San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

U.S. man arrested, released in La Fortuna stabbing

Only months after opening a successful burger joint in La Fortuna, a town near Arenal Volcano in northern Costa Rica, the fortunes of a U.S. man took a turn for the worse after he stabbed a Costa Rican man to death in broad daylight in front of his newly opened restaurant.

John Pennisi, 50, is now facing a possible murder trial as investigators sort out whether his actions were in self-defense and what caused the confrontation between the two men.

According to a preliminary report by the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ), on Sunday morning, Michael Mendoza attempted to steal Pennisi’s vehicle, which was parked in a lot next to the restaurant, causing a confrontation between the two men that left 32-year-old Mendoza bleeding on the ground. The Red Cross reported that Mendoza was already dead when emergency responders arrived on the scene, shortly after 10 a.m., with an apparent knife wound in the thorax.

Local police said Pennisi was waiting in front of his restaurant, the New York Grill, when law enforcement took him into custody. Pennisi spent the next 30 hours in jail. As terms of his release, a court required Pennisi to turn over his passport, sign in with a local judge every week, maintain a permanent residence and remain in the country for the next six months while the case is investigated. Pennisi, a self-described “Italian from New York,” has lived in Costa Rica for the past 11 years.

Tuesday, back at work in his restaurant, which now tops TripAdvisor rankings for restaurants in La Fortuna, Pennisi, offered some reflection on the event that he said changed him forever.

“I didn’t do anything wrong,” a shaken Pennisi said. “But if I had one wish in this world it would be that … that day had never happened.”

Prosecutor Danish Loaiza said it might take months before a hearing is held before a judge to determine if the case will go to trial.

According to statements from neighbors and a court complaint Pennisi and his wife filed in a local court, the tension between Mendoza and Pennisi had been building before the fateful showdown.

According to a judicial spokeswoman, a primary factor in Pennisi’s release from custody following the incident is a complaint Pennisi filed in early February against Mendoza for allegedly threatening his life. The complaint cited ongoing disputes between the two men.

“Supposedly everyone in town thinks I’m a hero,” Pennisi said. “But I didn’t want this. I wanted this prevented.”

According to police officer Ronald Alvarado, Mendoza, known in La Fortuna as “Ñato,” had previous run-ins with the law.

One La Fortuna tour operator said Mendoza spoke four languages and was once a tour guide.

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