By John Lantigua and Susan Spencer-Wendel
Palm Beach Post Staff Writers
Updated: 12:21 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2010
Posted: 10:00 p.m. Monday, Aug. 2, 2010
Police are seeking 25-year-old Julio Gomez for first-degree murder in the death of a 17-year-old snitch who ratted out his cocaine-dealing friends. Gomez and others are accused of nearly decapitating Maciel Martin Videla and leaving him to die.
For the heinous crime – Videla’s body was found dumped in a Belle Glade canal in December 2008 – Gomez and the others face a possible death penalty.
Clearly a serious situation.
Just ask another 25-year-old Julio Gomez who spent more than five months jailed, wrongly accused of the crime.
Prosecutors recently dropped the first-degree murder charge against him, acknowledging police arrested the wrong Julio Gomez.
That jaw-dropping admission came after the wrong Gomez’s defense team – veteran criminal defense attorney Fred Susaneck and private investigators Mark and Wendy Murnan – swept the corners of his life as a roving agricultural worker picking produce. They amassed pay stubs, records and affidavits demonstrating Gomez had consistently worked in other counties.
“He said, ‘I’ve never been to Palm Beach County,’” Susaneck said of his client. “Now I am jaded. Of course, everyone says they didn’t do it or they weren’t there. But we put our jadedness aside.”
And convinced prosecutors the arrest was a mistake.
So, how does one Julio Gomez born around Christmas 1984 get confused with another Julio Gomez born in March 1985 and the wrong one ends up facing a possible death penalty?
From $200 bond to jail
The wrong Gomez was working in Hardee County picking oranges in February when he was detained by a deputy for driving without a license, according to court records, interviews with the defense team and Gomez.
The native of Chiapas, Mexico has worked in the U.S. since 2004, sending money back home.
He says he was booked at the station, told he must post a $200 bond and could leave after the paperwork was processed.
“But a few minutes later (a deputy) came back and said, ‘No, you can’t leave. Another problem has come up. There is an arrest order against you in West Palm Beach.’ West Palm Beach? I didn’t even know where that was,” Gomez said.
Gomez said he constantly pointed out to police that his date of birth, March 15, 1985, was different than that of the Gomez they were hunting, Dec. 20, 1984 – a discrepancy clearly exacerbated by his status as an undocumented illegal immigrant.
Hardee County deputies sent Gomez’s mug shot to the lead detective investigating Videla’s murder, Ada Tyz of the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office.
Tyz took that photo of Gomez to an uncharged cooperating witness, Juan Jose Urdialez, a man who had told her he knew Gomez personally and was with him at Videla’s murder.
Urdialez looked at the Hardee County photo and identified Gomez as being the Gomez at the scene of the homicide.
“This is Julio who I witness involved in the murder,” he wrote on the photo and signed.
Boom. There was the probable cause to arrest the man in the picture, the wrong Gomez, for murder.
“All this happened just because that guy and I had the same name,” he said recently.
Gomez languished in the Palm Beach County Jail more than five months, with no deputy or detective ever attempting to interview him.
The wrong Gomez’s co-workers in the fields – all also illegal immigrants – gave affidavits that he had worked and lived consistently with them. His defense team knew his co-workers were risking deportation to help their friend.
“In these situations, a homicide like this, the girlfriend and friends usually run the other way,” Susaneck said. “It was extraordinary. We knew something was really wrong .”
No motive to lie
What went wrong?
A sheriff’s office spokeswoman emphasizes that Gomez was “immediately” released from jail when it became known he was the wrong Gomez after the “series of unfortunate events.”
Teri Barbera says that because the investigation remains open, the sheriff’s office can’t fully comment or answer questions, placing them at a disadvantage in explaining their actions. Chief among those questions: how well did Urdialez know the Gomez he says participated in the murder that night?
Tyz does say she believes Urdialez had no motive to lie.
Two people have been arrested in the murder of Videla, and arrest warrants are out for two more, including for Julio Gomez, born Dec. 20, 1984.
What would Tyz do differently if she had to do it again?
Nothing, she says.
And why was the wrong Julio Gomez arrested?
She doesn’t answer.
Police practices expert Steve Lurie, an officer as well as an adjunct professor of law at two California universities, says it sounds to him the case mostly turned on the witness’ misidentification. Eyewitness misidentification is far-and-away the leading cause of wrongful convictions in the United States and “notoriously unreliable,” Lurie said.
The detective couldn’t interview Gomez after arraignment unless his defense attorney was present, Lurie said. And showing a lone mug shot – not a photo lineup – in a situation where the witness personally knows the suspect passes muster, Lurie said.
“Sounds like the police did everything right but will get blamed for this,” Lurie said. “They always do.”
Gomez’s defense team, themselves criminal justice veterans, see an illegal immigrant accused, jailed, forgotten.
Mark Murnan said in 25 years of PI work, he’s never had a case where police didn’t try to interview a murder suspect. It’s beyond belief, he said, that a detective would not know a murder suspect in a death penalty case was on his way to jail and try to interrogate before the suspect lawyers up.
“Unthinkable,” Murnan says.
‘He doesn’t look like me’
Sheriff’s officials believe the right Julio Gomez has fled to Mexico.
They have a photo of him which they released at The Palm Beach Post’s request.
The wanted Julio Gomez’s face seems rounder, the eyebrows more pronounced than those of the wrong Gomez.
“No, he doesn’t look like me,” the wrong Gomez said as he first saw the photo, wagging his finger at it.
Following his release from the Palm Beach County Jail, the wrong Gomez was taken to the Krome Detention Center in Miami-Dade. Mexican consular officials got involved and he was swiftly released.
Gomez said the consular staff took him to see an attorney to talk of suing the police, and the lawyer told him his undocumented status would make that very difficult. He could end up being deported, he said, so he’s not thinking about that.
He is focused on resuming work, hoping to join his girlfriend and brother to pick watermelons in Indiana.
“I have to start over again,” he says.
Julio Gomez’s defense team gave him balloons a few days after he was released from Krome Detention Center on July 21. He said he wants to go to Indiana to pick watermelons with his girlfriend. Below is a copy of the order dismissing the murder charge. It acknowledges that the wrong Julio Gomez had been arrested.
Copy of order dismissing first-degree murder charge against julio gomez. order acknowledges wrong julio gomez had been arrested.
The correct Julio Gomez: Sheriff’s officials believe the right Julio Gomez (above) has fled to Mexico. ‘He doesn’t look like me,’ the wrong Gomez said when he saw the photo.