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Chicago Tribune

Jailed By Lies, Freed By Truth

After more than 5 years in custody for a murder they didn't commit, 4 men are exonerated. Two are released and hope to rebuild their lives.

By David Heinzmann and Jeff Coen
Tribune staff reporter Matthew Walberg contributed to this report.

December 22, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Chicago Tribune. All rights reserved. 

When Edar Duarte Santos moved his family from Puerto Rico in 1995, he found more than a landlord in Miguel LaSalle.

Santos and his wife, Lillian, had come to Chicago to seek better medical care for their son, who was born with brain damage. The family moved into one of LaSalle's apartments on North California Avenue and Santos found extra work as a handyman for his landlord. The two men became friends.

A photograph of those days, curled slightly with age, shows LaSalle and Santos relaxing at the kitchen table, emptied plates and a few Miller High Life cans in front of them.

And then came Nov. 7, 1997. Santos was out watching a televised prizefight when his wife called his cell phone and said police were looking for him.

Soon he was in a police interview room, and his fear and confusion were turning to anger and the sharp pain of betrayal. The detectives said LaSalle had accused him of taking part in a murder that July.

With the story LaSalle told police in 1997, he shattered the lives of four men from the Logan Square neighborhood who would be convicted in the torture-killing of furniture store owner Sindulfo Miranda.

One was a factory worker with a wife and two children. One was an undocumented Mexican immigrant working two jobs to send money home. One had a history of drug peddling but often appeared to be homeless, and one was a bicycle repairman who had turned to small-time burglaries. Their ages ranged from 19 to 34.

Last week, out of the blue, the four got a chance to put their lives back together. The U.S. attorney's office charged LaSalle with lying about the Miranda murder, an act that prosecutors said had helped cover the tracks of the real killers--a band of gang members who are now accused of killing the 56-year-old Northwest Side man in an attempt to steal drugs and money from him.

Hours after U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald announced the dramatic development Wednesday, Santos was back home with his family.

Sitting at his kitchen table Thursday, Santos said he had nearly lost hope in prison. "I prayed that one day the truth would come out," he said.

Released with Santos was Omar Aguirre, who is now 33. Two others--Robert Gayol, 39, and Luis Ortiz, 24, remain behind bars for other convictions.

Glimmer of hope

Although he still faces several years on a burglary sentence, Gayol suddenly has hope of a life beyond jail. After a bench trial in 2001, Gayol had been sentenced to life in prison. But he has remained in Cook County Jail while his lawyer tried to arrange a new trial.

He was sitting in his cell in Division 11 Wednesday afternoon when a female guard walked by with a question.

"She asked, `Do you believe in God?' And I said I did," Gayol said Friday. "She asked why, so I told her, `It's because the Lord has helped me in many bad situations.'"

Within minutes, the guard led Gayol to a small meeting room where his attorney had some amazing news. He was being cleared of the Miranda murder; his life sentence would be wiped out.

"I was overwhelmed," he said, sitting again in the room where he had gotten word of his exoneration. Tears welled up in his eyes as he talked about leaving Cook County Jail, where he has been held since 1997.

"I'm going to church to thank God first," he said. "Then I want to go to school. I want a family, I've gotten too old being in this place."

Gayol was in his early 30s when he first heard of Miguel LaSalle. In the months before Miranda was killed, Gayol moved in with his girlfriend in a building owned by LaSalle.

After being arrested and jailed for a string of burglaries that summer, Gayol said his first inkling he was facing a murder rap was the following fall, when police took him from jail and drove him to a site less than two miles away.

The officers parked their car on an isolated side street on the Southwest Side, where Miranda's body had been found months earlier in his burning Mercedes.

"They said, `Do you remember this place from July, when you lit that match?'" Gayol said. "I told them I had no idea what they were talking about."

By that time, LaSalle had included Gayol in his story about the murder, placing him in a bar he had never been to, hatching a murder plot with four men--two who were strangers and two he barely knew.

In LaSalle's version of events, he witnessed five men plotting Miranda's murder, saw them with the victim on the night of the killing and even talked to Santos by cell phone during the crime.

LaSalle told police that bar owner Ronny Gamboa hatched a plot to rob and kill Miranda and enlisted the help of Santos, Gayol, Aguirre and Ortiz. Gamboa was acquitted.

The original police investigation first led to LaSalle because someone using Miranda's cell phone before the murder called LaSalle's pager repeatedly, according to court documents. When they hauled LaSalle in for questioning, he began to point the finger at the five men he knew.

Santos said LaSalle tried to sell him a cell phone in August 1997, a month after Miranda's murder. After his arrest Santos learned the phone belonged to Miranda.

"I never used it. I took it to a shop to transfer my [cellular plan] to it" but the store owner needed the signature of the original owner to sign the phone over to Santos, he said. LaSalle never signed the phone over and Santos said he never retrieved it from the store.

That fall, Santos got a call from LaSalle, whom he said was being questioned by police.

"He asked me if I still had that phone," said Santos, who said he believed LaSalle was trying to use the phone to tie him to Miranda.

Questionable ties

The only codefendant Santos knew was Omar Aguirre, a hardworking immigrant he had befriended when Aguirre fixed his car.

Aguirre, who is estranged from his wife in Mexico but had been sending money home to support his children and his parents, said in an interview he did not know any of the other codefendants. In the two years he lived in Chicago before being arrested he had usually worked two jobs, sorting paper six days a week at a recycling center and moonlighting at an auto body shop.

Aguirre's plan to save a nest egg before returning to Mexico was derailed when he was arrested for the Miranda murder. For a man who spoke almost no English, the next three days of interrogation were baffling and frightening.

"They were always coming back and asking me" for details of the murder, he said through an interpreter Thursday. "I just kept telling them I didn't know what they were talking about."

Aguirre said he was struck by police and once tossed into a corner before signing a confession. Aguirre later claimed his confession, which was written in English, was invented by police and he thought he was signing a release to go home.

The confession implicated his friend Santos as well. After five days of being interrogated, Santos was also charged.

A jury convicted Aguirre in 1999 and sentenced him to 55 years in prison. Just one day after his release last week, Aguirre had found a construction job and resumed pursuing his dream of making enough money here to live comfortably in Mexico one day.

"This country is like any country," he said of America. "But the police don't properly do their jobs."

Chicago police and prosecutors are reviewing the handling of the cases.

"I can tell you that our detectives followed the evidence as it existed in 1997," Supt. Terry Hillard said. "That evidence included an eyewitness account of the crime by a person who knew the offenders ... No one here is currently in a position to accurately assess the prior investigation."

Other than Santos and Aguirre, the others were only vaguely acquainted, if at all.

Gayol said he once sold Santos an air conditioner, but that was his only contact with him. Gamboa said Ortiz occasionally panhandled outside his tavern, Ronny's Bar, at 2103 N. California Ave. None of the men were patrons of his bar, Gamboa said, but Miranda was an occasional customer.

Despite his family's fight to show he was working at a Franklin Park factory on the day Miranda was killed, Santos sat in jail for four years with his case unresolved.

Painful decision

Eventually, he said, he made a practical decision to plead guilty to a crime he had not committed. The deal on the table, with time served in jail, would have meant his release in August.

"I was real tired of being locked up and I'd lost faith that my lawyer would represent me 100 percent. And the other guys had gotten life and 55 years," he said. "I had the choice to either do this short time and be with my family again or take my chances at being in prison for at least 25 years, and then not have my wife and kids when I got out."

Gayol had drifted apart from his family, who initially had no idea he was even jailed. Christmas 1997 came and went, he said, with his mother wondering what had happened to him.

Ortiz declined a request for an interview at the Pontiac Correctional Center, where he remains, serving an 8-year sentence for a 2001 stabbing at Cook County Jail.

Facing the prospect of a lengthy prison term, Ortiz turned state's evidence and testified against Gayol at his 2001 bench trial before Judge Ronald Himel.

Gayol remembered Ortiz from the neighborhood as a man often in need of spare change or a cigarette. Gayol said he would occasionally lead Ortiz into a neighborhood store and put a pack of cigarettes on his tab for Ortiz.

Ortiz testified Gayol was among the men solicited to kill Miranda in a robbery.

"For him to get up on the stand and say those lies," Gayol said. "How could you do that to anybody? Of course it was to save himself."

The testimony earned Ortiz a 25-year prison term, instead of a potential life sentence. Even in the face of the testimony, Gayol said he remained hopeful Himel would see through the fog of accusations surrounding the case. He did not.

"He told me he hoped I would never see the light of day," Gayol said. "He humiliated me."

Himel has since said he believed Ortiz.

Crushing blow

For Gayol, the life sentence was devastating. As he began to cry, he said: "How could you find someone guilty of something he has absolutely no knowledge of?"

Ortiz also testified against Gamboa, who was acquitted in 2000. His attorney, George Becker, said this week that "the case just smelled rotten."

To believe Ortiz, Becker said, Gamboa solicited the murder in front of multiple witnesses, and then the victim just happened to appear at the bar.

"And then nobody got a dime," Becker said of a case where the supposed motive was robbery. Gamboa said he went deep in debt fighting the charges.

Assistant Public Defender John Conniff plans to argue Gayol should soon be released from the jail. He was sentenced to 14 years in prison for his burglaries, and is eligible to serve half of that time.

He has served more than five years, and Conniff said he plans to argue that Gayol received a stiff sentence for the burglaries because his murder case was pending.

Whenever he is released, Gayol said he would stay in Chicago.

"This is my home," he said.

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