ROOSEVELT — A Vernal man remained in a coma at a Salt Lake City hospital after he was pistol-whipped, kicked repeatedly and had his head stomped into the pavement, according to two people who say they witnessed the beating outside a Uintah County convenience store Wednesday night.
Both witnesses, who asked not to be identified due to concerns for their safety, said Thursday they believe the attack on Johnny Jessie Maez was gang related.
Roosevelt Police Chief Rick Harrison, however, cast doubt on that belief.
One witness noticed Maez as they were both fueling up their vehicles at a busy Maverik store in Ballard about 5 p.m. Wednesday.
Maez had just finished at the gas pump when a vehicle with three men dressed in red pulled into the store's parking lot, according to the witness. Maez, who was dressed in blue, spotted the men and began to curse, the witness said.
Maez ran to a nearby pickup truck, driven by a woman who later said she was his wife, and retrieved a handgun from the truck, according to the witness.
"By that time, one of the guys in red was coming around the front of the truck," the witness said.
Both witnesses described how Maez tried unsuccessfully to load a magazine into the gun as he ran from one of the men in red. They said Maez turned at one point and hit his pursuer with the weapon, but by then the other two men had pulled out handguns as well.
"They knocked (Maez) down and started pistol-whipping him, kicking and smashing him," one witness said. "One of them pistol-whipped him with his own gun."
"I was going to jump in to try and help (Maez), but they had guns," the other witness said.
As the three attackers ran back to their vehicle, which was driven by a woman, one of them came back to Maez, the witnesses said.
"He jumped completely off the ground and landed with both feet on (Maez's) head, smashing it into the ground," one of the witnesses said.
Roosevelt police had already spoken with one of the individuals who talked to the Deseret News, according Roosevelt Police Chief Rick Harrison. Repeated attempts to contact the chief late Thursday about the second witness' account of what happened were unsuccessful. But the that recounting of the incident was corroborated by the first witness.
Investigators are reviewing surveillance video from Maverik in an effort identify possible suspects, Harrison said early Thursday. They've also spoken with several additional people who witnessed the attack, he said.
"But nobody knows anybody who was there," the chief said.
Police stopped at least two vehicles Wednesday night. They questioned and photographed some of the people in those vehicles, but no arrests were made, according to Harrison.
The chief said he doesn't believe the assault was gang related, but would not elaborate on that belief when asked. He said the incident also doesn't appear to be linked to a pending criminal case against Maez.
In February, Maez was charged with assault, criminal mischief and disorderly conduct. The misdemeanor charges were filed following a fight in the Uintah Basin Medical Center parking lot that involved Maez, his ex-wife, her brother and another woman.
Maez entered not-guilty pleas to the charges and was due in court May 20 for a pretrial hearing.
State court records show Maez, 32, pleaded guilty in 1999 in Salt Lake County to discharging a firearm from a vehicle, a third-degree felony. He also pleaded guilty in Uintah County in 2003 to attempted aggravated kidnapping, attempted aggravated robbery, attempted aggravated burglary, and aggravated assault, all third-degree felonies.
In the Uintah County case, Maez and another man entered the victim's apartment and Maez pointed a gun at the victim's head, charging documents state. Maez hit the man in the face, then he and his accomplice stole two 12-packs of beer, several CDs, cigarettes and a lighter from the man, the charges state.
Roosevelt police are asking anyone with information about the assault on Maez to call 435-722-2330.