HAZLETON, LUZERNE COUNTY (WBRE/WYOU) — Gabriel Hernandez Mendez will spend one to two years in prison for killing 15-year-old Hector Padilla in a hit-and-run last summer.
But Tuesday’s sentence was met with tears and anguish from Hector’s family and loved ones.
Even though Mendez turned himself in, prosecutors said didn’t have enough solid evidence to back up some of the original charges. The victim’s family doesn’t feel any closer to justice.
Gabriel Hernandez Mendez received the maximum sentence for homicide by vehicle, but the young victim’s family is far from satisfied.
“One year to two years for a child’s life? For somebody that was driving careless? I don’t think that’s fair at all,” stated Katherine Ovalles, Hector’s Aunt.
On the evening of June 12, Mendez hit 15-year-old Hector Padilla with his pickup truck, while Padilla was riding his bike in Hazleton. Mendez fled the scene, and Padilla later died at the hospital.
“I miss him every day. I cry every single day, not a day goes by, it’s something I wouldn’t wish on anyone,” Pedro Padilla, hector’s father, explained.
About a month later, former Hazleton Police Chief and now Private Investigator Frank Deandrea got Mendez to turn himself in. But Mendez’s truck never turned up. Mendez was originally charged with homicide by vehicle, as well as accidents involving death or personal injury, and failing to stop and render aid.
But those charges were dropped when he pleaded guilty to homicide by a vehicle last month. Hector’s family is still concerned about the plea deal. They worry it means they’ll never truly get answers.
“How can you plead guilty when you’re hiding the truck. I don’t know why we’re not going after the truck. Why are you hiding the truck if you have nothing else to hide,” questioned Katherine Ovalles
“It’s like they say, it’s not what you know it’s who you know. And the judge felt the same when he looked at the case and said why would you get rid of a charge that carries a mandatory minimum of three years to give him a charge that carries a mandatory minimum of three months, “Pedro stated.
Mendez is the father of Republican Gubernatorial Candidate Lou Barletta’s grandson. Hector’s family questioned whether that connection influenced the outcome.
Luzerne County District Attorney Sam Sanguedolce said that’s not true. Sanguedolce said that while Mendez stated that he ‘hit the kid on the bike’ they lacked physical evidence they would need to prove Mendez was driving the vehicle that hit Hector Padilla if the case went to trial. And while the truck is still missing, there’s also not enough to charge Mendez with tampering with evidence.
“In order to tamper with evidence, you have to have the evidence. There have been repeated searches for the VIN number it’s never popped up that’s something that we intend to address but as far as the charges here today, that was something we couldn’t get over the hurdle for tampering with the vehicle,” explained Sam Sanguedolce, Luzerne County District Attorney.
A Barletta campaign spokesperson told Eyewitness News:
“Lou learned that a private investigator believed that Mr. Hernandez-Mendez was a potential suspect less than 24 hours before he turned himself in.
Law enforcement has been handling this tragedy from the beginning and Lou never had any contact with police, prosecutors, or the judge working on the case.”