For more than half his lifetime, 44-year-old Albert Hernandez believed he was a murderer.
On Thursday--24 hours after Hernandez walked into the Fontana Police Department and confessed to killing a youth he remembered only as "Little Ruben," the former Los Angeles gang member learned that he did not commit the crime that had burdened his conscience so long.
"There's really irrefutable evidence that he didn't do it," said Los Angeles County Sheriff's Sgt. Derry Benedict.
Hernandez, who had been booked for investigation of murder and held without bail in San Bernardino County Jail on Wednesday, was freed late Thursday after Benedict informed Fontana police that Hernandez could not have been the killer.
Hernandez, who lives in Rialto, could not be reached for comment.
When he turned himself in to Fontana Police Sgt. Tim Ousley on Wednesday, the obviously remorseful Hernandez said he couldn't remember details but believed he had gunned down a member of a rival street gang in 1960 or 1961.
"He said he wanted to get it off his chest, wanted to get it out in the open," Ousley said. The sergeant said the story sounded true to him. "That's why I arrested him," Ousley said. As Hernandez told the story, another youth known to him only as "Froggie" had gone to prison for the slaying.
Fontana police relayed Hernandez' story to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department for documentation.
Benedict and another investigator pulled the files on the old case and found that the victim's true name was Ruben Alarcon and that he was 18 when he was shot to death on May 15, 1960. The killing took place after a wedding in the unincorporated Florence area.
And the real killer, according to Benedict, was Henry Acosta Mangaser, 20, brother of the bride and a member of the same gang as "Little Ruben."
"There's no doubt about it," Benedict said, "The bullets removed from the victim were tied (ballistically) to the gun that belonged to the true suspect. And Mangaser--whose gang name was "Froggie"--subsequently admitted it was he that fired the gun."
Records showed that Mangaser pleaded guilty to manslaughter and had been scheduled for sentencing on Aug. 1, 1960, but there was no indication of whether he actually served time in prison.
In fact, Mangaser was not the only one who fired a gun during that long ago post-nuptial fight. A 23-year-old passer-by was slightly wounded by one of the wild shots.
The possibility exists that Hernandez had some reason for his guilt feelings.
"He may have fired a gun at the time," said Benedict. "He may have been convinced in his own mind that he did it. I guess if he's lived with that in his mind for the last 26 years, he's really done some penance, hasn't he?"
Times staff writer Louis Sahagun contributed to this article.