Eyewitnesses Confuse, Convict in Humboldt Park Murder Cases

File photo by Richard Stromberg

Members of Comite Exigimos Justicia (We Demand Justice Committee) rally in Federal Plaza on May 13, 2000. The Latino families believe their loved ones were wrongfully convicted of murder.

Editor’s Note: On Monday, April 10, 2017, a court hearing is scheduled for two men who claim they were framed for murder by now-retired Chicago police Detective Reynaldo Guevara. Roberto Almodovar and William Negron were among dozens of Latino men who allege that they were falsely convicted in a string of homicides in Humboldt Park years ago. Six of the men Guevara helped imprison have had their convictions overturned. At least 29 men who say he framed them remain in prison. Recently, Buzzfeed News published a deep dive on Almodovar’s case and officials’ failure to act on accusations from at least 51 people who claimed that Guevara had framed them for murder. In light of events, we are republishing our 2000 investigation about the cases and an accompanying analysis of homicides linked to Guevara.

Mist rises from the banks of the Mississippi River and rolls up to the 122-year-old Menard Correctional Center in downstate Illinois. The damp climbs over the brick walls and barbed wire, seeps through the immaculate black-and-white checkered corridors and invades a cramped interview room with a leaky air conditioner.

Outside the room, an anxious guard occasionally looks through the glass in the door. One of Menard’s 2,559 inmates talks about his case, and his voice rises in anger at what he believes is a story of mistaken identification and a failed legal system.

Angel Rodriguez, 36, wears thin, denim work clothes. He is edgy and uncomfortable. He is serving 60 years for the Nov. 24, 1996, shooting death of Ibrahim Zayed, the 34-year-old owner of Karlov Foods, one of many bread-and-beer stores on residential street corners in Humboldt Park.

Four months after the murder, Chicago Police Department detectives, acting on an anonymous tip in the Zayed case, arrested Rodriguez on an expired traffic warrant. Seventeen-year-old Andrew Bolton, who worked at Karlov Foods and was the sole witness to the shooting, identified Rodriguez in a police lineup.

Based largely on Bolton’s testimony, a jury found Rodriguez guilty of first-degree murder on March 10, 1998.

Rodriguez is no boy scout. He has four prior convictions for theft and drug offenses. But he swears he is innocent of Zayed’s murder. Court records show three years passed between his previous brushes with the law and his arrest.

“I had three kids and a wife. I had my own apartment,” he said. “I had a job that I was working at for three, four years. And you think I’m going to kill somebody? For what? I don’t even know this dude.”

Claims of innocence are nothing new from prisoners, but Rodriguez and his family have reason to hope they may be reunited soon. On March 31, the Illinois Appellate Court reversed his conviction, ruling that Bolton’s testimony alone did not warrant a guilty verdict.

On May 2, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office petitioned the Supreme Court of Illinois to review the case, and the court is expected to rule in September. John T. Moran, Rodriguez’ attorney, said he expects the appellate court ruling to stand and his client to go free.

The Chicago Reporter published an investigation of questionable homicide convictions involving Chicago detective Reynaldo Guevara in 2000.

Rodriguez’ murder conviction is one of 15 in Humboldt Park in the past 16 years that prompted a group of Latino families to form Comité Exigimos Justicia (We Demand Justice Committee). The families charge that their husbands, sons and brothers were falsely accused by Chicago Police Department detectives assigned to Area 5, which covers five police districts on the Northwest and West sides.

Among Area 5 investigators, the families single out Detective Reynaldo Guevara, a 24-year veteran of the Chicago force. In addition to the Rodriguez case, The Chicago Reporter examined nine homicides involving Guevara.

Guevara did not return numerous telephone calls or answer written questions. Retired Chicago Police Sgt. Paul Carroll, who once was Guevara’s supervisor, said, “I’ve known Ray since he was a tactical officer 20 years ago. He’s one of the best and most aggressive officers out there.”

Individually, the Humboldt Park cases seem anything but extraordinary, similar to many of the 126 gang-related murders recorded in Chicago in 1999. But as a group, the cases reveal a pattern of scant evidence and questionable police practices.

Nine of 10 cases relied heavily on eyewitness testimony, the Reporter found. The murder investigations produced little or no scientific evidence, such as fingerprints or DNA, linking the defendants to the crimes. And none of the men confessed.

In seven cases, witnesses were either using drugs or alcohol, rival gang members, jailhouse informants or co-defendants. In one case, a witness recanted his testimony, and in another a witness changed his story twice.

One-third of murder convictions in Cook County are reversed or sent back for a new trial by the First District of the Illinois Appellate Court, according to the Reporter’s analysis of 154 decisions from September 1996 to June of this year.

“It’s human nature for the juries to believe witnesses who say, ‘That’s who I saw. That’s definitely who I saw,'” said Cook County Public Defender Rita Frye.

Witnesses want to believe their own identifications, she said. “Witnesses aren’t always sure and they feel like they need to be sure.”

“Nobody wants to charge the wrong guy,” added Carroll, who ran the police department’s detective training from 1988 to 1998. He is now a law enforcement consultant who has worked for the U.S. Department of Justice. “It looks terrible. We have to live with these cases, you know.”

Unlike the recent spate of wrongful murder convictions that compelled Gov. George Ryan to impose a moratorium on executions, the Humboldt Park cases have not produced conclusive new evidence or confessions. But the families say the evidence against their loved ones failed to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

“I used to have faith in the justice system, just like everybody else,” said Rodriguez’ sister, Ruth Peña, one of Comité’s founders. “Now I know justice is something you have to fight for. ”

Like Rodriguez, the other convicted men have histories of gang affiliation and long police records for crimes such as drug possession, disorderly conduct and battery. Court records show most men had one to four convictions for either misdemeanors or felonies before the murder charges. Neither Thomas Sierra nor Mario Flores, who is currently on Death Row, had a prior adult record (see “10 Cases, Many Questions“).

Rodriguez believes the system never gave him a chance. “Somebody tells a lie, and then nobody’s going to believe me if I am a criminal,” he said.

“They think the only people that tell the truth in the world are the police officers. The cops ain’t stupid,” he said. “They get guys they know they can hook up.”

Eyewitness ldentification

Psychologists and law enforcement experts say most misidentifications are not the work of sinister police but the results of faulty procedures and clouded memory.

“When a mistaken witness becomes more confident, the account becomes better, the lighting better,” said Boston criminal defense attorney James Doyle. “And the trail back to the original memory is blocked.”

A recent study of 62 wrongful convictions in the United States attributed 52 in part to mistaken identification, according to “Actual Innocence,” by New York Daily News columnist Jim Dwyer and attorneys Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld. The book, published in February, details Death Row cases overturned in the 1990s by DNA evidence. In 10 cases, police inappropriately influenced witnesses viewing lineups and arrays of photographs, the authors found.

To prevent police from leading or pressuring witnesses, “the person administering the lineup or photo spread should not be the detective in the case,” said Gary Wells, an Iowa State University psychology professor who has studied eyewitness identification for 25 years.

“The detective can reinforce a false identification. Witnesses can develop a false certainty about the identification based on the coaching of detectives,” he said.

Chicago Police Department detectives currently conduct their own photo arrays and lineups, said Detective Anne Chambers, who trains new detectives at the Chicago Police Academy. In the 10 Humboldt Park homicides examined by the Reporter, witnesses identified suspects in photo arrays or police lineups.

Chicago police recruits receive one hour of instruction in the laws and practices governing photo arrays and lineups. Officers are taught to use photos of similar quality and choose suspects with similar physical characteristics, said Andrea Hyfantis, supervisor of the law unit at the police academy. “We don’t teach them to [lead witnesses],” she said.

But Thomas Sierra’s 1997 murder trial raised questions about those procedures.

Sierra, 24, was convicted of first-degree murder and aggravated discharge of a firearm in the May 23, 1995, gang-related shooting of Noel Andujar. He is serving a 45-year sentence in Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet.

Andujar, Jose Melendez and Alberto Rodriguez were driving in Logan Square when a black car with tinted windows pulled up beside them. A passenger flashed Spanish Cobra gang signs, pulled a white hood over his head and fired 10 shots. Melendez signed a statement identifying Sierra but at trial said the statement and his identification were prompted by Guevara.

When questioned by Assistant Cook County State’s Attorney Patricia Sudendorf, Melendez testified he did not pick Sierra out of a photo array until prompted by Guevara.

“Did you point out anybody in those photos?” Sudendorf asked, according to court transcripts. “I pointed out the one he [Guevara] told me to point out,” Melendez answered. Guevara “had reason to believe this was the guy,” Melendez said. At the trial, Guevara denied that he influenced Melendez.

Guevara held Sierra’s photo in his hand and left the others on the table, Melendez testified. A member of the Latin Kings street gang, Melendez testified he was charged with murder at the time of the trial and was convicted in April 1993 of aggravated battery and armed robbery.

Investigators should not say anything that could influence a witness’ selection, according to new Justice Department guidelines, “Eyewitness Evidence: A Gulde for Law Enforcement.” The guidelines, released in October, urge police to instruct witnesses that clearing innocent suspects is as important as identifying guilty ones, and that the person who committed the crime may not be in the lineup. Police should tell witnesses the investigation will continue even if they do not make an identification.

Wells, one of 34 contributors to the guidelines, said investigators may not realize they are influencing witnesses. But, he added, “We can’t be letting the detectives make the picks or assist the witnesses.”

Doyle, another contributor, said many police working on the guidelines predicted detectives would balk at the suggestion that they should not administer photo arrays and lineups in their own investigations. Police would feel it was “an attack on their integrity,” he said.

But one police contributor, retired Chicago Sgt. Carroll, said he believes the guidelines will help curb complaints of misconduct and reduce wrongful convictions.

Detectives not working the cases should arrange lineups, and witnesses should view photos one after another, instead of in a group. These procedures “could eliminate some of those travesties,” he said.

The new guidelines will be introduced to a new class of Chicago detectives as soon as the Justice Department publishes a training manual, said police spokesman Patrick Camden.

Seven Seconds

Angel Rodriguez was born in Puerto Rico and came to Humboldt Park in 1973 at the age of 10. He joined the Spanish Cobras street gang and dropped out of Holy Trinity High School in 11th grade. In July 1991, Rodriguez was sentenced to two years probation on two counts of delivering a controlled substance. He also served two days in Cook County Jail for drug possession.

But Rodriguez said he qult using drugs in 1993, the year he became a born-again Christian and had a son with his girlfriend, Angelica Rivera. From 1994 until his arrest in March 1 997, he worked as a cook at Market Fisheries, 7127 S. State St. The couple had two more boys, in 1996 and 1997.

Rodriguez said on the afternoon of Nov. 24, 1996, he went to Omni Foods, 2550 N. Clybourn Ave., to shop for his mother’s Thanksgiving dinner. According to court documents, about three miles away a man walked into Karlov Foods, 4101 W Potomac Ave., shouted “Hey” and fired three or four shots at Zayed, who was sitting behind the counter. The shooter then ran out of the store.

Andrew Bolton, who had worked at the store for six months, was seated between Zayed and the door. When the shooting began, Bolton told police he raised his hands in front of his face. The shooting lasted about seven seconds, according to court records. Bolton locked the door, dialed 911 and comforted Zayed, who lay bleeding, until police and paramedics arrived.

Bolton described the shooter as a male, white or Hispanic, 25 to 30 years old, 6- feet tall with a slim build, brown eyes, black hair and a mustache. He was wearing a red-and-white knit cap pulled low on his forehead. Rodriguez is 5 feet 10 inches tall, with similar features.

Bolton told police he saw the shooter a week after the murder at Pete & Jack Food & Uquor, 4158 W Division St., trying to sell a snowblower to employee Steve Salamy. Bolton said he didn’t report the incident because he was afraid the offender had recognized him.

Four months after the shooting, Area 5 Detective Ernest Halvorsen received an anonymous tip about the murder that led him to Rodriguez. Bolton identified Rodriguez in a photo array and a lineup. He did not return telephone calls or respond to written requests for an interview.

Rodriguez was convicted and sentenced to 60 years, based largely on Bolton’s testimony. But the appellate court did not believe that testimony was enough to convict Rodriguez when “there [was] no other corroborative evidence linking the defendant to the crime.”

In reversing the conviction, the justices wrote that Salamy had testified Rodriguez was not the person who tried to sell him the snowblower. And Rodriguez’ employer used payroll records to prove he was at work that day.

The county’s appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court charged the appellate court had erred by “usurping the function of the jury and, instead, chose to retry this case in a light most favorable to defendant.”

State Witnesses

Some witnesses are as sure today as ever that they identified the right person in a crime.

“There was no doubt. It was them,” said Wilda Vargas, whose testimony helped convict Armando Serrano and two others of the Feb. 5, 1993, murder of her husband, Rodrigo Vargas, in Humboldt Park. “They robbed me of my husband and left me alone with two sons,” said a tearful Vargas, who is training to be a real estate agent.

Francisco Vicente, a jailhouse informant, told prosecutors that the day of the murder, he was with all three defendants as he was coming down from a heroin high. He said one mentioned arguing with a man at a gas station, and said he planned to rob him.

Although she did not witness the shooting, Wilda Vargas told Guevara she remembered three young men in a cream-colored car arguing with her husband at a gas station. She identified them in a series of photo arrays and police lineups. At Serrano’s trial, however, she could not identify him.

One witness to the 1994 murder of Humboldt Park 18-year-olds Jorge Rodriguez and Amy Merkes made contradictory statements about what he saw during the shooting. On Sept. 1, 1994, Merkes and Rodriguez were hanging out with Kennelly Saez, 19, and Jacqueline Grande, 20, outside Saez’ apartment building at 3918 W. Cortland St.

According to court records, Saez said a blue car pulled up to the group at about 1 a.m., and a passenger shouted, “What’s up folks?”—a gang greeting. “Who’s that?” Saez asked. When he saw a gun in the back window, Saez dived behind a parked car. The shots wounded Grande; Merkes and Rodriguez were killed.

At the time, Guevera also was investigating the murder two days earlier of Carlos Olon, a member of the Insane Dragons street gang. Rodriguez and Saez were members of a rival gang, the Disciples. Guevara showed three photos of Insane Dragon members to Grande, who identified Roberto Almodovar Jr. and picked him out of a lineup, according to court records.

Before the trial, Grande told Almodovar’s attorney, Melinda Power, she was sure of the identification, and added that police showed her photos when she was still in the hospital and told her, “Here are the guys who did it.” Grande did not respond to written requests for an interview.

Saez identified Almodovar in a police lineup. But in a March 1995 affidavit, Saez told Power he was high on marijuana the night of the shooting and could not identify the shooters. He said he identified Almodovar because he wanted someone to pay for the death of his friends.

Saez again changed his mind during Almodovar’s trial and testified that his gang had ordered him to make the false statement to Power.

Almodovar said he was home arguing with his girlfriend, after working 10 hours at the Farley Candy Factory and attending GED classes at Wright College until 10 p.m. But he failed to mention the fight during his initial interview with police.

Almodovar was convicted in a bench trial Nov. 30, 1995, and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

In his appeal, Almodovar claimed Guevara influenced the witness identifications. At trial, Saez and Guevara both testified they had not reviewed photos. But at a post-conviction hearing Aug. 6, 1998, Saez said Guevara had shown him pictures of gang members before the lineup and told him two would appear in the lineup.

The appellate court upheld the conviction, ruling Guevara had not unduly influenced the witnesses. Other trial court errors, such as allowing the link to the Olon murder, were “harmless,” the court found.

Almodovar’s aunts were financing his case but say they cannot afford an appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court. He is currently waiting for his case to be reviewed by the State Appellate Defender’s Office, which provides court-appointed legal assistance for appeals. The average wait is two years, according to the office.

“We learn to have a lot of patience. We just have to hope that finally the truth will come out,” said Iris Mojica, one of the aunts. “It’s really frustrating. Nobody wants to really listen to what you have to say.”

Family Meetings

Every two weeks, about 20 people—parents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and a few political activists—gather in a church or living room for a meeting of Comité Exigimos Justicia. Speaking a mix of Spanish and English, families acquaint each other with the details of their cases.

The group started with three families and continues to grow and add new cases. Ruth Peña, Rodriguez’ sister, gets a few letters a month from men claiming their convictions were based on faulty evidence. The Comité does not accept every case but requests a trial transcript and police reports to see if physical evidence connects the men to the murders.

Comité members hope the Special Prosecutions Bureau of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office will take up their cause. In 1999, the unit investigated 252 cases against public officials and filed misconduct charges in 78.

At an April 25 community meeting with Alderman Ray Suarez (31 st), the group asked State’s Attorney Richard A. Devine to review their cases. Devine said he would meet with them but has not set a date.

“If anyone has information relevant to these cases, we have an open door policy,” said Bob Benjamin, communications officer for the state’s attorney.

And while Benjamin could not comment specifically on the Humboldt Park cases, he said Devine stands by his right to appeal decisions, such as the ruling in the Angel Rodriguez case. “If we disagree with that decision, it is not only our right but our obligation to appeal. No court is infallible and we’re not infallible.”

Two families have filed complaints with the Chicago Police Department’s Office of Professional Standards, which investigates claims of police brutality and defers other police misconduct complaints to the department’s Office of Internal Affairs. Perra said OPS has yet to respond to her complaint. And OPS told Mojica, Almodovar’s aunt, that their investigation was “inconclusive,” she said.

Doyle, the Boston attorney and co-author of “Eyewitness Testimony: Civil and Criminal,” said it is incorrect to assume it takes misconduct for a wrongful conviction. “It really just takes human memory handled carelessly,” he said. “There would be misidentifications even if there were no sinister plan.”

Contributing: Sarah Karp, Ingrid Arnoux, Mick Dumke, Laureen E. Fagan, Michelle Hores, Derrick G. Geyer, Deidre Glover, Dorothy L. Hernandez,Theresa M. Keith, Nicole Longhini, Rebecca Orbach, Margaretta Swigert-Gachero helped research this article.

  • AnnFeeney

    It’s ironic that we’re so inclined to believe in eyewitness testimony, but study after study after study has shown just how fallible it is. As for the identification process, having the detective there introduces the possibility of bias. Even if the detective is doing his or her best to remain neutral, there are so many subtle things that can even unconsciously influence the witness.

    This has got to change.