LEWISTON – State and local police early Wednesday night apprehended a Sabattus man and charged him in the shooting death of his estranged girlfriend in mid-August.

Daniel Roberts, 35, was arrested just after 5 p.m. when his pickup truck was stopped by police on Sabattus Street.

Roberts was charged with murder in the Aug. 15 death of 29-year-old Melissa Mendoza, who had come to Sabattus from her home in Tustin, Calif.

“This whole thing took us by surprise,” said Stephanie Mireles, Mendoza’s cousin, who had just arrived in Maine on Wednesday night when she heard about the arrest. “It’s great news. We’re thrilled. We’ve been patiently waiting for this and it paid off.”

The arrest sets the stage for a court battle over whether Roberts shot Mendoza in self-defense or if he planned the killing.

Roberts has admitted to killing Mendoza from the start, but has said he shot her to protect the couple’s 2-year-old daughter, Savanna, who was sleeping nearby. He told investigators Mendoza had come to his 81 Roberts Road home with a gun and threatened to shoot Roberts and their daughter.

Roberts told police he was protecting himself and the girl when he shot Mendoza once in the back of the head.

Police have been investigating the shooting since. On Wednesday, an Androscoggin County grand jury handed up a murder indictment against Roberts.

Not long after the grand jury reached its decision Wednesday afternoon, state and local police worked together on the search for Roberts. When he was spotted driving on Sabattus Street, he was pulled over. Lewiston police handcuffed Roberts, loaded him into the back of a cruiser and detained him until a State Police cruiser arrived.

The grand jury indictment was sealed until after Roberts was in custody. Attorney Leonard Sharon, who is defending Roberts, described the arrest as a “staged scenario” meant to capture the attention of the media.

“We’ve been completely cooperative with the police for five months,” Sharon said. “For them to seal the indictment and then to arrest him with a squadron, it just doesn’t make sense. We would have gladly walked into the police station voluntarily.”

Roberts was booked at the Androscoggin County Jail Wednesday night. He was expected to remain there until at least today when he makes his first court appearance.

Roberts and Mendoza had been locked in a bitter custody battle over the girl at the time of the shooting, according to court records. Mendoza had sought protection-from-abuse orders against Roberts in Maine and in California. Throughout the investigation, Mendoza’s family have complained that Roberts had not been arrested in what they regarded as a plain case of murder after years of abuse.

“My niece lived in fear. She lived in terror,” said Mac Garcia, Mendoza’s uncle who lives in Lodi, Calif. “He should be in jail, not out on the streets.”

Attorney Sharon, on the other hand, pointed out that Mendoza drove to Roberts’ house on her own the morning of the shooting after calling the residence several times. Sharon also pointed out that Roberts called police immediately after the shooting and that he has cooperated with investigators.

Sharon said that Roberts’ account of the shooting has not changed. Neither has Sharon’s assertion that the killing was in self-defense and in defense of a third party.

But while Sharon insists that Roberts fired the deadly shot to protect himself and his daughter, police and prosecutors have hinted they suspect the killing was malicious. Part of that assessment was based on a history of violence between the couple.

In a protection-order document filed Aug. 9, less than a week before the shooting, Mendoza wrote that Roberts had threatened her and had sent his friends after her.

“Dan is intimidating and continues to harass me,” Mendoza wrote in the affidavit. “He has put a gun to my head numerous times and I am afraid he or one of his friends will hurt me … I believe Dan will try to harm me in any way he can.”

In her applications for a protection order, Mendoza pointed out that Roberts is a member of the Hells Angels motorcycle group. Early in the investigation, Sharon feared that association might create an air of bias among potential grand jurors.

“This really has nothing to do with the Hells Angels, period,” Sharon said.

Superior Court Justice Thomas E. Delahanty II agreed in late August to question grand jurors about their possible biases against Roberts because of his affiliation with the biker group.

In the weeks following the shooting, Mendoza’s family held several vigils in California. Mendoza had two other children – an 8-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old son – who were in California at the time of the slaying.

On Monday, Mireles and other relatives of Mendoza arrived in Maine to seek custody of Savanna, who has remained in foster care since the shooting.

“She needs to be raised with her brother and sister,” Mireles said Wednesday night.

Roberts is expected to make his first appearance today in Androscoggin County Superior Court. The indictment means only that the grand jurors found that the state has enough evidence to prosecute Roberts on a murder charge.

If and when the case goes to trial, a prosecutor from the Attorney General’s Office would attempt to convince another jury that Roberts should be convicted and sent to prison for the killing of Mendoza.

“We’re on the path to justice,” Mireles said. “We just want her to rest in peace.”

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