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In Yakima County, Washington, real estate broker Vernon Holbrook had made a name for himself as a beloved family man, a generous member of the community, and a hard-working professional who still pulled 60-hour weeks at age 78.
So it was all the more shocking on May 25, 2013 when Holbrook was found viciously beaten with his throat slashed in a property in Cowiche, Washington that he reportedly had scheduled to show on that morning to prospective buyers.
Holbrook survived the attack but was left comatose in the hospital, where loved ones monitored his precarious progress.
Members of the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office questioned and cleared Holbrook’s employee, who had called 911 after discovering the victim, they told Oxygen series “Mastermind of Murder.” They searched the crime scene for clues and it yielded a key lead: The victim’s phone was missing.
To learn who he had been set to meet on May 25, investigators obtained access to Holbrook’s phone records. These records revealed that the last person to speak with Holbrook was Adriana Mendez. The call had been made that morning in the vicinity of the crime scene. Holbrook’s family didn’t know who Mendez was.
Investigators determined that Mendez, who was 24 years old with three children under the age of 8, lived in Yakima at the Sunshine Motel, which investigators described as “not exactly four-star accommodations.” It was associated with criminal activity ranging from drug deals to prostitution.
Mendez agreed to make a statement to Yakima County sheriffs and told them she’d called Holbrook about selling a trailer. She’d gotten his number from an ad for his business, Aspen Real Estate.
But when Mendez denied being in Cowiche on the day of the attack, they confronted her with the phone log that told another story. They also said that security camera evidence from the Sunshine Motel showed her and her three kids piling into a car with a man on the morning of Holbrook’s assault.
Mendez named the man as her boyfriend, Luis Gomez-Monges, who had a long criminal record. Facing the prospect of being caught up in an attempted murder, Mendez admitted she and Gomez-Monges, along with her children, had driven out to the Cowiche property Holbrook was showing.
She then claimed while her kids stayed in the car, she and Gomez-Monges went inside the house, where she saw Gomez-Monges strike Holbrook. She went back to the car, and Gomez-Monges returned some minutes later.
Detectives tracked down Gomez-Monges at a casino, where he was arrested and transported to the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office. Authorities recovered a blood-stained box cutter from Gomez-Monges’ car. It was sent to the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab for analysis to see if it was used in the attack.
Investigators sought to uncover how the couple in custody were connected to Holbrook. Was someone else involved?
Mendez admitted she’d gotten the number from a man named Daniel Blizzard, who’d been helping her out by paying her rent at the motel and buying her food.
Blizzard, investigators discovered, was in real estate and had a long relationship with Holbrook. In 2008, Holbrook, who was ready to retire, had even made a handshake deal with Blizzard and agreed to sell him Aspen Real Estate. Holbrook agreed to stay on as the face of the business for a year. Despite some initial qualms, Holbrook allowed Blizzard to take out a $1.58 million life insurance policy on him as part of the purchase plan.
The deal eventually soured when Blizzard failed to make more than two payments. Reluctantly, Holbrook took Aspen Real Estate back about 16 months after the deal had been struck.
Investigators pored over the financial history of Aspen Real Estate and found that Blizzard had kept current with the life insurance policy bill. This led them to believe that Blizzard could have been the mastermind of the attack. A review of text messages between Blizzard and Mendez before the assault supported that theory. As they dug deeper into the relationship between Blizzard and Mendez, authorities learned that they’d met through his girlfriend, Jill Taylor, who was divorced from Holbrook’s son, Chad.
Mendez claimed Blizzard was the brains of the assault. She said she felt indebted to him because he was helping her and her kids out financially and that Gomez-Monges was on the verge of being deported. When Blizzard offered them $10,000 plus a $2,000 bonus to pose as home buyers and then kill Holbrook, they said yes.
When detectives questioned Taylor, she acknowledged that Mendez met Blizzard through her. But when officials pushed for answers about Blizzard’s relationship with her ex-father-in-law, she clammed up. Authorities, however, had enough evidence to book Taylor for attempted murder.
Blizzard was also arrested for first-degree attempted murder. As prosecutors built their case, they encountered a major setback when they learned that the box cutter found in Gomez-Monges’ vehicle was not tied to the crime.
Without that forensic evidence prosecutors bolstered their case by turning two suspects -- Mendez and Taylor -- into witnesses. In return, both women received lighter sentences. Holbrook’s family found that “infuriating,” but recognized it as a necessary strategy.
Eight months after the brutal attack as the trial approached, Holbrook, who’d been left with brain damage after the attack, died from his injuries. Gomez-Monges and Blizzard now faced murder charges.
In court, Mendez and Taylor described Blizzard as the person who pulled all the strings. Taylor, 38, also admitted that she considered poisoning Holbrook but couldn’t go through with it. That’s when Blizzard recruited Mendez and Gomez-Monges.
Convicted of first-degree murder, Gomez-Monges, 39, was sentenced to 28 years in prison and Blizzard, 29, to 34 and a half years behind bars. Mendez pleaded guilty to assault and rendering criminal assistance and received a one-year sentence. Charges were dropped against Taylor.
Holbrook’s family now remembers him as “a warrior” and acknowledge they’d never be the same because of his terrible death.
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