The man who pleaded guilty to shooting and killing a Rock Hill teen at a Fort Mill store in January bought the gun an hour before the shooting — and had previously admitted having homicidal thoughts, prosecutors said.
Christopher Benjamin Mendez, 29, pleaded guilty Tuesday in York County court to shooting Karson Whitesell, 19, at The Peach Stand in Fort Mill on Jan. 23.
He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
‘He wanted to see how it felt’
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Sixteenth Judicial Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett said Mendez bought a .45-caliber gun at Cabela’s about an hour before he walked into the small store in Fort Mill.
Whitesell, whose family says she dedicated her life to service, was working there.
“He claims Ms. Whitesell looked at him funny, or gave him a look he didn’t appreciate,” Brackett said.
He said Mendez walked back out to the car, loaded his new handgun, walked back in and shot Whitesell five times.
Mendez’ lawyer, public defender Phil Smith, said Mendez had a history of mental health issues, and he never felt like he fit in. Mendez flunked out of 12th grade and got his G.E.D. after several tries, Smith said.
He was put on medication after he was committed to a mental institution for more than a week in June 2017. But before the shooting, Mendez wasn’t taking the medication – it made him feel worse, Smith said, and he didn’t have insurance.
His prescription has since been changed.
As Smith talked about the crime, Mendez was visibly shaking and began to cry.
“He was meaning to kill himself,” Smith said. “Couldn’t go through with it.”
In a recorded statement to police that was played in court, Mendez said he “felt relieved” after the shooting – like he had taken revenge.
“Why did he do this?” Brackett said in court. “Ultimately, because he wanted to see how it felt. He saw people kill people on TV and in movies, and he wondered how he would feel. And he knew what he was taking.”
Both prosecution and defense agreed the “look” Mendez didn’t like was imagined or exaggerated.
“She didn’t deserve that,” Mendez said in the police recording. “She looked innocent.”
But in the recording, he said he didn’t feel bad.
“It was easy,” he said in the recording. “It was so easy. It was like nothing.”
Mendez addressed the court before his sentencing. He said his medication change has made a difference.
“I would especially like to address what I am going to say first and foremost to the family and loved ones of the victim, Karson Bailey Whitesell, and secondly to my own family and loved ones,” Mendez said. “I don’t know that there are words that I could say that could help you. If there are, I don’t feel very confident of being sure of what they are. But I do know, is that I wish I hadn’t done what I did. I wish I would have had a better mind at the time.”
‘Defect in our system’
Brackett said investigators found receipts from Cabela’s and an Indian Land shooting range in Mendez’ car outside the Peach Stand on the day of the shooting.
Investigators determined Mendez went to a shooting range in Indian Land the Saturday before, Brackett said.
Smith said a worker at the shooting range said Mendez was acting odd, and he wouldn’t have sold him a firearm.
Mendez didn’t go to work Monday or Tuesday the week of the shooting, Brackett said. Instead, Mendez went to the Fort Mill Cabela’s on Jan. 23.
He tried to buy a gun there, but was turned down because his driver’s license address listed a P.O. Box instead of a physical address, Brackett said.
Mendez went to the South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles office, less than 10 minutes away from the gun store, and asked for a new license with a physical address.
He returned to Cabela’s with the new license and bought the .45-caliber pistol the same day.
About an hour later, he shot Whitesell five times, Brackett said.
Mendez had been committed to a mental institution seven months earlier, Brackett said. Mendez had told hospital staff that he had suicidal and homicidal thoughts.
That should have prevented him from purchasing a gun, under federal law.
But Mendez lied when he answered that question on a form for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Firearm transaction.
Question 11f. of the form asks: “Have you ever been adjudicated as mental defective, or have you ever been committed to a mental institution?” Mendez checked no.
There was no way for the Cabela’s clerk to verify that answer, Brackett said.
“I am concerned about this,” Brackett said. “Obviously nobody on either side of the gun rights issue is interested in having people who are mentally ill being able to purchase fire arms. This is apparently a defect in our system, because he was able to check no and walk out of Cabala’s that day with a .45.”
Life in prison
In a guilty plea, the most severe sentence Mendez could receive is life in prison without parole.
Under South Carolina law, only a jury can sentence someone to death after that person is found guilty during a trial.
Prosecutors said the Mendez case did not have sufficient aggravating circumstances to meet the requirements of a death penalty case.
Smith had asked the judge to sentence Mendez to the minimum sentence of 30 years.
He was sentenced to life for the murder charge. For an additional charge of possession of a weapon during a violent crime he was sentenced to time served, over 300 days.
Mendez was found mentally competent to enter the plea after testing. He had previous mental health problems, court documents show.
Mendez had been in jail since the Jan. 23 shooting. He was charged with assaulting a jail guard in September when he told a guard “I will kill you!” police said.