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The Breaking Point

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.

There's talk that a few days before the killing, Leah was threatening to kill somebody, anybody, at a party. That Valerie got pregnant in the days before her confession as a way to gain sympathy in court. That when the cops showed up with a search warrant at Denetta's, one asked her toddler if mommy had any new CDs and the child retrieved a 69 Boyz disc that belonged to Christi. That Maia was circulating lyrics from a rap song about orgasms and murder among her friends. That Leah was spotted at the Chicago-Lake liquor store one night wearing Christi's gold jewelry. That the gang Valerie was trying to run with required killing as part of its initiation ritual. That the murder eerily resembled scenes from a movie released last year, Set It Off, about four down-and-out young women who jack banks, make their getaway in stolen cars, and drive around the 'hood tossing CDs out the window.

Christi Mendoza had just turned 20 the month before her death. In a victim-impact statement, her mother, Cindy Murry, remembers Christi as a young woman two years out of high school "trying to make something of [her] life, to be somebody." By all accounts, she was. After graduating from Roosevelt High in 1994, Christi started dancing at Déjà Vu, earning more than she or her friends imagined possible. In her off hours she took a few classes at Northeast Metro Technical College with an eye toward becoming an interior designer--an ambition that her mom, who works for the Air Force, and her dad, a career bartender, backed as a way to get out of the strip-club scene. "Christi had a flair for putting things together, a natural talent," Cindy told me recently. "She liked things in order, to have all her possessions in place and perfect--black and brass and gold everything. You could say she was a real together kind of kid who took care of business, kept up on her credit cards, never missed a family event, and loved to take her little sister shopping and buy her things. By the time Christi was just 19, she had a bank account and could afford her own nice place."

Several of Christi's friends remember her as a fairly easygoing girl who loved to party, wasn't into hard drugs, and stuck by her on-and-off-again boyfriend, Courtney, who is black, even though her folks, as they've said, "weren't real approving of the interracial relationship." They mention her slender beauty, and her vanity--how Christi moved as if the camera was always trained on her, striking poses, holding a smile a bit too long, arranging her manicured hands like she'd been taught at the John Casablanca modeling school. Her sister, Lori, told me one night not long ago that if Christi had survived the attack, "she could've had plastic surgery, but seeing her patched-up face in the mirror would've crushed her."

Soon after Christi's death, her mom found a notebook she'd started a couple days before the murder. Page one was a to-do list: Get the apartment locks changed, take better care of her health, and buy a gun. "I don't know for sure what made her write that last thing," Cindy told me. "It could've been just the neighborhood she was living in or it could've been a premonition. It's anybody's guess."

What is known for certain is that Leah McGinley and Denetta Caldron had been best friends since Roosevelt High--where they went to school with Christi--and that they ran with a fast crowd who were into drugs, shoplifting, skipping class, and raising hell. During high school both lived at home with their mothers, and their families had been tight for years. Another friend of theirs--I'll call her Angela--remembers the two as being "real thuggish type girls," bullies around school who liked to pick fights for no reason and flash gang signs in the hallway. Denetta, whom Angela says once taped herself having sex and played it for her friends, "used to always try to get me to be in a gang. Her and Leah used to both be in gangs. I don't know if they still are."

She also remembered the bad blood between the two women and Christi Mendoza: "It was jealousy, pure jealousy there. I know Leah used to try to fight Christi in school"--something Christi had told her mom at the time. "I know Denetta didn't like Christi either. Every time she'd see her it was dirty looks. One time Leah was supposed to fight Christi and she went into the sewing room where Christi was all by herself and she 'fronted her. Christi was like, 'Why don't you just fight me now?' but Leah didn't want to fight her because she wasn't with her friends. 'Cause Denetta wasn't there for backup."

 

Another friend from Roosevelt--I'll call her Margo--remembers Leah and Denetta as "real big girls, like 200 pounds each, with nothing going for them. They were about as far from where Christi was headed as they could get. I mean, no ambition but thuggin' and bossin' littler girls and intimidating people they hated. Leah didn't even graduate on time; she had to go to an alternative school just to finish, and that was late. To them, Christi had it all--the nuclear family thing with her parents and sister, the house they owned, the stylin' clothes, a skinny little white butt." Plus, added Margo, who is black, "she dated black men from way back, which drove lots of girls like those two crazy. She was stealing the men they wanted.

"They liked to stalk after Christi and just give the girl shit, even though Denetta's sister was a friend of hers--in fact, the two of them walked down the graduation aisle together. Christi wasn't one to back down. I mean, she stood her ground. What I'm saying is that this went way back to that time--back to when Leah and Denetta and whoever else was in on it started figuring out they were facing a dead end, starting to have babies, not graduating on time, not getting jobs or making the kind of money Christi could make with her brain and that beautiful body of hers and her bright, white smile.

"Christi got out of school, got her own place with Courtney, this rare black man who was solid and trying to be responsible to his girl. I'm saying they'd all started in the same place, you know--same neighborhood, same school, not a lot of money, all that. But when they went their ways, Denetta got kicked out of her mom's house for being bad and moved in with Leah for a while, which was a scary party all the time--guys running around with guns, getting busted up, all that shit. Meantime, Christi starts coming up in the world. She had the nice car, a little red Mazda. She had spending cash for nice things--art on the walls, CDs, fine gold, clothes they could never wear, dinner on the town. You could call it the high life. And what did these girls have?"

Leah had a part-time job at Dollar Bill's in a suburban strip mall, but she also had a steady weed habit to the tune of 10, 20 bucks a day, and she was behind on rent. Denetta--who'd once been a varsity cheerleader and a junior on the pep squad--was out of work with a young baby to take care of.

A few days after talking with Angela and other friends, I visited with Leslie Angerhofer, a young black woman who'd been in Christi's circle at Roosevelt and close to her since. (In fact, she was called to help clean up the apartment once the police got done with it.) "Denetta's the freakiest person I know," Leslie said. "Her mom's sweet, her sister's sweet, but she just preyed--she was like a predator, just looking for somebody to mess with. Leah, she grew up thug life. She probably thought Christi was just gonna, you know, sit down and let her.

"I guess these girls were what you'd call 'player haters'--Christi was a player, with a nice car, trinkets, glass furniture, good groceries in her refrigerator. And she had gold. They must've seen that night a real opportunity to finally punk her and they took it. I'm guessing they went there out of pure greed, just for the cash, and it turned into something else. Everybody knows what dancers make--I mean, a good night would be $500 to $700, a bad night maybe $300. Plus I gotta say that Christi had a black man, and for that reason alone every black girl I know would love to beat up a white girl."

Valerie Martinez, the petite 16-year-old who turned the older girls in, lived at home with her father and stepmother on the South Side, in a cramped apartment near the freeway. She'd been a student for a while at DeLaSalle, a private high school in Minneapolis, where as a freshman she'd been picked as a B-squad football cheerleader. Her boyfriend of several months at the time of the killing, Michael Olson, was a friend of Christi and Courtney's and lived in the duplex above them. Valerie was a frequent hanger-on downstairs--a girl, as one person who was part of the crowd there put it, "who started off big-eyed and naive, just wanting to please everybody and learn how to go along to get along. She knew that apartment real well, and had plenty of time to get greedy wanting the stuff she saw Christi had. She also knew Courtney made money. She wanted to be down with the scene. It was like she was looking around for somebody cool to copy, somebody who knew how to play." The woman said Leah felt sorry for Valerie and befriended her.

 

Matissa Burnip, Courtney's cousin, had known Valerie for years. They went trick-or-treating together, shared some of the same friends, and from time to time crossed paths at parties. "Toward the end," Matissa told me--meaning in the months before the murder--"Valerie was trying to be the biggest part of the scene. Right before it, she was the biggest hard person, wearing rags around her head and all, just changing--probably from the people she started hanging with."

Another friend of Valerie's, who also asked not to be named, called her desire to fit in a kind of obsession, one that may have sprung from a fairly strict upbringing and what she called "Valerie's being real confused about how to turn from a kid into a grown-up. What she saw was that real grown-ups, the kind you see on TV shows, had money to burn and were all sophisticated. She wanted to get there fast, date older men, hang with the big girls. She liked to talk big around that time, but basically she'd just do what anybody bigger or cooler than her told her to do."

Besides having been close with Christi, Leslie Angerhofer also hangs around with Valerie's sometime-boyfriend, Michael, and was dating a friend of Courtney's at the time, a guy named Jamar who came into the house with Courtney the morning the two got back from Vegas and described the place as a helter-skelter scene, "real sloppy, like there'd been a hard struggle." Leslie lived next door to Leah and her cousin Nate when the killing went down, but says she stayed out of their way as much as she could. Just a couple weeks ago, she told me, Leslie went by Valerie's folks' place to play with the baby Valerie gave birth to while in detention in Texas--Michael's baby.

"You can see in this that people's lines crossed a lot, with Valerie dating the guy upstairs from Christi, Leah's cousin Nate being like brothers with Courtney, some of these girls all going to school together. It's a web, not what I'd call a real random thing when it comes down to it." According to Leslie, Michael had been telling Leah for months to stay out of Valerie's life, to quit egging her on and putting ideas in her head. Just before she gave her first statement, Leslie said, Valerie called her boyfriend and told him what they'd done--or at least hinted at another version of it.

"Michael told me just what Valerie said to him after the murder--that they all cleaned up at Leah's house. Another guy who was at Leah's house that night said the same thing. He asked them, 'What's going on? You guys are full of blood.' And Leah told him that Michael beat up Valerie and that's why she's crying and hysterical. Valerie and Denetta were crying 'cause somebody'd just got killed and they know who it was and they know what's going to happen. Because the girl's got friends, her man's coming back into town. Valerie's just a baby then. She thinks she's living a grown-up life by going to clubs and having an older man, but now she's just seen Christi get killed--the girl who lived underneath her boyfriend. Michael said she was having nightmares about it, with Leah telling her to shut up or you're gonna be dead like that bitch."

Because Valerie was a juvenile at the time of Christi's death, all her statements to county prosecutors, before the grand jury, and during her sentencing remain sealed except for bits and pieces. In one excerpt that was included in Leah's case file, Valerie told a police interrogator that she and Leah were both broke that Tuesday and spent the day in vain looking for work. When Michael called long-distance from Florida and told her that everybody who lived in the duplex at 3109 was out of town except Christi, Valerie and Leah hatched "the perfect plan." Sometime around 9:30 p.m., her friend Maia called. Maia told Valerie she'd just put out a page for her boyfriend, Dirty, and that "if Dirty calls me back, you know, I'm going Dirty," and if not, she'd come over with her car.

 

Maia Diederich-Lee, the only one of the four young women who went to trial for the Mendoza murder, is like a missing person in this universe. None of the many people I talked to knew much about her. She didn't go to Roosevelt, didn't know Christi, and didn't run with their crowd. Denetta said she'd never met Maia before the night of the killing. Leah'd spent some time with her, but not much and not for long. Valerie was the connection; they were friends from back at DeLaSalle when Valerie was a freshman and Maia a junior in 1995. And it was her phone call to Valerie that supposedly brought Maia into the picture as the perfect plan got rolling. She was just getting off her cashier's job at the Target store on East Lake Street--the same store where Christi had gone to buy a curling iron and a mop earlier that evening.

At the time, Maia was a slim 18-year-old living with her mother, a white bank employee, and her father, who is black and works in the Minneapolis school system, at a house they owned in South Minneapolis. She'd gone to DeLaSalle for a time and then to Washburn, a public school on the South Side; she'd meant to graduate in 1996 but, as one family member put it, "got a little sidetracked by this whole thing." Maia held down a steady job the summer Christi was killed, drove a 1987 Chrysler New Yorker, and like the others had no adult criminal record. Not long ago, Maia's aunt told me that "our family's doing OK, under the circumstances... and my niece is working hard to get her life back." Just two weeks ago, she added that "nobody is clean in all of this. Nobody is pure as snow here."

What Courtney's cousin, Matissa Burnip, did recall was that Maia was loosely dating a friend of hers when Christi was murdered, and that "he said she'd go off for no reason. Her way or no way, that's what he said. That's the way it is with her. Control freak, that's exactly what he said."

Denetta's phone rings on the night of July 9, 1996. It's her best friend, Leah, telling her that she and Valerie have the perfect plan. They're going over to jack Christi, who's supposed to be alone in her apartment. Can they borrow her BB gun? Denetta says she wants to go along, get some drugs and money, whatever they can lay their hands on. All three agree that Christi won't tell. Jacks like that happen all the time around their neighborhood, no big deal. So what if they know Courtney? If Valerie's boyfriend lives upstairs? If Christi knows them from high school? They're broke, out of weed, and nothing else is going on tonight.

Around 11 p.m. they pick up Denetta in Maia's car and cruise over to Christi's place. It's dark except for the downstairs porch light, so they circle around the block and through the alley where they see Christi's red Mazda and Courtney's red-and-black Blazer parked out back. You sure he's not home? Leah asks, and Valerie says nobody they know would drive their car on vacation. Just to be sure, they swing by the White Castle a couple blocks up on Lake Street to call Christi on the pay phone. Leah and Valerie get out just as their friend, Ira Mishow, is riding by on his bike. He stops, gives them a quarter, and ducks his head into the car to greet Maia, whom he knows from middle school. Before he rides off, he also notices that all four girls are dressed in dark clothing. Valerie dials the phone but doesn't get any answer.

They drive back by Christi's and park on a side street. Valerie gets out and goes to the door, knocks, and goes inside. After a few minutes, she comes back and reports that Christi's in there alone smoking a joint. The plan from there is for Valerie to ask if her friend can use the phone. They walk up to the front door and Christi lets them all in.

She and Denetta start talking while Leah grabs a couple bottles of booze and does shots with Maia in the kitchen. Then the two head into Christi's bedroom to rifle through her stuff. Leah wedges the door shut with her foot while Maia digs around by the bed. Then they hear Denetta telling them to open up, Christi wants them out of the bedroom. When they come out they see Valerie and Denetta by the door and Christi in the dining room with the cordless phone up to her ear. Leah snatches the phone and cracks Christi in the head with it. In an instant, the whole room's tense--four girls with the perfect plan in mind and Christi no doubt wondering what the hell they're here for. Then Leah sets it off: You know what time it is, she tells Christi. It's jack time.

 

That much of the story everyone but Maia and her supporters more or less agrees on. Both Denetta and Leah tell it as part of their plea bargains at Maia's first-degree murder trial, which got underway with an all-white jury in late June and wrapped up just three weeks ago on July 8. During Leah's testimony in court, Maia repeats a gesture she'll make a half dozen times before the verdict. She reaches out and unscrews the top of the water pitcher on the defense table--carefully, as if she's used to wearing false nails. She takes the top styrofoam cup off the stack and picks the second one, turns it upright, methodically, and fills it with water. Then she picks up the pen she's been taking meticulous notes with on a legal pad and writes her name--MAIA--on the cup, underlines it, and above it draws a happy face.

Valerie, whose handprint was found on the glass tabletop in Christi's dining room and whose story is wildly at odds with those of Leah and Denetta--she's claimed all along it was Maia and Leah alone who did the killing--never takes the stand. (In a document included in the state's motion for a joint Murder One trial for Maia and Leah, Valerie told her psychiatrist in late December 1996 at the San Marcos Treatment Center in Texas that after the jack turned sour, they all "huddled up" and started "talking about killing the victim.... Valerie states that Maia grabbed one knife. Valerie remembers two knives but isn't sure if she touched one.") Shortly after Valerie snitched, the cops found evidence at Denetta's house--a bracelet, the 69 Boyz CD, the BB gun--linking her to the crime scene. As for Leah, just before her arrest she'd sold a piece of Christi's jewelry at a neighborhood pawn shop for $25. As part of their deals to avoid going to trial for first-degree murder, they both agreed to testify against Maia. Denetta ended up with a nine-year sentence for aggravated robbery, Leah with 13 years and nine months for second-degree murder. They both should be out of prison by the time they're 35.

Each has maintained that neither of them laid a hand on Christi that night. And in their testimony in court they both fingered Maia and Valerie as the ones who butchered her, right after Leah announced jack time.

As their story goes, after they bagged up the CDs in the living room, Denetta pocketed some pot while Leah headed toward the back of the house. Maia was in the bedroom, Valerie in the dining room with Christi, and none of them was talking. Then Leah came out of the kitchen with the two liquor bottles and yelled at Christi, "Where's your stuff? Where's the rest of your stuff?"

As Leah tells it, Christi then said, "C'mon, you guys. Courtney knows you and you won't get away with this." She told them she didn't have anything else--it was all out in the open. Take what you want and get out. Then Maia came out of the bedroom wearing black gloves and holding a belt, which she and Valerie put around Christi's neck and started yanking while Leah hit her in the head with the gun. In a daze, Christi got up from her chair and went to the mirror to study her injured face--her face that would be nearly unrecognizable within minutes, or hours. (Although Denetta claimed they spent less than an hour in the house, the medical examiner estimated that Christi had smoked pot two to three hours before she died--the joint Valerie saw--meaning her attackers left before she was dead or they spent a lot longer in the house than anyone in court was willing to say.) According to Leah, after looking at her reflection Christi turned from the mirror and sat back down.

As Denetta tells it, Leah pistol-whipped Christi before "anything serious" happened. She and Leah grabbed the garbage bag they'd been filling and were heading for the door when she turned back and saw Maia fastening a belt around Christi's neck with Valerie's help. When Denetta started yelling, "Stop, stop, that's enough," Leah warned her to shut up, and then, before anybody could stop it, something snapped.

 

Valerie's statements say they all just freaked out--a sudden, obscene rush of paranoia. Somebody stomped on Christi's shoulder. Somebody went for a knife, and then another one. One or more of the girls stabbed her in the belly and chest, slashed her throat, and purposefully sliced off the better part of Christi's face. Leah says she doesn't know why the plan turned from a jack into murder; it just did. Denetta has claimed that Valerie spoke Maia's name out loud, there was a pause, and then Maia said, "Fuck that, now I'm gonna have to kill her."

It's after midnight now. According to Leah and Denetta, they grabbed the bags and a pillowcase full of loot and ran out of the house, with Maia and Valerie a few seconds behind them. They drove to Leah's place, took their pick of Christi's stuff, and dumped what was left by the river or tossed it out the car window as they drove. Leah went to Denetta's apartment and the two of them stayed up all night, smoking the weed they'd jacked, just talking until the sun came up.

On July 8, the jury came back after a single night's sleep with a unanimous not-guilty verdict for Maia Diederich-Lee. They didn't know what to believe beyond a reasonable doubt. None of them knew for sure who held the belt, the first knife or the second, or who it was that left the single unidentified bloody shoe print between Christi's legs. In fact there was no evidence at all that Maia had ever been in Christi's house that night short of Leah and Denetta's word, best friends telling their stories for plea deals against a snitch and another girl they hardly knew.

After it was over, I talked to Leslie Angerhofer, Christi's close friend, about the jury's decision, which so upset the entire courtroom that even the clerk couldn't get through reading the verdict in its entirety before she broke down midsentence and rushed from the courtroom. Leslie's view of what probably happened that Tuesday night was simple, at least in terms of what she believes her friend would have done once she knew she was about to die.

"That girl would've fought to the very end," she told me. "She don't play, especially about her stuff. If they came in calling her names, she'd snap--she don't play. That girl took her clothes off for a living; she ain't gonna just sit down. They're calling her whore and tramp--Valerie said that. That's how they are. They been calling names ever since they could talk. How you gonna jack somebody and not call them names?

"They were trying to intimidate her, and that wasn't easy to do to Christi. They were small-time fools, working each other up and into it, wanting to get her stuff. When it all comes down, I'd say them getting together whatever it took to do this was a long time coming."


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