'You will pay': Topekan sentenced to life for killing Washburn player, injuring player now in NFL

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Francisco Mendez, 21, listens to testimony Friday at a hearing in which he receives sentences expected to keep him in prison for life for crimes that included the killing of Washburn University football player Dwane Simmons.
Francisco Mendez, 21, listens to testimony Friday at a hearing in which he receives sentences expected to keep him in prison for life for crimes that included the killing of Washburn University football player Dwane Simmons.

Shawnee County District Judge Cheryl Rios should show no leniency in sentencing Francisco A. "Franky" Mendez to prison, relatives of the man he killed said Friday.

Mendez has spent three years in jail, during which he could have given up his accomplices' names and shown remorse for fatally shooting 23-year-old Dwane Simmons — but he hasn't, said Simmons' grandfather, Reginald Lee.

Rios agreed.

"You will pay for the decision that you made," she told the 21-year-old Mendez before sentencing him to terms expected to keep him in prison for life.

Rios sentenced Mendez to life in prison with no chance of parole for 50 years for the intentional and premeditated first-degree murder of Simmons, a cornerback for the football team at Washburn University.

She sentenced Mendez to serve an additional 41 years after that sentence has been completed on separate convictions for four counts of attempted murder and seven counts of aggravated robbery, all committed in a three-day crime spree in April 2019.

One attempted murder conviction involved the wounding by gunfire of Dwane Simmons' close friend, Corey Ballentine, a former Washburn player who is now with the Atlanta Falcons.

Mendez says he wasn't involved with any of the crimes.

Simmons' father, Navarro Simmons, felt "bittersweet" after Friday's sentencing, he told reporters.

It felt bitter to lose his son, "but it's sweet that justice was served," he said.

Navarro Simmons testifies at Friday's sentencing hearing for the man who killed his son, Dwane Simmons, while accompanied by mementos of his son's time as a football player at Washburn University.
Navarro Simmons testifies at Friday's sentencing hearing for the man who killed his son, Dwane Simmons, while accompanied by mementos of his son's time as a football player at Washburn University.

Prosecutor: Feeling Mendez had been disrespected triggered shooting

Dwane Simmons died just before 1 a.m. on April 28, 2019, in the 1400 block of S.W. 13th of a single gunshot wound suffered to the right area of his forehead.

Wounded in the same incident was Ballentine, who had been drafted hours earlier by the NFL’s New York Giants  He has since played three years in the NFL as a cornerback and kick returner.

About 20 members of Simmons' family were present for Friday's sentencing in the same courtroom where several of them had been present for every minute of Mendez's 10-day trial in March.

Witnesses testified at that trial that Simmons, Ballentine, and teammates Channon Ross, J.J. Letcher Jr. and Kevin Neal Jr. had left a nearby house where they'd been attending a party and were standing in a semi-circle and talking southwest of that house when a car approached on S.W. 13th Street, then stopped in the street nearby.

An occupant of the car asked the players if they smoked or had any marijuana, the players said they didn't, another occupant of the car asked the players' names and one player said something along the lines of, 'Don't worry about all that,'" witnesses said.

Deputy Shawnee County District Attorney Charles Kitt, the case's chief prosecutor, said Mendez, the driver, then pulled the car forward and stopped in the street before its occupants got out and fired at least 19 shots at the players.

A feeling that they'd been disrespected triggered Mendez and the three others in the car to get out and shoot, Kitt said.

Simmons was pronounced dead at the scene, where the other four players ran as the occupants of the car continued to shoot while walking in their direction, a witness said.

Though the gunfire that killed Simmons wasn't caught on security camera video, prosecutors showed security videos taken from various places in Topeka showing the car before and after Simmons was killed.

Taken as a whole, Kitt said, those videos demonstrated that Mendez was at the scene when Simmons was killed.

Mendez fired the shot that killed Simmons, Kitt said. But to gain a murder conviction, he said, prosecutors didn't need to prove Mendez personally shot Simmons, only to prove that he was part of the group that did that.

Simmons was sentenced Friday for crimes that included the murder of Simmons and the attempted murders of Ballentine, Neal, Ross and Letcher.

No other people have been charged in that case, which remains under investigation. The car's other occupants haven't been identified.

7 of Mendez's convictions were for aggravated robbery

Mendez was also sentenced Friday for convictions of seven counts of aggravated robbery linked to crimes committed separately in the days shortly before and after Simmons's death.

Two of the aggravated robbery counts for which Mendez was sentenced Friday are linked to a carjacking committed earlier the evening Simmons died, on April 27, 2019, at 2130 S.W. Fairlawn Road.

Authorities allege Mendez was part of a group that robbed two people of that location of a car, which later that evening contained the four men who shot at the Washburn players.

The other five aggravated robbery convictions were linked to the April 30, 2019, robbery of cash and cellphones committed near 1300 S.W. Clay by a group, which prosecutors said also included Mendez.

Homicide victim's father: 'You probably would have loved my son'

Lee, Navarro Simmons and Dwane Simmons' sister, DaMesha Simmons, all spoke at Friday's sentencing hearing.

As Navarro Simmons spoke, his son's Washburn football helmet and a photo of his son in his Washburn football uniform stood on the floor in front of him, while Dwane Simmons' Washburn football jersey lay draped over the edge of the witness stand.

"If you'd have known my son, you would have liked my son," Navarro Simmons told Mendez. "You probably would have loved my son."

Family members also showed a six-minute video featuring photos of Simmons.

Nobody spoke on Mendez's behalf at Friday's hearing, where defense attorney Kevin Shepherd said Mendez had personally declined to speak.

That was too bad, Rios said.

"It would have been nice if you could have said something that might have brought some answers to the family and the community," she said.

Tim Hrenchir can be reached at threnchir@gannett.com or 785-213-5934.

This article originally appeared on Topeka Capital-Journal: 'You will pay,' judge says before sentencing Washburn player's killer