Ivan Mendez-Romero says he doesn’t know who killed his lover Janko Naglic or why. Last month Mendez-Romero was acquitted of first-degree murder charges in the death of the Church St businessman.
Mendez-Romero had been the one to discover Naglic’s body in their home on the morning of Oct 27, 2004. He says he returned home after spending the night with his wife to find Naglic’s body on the floor.
“You knew he was dead. It was a horrible sight,” he says.
Mendez-Romero did not take the stand at the trial; the Crown’s case was largely circumstantial and the defence chose not to call any witnesses to counter it. The jury took just four hours to return a not guilty verdict.
In an interview with Xtra, Mendez-Romero confirms that he was waiting for Naglic to come home on the night of Oct 26, 2004 — during the window in which the Crown argued Naglic was killed.
“He came home and I took the truck that Janko had been using all day and left him at home,” he says.
He says that after leaving Naglic at home he went to get a tattoo at Way Cool Tattoos at Queen and Bathurst where he planned to meet friend Karen Hylton. At the trial Hylton testified Mendez-Romero hadn’t met her but that she might have seen his truck as she was leaving the area. The tattoo artist Mendez-Romero says he had the appointment with has since died.
After having drinks with his then-wife Victoria Bunda and a cognac at the Barn, Mendez-Romero confirms he spent the night with Bunda in a hotel room.
During the course of the trial the Crown argued that Mendez-Romero’s marriage to Bunda in spring 2004 led to the deterioration of his relationship with Naglic.
“The Crown theory was bullshit,” says Mendez-Romero. “Janko and I had an arrangement. I had a lot of affairs with women. He had some with guys. It was an understanding we had that worked.”
Mendez-Romero and Bunda divorced, a development he blames on his incarceration. He was arrested in August 2005 and remained in custody until his acquittal last month.
“Why did they do this to me?” he asks. “I had a life before they arrested me. I was married and was planning to have kids. Now I have nothing.”
He says that he remains “good friends” with Bunda and that she takes care of Pichou, Naglic’s beloved Chihuahua.
“He has a good home with my ex-wife,” he says. “She loves him and spoils him as Janko used to.”
During the trial the Crown presented multiple witnesses who testified Naglic told them about threats made against him by Mendez-Romero — threats Mendez-Romero denies making.
Specifically he denies ever saying, “I will kill you, you Slavic bastard.” The statement, which comes from testimony by Naglic’s confidante Kathy Drury, was used in the Crown’s opening and closing statements.
“Why would I say something like that? I couldn’t… I don’t even talk like that,” says Mendez-Romero, dismissing her as a “party friend of Janko’s who hated me with a passion.”
Drury died of cancer before the case came to trial. Her testimony from the preliminary hearing was read to the jury by chief Crown attorney Ann Morgan.
He also denies having told witness Barrie Martin “The bitch isn’t dead yet,” as Martin testified Mendez-Romero told him just days before Naglic’s death.
“I said no such thing. Why would I say that? It makes no sense. Maybe I said something else and he heard it wrong.”
Asked if he may have said it as a joke, he says, “I didn’t say it at all.”
But Mendez-Romero doesn’t deny there in September there was an argument over his marriage. The Crown produced several witnesses who testified that a confrontation occurred between Naglic, Mendez-Romero and Bunda at a Minden motel.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” says Mendez-Romero. “It is private. The cops could make conclusions if I say things about it.”
Mendez-Romero was born in Cuba on Aug 1, 1969 and he grew up in a modest bungalow in Havana. Naglic, the original owner of the Barn, met him there while on vacation in 1994.
Mendez-Romero says while he and Naglic were lovers for more than 10 years he doesn’t consider himself to be gay or bisexual.
“I am none of those,” he says. “I am not gay or bi, I am a Mendez-Romero. That is my sexual identity,” he says, adding, “Janko was the only man I ever had a relationship with.”
Naglic arranged a marriage of convenience for Mendez-Romero so that they could be together in Canada; at the time same-sex sponsorships were not allowed.
“I changed his life after I came here in 1996,” says Mendez-Romero of Naglic. “I introduced him to many sports — deep-sea diving and skydiving. We used to go to Belize, Cuba and Florida just to dive.
“I saved his life several times when he lost his air and was gasping. And when he drank too much on the boat I put it on automatic and watched him so he wouldn’t fall off…. Janko often drank too much and I had to babysit him…. Why would I want to hurt him? I loved him.”
The couple lived a luxurious lifestyle including yachts, condos in Florida, an upscale home in Davisville and frequent trips to exotic locales.
Then in October 2004 Naglic was found dead in their home, asphyxiated as the result of duct tape wrapped tightly around his mouth and nose. In August 2005 Mendez-Romero was arrested and charged with first-degree murder.
“I lost everything with Janko’s death,” says Mendez-Romero, now 38. “I had everything. Now I have nothing. I am a welfare case now.”
Mendez-Romero already inherited some money from Naglic’s will — an insurance claim and one of Naglic’s RRSPs, worth about $75,000 in total — but he says that money was gone by the time of his arrest. He still has a Mercedes convertible waiting for him in Florida (estimated to be worth about $25,000) and an outstanding claim on a condo he and Naglic owned as joint tenants in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Moreover, now that he’s been cleared of murder, Mendez-Romero has a serious claim on Naglic’s estate. Following Naglic’s death Mendez-Romero sued the estate for $1 million as his common-law spouse. Prior to his arrest that sum was negotiated down to $150,000. But now that he’s been found innocent Mendez-Romero has withdrawn his acceptance of that offer and plans to sue again for more. During the course of the trial executor Tom Ricketts testified there is approximately $900,000 left in the estate.
“I now spend a lot of my time with lawyers,” says Mendez-Romero of his life since his acquittal. In addition to resuming his suit against Naglic’s estate Mendez-Romero says he’s planning on suing the Toronto police over his arrest and the nearly three years he spent behind bars. He also plans to sue for repossession of the 12 guns that were confiscated in the course of the investigation.
“There have been no calls from the cops,” says Mendez-Romero. “No apology after they destroyed my life. This is wrong…. I am suing them, but it is very hard to sue the police.”
Mendez-Romero blames the cops for the lack of forensic evidence turned up in the investigation.
“The cops, they should do their job not play God. I could do a better job than them…. I don’t know what the police were doing. They have all their diplomas and titles and they don’t do anything. I can do better investigations myself.”
Of his experience as a suspect Mendez-Romero says, “I was interviewed by them for hours. They kept putting words in my mouth. I told them the truth…. Why would I want to hurt someone I loved? Why should I do this thing?”
Mendez-Romero says he was offered a plea bargain before the trial began; the charges would have been reduced from first-degree murder to manslaughter. He refused.
Mendez Romero served nearly three years in jail at the West Detention Centre and the Don Jail where he says he “got into a few fights.”
“Prison is not an easy place…. You know sometimes you gotta fight with people because of what you are charged with or what the papers say.”
On the bright side he met the new woman in his life while inside. “It as a good thing I was in jail,” he says. “I met somebody who is very nice. She is sweet and loves me.”
Mendez-Romero says he’s been welcomed back to the Church St scene since his acquittal. “Everyone still loves me… like nothing ever happened. People like me. I went down Church St recently to George’s Play. People were affectionate and friendly and nice to me…. I was getting nothing but affection, drinks and hugs.
“One old acquaintance came up to me on Church St and said ‘I always knew you were innocent.'”