The more things changed for Herbie Gonzalez this year, the more they stayed the same.
Until his story was told in L.A. Weekly, Gonzalez was just another rapper who got out of jail after beating highly publicized charges of rape and murder. In that sense, everything changed for Gonzalez after the paper’s April 10 cover story.
“I walk around the neighborhood and people look at me differently now. They used to think I might be a bad guy who dodged a murder rap,” Gonzalez said on Christmas Eve. “Now I hope they know that someone else did it.”
“Bad Rap: Anatomy of a False Confession” detailed the 27-year-old’s harrowing journey deep inside the California justice system after L.A. County Sheriff’s deputies and local police targeted him as the killer in the case that came to be known as the Manhattan Beach Housekeeper Murder. A small army of undercover agents arrested him in a wild guns-drawn street takedown for the murder of Libia Cabrera, a 39-year-old housekeeper who was raped, strangled and set on fire while at a client’s home. Two L.A. Sheriff’s detectives wore Gonzalez down during a lengthy interrogation, until he told the cops that he had been at the scene of the murder — even though it turned out that he had never been to Manhattan Beach, did not know Cabrera and had nothing to do with the crime. But that halting, confused statement, which he recanted during the same police questioning session, soon led to murder charges against him. Unable to raise the $1 million bail, Gonzalez waged his desperate battle to prove his innocence while spending 165 days in jail. Even after a Superior Court judge threw out Gonzalez’s so-called “confession” in July 2006 and condemned the coercive tactics used by the two sheriff’s detectives, Gonzalez’s name wasn’t cleared. Outside court, the detectives’ boss told reporters that the judge had made a mistake; police still believed Gonzalez was involved. The story in the next day’s local newspaper was about a murder suspect who had weaseled out of the charges on a technicality, not about a murder suspect who never should have been one.
In response, Gonzalez filed a multimillion-dollar civil suit against the LASD and other law-enforcement agencies. But only after October 2007, when police arrested 25-year-old Milton Gallardo for Cabrera’s murder — on the basis of a match with DNA left at the crime scene — did Gonzalez’s claims of innocence start to stand out. Even so, at the end of the Weekly story, the two sheriff’s detectives who had conducted the interrogation said they had no regrets about how they handled Gonzalez’s case.
“You can’t cry over spilt milk,” Detective Sergeant Randy Seymour told the Weekly.
“In my mind,” said Detective Katherine Gallagher, “Mr. Gonzalez is still involved in this murder.”
In this sense, Gonzalez says, nothing has changed: “I still feel like those two detectives are following me everywhere, that they could pop up at any time, when I’m driving, whatever. I can’t sleep at night just thinking about it, wondering why they came after me in the first place and why they can’t just admit they were wrong.”
The civil case now is scheduled for trial next June. Gallagher and Seymour, the two LASD lead detectives on the case, are scheduled to be deposed soon. But depositions given recently by Manhattan Beach Sergeant Stephen Tobias and Officer Eric Eccles reveal the prevailing mindset: Both officers testified that they still think Gonzalez was involved in the murder. Asked why, each replied it was only their “opinion.”
“It was very strange,” says John Burton, attorney for Gonzalez. “It would have been easy for them to say they didn’t know one way or the other.”
But the clearest evidence that law enforcement is still targeting Gonzalez comes from a defense motion filed last summer asking to delay any more discovery until the Gallardo murder charges are resolved. Lawyers argued that allowing discovery to proceed in the Gonzalez civil case would interfere with the criminal investigation of Gallardo.
U.S. District Court Judge Florence-Marie Cooper didn’t buy the attempt to tie Gonzalez to the ongoing investigation, and on October 21 she denied the motion.
Gonzalez, who married his longtime girlfriend, Blanca Pinon, on May 8, currently has little time for music because he is working for a bail-bonds agency and attending Santa Monica College, where he is studying for a business degree.
“This year was a good year for us,” Gonzalez said on Christmas Eve. “I’m working hard to make sure next year will be even better.”
From “Bad Rap: Anatomy of a False Confession” by Paul Teetor
“They escorted me back to a little room with no windows,” Gonzalez said. ... [Whenn he] asked for medical attention ... [Detective] Seymour got angry, punched him in the stomach and told him to suck it up.
“After all I had been through for two days, that one punch in the gut broke my spirit,” Gonzalez said. “I felt like a beaten dog.” ...
Gradually, in his sick and fevered state of mind, Gonzalez began to flash back to stories he had heard around the family dinner table about the old days in El Salvador. He had heard the adults talk about friends who disappeared forever after they argued with the police. Sometimes, he heard them say solemnly, “You just had to go along with whatever the police said if you wanted to stay alive and protect your family.”
So he made a fateful decision. “I started thinking I should just cooperate with these officers. Maybe they’ll have pity on me. I have nothing to hide,” he said. “I trust in God and God will not allow anything bad to happen.”