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Jailhouse Informant Says He Lied at 3 Murder Trials

November 05, 1989|TED ROHRLICH | TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

FOLSOM, Calif. — A veteran jailhouse informant whose testimony helped send three Los Angeles County men to prison for life terms now says he lied at their murder trials at the urging of police.

Stephen Jesse Cisneros, a convicted arsonist, kidnaper and rapist serving a 70-year prison term, says he perjured himself when he testified that all three men confessed to him.

In sworn statements to a private investigator and in a subsequent interview with The Times, Cisneros says that, all told, he lied in five Los Angeles murder cases at the behest of police. In the remaining two cases, he says he testified falsely at preliminary hearings that two more men confessed.

One of those men is still awaiting trial. He faces a possible death penalty if convicted. The other pleaded guilty to a lesser charge--being an accessory to murder--and was sentenced to prison for three years.

Cisneros thus becomes the first jailhouse informant to admit under oath that he fabricated confessions in specific murder cases since an informant scandal surfaced in Los Angeles County last year.

The scandal broke when another veteran informant demonstrated how easily he could fake confessions, but he balked at being specific without a grant of immunity.

The consequences of Cisneros' recantations are uncertain. One defense attorney has used them to file court papers seeking his client's freedom. Another is considering an appeal.

The officers whom Cisneros has accused deny his charges, but the Los Angeles Police Department has started an internal affairs investigation in one case as a result of a Times inquiry.

Prosecutors involved in the cases contend Cisneros' retractions are irrelevant because they had enough evidence to convict the defendants without his help. Defense lawyers dispute this.

Cisneros says he is now admitting to being a liar because he wants to ease his guilty conscience and because he is angry.

"The reason I am changing my statement," he said, "is because all these D.A.s and officers that work with the snitches are doing it to make themselves look better, and at the end they screw the snitches. And there is a lot of people, innocent people, in jail."

Cisneros was in and out of jail and prison for years before he was finally put away for the 70 year term as the "Los Angeles Riverbed Rapist" who abducted at least eight illegal alien women from 1980 to 1985 by posing as an immigration officer. He handcuffed the women, and raped and sodomized them near the Los Angeles River before letting them go.

He was a police informant while behind bars and on the street.

Whether he is telling the truth now--or whether he was telling the truth on the witness stand--is impossible to say. Two psychiatrists years ago told judges--and the district attorney's office--that Cisneros was a compulsive liar.

Prosecutors who used Cisneros to testify to confessions purportedly made to him said they were unaware of these psychiatric evaluations. Because of a lack of information-sharing within the district attorney's office, some prosecutors said they were unaware that Cisneros had been an informant in any case other than their own.

Cisneros recanted his testimony about the murder confessions in sworn statements to a private detective who interviewed him recently in prison. The detective, Sue Sarkis, took along a court stenographer, who placed Cisneros under oath and transcribed their talks. Sarkis made the transcript available to The Times.

During an interview Friday at Folsom state prison, Cisneros repeated in detail the account he gave to the private investigator and added to it by describing another case in which he said he had lied.

In the case in which his testimony probably had the most impact, Cisneros had told the court that Carlos Herrera Vargas confessed to him over drinks at a Montebello bar that he had accidentally killed a young woman.

During a conversation about why Vargas had not attended a fund-raiser to benefit the dead woman's child, Cisneros testified that a drunken Vargas blurted out that "he didn't mean to kill her. It was an accident. It just happened."

Now, Cisneros says he was lying. He says Vargas never admitted responsibility for the killing. Cisneros says that a Montebello police officer, Robert Crawford, paid him $150--and offered him help on his own criminal case--to say that Vargas confessed.

Vargas was convicted of the attempted rape and first-degree murder of the young woman and was sentenced to prison for 29 years to life.

Crawford, the Montebello police officer, responded to Cisneros' allegations by saying: "In no way would myself or (my partner) ever advise an informant to lie. . . . Also . . . I never paid him a dime."

"I think I gave him five bucks once and that was all," said Crawford's then-partner, Sgt. Herbert Albert. "Five bucks and a couple of packs of cigarettes."

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