Trial begins for accused Sundberg killer

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Emry Dinman/Columbia Basin Herald Gustavo Tapia Rodriguez, pictured center, is being tried for the 2017 murder of Quincy resident Jill Sundberg.

EPHRATA — More than two years after Jill Sundberg was found deceased in a frozen parking lot off the Old Vantage Highway, the trial has begun for the Quincy man and illegal immigrant charged with her brutal murder.

Gustavo Tapia Rodriguez, 41, of Quincy, stands accused of shooting and killing 31-year-old Quincy resident Jill Sundberg after an earlier argument at the Shady Tree RV Park in George escalated into a violent confrontation.

Tapia Rodriguez is facing charges of first-degree murder, with aggravating circumstances including being armed with a firearm, acting with deliberate cruelty, drive-by shooting and kidnapping. He is also facing second-degree unlawful possession of a firearm.

Two other men charged with Sundberg’s murder have pleaded guilty. Ambrosio Mendez Villanueva, 26, Quincy, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in January, while Julio Cesar Albarran Varona, 27, also of Quincy, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in July.

Witnesses concurred that the night began with Sundberg, Tapia Rodriguez and a number of others in a trailer at the Shady Tree RV Park, and a majority of the individuals present — including Sundberg — were smoking methamphetamine.

In opening statements, prosecutors allege that the majority of people inside the trailer left throughout the night, leaving Sundberg alone with Tapia Rodriguez, his co-defendants Mendez Villanueva and Albarran Varona, as well as two material witnesses, 25-year-old Fernando Marcos Gutierrez and 26-year-old Salvador Espinoza Gomez.

Prosecutors allege that an argument broke out between the parties, resulting in the men dragging Sundberg out of the trailer, putting her into a car, and driving her to the remote area where she was later found dead. According to prosecutors, Tapia Rodriguez shot Sundberg in the back of the head 13 times.

After the shooting, Mendez Villanueva allegedly took a broken-down cardboard Modelo beer box, wrote a note on it, and then pinned it to Sundberg’s body with a steak knife, according to investigating officers.

The sheriff’s office later released the contents of the note that was handwritten on the piece of cardboard. The message, which was written in Spanish, translates as: “For all those (expletive), (expletive) and (expletive) that show no respect to the gulf cartel.”

The Gulf Cartel is one of Mexico’s oldest drug cartels and is infamous for widespread kidnappings, human trafficking and murders on both sides of the border.

Prosecutors suggested that Tapia Rodriguez may have believed Sundberg was a member of or informant for the Grant County Sheriff’s Office drug task force, and that this belief may have spurred the deadly dispute.

Tapia Rodriguez, wearing headphones to allow him to hear a Spanish-speaking interpreter, stared down at the defense’s desk during court proceedings Monday, except once to stare upwards at the courtroom’s cold, fluorescent lights, and to occasionally watch witnesses testifying under oath. One such witness, whom prosecutors regularly asked if she was afraid of reprisal from Tapia Rodriguez if she testified against him, appeared unable to recall many of the things she had told investigating detectives a year prior.

Members of Sundberg’s family sat in silence Monday as court proceedings dragged on, watching as images of the crime scene were flashed onto the courtroom projector. Though they don’t expect to speak in court until closing arguments, they have attended the various hearings and deliberations for Tapia Rodriguez and his co-defendants and will continue to do so, Sundberg’s brother said.

The father of Sundberg’s four children was also present Monday and testified to the court about Sundberg’s struggles with addiction and her recent stint at treatment.

Tapia Rodriguez is also charged with first-degree murder in the death of Arturo Sosa, a Royal City man who was murdered Dec. 9, 2016. Marcos Gutierrez, 25, Quincy, was also charged with first-degree murder in the Sosa case.

During testimony before the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Grant County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Ryan Rectenwald said all five of the men are illegal immigrants.

More evidence in the trial will be presented throughout the week.

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