and that trial ended in an acquittal just three weeks ago. What we do know is the jack turned bad: Something went terribly wrong, and the late-night visit ended in a murder so ruthless that one of the lead homicide investigators is said to have suffered a nervous breakdown and spent time under psychiatric care in the wake of the killing.

In the year since, the four girls accused of murdering Christi Mendoza have earned a kind of dark celebrity status around South Minneapolis. And they've generated a lot of talk on the grapevine that runs through the neighborhood--friends telling friends what other friends heard, rumors repeated and knit together into a kind of urban legend.

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