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Baca Orders Policy Review

The L.A. County sheriff acts after a judge throws out a murder case, citing detectives' questionable interrogation of a suspect.

September 10, 2006|Andrew Blankstein | Times Staff Writer

It began on an April afternoon in 2005 when neighbors in an upscale section of Manhattan Beach noticed black smoke billowing from an apartment rented by a local doctor.

Firefighters arrived and quickly extinguished the blaze. But when they got inside the home's bedroom, they found the body of the doctor's housekeeper, Libia Cabrera, lying under a window and burned beyond recognition.

The 41-year-old Lawndale mother had been bound, gagged, sexually assaulted and stabbed in the neck.

Months passed without any breaks. Then, in January, detectives arrested Herbert Orlando Gonzales, a 27-year-old clerical worker and aspiring musician.

Gonzales was charged with murder and three other felony counts including arson and residential burglary and, if convicted, could have faced the death penalty.

But the "big break" in the murder mystery has become a black eye for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

A Los Angeles judge last month threw out the case, raising concerns about the detectives' conduct during a lengthy interrogation.

Though the deputies claimed that Gonzales made incriminating statements during the interview, the judge concluded that they might have violated Gonzales' Miranda rights and bullied him into making incriminating statements that he later recanted.

The judge also cast a skeptical eye on detectives' decision to record only part of the interrogation, saying later that the Sheriff's Department could not afford to audiotape the entire interview.

The decision has reverberated throughout the Sheriff's Department, prompting Sheriff Lee Baca to launch a review of detectives' in-custody interrogations, including the one involving Gonzales.

Michael Gennaco, head of the Sheriff's Office of Independent Review, said he thought the department should consider standardizing policies for how interrogations are carried out and recorded.

Though Gennaco reserved judgment on the Gonzales case, he said it was important for the department to have a consistent policy.

He noted that a confession, absent supporting physical or circumstantial evidence, can be a tenuous foundation for a case.

The issue also has been debated at the state level. A blue-ribbon panel examining reform of the state's criminal justice system released a report in July urging the Legislature to adopt a law mandating electronic recording of all jailhouse interrogations.

The California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice -- which included Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer and LAPD Chief William J. Bratton -- recommended that if a law enforcement officer fails to make an audiotape, the law should require that criminal juries be instructed to view any confessions with caution.

Baca, who also was on the commission, abstained from the vote, saying he needed more time to study the proposal. The recommendations have since been adopted in a bill passed by the Legislature and sent to the governor's desk for signing.

*

Homicide investigators had little to go on when they started investigating Cabrera's killing.

Witnesses said they saw little out of the ordinary that day.

Detectives eventually focused on a surveillance video of the ground floor of the apartment building.

Grainy images showed a white truck with a camper shell parked on the street. It also showed a man with a receding hairline and a white stripe on his pants walking back and forth.

At one point, the man appears with a strap over his shoulder, which authorities thought was a carrying case for a laptop computer that was reported missing from the doctor's apartment building.

Although there was nothing definitive, investigators had another element working in their favor: a genetic profile of the killer from DNA evidence recovered from Cabrera's body.

But for months, detectives could not figure out who the man in the video was -- or whether he had anything to do with the crime. They moved on to other cases.

Then the case picked up again in December when detectives decided to take a fresh look at the evidence. They opted to focus heavily on identifying the man in the videotape.

So sheriff's investigators descended on the victim's Lawndale neighborhood, hoping residents might have seen the man.

One woman told detectives that the man in the video resembled someone she had seen visiting a neighbor who had since moved to Virginia.

The detectives traveled to the East Coast, where the woman told them after repeated questioning -- and viewings of the videotape -- that the shadowy figure looked a lot like Herbert Gonzales, the cousin of her former husband.

Finally, the detectives thought they had a solid lead.

On Jan. 6, detectives arrested Gonzales at a South Los Angeles home that he and a fiancee were considering buying.

The interview, with Dets. Randy Seymour and Kathy Gallagher and a Manhattan Beach homicide investigator, occurred the next day at the Twin Towers Jail in downtown Los Angeles.

The interview lasted nearly two hours, but detectives recorded only the last hour, according to court records.

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