On Friday, Tyler Cruz turned to face the family of the man he killed over an alleged betrayal of friendship - and he wept.
"I know what I did was wrong and there's nothing I can do or say that will change your opinion of me," the 24-year-old Gardnerville father said, looking directly into the eyes of Adam Wells' parents and sister. "I hope seeing that Adam will have his justice here will give you some kind of closure for what me and Danny (Shaw) have done."
Moments later, District Judge Michael Griffin offered the Wells family a hollow victory. For the strangulation and beating death of their son, Griffin gave Cruz the stiffest penalty for second-degree murder - with the possibility of parole after 10 years. Because a deadly weapon was used in the killing, the sentence automatically doubles and Cruz won't be eligible for parole before 20 years. For the charge of kidnapping, Griffin chose to run the sentence of two to six years concurrent.
"This is the single-most senseless murder I've ever been involved with as a judge or a lawyer," Griffin said. "What happened here is an act of cowardice in my estimation. It is also an act of cruelty. I can't see somebody saying, 'This is a friend of mine, let me dump him in the desert like his life had no meaning.'"
For about five hours the families from both sides took the stand in an effort to help Griffin understand what their sons meant to them.
"I still remember the day Adam was born," said Donna Wells in her testimony. She held in her hands what she had carried to every court proceeding in the last nine months, a stuffed gorilla that Wells, 20, had given her on Mother's Day 2005. "I still remember what his little body felt like in my arms and the softness of his cheeks. If I close my eyes I can still hear his voice."
She smiled when she talked of her scrawny boy with the skinny legs who grew into a mountain of a man.
But those memories are interrupted by the reality, she said.
According to court records, Wells was invited to Danny Shaw's house, in what District Attorney Noel Waters deemed revenge for an alleged theft from Shaw. He was bound at gunpoint with 84 feet of rope, gagged with duct tape blocking his mouth and most of his nose, and beat with bats. After some three hours at the house, Shaw and Cruz allegedly loaded Wells' blanket-wrapped body into the back of his truck and drove six miles east into the country. There they left him, lifeless, beneath the cover to his truck bed.
"The hardest thing for me is knowing that my son died so horribly," Donna Wells cried. "I have nightmares of being in Brunswick Canyon and calling for my son - and I can't find him anywhere."
Cruz was initially charged with open murder but pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in April. Shaw received the same deal May 23.
Waters said the plea bargains were unavoidable after a defense move to have Shaw's statements to police tossed out. Shaw led authorities to Wells' body while handcuffed in the back of a patrol car, but without having been read his rights. A question also arose about the admissibility of Cruz's statement, because during questioning by detectives he asked for an attorney, then continued to talk.
Donna Wells' testimony followed that of three detectives and witness Brian Davis, who testified he went to Shaw's home in the middle of the assault. Davis said he saw Cruz holding a bat and standing over a body wrapped in a blanket. When he told Shaw and Cruz to take the victim to the hospital, the men refused, and Davis left.
Wells' girlfriend, Cassidy Clark, said she was lost without him.
"I thought for the rest of my life I'd wake up with him next to me," she said. "He was the most amazing person I ever met. I loved him. He was my everything."
His sister Jennifer, 23, told the judge of seeing her brother's 6-foot, 2-inch body at the mortuary.
"And my big brother - my big brother - looked so small and so helpless," she said through tears. "When they told me he had been murdered I jumped out of the car and threw up. To this day, I still have that sickening feeling in my stomach."
Father Jerry Wells was composed as he told the judge he would never forget seeing his son's "bruised and battered face" and vowed to ensure Cruz would not receive parole.
"I don't see how anybody with even an ounce of decency or civility could do something like this to another human being, especially someone you knew and considered a friend," he said. "I want Tyler Cruz to know that for as long as I am alive he can count on me to personally attend each and every future parole hearing to argue against any parole requests that he may make. I believe that this life sentence should be just that - for life."
On Cruz's behalf, his stepfather testified he was a loving and respectful child.
"I wasn't the greatest dad to Tyler and that's my regret," said stepfather Nelson Pabon Jr., who met Cruz when he was 9. "We know Tyler's made some mistakes in his life."
In fairly quick succession, six others echoed that sentiment.
Girlfriend Kristin Marcum cried at the thought that her toddler son, Ashton, would never really know his father, a man whom she said she'd never seen act violent.
"He's all about 'daddy.' Ashton will always know who his father is," she said.
Cruz's younger brother offered the most emotional testimony on Cruz's behalf.
"He's good and caring," he said weeping. "He's always been there for me."
The boy told of a time when he was helping a younger cousin on a merry-go-round outside a store and some other boys walked by and made fun of him.
"I wasn't brave enough to say anything back," he said hanging his head. "But Tyler was, and he asked them to stop. I love my brother. He's a good person."
Vanessa Cruz asked for leniency for her oldest child.
"My son is still redeemable. I say please give him a chance. Don't put him away for life," she pleaded. "He's gentle, he's loving. What happened that night I don't know. I don't even know if Tyler knows why he did it. It would be easier for me if he were dead because this is so out of character for Ty."
Following the proceeding, Jerry Wells said he was surprised Cruz addressed the family. "But it makes no difference. What he did is so bad, nothing makes up for that," he said.
He noted his family was taken aback by Vanessa Cruz' statement that it would be easier if her son were dead.
Shaking his head, he said, "She obviously had no idea what we are going through."
• Contact reporter F.T. Norton at email@example.com or 881-1213.