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In this assault case, the puzzle pieces don't fit

A detective can find nothing to place Las Vegas banker Louis Gonzalez III at the scene of a vicious attack at his ex-girlfriend's house in 2008.

June 27, 2011|By Christopher Goffard, Los Angeles Times
  • Tracy West (left) and Louis Gonzalez.
Tracy West (left) and Louis Gonzalez. (Handout )

Second of two parts | Read Part 1

In his single-bunk cell in the Ventura County Jail, on a concrete slab desk, Louis Gonzalez III found himself compulsively writing letters to his 5-year-old son. They were a chronicle of their truncated time together. Telling him how they'd cheered for the Yankees. How his favorite toy had been a mechanical garbage truck. How he'd been a picky eater from the start, but crazy for Cheerios. He never mailed them.

He imagined his son in the cell with him, pushing around his Hot Wheels. In the silence and the isolation, his dream life had acquired surprising vividness. He could almost hear the little plastic wheels on the concrete.

He had a recurring fantasy. He saw himself in prison, 10 or 15 years from now, his conviction long since sealed, his appeals denied. His son, grown into a young man, would be his salvation, would take it upon himself to look into the case. He'd show up and say, "Mom admitted that she lied."

Growing doubts

Doubts had been gnawing at Simi Valley Police Det. David Del Marto. In elaborate detail, Tracy West had told him that Gonzalez, her ex-boyfriend, had ambushed and sexually tortured her in her home between 12:30 and 12:45 p.m. on Feb. 1, 2008.

To test that claim, Del Marto climbed into his car. He wanted to time the route between Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, where Gonzalez had arrived about noon that day from Las Vegas, and West's house in Simi Valley. Gonzalez was in California to pick up their son — a 5-year-old he and West had been fighting over interminably — for a regular weekend visit.

Del Marto had picked a Friday just after noon for his experiment, to replicate the conditions Gonzalez would have faced. He pushed his car to 80 mph. His partner held a stopwatch.

Even if Gonzalez had raced up the freeway, the detective discovered, he could not have arrived at West's house earlier than 12:42 p.m. And witnesses confirmed he was at the Montessori School, a mile away, right around then.

Del Marto called West. Was she sure about the time?

West, by the detective's account, replied that she had been guessing. She couldn't be sure.

Del Marto wondered: Did Gonzalez commit the attack after he left the school, and before he was seen at a nearby bank? Or perhaps after he left the bank, and before he was seen buying a bagel?

The detective concluded that each scenario would have given Gonzalez a narrow window of opportunity at West's house:

Six minutes.

Was that enough time for the attack she had described?

Enough time for Gonzalez to find her in her garage, knock her out, drag her up the stairs, put gloves on his hands and mittens on hers, and slip on protective overalls so that his suit would remain immaculate?

Enough time to strip her, tie her up, burn her with matches, sexually assault her with a coat hanger and attempt to suffocate her with a plastic bag?

Enough time to dispose of all this evidence, along with a duffel bag she said he had carried?

Why did no one, before or after, notice that Gonzalez was nervous or out of breath?

The disarray at the house on Penngrove Street seemed to reflect the struggle West described: clumps of her hair, scissors discarded on the carpet, a spindle yanked out of the banister.

But Del Marto could find nothing to place Gonzalez there. No fingerprints, no DNA, no hair, no clothes fibers.

He remembered how West looked that day, bruised and traumatized. But the medical records seemed at odds with the sexual assault she described: They showed no internal tears or bleeding.

Maybe, Del Marto thought, the gloves, mittens and overalls didn't exist. Maybe they were props in a story.

He withheld judgment until he could see the footage captured by the security cameras at McCarran Airport in Las Vegas.

Getting it required weeks of calls to the Transportation Security Administration. Finally, on March 11, 2008 — 39 days after Gonzalez's arrest — Del Marto and his partner were led to a private room in the bowels of Los Angeles International Airport and handed a disk.

Del Marto slid it into his laptop. He watched bodies shuffle through the security line in Vegas, taking off shoes, placing luggage on the conveyor belt. The detective trained his eyes on the screen for one thing in particular: the duffel bag West said was in Gonzalez's possession.

Of all the people who said they saw Gonzalez that day, West was the only one who remembered it. She said she'd heard him zipping and unzipping it during the attack. The airline said he hadn't checked bags when he flew to California. Had he carried the duffel bag onboard?

If he could find an image of that, Del Marto thought, it just might prove the case against him.

Three cameras captured Gonzalez walking through the metal detector wearing a black suit, gray shirt and patterned tie. On each angle, Del Marto froze the frame and leaned forward. Each time, he saw the same thing. Gonzalez's hands were empty.

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