In the News: Press
Mistaken identities: ID confusion keeps immigrant in jail for 5 months on murder charge
By John Lantigua and Susan Spencer-Wendel
Press by 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.
LOCAL LEGAL INVESTIGATOR OBTAINS CLI CERTIFICATION
NALI Board Certification Most Coveted in Investigative Profession
For More Information, contact:
John Lajoie, CLI at 508-835-2211 or
WEST BOYLSTON, MA (June, 2009)—Palm Beach County legal investigator and
Palm Beach Gardens resident, Mark J. Murnan, owner of Complete Legal Investigations, Palm Beach Gardens, FL, recently earned the coveted Certified Legal Investigator (CLI) designation established by the National Association of Legal Investigators’ (NALI) Professional Certification Board administered on June 18th in Nashville, Tennessee . The CLI designation is only conferred to those experienced legal investigators who pass stringent oral and written examinations, and author a white paper that is graded and subsequently published in national investigative trade publications. Initiated in 1979, the CLI examination is administered by a professional certification board of the National Association of Legal Investigators, Inc. twice per year. Currently, there are only 76 CLI’s in the world, thus establishing an elite group of board Certified Legal Investigators.
Mark Murnan, CLI, is known throughout the county and state for his skill and experience as a professional private and legal investigator. Murnan is college educated, has over 20 years of experience in the investigative profession, and has established a very successful investigation agency. Mr. Murnan specializes in criminal defense, civil legal investigation, and trial preparation. He can be contacted at 561-687-8381 or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information on NALI and/or the CLI Program and examination please visit www.NALIOnline.org or contact the CLI Chairperson, John M. Lajoie, CLI at 508-835-2211.
JUDGE RELEASES 3 MEN CHARGED IN KILLING
DNA COUNTERS WITNESS
BYLINE: SUSAN SPENCER-WENDEL, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
DATE: May 20, 2006
PUBLICATION: Palm Beach Post, The (FL)
Three men facing life in prison for murder may soon shed that yoke after DNA evidence discounted a witness account that helped pin them to the crime.
Friday morning, a judge agreed to release Cleveland Cooley, Latavion Cooley and Larry Turner on their own recognizance after a prosecutor told a judge he could not prove the case against them. Kirk Volker said he would talk with State Attorney Barry Krischer next week about dropping the first-degree murder charges against the Cooleys and Turner. Police charged the trio with first-degree murder about two weeks after the drive-by shooting Dec. 28 of Carlos “Skeet” Cesar of West Palm Beach on a corner of Tamarind Avenue. A gunman opened fire with an assault rifle in broad daylight, killing 23-year-old Cesar. One defense attorney, Peter Grable, described the charges as too quick with dubious evidence. “With violence across the streets, there was a rush to arrest someone,” Grable said Friday. His client, Latavion Cooley, 24, of Riviera Beach had claimed an alibi: that he was visiting a relative at the hospital who had been shot that same day, not out shooting people himself. An eyewitness, though, told police she saw the Cooleys and Turner in the car used in the drive-by shooting. And another state witness, a man, claimed clothing in the suspected car belonged to Latavion Cooley and was worn during the commission of the crime, Grable said. DNA told a different story, defense attorneys said: that none of the three men had been in the car and the clothing had not been worn by Latavion Cooley but the witness himself. That, coupled with witnesses changing stories and sinking their credibility, tanked the case. Grable also said two witnesses who gave depositions said they were pressured by police to implicate the Cooleys or face charges themselves. Another defense attorney on the men’s case, David Pleasanton, said he believes police did not know who did it and put pressure on people to find out. “I don’t know if you can say it’s inappropriate,” Pleasanton said. “But I don’t think that it’s actually a search for the truth.” Prosecutor Volker told the judge he could not prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. He did not, though, declare the men innocent. Without the charges, it will be like starting from scratch again to solve Cesar’s shooting, Volker said. A fight at Club TKO on Okeechobee Boulevard days before took place between Cesar, his friends and Riviera Beach men, including the Cooleys. A Cooley brother lost a gold necklace and two bracelets in the fight and later tried unsuccessfully to claim them from Cesar, according to a police record. Drive-by shootings are extremely difficult to prove in court because of the lack of cooperating witnesses. Those who might testify for prosecutors and defense often fear retaliation. A private investigator who worked on Latavion Cooley’s case said he had some alibi witnesses, including relatives, too fearful to testify. Mark Murnan calls it a tension between the culture of crime and the culture of courage on the street. Lt. Pat Maney, head of the police department’s violent crimes unit, said they will continue to work on the case. Police are disappointed with the development because they believe the Cooleys to be guilty, he said, and had good reason to arrest them beyond public clamor. “We don’t compromise our professionalism or compromise our investigation practices to make a case because someone thinks we should,” Maney said.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
PRESS RELEASE – COMPLETE LEGAL INVESTIGATIONS, INC. ANNOUNCES NAME CHANGE
Great Southern Detective Agency is now COMPLETE LEGAL INVESTIGATIONS, Inc.
Company president Mark J. Murnan is excited to announce the new name designed to more accurately reflect the focus and direction the agency has taken since its founding in October 2001.
According to Murnan, “We are a preeminent provider of legal investigative and litigation support services to plaintiff personal injury and criminal defense attorneys in South Florida. We provide CONFIDENCE to our attorneys; confidence that they have all available information in a timely and exemplary fashion to effectively litigate their cases and to achieve just and favorable results for their clients.
“We know the needs of our clients. We understand the assignments and the judicial system. We sort through the stories to discern the truth, and empower our attorneys with CONFIDENCE. We offer collectively over 50 years of experience in uncovering liability and reasonable doubt to civil/criminal defense attorneys.”
COMPLETE LEGAL INVESTIGATIONS, Inc. has a dedicated team of investigators and support staff, including male and female investigators; bilingual investigators; a research assistant; an inside investigator; a transcriber, and a courier.
“At Complete Legal,” Murnan says, “we help attorneys-both criminal defense and plaintiff personal injury attorneys- eliminate uncertainty in their litigation by understanding the disputed facts and issues; interviewing witnesses and gathering information that clarifies those facts and issues; and preparing clear, concise reports that document what witnesses said and what information was gathered.
“By limiting our clientele to criminal defense and plaintiff personal injury attorneys, we can focus our efforts and knowledge base to issues of law related to those specific areas of litigation. Our specialization and focused area of concentration allows us to more completely understand the needs of our particular clients and gain economies of scale not available to other agencies with a more general practice.
“We serve our attorney-clients as adjunct “staff” investigators, providing closely supervised work and frequent communication with the attorney, creating an effective “team” environment, and producing the best representation for the attorney’s client.”
Contact information for the company remains the same. The company’s offices remain in Palm Beach Gardens, with plans to open an additional office in Port St. Lucie to expand with our current clients and offer our services to those attorneys serving the needs of the injured and accused in the Treasure Coast.
PAHOKEE POLICE TRY TO REBUILD CREDIBILITY
BYLINE: JOHN PACENTI, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
DATE: April 19, 2004
PUBLICATION: Palm Beach Post, The (FL)
SECTION: A SECTION
MEMO: Ran all editions.
Four years ago, the body of a city police officer’s stepson was found at a Pahokee tree farm.
The murder of 22-year-old Jeffrey Rewis, battered before a bullet pierced his temple, remains unsolved. Still, the investigation took a bizarre twist, imploding the Pahokee Police Department and prompting the sheriff to take over the city force until the chaos could be sorted out. Investigators, after searching the stepfather’s house for weapons, later were drawn to Pahokee police headquarters itself. Sheriff’s detectives soon discovered that weapons, and an undetermined amount of drugs, were missing from the evidence room. Finger-pointing and back stabbing ensued while detectives dug in. What they had stumbled on was a department in turmoil – and considerable disarray. “It was like the television show CSI meets Seinfeld, where Cosmo Kramer and George Costanza ran the evidence room and Jerry and Elaine did the investigation,” said Mark Murnan , a private investigator who visited Pahokee’s evidence room last summer while working on a case. After investigating for the better part of a year, sheriff’s detectives concluded they had evidence that confiscated guns had been stolen and sold, among other crimes. But the state attorney’s office took a look at the mess and decided not to prosecute. It was left to the city manager to clean house. She fired a captain, the head of internal affairs and another officer. The police chief already had resigned. “I don’t like terminating employees,” City Manager Lillie Latimore said. “I like correction. But that situation was so entangled. I want them to be able to move on and for the department to move on.” Murnan , a private investigator for murder defendant Earnest “Burn Burn” Johnson, said that when he examined the victim’s shorts, cocaine fell out of a pocket. Apparently, he said, Pahokee homicide investigators had missed it.
He said he found other evidence of sloppy police work. Crime scene photographs in another case were labeled “Dead guy in blue jersey,” nothing more. Nellie King, Johnson’s attorney, said defense lawyers could use the tainted evidence room to have criminal cases tossed out.
“You can’t trust the evidence, you can’t trust the officer, you can’t trust the report,” she said.