More than three years after police arrested Salvadoran immigrant Herbie Gonzalez and coerced him into confessing to a horrific Manhattan Beach rape and murder, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department has admitted, in its own way, that it targeted — and ruined the life of — the wrong man.
Gonzalez’s harrowing six-month journey in the California justice system was documented in an April 10, 2008, L.A. Weekly cover story, “Bad Rap: Anatomy of a False Confession.” Shortly before Gonzalez’s civil lawsuit against the county was set to go to trial late last month, the Sheriff’s Department agreed to pay more than $1 million to settle with Gonzalez.
Gonzalez, 30, recently married, was grateful that his Kafka-esque nightmare was over. “I can’t believe they finally let go of me,” Gonzalez told the Weekly, in his first public comments since the settlement. “Now everyone will know I am not a rapist or a murderer and that it was all something the sheriff’s [deputies] made up ’cause they thought I was the guy that did it. … Once they decide you’re the guy, they’ll do whatever they have to do to get a conviction.”
The seven-figure payout to Gonzalez was approved on August 18 by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, yet Sheriff Lee Baca and his brass have not offered Gonzalez an apology.
In fact, Baca refuses to alter an interrogation policy that played a major role in the Gonzalez fiasco. Baca does not require that interrogations of murder suspects be audio- and/or video-recorded in their entirety. Many police departments have adopted the policy, widely recommended by experts, but Baca has long resisted.
As the Weekly reported, despite strong DNA evidence to the contrary, undercover sheriff’s deputies targeted Gonzalez as the suspect after a witness identified him from a fuzzy surveillance tape following the rape and murder of 39-year-old Manhattan Beach housekeeper Libia Cabrera. She was strangled and set afire inside a million-dollar home just yards from a busy beachfront walkway.
Soon after his arrest, tests revealed that Gonzalez’s DNA did not match the DNA left on the rape and murder victim. Sheriff’s investigators interrogated Gonzalez anyway, subjecting him to hours of questioning without a proper Miranda warning or waiver.
As the Weekly showed, Gonzalez was promised leniency if he admitted to being outside the Manhattan Beach home on the day of the killing. He finally confessed to being outside the murder house, then immediately retracted the confession.
But it was too late. He was incarcerated at Twin Towers county jail for six months before Judge Cary Nishimoto, in July 2006, threw out Gonzalez’s dubious confession just moments before his murder trial was to begin. An amazed Gonzalez walked out a free man.
“If that trial had gone on, I might be sitting on death row right now,” Gonzalez tells the Weekly. “That judge is a hero. … It just seemed like I was on the fast track to a frame job ’til he came along.”
In October 2007, sheriff’s investigators charged another man, Milton Gallardo, with Cabrera’s murder after matching Gallardo’s DNA to the trace evidence found on the victim. But they continued to insist Gonzalez was also guilty — recasting their original theory to paint him as the lookout for Gallardo.
Says Gonzalez today, “It didn’t make any difference to them, as long as I was still guilty of murder.”
Of the three cops who relentlessly pursued Gonzalez, one detective, Sergeant Randy Seymour, has now retired. But Detective Kathleen Gallagher and her supervisor, Lieutenant Daniel Rosenberg, are still assigned to the Cabrera case. Gallardo is in prison on an unrelated charge and is awaiting a trial date for his alleged murder of Cabrera.
Mystified as to how the original cops can remain on the case, Gonzalez says, “Kathy Gallagher is a terrible detective. Seymour was the leader on the frame-up, but she went along, lying to me and pressuring me to say things that weren’t true. … How do we know she isn’t going to do the same thing to someone else?”
Transcripts and tape-recorded witness interviews obtained by the Weekly revealed that, about a week before tests came back showing that a different man, not Gonzalez, had left DNA at the murder scene, Gallagher worried aloud that there was insufficient evidence to arrest Gonzalez. But Seymour responded: “We’ll prove whatever we have to prove.”
Gonzalez is understandably bitter, saying Seymour “should be embarrassed and ashamed of what he did to me.”
Seymour last year said of the botched case: “You can’t cry over spilt milk.”