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What Becomes of the Resurrected? : Santiago Ventura Was a Poor Migrant, Convicted of Murder and Almost Cheated Out of His Life. After His Case Became a Chic Cause Celebre, He Got a New Life. But Whose?

March 08, 1992|PETER CARLIN | Peter Carlin's first book, "Brave New Bride," will be published by Warner Books in June.

AFTER HE WAS CONVICTED OF MURDER, SANTIAGO VENTURA Morales met the right people. It was the way he screamed, say many of those who came to support him. The way he threw himself against the defense table and let loose a wail so chilling and anguished that it even seemed to shock the judge.

"No es posible! No es posible!" Ventura cried. It was the first time the jury had heard his voice. Sobbing uncontrollably, he was led from the courtroom.

Order restored, the judge polled the jury, asking each of the 12 members to restate the verdict. One by one, each pronounced that the state of Oregon had proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Santiago Ventura Morales had, on July 13, 1986, twice rammed a knife into the heart of Ramiro Lopez Fidel.

But even after he was locked in a small cell in the Clackamas County Jail to await sentencing, shadows kept hovering over the case of Santiago Ventura Morales. And for some of his jurors, the shadows soon formed solid doubts.

Why, they wondered, was Ventura's knife free of even microscopic traces of blood? Other aspects of Ventura's trial didn't quite add up either. Like Ventura, all the farm-worker witnesses were Mixtec Indians who were in this country illegally and spoke little or no English. All seemed frightened and mystified by the proceedings. One witness refused to be sworn in. "How can I tell the truth," he cried, "when I didn't see anything?"

During deliberations, some of Ventura's jurors argued that he was innocent. They were swayed in the end, but after the trial a few wondered what American justice had done to Ventura--and to themselves. One juror, Sherien Jaeger, couldn't stop crying. Neither could Patricia Lee. When she called Jaeger to share her doubts, Lee mentioned that David Ralls had called her, admitting that he felt as bad as she did. "It was like a death in the family," she recalls.

And so less than a week after they sent him to prison for the rest of his days, three of Ventura's jurors believed they had convicted the wrong man. Soon they joined a group of activists and committed themselves to reclaiming the young migrant laborer's life. And they succeeded, sort of. But after his case was turned into a chic cause celebre, supported by two Oregon governors and dozens of the state's most powerful people, Ventura was handed a new life, a life not at all like the one he left in the berry fields.

THE MURDER BEGAN WITH A PARTY IN THE STRAWBERRY FIELDS of Sandy, Ore. In the farming town just east of Portland, worker housing for Mexican fruit pickers is little more than glorified shacks. But on that summer night in 1986, a young girl's birthday turned the camp at Sandy Farms into a fiesta grande. Beer flowed, and more than 100 workers gathered. Eventually, many of them were drunk. An argument erupted, then a fistfight. At this point, recollections get hazy.

What's certain, however, is that Ramiro Lopez Fidel jumped into a Monte Carlo sedan with a man named Margarito DeJesus Lopez. The two peeled out toward the strawberry fields. A pickup followed, loaded with six workers, including 18-year-old Ventura .

In the field, Ventura and the other men in the pickup truck found the Monte Carlo deserted. After a drunken discussion, they attacked the car, slashing the tires and shooting out the windows with a pistol. They stole the battery and left the car burning in the field. During the short drive home, police officers responding to a call about the fire pulled them over. After taking the gun, the police sent the workers home to bed.

Somewhere out in that field, someone had stabbed Ramiro Lopez Fidel twice in the heart. A field hand discovered Lopez's body just after dawn. Later that morning, police officers and sheriff's deputies went looking for suspects, including the men they'd pulled over on the highway. Among the seven arrested, handcuffed and hauled off to the Clackamas County sheriff's office was Santiago Ventura Morales.

Tim Skipper, a Spanish-speaking police officer from the nearby town of Canby, questioned the suspects. An experienced investigator, Skipper figured he could pick out glimmers of guilt in just about any suspect. And Ventura glimmered. He refused to look Skipper in the eye. He trembled and turned pale. "I was convinced without a doubt that he was guilty," Skipper later told a reporter. The next morning, Ventura was the one accused of murder.

The charge against Ventura came as a shock back at Sandy Farms. Despite his carousing during the fiesta, Ventura had no criminal record, not even a history of adolescent troublemaking. Ventura is short, perhaps 5 feet, 3 inches, and his straight black hair, broad face and blunt features show a bond to this continent that exceeds recorded time. Ventura was dependable in the fields and quick to send his wages home to his family.

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