They sought a better life but instead found tragedy.

Roberto Mendez Garcia came to the Yakima Valley from Guatemala with his 17-year-old daughter — Petrona Mendez Ruiz — in search of work.

Garcia wanted to send money home to the rest of his family. Ruiz wanted to earn enough money to build a little house of her own in their poverty-stricken Guatemalan village.

But Ruiz’s plan, and life, ended abruptly June 1, 2019, in a field on the Yakama Reservation.

Ruiz and her father had been here only about three months. They were weeding and planting small trees outside of Wapato when a drunken motorist drove onto a field where a crew of women was working.

Unable to get out of the way, Ruiz was run over and crushed. Garcia, working in a neighboring field, was called to the scene. He was told his daughter had been in an accident.


The drunken driver’s SUV had to be lifted off her petite body.

In January, the driver — Joshua Cole Sampson — was sentenced to 18 months in prison after pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter in federal court.

Meanwhile, Garcia remains here, mourning his daughter’s death and working and sending money home to the rest of his family in Guatemala.

“I feel very lonely, very sad, but this is a moment in time,” Garcia said through an interpreter. “There are some days I am really sad. But when I think about the conditions back home — the poverty — I realize that I need to be here right now.”

Garcia said he wants to talk to an attorney about the relatively light sentence Sampson received.

“The most difficult part of this is the trial,” Garcia said. “I’m sad that the person who killed my daughter is going to be free in a short period of time.”


Prosecutors sought a three-year sentence. But U.S. District Court Judge Stanley Bastian took the recommendation of defense attorney Alex Hernandez, who argued Sampson had no prior criminal history, was remorseful, completed a substance-abuse program and had been sober more than a year.

Sampson was credited with 153 days he already served in Yakama tribal jail, leaving about 13 months left on his sentence.

Sampson possibly would have faced vehicular homicide, and a stiffer sentence, if he were charged in state court.

Under state law, motorists who kill someone in a crash while under the influence are subject to vehicular homicide charges, which can carry a maximum penalty of life in prison and $50,000 in fines.

Sampson was charged in federal court because he’s Native American and the incident occurred on the reservation. Federal authorities typically take jurisdiction on major crimes committed by Native Americans on tribal land held in federal trust.

But jurisdiction on the Yakama Reservation isn’t always clear. The reservation is a patchwork of tribal and nontribal land with a mix of tribal and nontribal people. State authorities often take jurisdiction in reservation crimes occurring on nontribal land when victims or suspects are nonnative.


Ruiz wasn’t Native American, and the field where she was killed is nontribal land. Because the suspect was a tribal member, responding Yakima County sheriff’s deputies handed the case to Yakama Tribal Police.

Garcia wasn’t kept informed of any investigation into his daughter’s death and received only one notice from his supervisor in 2019 saying Sampson would be tried in Yakama Tribal Court, which lacks authority to prosecute felony crime.

Garcia wasn’t informed of any outcome in tribal court. He also wasn’t notified when Sampson was tried in U.S. District Court more than five months later.

Keeping in touch with Garcia may have been difficult for authorities. He’s moved a few times, and like most field workers his place of employment changes as he follows various crops.

Garcia faces communication barriers. He speaks an Indigenous dialect of his homeland. Spanish is his second language, and he doesn’t read or write. He said his daughter would help him read.

“I can only write my name,” he said.

Garcia is struggling to reach an attorney. He hopes to bring his family here to live.


His wife and other children — three sons, ages 12, 10 and 9, and a 19-year-old daughter — live in a two-room house in Zacualpa, El Quiche, a poor village in Guatemala.

They have no electricity or running water.

Garcia sends his family $125 a week. They spend about $110 a week on food, he said.

“I’d like to send more than that,” he said. “The case — that’s the reason I don’t send more than that.”

He’s saving for an immigration attorney in hopes of bringing his family here.

“That’s my main goal,” he said.

Garcia said his wife has been diagnosed with cancer and the loss of their daughter has caused her health to worsen.

“She is sick back home because every day she is thinking about our daughter,” he said. “I’m not making enough for a second opinion.”


Garcia struggled getting around until he bought a car from a friend last year for $1,500.

“I made payments,” he said.

Garcia possibly could apply for a U Visa, which allows immigrants who have been victims of certain crimes, including manslaughter, a four-year stay with work authorization. That would open the door for him to acquire a green card and eventually apply for citizenship.

That process wouldn’t happen anytime soon. There’s about a five-year wait on obtaining a U Visa, said Angelita Chavez, a Tri-Cities immigration attorney.

Only 10,000 U Visas are approved each year, and the number of applications far exceed that, she said.

There are other requirements. Victims have to show they assisted investigators, she said.

Garcia wasn’t contacted by investigators or alerted of trial proceedings. He obtained the first notice about tribal court from a supervisor he worked under when his daughter was killed. There were other witnesses at the scene, including his employer.

Chavez said there may be other legal avenues for victims who don’t participate in investigations to seek a U Visa.