By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
As it turns out, the Tovars weren't the only ones who believed that Ricky should never have been arrested. At Newton Station, Detective Joe Avila, who had been assigned to review the case and file a follow-up report, soon reached the same conclusion.
Initially, the story seemed fairly typical: Two Latino males, one of them wielding an 8-inch hunting knife, had snatched a gold chain from a middle-aged janitor walking home from a nearby grocery store. No one was injured, and the victim said he had not seen his attackers, who had approached from behind. But a witness told police she saw the two assailants get into a white '87 Cadillac. The license-plate number she gave them was traced to a car belonging to Jorge Bautista, who, police say, is also known as "Pee Wee," a 21-year-old member of the Clanton Street Gang.
Two days after the robbery, two police officers cruising the neighborhood spotted the Cadillac double-parked on 35th Street - just a few doors down from the Tovar home. The Bautista kids and the Tovar kids had grown up together, but in recent years Jorge had moved away and the families had fallen out of touch.
It was one of those oppressive days during the hottest August on record, and as afternoon stretched into evening, dozens of neighbors poured out of their sun-baked homes, seeking relief on shady stoops and curbs. Some of them saw Jorge standing near his car and went over to say hello - he told them he was passing through and had dropped in for a visit. Among those who stopped to greet Jorge were Ricky and his mom, on their way back from the swap meet to buy a mop. Then the police pulled up.
They quickly arrested Jorge, and after a few minutes cuffed Ricky as well. According to the police report, Jorge and Ricky "matched the description of robbery suspects" as recounted by the witness: two male Hispanics with shaved heads and brown eyes, between 5-feet-4 and 5-feet-6, weighing about 160 pounds and estimated to be between the ages of 20 and 22. At the time of the crime, both were wearing dark pants and white T-shirts. "If you took a photograph of the scene," says Antonio Govea, Ricky's attorney, "you couldn't say there was anything to tie Ricky to the car except his brown skin and his white T-shirt." Apparently that was enough for the police.
During his investigation, Detective Avila began to question the grounds for both arrests. "The evidence wasn't good," he says.
On August 19, the day after Jorge's arrest, the witness was unable to pick him out of a photo lineup. Avila immediately rejected the case against him "for lack of sufficient evidence." By the weekend, Jorge Bautista was a free man.
When asked about Ricky, though, Avila's memory gets fuzzy. He says he thinks it took him several more days to review Ricky's case, but he can't recall why.
The night Ricky was picked up, one of the arresting officers took his picture and grouped it with five others to show to the witness. Avila pulled a Xerox of this photo grouping from Ricky's file, but the copy quality was so poor that in place of faces there were simply black spaces. One thing was clear: Ricky was the sole suspect in a white T-shirt.
When the witness fingered Ricky on the night of his arrest, she said, according to the police report, "That looks like the guy, I'm sure." But when Avila met with the witness, her level of certainty had vanished. "The witness said, 'Yeah, he looks like, but I'm not sure,'" Avila says. "The ID was not good." One thing Avila can recall about Ricky's case with absolute clarity: Within a week of the arrest, he was sure that "Ricky had nothing to do with the crime."
At the family meeting the day after Ricky's arrest, the Tovars had to make a critical decision: whether to go with a public defender or hire a private attorney. "We got notice that Ricky's hearing was in two days," Salvador says. "We didn't know what the hearing was for, but we knew we had to move fast."
It was a heated debate, pitting Salvador, who argued that a public defender would be more familiar with the ins and outs of juvenile court, against the rest of the family, who felt a private attorney was Ricky's only real chance. "Those public defenders, they just try to plea-bargain," said his oldest son, Christopher. "They're sellouts," added Robert, and Salvador's wife, Carolina, agreed.
At first, Salvador wasn't so sure. "But then I realized that there was a moral issue," he says. "They're only supposed to supply a lawyer if you don't have the funds." By Salvador's way of thinking, the Tovars did have the funds - the $2,000 they had set aside for Ricky's college education. "I have always taught my children not to lie," Salvador says. "I felt that taking a public defender would have gone against that. I would have been trying to save my son by doing something I taught him never to do."