Eyewitness statements can be notoriously unreliable, a fact Santa Ana Police Department (SAPD) detective Andy Alvarez knew when he investigated a 2009 attempted-murder case that happened near South Coast Plaza. He’d spent half of his then-14-year career as a California Highway Patrol officer, earned the rank of SAPD sergeant and served as a teacher at a Southern California police academy, as well as an “analytical thinking” instructor for Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) agency.
At the outset, at least, the vicious, attempted murder of three teenagers created the usual mystery for Alvarez: Who were the gun-toting assailants, and why had they committed the bloody crime? The victims–Brian Marin, Carlos Vega and Manuel Ventura–were next to a 1992 Acura Integra when a Jeep loaded with what they described as “Hispanics” approached. A man wearing a red, hooded sweat shirt emerged from the left rear passenger side and demanded to know their gang affiliation by asking, “Where you from?”
Marin told police he answered, “Nowhere”–never mind that court records suggest the answer might have been “Highland Street,” the name of a Santa Ana street gang.
Whatever the truth, the hooded man lifted his right arm and began firing a weapon at the trio. Someone inside the Jeep yelled, “Delhi,” the name of a rival gang.
The shooting left a 10-foot swath of blood on the residential street as the assailants sped away. A bullet had slammed into Marin’s left forearm. Ventura suffered gunshot wounds near his rib cage, chest, buttock and groin. Vega, who’d ducked, escaped injury.
Two major clues landed on Alvarez’s desk: the Delhi declaration, plus the claims of two of the victims (Marin and Vega) that onetime Saddleback High School classmate Luis Francisco Vega (no relation) had been in the Jeep. But the identification was problematic. The accusers had a prior, hostile relationship with Vega, and the circumstances of the sighting raised logistical issues.
During a shooting that took about 15 seconds, they claimed they’d taken their eyes off the approaching gunman to stare at Vega. And the victims gave conflicting stories. Marin said suspect Vega had been sitting in the right, rear passenger seat; victim Vega placed him in the right, front passenger seat. They couldn’t agree on the color or type of vehicle, either.
The eyewitnesses were wrong about then-14-year-old Vega. He hadn’t been in the Jeep; he and his relatives said he’d been more than two hours away at the time. But Alvarez couldn’t see the truth. He located the boy at a relative’s house outside of Palm Springs, interrogated him and heard the kid claim innocence–even cry in bewilderment.
Nonetheless, based on the eyewitnesses’ tales and claims that Vega was a Delhi member, Alvarez placed him under arrest for the attempted murders, drove him back to Orange County and locked him inside juvenile hall. A judge ensured Vega would remain in custody by imposing a $1 million bail.
Seven months later, at a preliminary hearing conducted by Superior Court Judge W. Michael Hayes, the detective needed to keep the prosecution of Vega moving forward by tying the suspect to Delhi, the gang name shouted at the shooting.
But there was a problem.
Police keep extensive files on the gang’s members and associates, yet none–not a single field identification card or warning notice or incident report–tied Vega to Delhi.
In the war on gang crime, California legislators and judges have given cops wide latitude to opine in court without requiring meaningful supportive evidence. For example, Steven Schriver, Vega’s prosecutor, asked Alvarez at the hearing if the defendant had been a member of Delhi on the date of the shooting. He said yes, but consider the emptiness of his reasoning.
Asked to justify his conclusion, the detective first said police in the Northern California city of Dixon had an old report that Vega might have had a gun at school, but the story turned out to be baseless.
What else tied Vega to Delhi? Schriver asked.
Dixon police had documented Vega’s “unruly type of behavior that is common [among] people pursuing the gang lifestyle,” Alvarez said.
That point didn’t make him Delhi either. What else?
Using circular logic, the detective then said the fact that the shooting happened on turf claimed by a rival gang, the Alley Boys, meant Vega was in Delhi.
Hong Nguyen, Vega’s defense lawyer, objected, but the judge, who was impressed by the cop’s reasoning, urged him to continue. The detective explained Vega–who had at one point lived in Santa Ana with his father–must be a member of Delhi because he knew the gang existed and “that Delhi and Alley Boys didn’t get along.”
Sounds like a leap in logic, but not to this cop. “That was quite a bit of information for him to know about these two gangs,” he explained.
Nguyen made another objection, calling the testimony speculation without foundation. Hayes overruled her, and Alvarez turned clairvoyant for his last offer of proof.
“[Vega] was,” the detective guessed, “more familiar to the on-goings of Delhi than he was letting on.”
A satisfied Hayes, a former Anaheim reserve cop, declared the case worthy to proceed.
The screwing over of Vega continued.
Less than two weeks later, Orange County Jail informant Juan Calderon didn’t just tell SAPD gang cops David Rondou and Charles Flynn, as well as prosecutor Mark Geller, that 17-year-old Alvaro Sanchez participated in the shooting, but he also declared Vega innocent in a detailed statement. Authorities kept the exculpatory information to themselves and ultimately gave Sanchez a sweetheart, 16-year prison deal–instead of life in prison–to keep the informant records and police cheating a secret.
Then, on Jan. 5, 2010, Mexican Mafia member Oscar Moriel, one of the most prolific jail informants in county history, sent a note to the cops after he’d talked to Sanchez (a.k.a. Pave): “Pave tells me that his co-defendant that got busted for this shooting wasn’t even there and that he doesn’t even really like the guy because he’s a pan [pussy] and isn’t down for the neighborhood. And Pave tells me that it’s kind of fucked up because [Vega] gets popped for this case while the three other people who were actually there [are] still out there.”
Incredibly, law-enforcement officials hid that evidence, too.
Questioned during this year’s special evidentiary hearings by Judge Thomas M. Goethals, Schriver told Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders he couldn’t remember the details of when he learned of the informants’ work because he lost the case file. He also argued that it was, in his mind, more vital to protect the identities of jailhouse informants than reveal exculpatory evidence. Sanders says the Vega case underscores the “deceptive and dishonorable” refusal of prosecution teams to turn over informant evidence that helps defendants prove their innocence. For their part, prosecutors insist mistakes weren’t malicious.
But 13 months after the Calderon revelation, 11 months after Moriel’s bombshell note and with Nguyen asking questions about possible hidden evidence, Schriver quietly dismissed the charges against Vega. The kid–who’d spent his 15th and 16th birthdays incarcerated–had been wrongly locked up for more than 640 days. He received no apologies.
CNN-featured investigative reporter R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; obtained one of the last exclusive prison interviews with Charles Manson disciple Susan Atkins; won inclusion in Jeffrey Toobin’s The Best American Crime Reporting for his coverage of a white supremacist’s senseless murder of a beloved Vietnamese refugee; launched multi-year probes that resulted in the FBI arrests and convictions of the top three ranking members of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department; and gained praise from New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing entrenched Southern California law enforcement corruption.