A convicted felon has been found guilty of murder for fatally shooting his helper at an illegal marijuana grow site in Anza when the helper accidentally killed a puppy.
After two days of deliberations, a Murrieta jury convicted Benjamin Franklin Winkle of killing 37-year-old Michael M. Mendoza in 2021.
Along with murder, jurors found Winkle guilty of being a felon in possession of a firearm and sentence-enhancing gun and great bodily injury allegations. They acquitted him of witness intimidation.
Riverside County Superior Court Judge John Davis scheduled a sentencing hearing for March 15 at the Southwest Justice Center.
The defendant is being held without bail at the nearby Byrd Detention Center.
According to a trial brief filed by the District Attorney’s Office, Winkle operated an unlicensed marijuana grow adjacent to his rural home at 61203 Indian Paint Brush Road, near the Cahuilla Indian Reservation. His only help was a hired hand, Mendoza, who tended to the grow site almost daily.
On Oct. 6, 2021, Winkle was planning to take a road trip and retrieved a travel trailer that he intended to hook onto his Chevrolet Silverado pickup. The brief stated the defendant was taking care of his girlfriend, Layla Nottingham’s, puppies from a litter born at her kennel. Nottingham was elsewhere at the time.
The defendant was relying on Mendoza’s assistance to hitch the trailer to the pickup, but the men ran into trouble when one of the Chevy’s tires became stuck, according to the brief.
Mendoza was attempting to free the pickup when a tire rolled over one of the puppies, court papers said.
According to the prosecution, Winkle’s only neighbor, Thomas Sarafolean, walked over to see what was going on when he heard the defendant yell, “You ran over my dog! You killed my dog!”
The defendant was armed with a Glock .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol and brandished it at Mendoza, who told him that he wouldn’t dare shoot. However, sheriff’s investigators said that Winkle opened fire, unleashing a half-dozen rounds.
An autopsy showed Mendoza was struck in the neck, chest, thigh and one hand. He died on the spot.
Winkle forced Sarafolean at gunpoint to drive him away from the property, with the idea of going to San Diego to hide out, but the witness was able to bail out of his vehicle a short distance away and run to a friend’s house for help, court papers said.
Winkle then fled the area, managing to reach an ex-girlfriend’s house in Placer County a few weeks later. The woman, Emily Morris, later told detectives the defendant turned her into a chauffeur, taking him to Vacaville, Fairfield and Colfax to meet people she didn’t know. In the last week of November 2021, the two were staying at a motel when Winkle finally related why he had fled Southern California.
“The defendant referred to himself as a bear, and said Michael poked the bear and got attacked,” the brief said.
A squabble ensued, during which Winkle punched Morris in the face, prompting her to call 911. Placer County sheriff’s deputies arrested him without incident, confirming he had a fugitive warrant out of Riverside County, where he was jailed days later.
He has a prior assault conviction out of Solano County and a prior misdemeanor conviction in Riverside County for being an unlicensed operator of a motor vehicle.