Ten Cases, Many Questions

Photo by Stacey Rupolo

Armando Serrano sits outside his sister’s home on July 21, 2016, where he and family from all over the country are celebrating his release from prison one day earlier. Serrano’s murder conviction was vacated after he spent 23 years behind bars.

Editor’s Note: On Monday, April 10, 2017, a court hearing is scheduled for two men who claim they were framed for murder by 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 (below).

They are some random incidents: Someone shouts a gang greeting, shots are fired and moments later young people are dead. And sometimes, the men accused of the murders seem just as random, with no real motive to kill, except perhaps that they are rival gang members.

In 2000, The Chicago Reporter examined 10 murder convictions linked to Chicago Police Detective Reynaldo Guevara that lacked scientific evidence and relied heavily on eyewitness testimony.

A group of Latino families—Comité Exigimos Justicia (We Demand Justice Committee)—have banded together in Humboldt Park to challenge police procedures that sent their husbands, sons, and brothers to prison for murder. The Chicago Reporter examined 10 of these cases and found they lacked scientific evidence, relying heavily on eyewitness testimony.

The Illinois Appellate Court overturned one case, finding the testimony of the lone eyewitness did not support a conviction. The families say the other cases also raise questions about witnesses. The Reporter compiled case summaries from court records, police reports and interviews with the attorneys, inmates and their families.

Mario Flores, 34

Charges: first-degree murder and armed robbery

Convicted: Aug. 14, 1985

Sentence: Death penalty

Status: Flores’ attorney, Leonard Goodman, said he is investigating new evidence in the case but would not provide details.

In the early morning hours of Jan. 1, 1984, Gilbert Perez’ 1970 Pontiac hit a car at the intersection of North and Western avenues. He got out and shouted threats at a woman in the other car. Two other cars stopped, and three men got out. The men convinced Perez they would protect him from police and rival gangs. But the three men were actually rival gang members. They took Perez into an alley, shot him and stole his gold necklaces. There were no witnesses to the shooting. It took Chicago Police Detective Reynaldo Guevara 11 months to persuade a frightened witness to come forward. Nancy Lebron said she saw the accident from her second-floor window and watched Perez get into the car with the men. In an array of photographs and in a police lineup, Lebron identified Mario Flores as one of the men. In another photo array, she picked out Victor Flores (no relation) as the driver, and another man who was not charged in the crime. Questioned later by a private investigator hired by Victor Flores’ attorney, Lebron said she could not identify the people involved. Victor Flores testified he saw Mario Flores in the alley, holding a shotgun over the victim’s body. The charges against Victor Flores were reduced, and he was released with time served. Mario Flores maintains he was at home that night celebrating New Year’s Eve with his family.

Johnny Flores, 21

Charges: first-degree murder

Convicted: Dec. 19, 1990

Sentence: 40 years

Status: Upheld by Illinois Appellate Court, Nov. 5, 1993. Petition to Illinois Supreme Court denied, April 6, 1994.

On the night of Nov. 22, 1989, Jeffrey Rhodes and Scott Thurmond were walking north toward the corner of Central Park and Shakespeare avenues when a man shouted, “Disciple love.” Thurmond responded, “We ain’t about nothing.” The man fired two shots, hitting Rhodes, who died that night at Illinois Masonic Hospital. Guevara spoke with “numerous gang members,” who apparently implicated Flores. Thurmond picked Flores out of a photo array. Later, in a lineup that included Flores, police said Thurmond collapsed and did not identify anyone. But in a second lineup, he picked Flores. At Flores’ trial, Thurmond testified that he drank two beers that night, and that he and Rhodes had been trying to buy marijuana.

Armando Serrano, 27

Charges: first-degree murder, attempted armed robbery and unlawful use of a weapon by a felon

Convicted: Oct. 21, 1994

Sentence: 55 years

Status: Upheld by Illinois Appellate Court, Oct. 28, 1997. Petition to Illinois Supreme Court denied, Feb. 3, 1999.

On Feb. 5, 1993, Rodrigo Vargas was walking to his van when two men attempted to rob him, then shot him six times. On June 2, Francisco Vicente, whom police had charged with a series of robberies, told detectives that while coming down from a heroin high, three of his fellow gang members- including Serrano-had described a robbery gone bad. Vicente said one gang member—not Serrano—saw Vargas at a gas station the day before the shooting and decided to rob him. Guevara contacted Vargas’ wife, Wilda, and she recalled a confrontation at a gas station. She later picked Serrano out of a photo array but could not identify him at his trial. Vargas’ neighbor testified he saw a brown sedan leave the scene of the shooting; one of the co-defendants owned a car matching that description.

Nelson Gonzalez, 31

Charge: first-degree murder

Convicted: Nov. 10, 1994

Sentence: 45 years

Status: Upheld by Illinois Appellate Court Nov. 27, 1996. Petition to Illinois Supreme Court denied, April 2, 1997. Petition pending before U.S. Supreme Court.

On June 19, 1993, Jose Mendoza, his brother and two friends had been drinking all day. On their way home from a bar, their car stalled near Kastner and Cortland avenues, and five or six men attacked the car. Mendoza was struck twice in the head with a baseball bat and was killed. His brother said he saw the assailant for 15 seconds and identified Gonzalez in a July 13 lineup arranged by Guevara. Gonzalez said he was in Lake Station, Ind., with his relatives, but none of his alibi witnesses were called to testify. Defense attorney Edward M. Genson, who is working on further appeals, said he has “never seen a man convicted on less evidence.”

Geraldo Iglesias, 31

Charge: first-degree murder

Convicted: Dec. 19, 1994

Sentence: 35 years in prison

Status: Upheld by Illinois Appellate Court, March 31, 1997. Petition to Illinois Supreme Court denied, Oct. 1, 1997.

On June 7, 1993, five friends were in a car near 2135 N. Sawyer Ave. when someone yelled “King love,” and shots were fired. A passenger, Monica Roman, was killed. Two weeks later, Guevara received a call from an informant. Rosendo Ochoa, who claimed to have seen the shooting from a second· story apartment window, identified Iglesias, an Imperial Gangster nicknamed “Snake,” in a photo array. He originally described the shooter as a 5-foot-7-inch man or shorter, with light skin; Iglesias is 5 feet 10 inches tall, with dark skin. Ochoa and Hugo Rodriguez, a passenger in the car, picked Iglesias out of a lineup. Ochoa and Rodriguez are members of the Latin Kings, a rival gang of the Imperial Gangsters. Francisco Vicente, a jailhouse informant, testified that Iglesias confessed to him at Cook County Jail. On appeal, Iglesias’ lawyers said Vicente did not accurately describe the location of the shooting and contradicted other witnesses. Facing a possible 97 years in prison, Vicente’s sentence was reduced to nine years. At the time of the shooting, Iglesias was distancing himself from his gang and working with a gang intervention program.

Edwin Davila, 26

Charges: first degree murder and attempted first degree murder

Convicted: March 20, 1996

Sentence: 56 years

Status: Upheld by Illinois Appellate Court, Dec. 19, 1997.

At about 1 :30 a.m. on July 2, 1995, Michael Ybarra, Ivar Velasco and Jaime Alvarez drove past the comer of Ashland Avenue and Blackhawk Street, where a group of young men were flashing gang signs and yelling “King killer” and “Disciples.” Alvarez and Ybarra shouted “Fuck you,” and a white Buick began following them. The Buick pulled in front of their car and blocked the street. A man jumped out of the Buick and began shooting, killing Alvarez and wounding Ybarra. Velasco and Ybarra twice told police they were cowering from the bullets and did not see the shooter. On July 9, Guevara spoke with Davila, who said he lived three blocks from the shooting. Ybarra and Velasco identified Davila as the shooter in a photo array. Davila’s girlfriend said she was talking with him on the telephone at the time of the shooting. She found two witnesses to the shooting who identified another man; neither was called to testify.

Roberto Almodovar Jr., 25

Charges: first-degree murder and attempted first-degree murder

Convicted: Nov. 30, 1995

Sentence: Life in prison

Status: Upheld by Illinois Appellate Court, July 16, 1997.

In the early morning of Sept. 1, 1994, two men and two women stood in front of an apartment building at 3918 W. Cortland St. A car pulled up and a passenger shouted, “What’s up folks?” and began shooting. Amy Merkes and Jorge Rodriguez were killed; Jacqueline Grande was wounded. Kennelly Saez, who dived behind a car, escaped injury. Guevara testified that Grande picked Almodovar out of a photo array. Grande later told Almodovar’s attorney that two police officers showed her photos while she was recovering at Mount Sinai Hospital Medical Center and told her, “Here are the guys who did it.” She later identified Almodovar from a photo array Guevera showed her at home. Grande and Saez picked Almodovar, a member of the Insane Dragons, from a lineup. Saez told Almodovar’s attorney he couldn’t identify the shooter but reversed himself during the trial. Almodovar said he was home with his girlfriend the night of the shooting.

Thomas Sierra, 24

Charges: first-degree murder and aggravated discharge of a firearm

Convicted: Feb. 7, 1997

Sentence: 45 years

Status: Upheld by Illinois Appellate Court, June 30, 1998. Petition to Illinois Supreme Court denied, March 31, 1999.

The night of May 23, 1995, Jose Melendez, Noel Andujar and Alberto Rodriguez were driving in Logan Square when a car pulled up next to them. A passenger flashed gang signs and shot at them. Andujar was killed. Melendez and Rodriguez described the shooter’s car as black with tinted windows and custom wheels. The next day, after reading police reports, Guevara remembered a similar car another officer said belonged to Sierra, an Imperial Gangster. Rodriguez picked Sierra’s picture out of a photo array, and Melendez signed a statement that he had identified Sierra in a photo array and lineup. At the trial, Melendez testified the statement was untrue.

Angel Rodriguez, 36

Charge: first-degree murder

Convicted: March 10, 1998

Sentence: 60 years

Status: Reversed by Illinois Appellate

Court, March 31. Pending before the Illinois Supreme Court.

On Nov. 24, 1996, Ibrahim Zayed was shot to death in his grocery store at Karlov and Potomac avenues. Immediately after the shooting, 17-year-old Andrew Bolton, a store employee, described the shooter to police. In March 1997, police received an anonymous tip that led them to Rodriguez. Bolton picked Rodriguez out of a photo array and lineup. On March 31, 2000, the Illinois Appellate Court reversed the conviction, ruling that “Bolton’s testimony alone would not support a guilty verdict.” The Cook County State’s Attorney petitioned the Illinois Supreme Court to review the case.

Rosendo Hernandez, 22

Charges: first-degree murder, aggravated battery and attempted murder

Convicted: Aug. 12, 1999

Sentence: 100 years

On June 27, 1997, Jorge Gonzalez and three others were standing in front of a home at 2208 N. Mobile Ave. when a group of young men walked up and began yelling gang slogans. Two of them began shooting, striking Juan Cruz in the leg and killing Gonzalez. The next day, an anonymous caller told police that “Junebug” and “Poochie,” two Spanish Cobras, were responsible for the shooting. The officer who took the call recognized the nicknames of Hernandez (above, right) and his brother, Juan (below). Five witnesses picked the two from a photo array, and they were identified in separate lineups. Guevara helped to arrange the photo array and lineup and interviewed the Hernandez brothers. Juan Hernandez’s trial ended in a mistrial March 9. He is awaiting a new trial date.