Prosecutors to seek life sentence in 2020 crime spree
POWELL — Park County prosecutors say they will seek a life sentence for a man accused of being at the center of a 2020 crime spree.
Former Powell resident Bernabe Mena faces nine felony charges and a slew of allegations.
An investigation by multiple law enforcement agencies concluded that Mena and three others traveled from Billings to Park County in a stolen car in March 2020. Over the course of a night, authorities say the group burglarized a vehicle, shot a home and stole a truck in Cody, then traveled to Powell and led police on a high-speed chase that culminated in a violent collision with a patrol car, authorities say. The stolen truck from Cody crashed into a ditch, but some members of the group then led police on another pursuit back to Cody in the car taken from Billings. Drugs and alcohol were also reported to have been involved.
Mena’s three companions — Winter R. Killsnight, Shay A. Dontmix and Shyanna C. Wilson — were all apprehended within a matter of hours, but Mena escaped.
He was eventually arrested in Idaho, but had to answer to other charges in Montana before finally being returned to Park County last week. Mena was transferred to the Cody jail last week and made his initial court appearance on Friday.
Deputy Park County Attorney Jack Hatfield said the 34-year-old is currently serving a pair of sentences in Montana — including a five-year prison term for pistol-whipping a man in Billings about a month before the crime spree in Park County — and is being sought by authorities in Texas.
The prosecutor described Mena as both an extreme public safety hazard and an extreme flight risk, asking bond to be set at $1 million. Given Mena’s criminal history and the nature of the pending charges, Hatfield said his office will seek to designate Mena as a “habitual criminal,” which would bring the potential of a significantly enhanced sentence.
“With three prior felony convictions, if he’s convicted of any one of the five violent felonies here [in Park County], he would receive a mandatory life sentence,” Hatfield said in court.
Circuit Court Judge Bruce Waters set Mena’s bond at $500,000. Even if he is able to post that amount, he would be remanded to the State of Montana’s custody instead of going free.
“Bottom line is, yeah, this will keep you here for the time being,” Waters said, answering a question from Mena about whether he’d be staying in Cody during the case or returning to a Montana prison.
The Park County Attorney’s Office initially filed multiple felony charges against Killsnight, Dontmix and Wilson — the three other people alleged to have participated in the crime spree — but have at least temporarily dropped the cases. At a hearing in Park County District Court last year, Hatfield indicated that his office was striking deals that could involve the individuals testifying against Mena. However, Dontmix has since been rearrested in Montana on multiple new charges.
After their arrests, the three reportedly told police they did not know Mena well, claiming to only know him as “G” or “B.” It took police and prosecutors a couple of weeks to put together and file a case against him.
According to charging documents, Mena and the other three individuals arrived in Cody on the night of March 20, 2020, in a stolen Hyundai Accent. At some point, they reportedly stole 9-mm ammunition and other items from a parked car while Mena allegedly fired a round from an illegally sawed-off Winchester shotgun into a trailer in Juby’s Mobile Home Court; rounds from the gun entered the trailer, but no one was home at the time.
Charging documents contain no indication as to how the group picked its targets. Killsnight told police she thought the group was “in the middle of nowhere” when Mena fired the shotgun; she also said the four consumed alcohol, smoked marijuana and used meth during their time together.
At roughly 1:50 a.m., Mena, Dontmix and Killsnight posed for a series of cellphone photos, which showed Mena armed with the shotgun and Dontmix carrying a semi-automatic handgun, Cody police found.
“It was a blur,” Killsnight reportedly told Cody Police Detective Rick Tillery. “They started going buck wild with their guns — or he (Mena) did.”
Around 3:15 a.m., the group reportedly stole a 2008 Chevy pickup that had been left running for a few minutes outside a 26th Street residence.
Less than 20 minutes later, a Powell police officer spotted the stolen truck and the stolen Accent speeding into town at 96 mph. A chase ensued. The Chevy truck — with Mena allegedly at the wheel — nearly collided head-on with one officer, then smashed into the rear driver’s side of another patrol vehicle at 80 mph on Coulter Avenue. The officer was reportedly left sore, while the squad car was totaled. Meanwhile, the stolen truck crashed into the Garland Canal and Mena fled, according to the narrative laid out in charging documents; Killsnight, who’d been riding in the vehicle, was left behind and arrested.
As police processed the scene, they spotted the stolen Hyundai Accent — which had gotten away — in the area and again gave pursuit. The driver hit speeds of more than 100 mph while racing toward Cody on U.S. Highway 14-A, police said. Cody police used spike strips to stop the vehicle on Big Horn Avenue around 6:30 a.m., but the occupant(s) fled.
Wilson and Dontmix were arrested later on March 21 when they tried shoplifting a coat and compressed air from Walmart (they told police they were stranded and cold), but Mena got away.
The Park County Attorney’s Office filed seven felony and one misdemeanor charges against Killsnight, Dontmix and Wilson. At an initial court hearing, Dontmix protested that he and Wilson “got out, like, before all that happened, before all the police and everything.” However, all three suspects were initially held on bonds of $100,000, with the theoretical possibility of more than 100 years of prison time hanging over their heads.
In mid-July 2020, about four months after her arrest, prosecutors dropped all of the charges against Wilson while reserving the ability to refile them. Then in December, deputy prosecutor Hatfield asked for Dontmix and Killsnight — who’d been held in jail for nearly nine months — to be released on their own recognizance. Hatfield said it was “very likely” that he’d be offering a plea deal that would involve dismissing the most serious charges and potentially seeking probation instead of additional jail or prison time.
District Court Judge Bill Simpson balked at the request to lower the suspects’ bonds, noting the state had previously made “a very strong argument” against releasing Dontmix and Killsnight. The judge pushed Hatfield for details on why the state’s position had changed.
“It is necessary for the court to try to understand, particularly in view of the severity of the charges, why this has suddenly gone from $100,000 cash public health and safety issues to zero,” Simpson said at the Dec. 18 hearing.
Hatfield explained that, after further investigating their roles in the case and listening to months of calls they placed from the jail, he believed Killsnight and Dontmix “would not engage in subsequent misconduct” and return for future court appearances. He also said Killsnight, who had expressed a desire to enter a drug treatment program, was at risk of losing her parental rights if she remained in jail.
Hatfield added that the state was expecting Dontmix and Killsnight to truthfully testify against Mena. Killsnight’s defense attorney, Tim Blatt, said the potential cooperation with the state had been “kind of [kept] under wraps” because of safety concerns.
“Despite the fact that Mr. Mena is incarcerated in Montana, there are reasons to believe that he knows other individuals that could potentially pose harm to anybody that might be willing to testify against him,” Blatt said.
Judge Simpson remained uncomfortable with releasing the two defendants on a signature bond given the severity of the charges, so Hatfield moved to drop them. He did so without prejudice, which allows the county attorney’s office to refile the charges at any time.
Although Killsnight and Dontmix were technically freed without any conditions, Judge Simpson suggested that they obey the law, stay away from people involved in criminal activity and stay clean and sober.
“If you don’t, Mr. Hatfield could re-file this within about 10 minutes. A warrant could be issued. … And wherever you are within the United States and many foreign countries, that warrant could be implemented and you could be brought back to stand trial,” Simpson warned.
Dontmix, 26, apparently didn’t follow the judge’s advice. In February — about two months after his release from jail — federal prosecutors in Montana say he possessed stolen firearms. Then in March, he allegedly led Yellowstone County Sheriff’s deputies and a helicopter on a high-speed chase in the Billings area before getting stuck in a field, KULR8 reported. Charging documents obtained by KULR8 say police found ammunition and drugrelated items in the vehicle, while a passenger in the vehicle reportedly said Dontmix had fired a gun into an unoccupied vehicle the day before. He remained in the Cascade County Detention Center in Great Falls, Montana, on Monday on the federal firearms charge.
Meanwhile, Mena was brought back to Park County to face trial on Nov. 9. He was wanted on the charges stemming from the March 2020 spree, plus a pending felony drug charge from 2018 and for failing to pay fines and failing to show up for court in three misdemeanor drug-related cases dating back to 2017 and 2018.
However, the new charges are far more serious, in part because Mena was allegedly armed at the time he committed the crimes. He faces two counts of aggravated burglary, two counts of conspiracy to commit aggravated burglary, robbery, theft, conspiracy to commit theft, aggravated fleeing or eluding police, property destruction and conspiracy to commit property destruction. Because some are classified as violent felonies, and because Mena has three prior felony convictions, Hatfield said he intends to try seeking a sentence of life imprisonment under Wyoming’s “habitual criminal” statute.
A preliminary hearing in the case is tentatively set for Friday.