Clearing the Case

{mosimage}On a July morning in 2005, 19-year-old Christian Gonzalez, known on the street as Youngster, sat in his green Bronco in the alley behind Homeboy Industries, the Eastside gang-intervention program founded by Father Greg Boyle. A troubled kid and admitted gang member, Gonzalez was also a likable prankster, and while he didn’t work at Homeboy Industries, he knew a lot of people who did.

As he chatted amiably with Homeboy employees Leticia Nieto* and Javier Orosco*, who were taking a smoking break, a young man strode into view and, before anyone could react, pulled a pistol out of his waistband, leaned into Gonzalez’s Bronco and fired five bullets into Gonzalez’s body. Then he ran down the alley behind the parking lot and disappeared.

The wounded boy pushed open his driver’s-side door and stumbled out. “Help me,” he said. Nieto scurried to Gonzalez’s aid while Orosco ran for help. Paramedics arrived too late. Chris Gonzalez was dead. The next day, a string of vivid, red puddles was still visible in the broken cement at the edge of the Homeboy parking lot.

In the first week after Gonzalez’s death, several anonymous tips were called in to police about the possible identity of the shooter. By October, Hollenbeck Division homicide detectives had enough information to arrest 18-year-old Albert Campos and charge him with Gonzalez’s murder. According to officers’ theory of the crime, minutes before the shooting, Campos entered the front door of Homeboy Industries, walked through the office nodding to a few people he knew, exited the back door, crossed the parking lot, leaned into the car and blew Gonzalez away.

With two eyewitnesses, and the Homeboy offices loaded with people who would likely have seen Campos walk by, his conviction, which prosecutors ultimately won, would seem to have been a slam dunk. It wasn’t. Except for one neighbor lady who saw someone who might or might not resemble Campos running down the alley shortly after shots were fired, no eyewitness identified Campos as the shooter. And no one at all (save the same neighbor woman) wanted to show up in court.

Police say the Gonzalez murder case is emblematic of a dilemma that plagues most LAPD gang investigations, particularly if the crime is a homicide. Although department detectives can usually solve violent gang crimes, say the cops, too often they cannot clear them.

Solving, in police parlance, means figuring out who likely did the deed. Clearing means having enough evidence to make an arrest and presumably bring the case to trial. The problem, say officers, is that people are too spooked by threats of gang retaliation to come forward. And even when an arrest is made and a suspect brought to trial, witnesses who initially cooperate develop sudden amnesia on the stand.

The fear of gang retaliation is a fact of life in Los Angeles. But other cities are finding ways to clear their murder cases, and Los Angeles is not keeping up. The LAPD’s homicide clearance rate stands at 58.6 percent, a few points below the national average. In high-gang-crime areas like Hollenbeck, 77th Street and Harbor divisions, yearly clearance rates are often 15 to 20 percentage points lower, mostly as a consequence of witness reluctance.

“It’s an ugly situation,” says Hollenbeck Division supervising homicide Detective DeWayne Fields. “We need people to step up and do their civic duty. But there’s so much fear of the gangs that witnesses will do whatever they can to stay out of court.”

Well, yes and no. Residents of the East and South Los Angeles communities most plagued by gang crime say that while witnesses are commonly wary of gang retaliation, they are equally afraid of the police, who, frustrated by witness reluctance, often use heavy-handed — and frequently ineffective — methods to try to gain cooperation.

San Jose Police Chief Robert Davis attributes his city’s 90 percent murder clearance rate to long-term, concerted strategies to gain residents’ trust in high-crime areas. “It’s all about relationships,” says Davis. “If you don’t have the trust and the confidence of the community before a murder occurs, you’re not going to get their cooperation afterward.”

Cooperation was in notably short supply in the Gonzalez murder, which Hollenbeck police saw as a simple case of gang rivalry. Community members say that, although Gonzalez and Campos had known each other as children and had been friends up until months before the shooting, their gangs had gone to war against one another.

When police first interviewed Leticia Nieto, she said she hadn’t seen a thing. Orosco admitted he saw the shooting, but he too insisted he couldn’t identify the gunman. “I ain’t a snitch,” he said, according to police. Eventually Nieto gave officers a general physical description of Gonzalez’s killer. Yet she balked at the idea of going to court.

So police fell back on traditional methods and turned up the heat. Officers showed up repeatedly at the Homegirl Café, where Nieto worked, and, according to her boss, Patty Zarate, told her if she didn’t testify, she’d be arrested and her kids would be taken away. A fearful Nieto appeared at Campos’ preliminary hearing but said little.

“She was afraid of the gangs, and afraid of the police,” says Father Boyle’s executive assistant, Norma Gillette. “They were so hard on her, she was afraid she’d say things that she didn’t mean or believe.” After additional police pressure, Nieto freaked out altogether, packed up her children and moved out of state before Albert Campos could come to trial.

Community members say that although many officers apply undue pressure, others — like the lead homicide detective on the Campos-Gonzalez case, Juan Gutierrez — do not. Gutierrez admits that, while he wants to clear cases, he feels for the witnesses. “Listen,” he says, “I grew up in this community. And a lot of times I look at the victim and the shooter, and I think, either one of these kids could be my cousin. But, if I know someone saw something, it’s my job to do my best to persuade them — and in some cases, plead with them — to talk.”

While some officers like Gutierrez and Fields may be straight shooters, says alternate public defender Jon Takasuki, “We see some real assholes out there among the cops in terms of how they treat witnesses. And frankly all it does is get people to clam up.” In the very worst instances, say defense attorneys, officers go well beyond intimidating eyewitnesses, even endangering them.

Such was the case in December 2002, when North Hollywood detectives Martin Pinner and Juan Rodriguez arrested Vineland Boyz gang member Jose Ledesma on suspicion of murdering another gang member, Christian Vargas.

According to trial transcripts, Detective Pinner told him that they had a witness against him, hoping to get Ledesma to confess. To further impress Ledesma with the seriousness of his predicament, Detective Pinner showed Ledesma a “six-pack” in which his photo had been circled. (“Six-pack” is police slang for a photographic version of a police lineup used to help witnesses identify a suspect.) According to the documents, the six-pack featured a handwritten note reading, “This is who shot my friend’s boyfriend.” The photo lineup was signed by Martha Puebla, a 16-year-old girl whom Ledesma knew.

But the purported evidence was phony. Puebla never circled Ledesma’s photo, or identified Ledesma as the shooter. While the police had indeed interviewed her, she was a “reluctant” witness who said little and didn’t want to come to court. The circled photo was what Pinner would later describe in court testimony as a “ruse.” But Ledesma didn’t know this when he called one of his homeboys from jail and told the gangster friend how he’d been identified. Nor was Puebla made aware by police of her fictional role in Ledesma’s case.

Word soon spread among the Vineland Boyz that Puebla was “throwing dimes,” as Ledesma put it. Snitching. Eventually, Ledesma learned that the six-pack was bogus, but by that time the rumors had a life of their own. On May 1, 2003, Puebla testified at Ledesma’s preliminary hearing but did not implicate the defendant in any way. Ten days later, Martha Puebla was shot to death in front of her parents’ home, presumably by some member of the Vineland Boyz.

“Good God,” said one Los Angeles public defender who did not want to be named, asked by the L.A. Weekly what she thought of the detective’s ruse and its consequence. “And they wonder why people don’t want to come forward.”

Ledesma’s defense attorney, Marcia Morrissey, puts it another way. “To the detectives, Martha Puebla didn’t matter,” says Morrissey. “She was just another reluctant witness.”

*Names of the witnesses have been changed.

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