Neptali Mejia Pleads Guilty to Killing Family Friend on Cherokee Street

The St. Louis Circuit Attorney agreed to an 8-year sentence in exchange for his guilty plea

Mar 11, 2024 at 1:30 pm
Neptali Mejia pleaded guilty to killing Jonathan Cruz in court on March11, 2024.
Neptali Mejia pleaded guilty to killing Jonathan Cruz in court on March11, 2024. COURTESY SLMPD

An emotional scene played out in a St. Louis courtroom this morning as a 20-year-old pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and heard directly from the family of the teenager whose death he caused.

Jonathan Cruz was 19 when he was gunned down in a car outside of a barber shop on Cherokee Street in the City of St. Louis in July 2021. In court this morning, his family stood on one side of the courtroom in front of Circuit Court Judge Katherine Fowler. To the other side was Neptali Mejia, who was 18 when prosecutors say he was a part of the group that killed Cruz. Prosecutors negotiated an eight-year sentence in exchange for Mejia's plea.

But Cruz’s family members weren’t happy with the deal.

"Eight years won't bring my son back," said Cruz's father, Leo Rubio, who was the first of the family to speak. He said the sentence should be longer. 

"He says he's too young," Rubio said, referring to Mejia. "My son was too young, too." 

Judge Fowler stressed that she wanted the Cruz family to take as much healing as they could from their time addressing Mejia and the court. The judge has in the past employed restorative justice practices in her courtroom, in which the person guilty of a crime often avoids prison time and instead works with a victim or the victim’s family to in some way make amends. Fowler signaled she was open to that in this case. However, given the Cruz family's desire for Mejia to serve time, it is unlikely to occur.

Members of the Cruz and Mejia families were once close, often celebrating birthdays together, said Cruz's mother, Maria, speaking through an interpreter. She said that circumstance compounded the tragedy, explaining that Neptali knew full well the pain Jonathan's death would cause the family.

"I was sick to my stomach when I found out that my brother was murdered," said Jonathan's brother, Ivan. "I was even more sick when I found out Neptali had something to do with it."

Neptali had previously been charged with first-degree murder, armed criminal action and unlawful use of a weapon — charges serious enough that an eight-year deal would have been unlikely. 

But the murder charge was amended down and the other two were dropped, a fact that may be related to the fact that Cruz’s slaying was assigned to detective Tommy Mayer in the waning days of his career. Since retiring and moving to Fredericktown, Mayer has refused to testify about cases he investigated, claiming he’s in ill health, which has at times complicated the work of prosecutors. In this case, however, Mayer was successfully served a summons, which would have required him to show up to testify. Whether he’d do so in a compelling way, however, is not clear, nor is whether his involvement — or lack thereof — had on the outcome. 

The RFT and ProPublica went in-depth on Mayer’s refusal to testify in an investigation published last year

Cruz’s mother, Maria, said that when she and her husband split up, her son lived with his dad but still came to visit her every day. She added that she can still recall the specific details of the day her son died. She remembers the last time she called him, at 7:45 p.m., but by that time he was already dead.

Along with other family members including his brother Ivan, Jonathan ran a food truck business. Ivan explained that the truck had a lot of contracts in the coming days and that right before he died Jonathan said he wanted to look good on the job, which was why he went to get a haircut on Cherokee Street. 

It's been previously reported that the killing of Cruz was in retaliation for the murder of another man who was found dead in a car near Cherokee Street in August 2020. 

According to a police probable cause statement issued at the time of Mejia's arrest, the then-18-year-old Mejia admitted to police that he was the driver of a car carrying the people who shot at and killed Cruz while he was in his vehicle. 

Last July, prosecutors filed a motion to revoke Mejia's bond, writing that they'd been made aware of a video posted on social media in which Mejia rapped about having killed Cruz.

Ivan Cruz said in court that he often went by the restaurant where Mejia worked and that he always gave him a tip. But shortly before his brother was killed, Ivan went to the restaurant but Neptali wasn't there, which was unusual.

Speaking directly to Mejia, Ivan said: "You weren't there because you were out with your friends getting ready to murder my brother."

It is unclear when Mejia will begin serving his sentence. A sentencing assessment report still needs to be completed. The next hearing in the case is June 11.

After the Cruz family spoke, Fowler asked Mejia if he had anything to say.

He said he didn't.

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