Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Two decades after his false murder confession at age 16, Daniel Villegas might go free

Daniel Villegas

Police first picked up his cousin, David Rangel, 17. Detective Al Marquez and a colleague told Rangel that his friends had already fingered him for the drive-by double murder of El Paso, TX teens Armando Lazo,18, and Bobby England, 17, and that he’d better cooperate if he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life in prison.

Lazo and England had just left a party and were walking down El Paso’s Electric Avenue with two other young men, Jesse Hernandez and Juan Carlos Medina, when a car pulled up alongside them. One of the three young men in the car asked, “¿Que barrio?”–what gang are you in? Then one of the passengers started shooting. England was hit and died immediately of a bullet wound to the head. An injured Lazo managed to crawl across the street and knock on someone’s door in a desperate attempt to get help (the house’s residents called 911) before he bled to death from his gunshot wounds, one in his abdomen and the other in his thigh.

Rangel maintained that he had nothing to do with the boys’ deaths. But he eventually mentioned that his cousin Daniel Villegas had joked about having committed the killings. The detectives demanded that Rangel provide a written statement saying that his cousin had confessed to him. When Rangel gave in to Marquez’s pressure and wrote a statement that described his cousin’s shotgun, Marquez made him correct it: The real killer had used a .22-caliber pistol.

Nonetheless, the cops hauled in Daniel Villegas, 16. He seemed like a likely candidate to them: high school dropout and gangbanger. By the morning of April 22, 1993, within 12 hours of Rangel’s statement, detectives had a confession from Villegas, who hadn’t talked with his parents or a lawyer. In his confession, he apologized to the victims’ families, and noted that the detectives gave him a soda.

But just a few hours later, Villegas insisted he was innocent and that the confession was coerced. In contrast to what that soda suggested, he said that Detective Marquez had threatened and even slapped him. Unable to even think after hours of abuse, he gave in, and then he regretted it.

Daniel Villegas

For his first trial, which started December 5, 1994, Villegas family was able to hire a top local defense attorney, Jaime Olivas. His argument highlighted inconsistencies between the supposed witnesses’ statements. He portrayed Villegas as an easily led and academically slow minor. And he made Detective Marquez’ spotty record a central part of the defense: The detective was hounded by internal investigations, citizen complaints and perjury charges (he’s no longer a detective but a court bailiff for the 210th District Court.). Olivas even posited another boy, Rudy Flores, as the true killer.

At a party two weeks before the drive-by, Lazo and England had a confrontation with 15-year-old Rudy Flores, aka “Dust,” an LML gang member who threatened to kill Lazo. Rudy’s brother Javier Flores (“Dirt”) had fought with Lazo at school. Further, Rudy Flores’s car matches the description of the car used in the drive-by. And Rudy Flores was involved in another shooting with a .22-caliber pistol later that night on nearby Shenandoah street.

In the weeks following the shooting, four people separately called the police to tell them that they believed that one or both of the Flores brothers did it. Detective Marquez questioned Rudy Flores, and the interrogation placed the boy in a matching car near the intersection where the shooting took place around the same time. (Rudy is currently in prison for a drug offense, and Javier is dead.)

Three other people boasted to friends that they committed the murders themselves.

Yet Detective Marquez had gone after David Rangel. At first, he had talked to the boy about an unrelated telephone harassment allegation. Then he had turned the conversation to the drive-by shooting, and tried to get him to confess. Records show a pattern in his interrogations of Rangel, Villegas, and others, including 15-year-old Rodney Williams, who said Villegas was watching movies and babysitting with him the night of the shooting; Michael Johnson, also 15, who the jury learned made a false confession of his own; and 20-year-old Marcos Gonzalez, whom Marquez also accused and manipulated into incriminating Villegas. The detective threatened the young men with life sentences or the electric chair if they didn’t confess, saying he’d pull the switch himself, and he always went into lurid detail about the likelihood that they would be raped in prison. But Rangel’s admission that his cousin had joked about the shooting got the detective off his back–and condemned Villegas.

Olivas showed that Rangel’s account got more than the type of gun wrong: Among the misguided details, the cousin had told of a black car (rather than the red or gold that true witnesses saw) and he imagined Villegas chasing Lazo across the street and continuing to fire (the pattern of spent shells at the scene told otherwise). Curiously, the various statements that Detective Marquez persuaded the young men to sign placed impossible figures in the car used for the drive-by: An implicated gang member known as “Popeye” was incarcerated at the time of the shooting and thus could not have been the driver, and his supposed passenger “Droopy” was in fact on house arrest. Also, the Marquez-directed narratives each included an episode in which the supposed perps stole beer from a nearby convenience store, but each “confession” mentioned a different store, none of which reported a theft that night.

Despite these holes and Olivas’s efforts, what seemed like a strong defense won a hung jury and mistrial.

The family didn’t have any money left when the state called for a second trial. Villegas had to rely on John Gates, an overburdened and thus poorly prepared public defender. Gates had only 60 days to prepare for the double-murder trial, and he was assigned an investigator just six days before the trial opened. In the end Gates didn’t deny Villegas committed the murders; he merely tried to convince the jury that Villegas was only trying to scare Lazo and England with warning shots rather than intentionally killing them.

Gates seems to have been unaware of much of Olivas’s well-prepared case. The second attorney didn’t cross-examine the detectives, or bring up Marquez’s record of pushing too hard for unsupported confessions. Nor did he try to portray his client as a vulnerable minor, or present witnesses who would provide an alibi for Villegas or blame the Flores brothers.

Gates’ failures and Villegas’s own retracted signed confession helped send Villegas away on a life sentence.

Friends and family spent the next two decades trying to right what they saw as a miscarriage of justice that wrongly stunted a young man’s life. John Mimbela, a local contractor who married into the Villegas family, funded the fight, hiring private investigator and former El Paso Police Department detective Freddie Bonilla.

With their support, defender Joe Spencer ably represented Villegas at his decisive 2011 hearing. Alongside the allegedly coerced confession, Spencer cited inconclusive witness statements and a lack of physical

Villegas supporters protest

evidence, and he introduced new evidence in Villegas’s favor.

Jamarcquis Graves, who had been away from El Paso in the intervening years, saw billboards advertising the fight for Villegas when he moved back to town. He came forward and reported that, that back in ‘94, he had heard the Flores brothers talk about “Danny Boy” doing time for their actions.

And Connie Martinez Serrano resurfaced to say that on the night of the shooting she had accompanied her friend Gloria to the Flores house to pick up a gun–but that Gloria refused the weapon after learning it had been used. Martinez Serrano also says that Rudy Flores’s close friend had told her Flores had bragged about the shooting. Her input isn’t a new development; she had called CrimeStoppers multiple times in the wake of the shooting to report Flores’s involvement.

Survivor Jessie Hernandez now works for the city of El Paso as a mechanic; he insists Villegas wasn’t there that night. Hernandez says that Detective Marquez had tried to force him to falsely confess to shooting his two friends–and that he was so disturbed by the detective’s rough tactics that he almost caved.

Joshua Tepfer, project director at the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth, told FoxNews.com evidence shows the murders were committed by are two brothers, Rudy and Javier Flores, who allegedly told a witness Villegas was in jail for a crime they did. Javier Flores has since died and Rudy is currently serving jail time for drug-related charges.

“We have new evidence from a third party witness for a prime suspect. This third party is a clear suspect in this crime and the evidence we have overwhelmingly meets the standard for a retrial,” Tepfer said.

Joshua Tepfer, project director at Northwestern University Law School’s Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth, told FoxNews.com that the murders were committed by two brothers, Rudy and Javier Flores, who allegedly told a friend that Villegas was in jail for a crime they did. Javier Flores has since died and Rudy is currently serving jail time for drug-related charges, according to Questforjustice.net. ”We have new evidence from a third party witness for a prime suspect. This third party is a clear suspect in this crime and the evidence we have overwhelmingly meets the standard for a retrial,” Tepfer said.

In 2012, El Paso County District Court Judge Sam Medrano, Jr., finally gave official recognition to what Villegas, now 36, had been saying all along: that the confession was coerced. In a 78-page ruling (http://www.scribd.com/doc/197070359/Findings-of-Fact-Daniel-Villegas-case), Medrano even declared Villegas innocent and recommended a new trial.

The Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas agreed in December 2013 to call for a new trial, but it didn’t echo the judge’s announcement regarding Villegas’s innocence. The court instead criticized his defense, saying that attorney John Gates should have presented an alternate explanation for and perpetrator of the murders. Flores would have been the obvious choice, but Gates has said that he didn’t have sufficient time to prepare for the trial.

Marquez is now a court bailiff for the 210th District Court.

As of January 16, 2014, Villegas is out on $50,000 bond and waiting to hear whether he’ll be tried anew or charges against him will be dismissed. The decision is in the hands of Jaime Esparza, the district attorney who had originally prosecuted him–and who recently tried to keep Judge Medrano out of Villegas’s bond hearing.

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