Guilty in murder of deacon
Plea deal allows 1 suspect to avoid a capital charge
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HEBER CITY - A 20-year-old man pleaded guilty Wednesday in 4th District Court to the murder of Aniceto Armendariz, a Catholic deacon and outreach worker who was gunned down in September 2005.

Cunny Pelaez pleaded guilty to first-degree felony murder with a weapons enhancement. In exchange for his guilty plea, prosecutors reduced the murder one degree from a capital crime.

But it remains unclear why Pelaez, a Mexican national, participated in killing Armendariz, a popular figure among immigrants in Wasatch and Summit counties.

"The public won't know what his attorneys don't know," defense counsel Brook Sessions said outside court.

His sentencing is set for March 7. The charge carries an indeterminate sentence of six years to life in prison.

Also charged in the murder is the 20-year-old's father, Antonio Pelaez-Vasquez, 56, who will go to trial in three months. Jury selection is slated to begin April 24.

The father and son were riding in a van that prosecutors say pulled up alongside Armendariz's small pickup on U.S. Highway 40 as he and his wife, Alma, were returning to their Heber home from a Park City church service.

Armendariz was shot in the head and neck with a shotgun. The vehicle crashed and rolled. Alma suffered only minor injuries.

The suspect's van also crashed and Pelaez and Pelaez-Vasquez were apprehended nearby.

Wasatch County Attorney Thomas Low told Judge Sam McVey on Wednesday that prosecutors were preparing a case that would point to Pelaez as the triggerman and Pelaez-Vasquez as the driver.

In an interesting twist, however, Pelaez would not admit to shooting Armendariz. He did concede, however, to riding in the van and taking part in the crime.

Pelaez's statements to investigators reveal that he knew Armendariz. It remains unclear, however, whether his father was acquainted with the deacon. Prosecutors still don't know what motivated the killing.

Low said that although he was ready to go ahead with a murder trial, it was better that the plea arrangement spared Alma from testifying in the case.

"For the family not to have to go through that, that's an advantage," Low said after the hearing. Flanked by family members as she left court, Alma Armendariz declined to comment.

Defense counsel Scott E. Williams said that after seeing the evidence in the case, the plea bargain was a satisfactory outcome. If Pelaez had been convicted of the original charge of capital murder, he could have been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

csmart@sltrib.com