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Thursday, June 13, 2024 | Back issues
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Free After 20 Years,|Man Sues El Paso Police

EL PASO, Texas (CN) - Exonerated in the murders of two teenagers after almost 20 years in prison, Daniel Villegas claims El Paso police suppressed evidence of his innocence, coerced a false confession and "completely corrupted the investigative process."

Villegas, 38, sued El Paso, former Chief of Police John Scagno, investigators Alfonso Marquez, Scott Graves, Earl Arbogast, Joe Laredo and four other officers who worked on the case, on Thursday in Federal Court.

He claims the officers used threats of inmate rape, death by electric chair and actual physical assaults to coerce a false statement from him and other teenagers who corroborated their bogus account of the 1993 crime.

Villegas was released from a Texas prison on bond last year after a judge threw out a confession and the state's highest criminal court overturned his capital murder conviction and ordered a new trial.

Villegas was 16 years old in 1993 when Armando Lazo,17, and Robert England,18, were murdered walking home from a party around midnight on Good Friday. The drive-by killings shook the border town already besieged by gang violence, and filled the community with even more fear.

The case has drawn national attention and was featured on a recent episode of the NBC news show "Dateline."

Although the jury hung at his first trial, a second jury convicted Villegas of the slayings in 1995 and sentenced him to life in prison.

Villegas says in his lengthy complaint that he was in an apartment watching a movie at the time of the murders and had nothing to do with the crime. He says officers used "violence, threats of violence, and false promises of leniency to coerce" false statements from him and three other teenagers.

His lawsuit says police botched the case against him from the start, that they lacked probable cause to justify his arrest and did not follow procedures mandated by Texas law for the treatment of juvenile arrestees.

The El Paso Police Department did not return a phone call seeking comment Monday afternoon.

Villegas says police began by pointing the finger at Jesse Hernandez, an eyewitness and friend of both dead teenagers, who was walking alongside them when shots rang out.

He says that Marquez threatened Hernandez with "the electric chair if he did not confess," but when police were unable to secure confessions from Hernandez or from two other teenagers, they zeroed in on Villegas, "desperate to pin the crime on someone in the face of mounting public pressure to solve these high-profile murders."

Villegas, who says he had never before faced a police interrogation, claims that when he was taken into custody, he was handcuffed to a chair and harassed repeatedly for a confession.

"Defendant Marquez struck Mr. Villegas on the back of the head while telling him 'we know you did it.' Defendant officers told Mr. Villegas that he was going to get 'fucked in jail,'" according to the lawsuit.

He says Marquez told him that if he did not confess he would "drive him out to the desert, handcuff him to the car door and 'kick your ass,' and then make him walk back to town where Marquez told him he 'would 'personally ... put you in a tank with a bunch of fat faggots and they're going to rape you.'"


When he gave the investigator a statement denying involvement in the crime, "defendant Marquez took the statement from the typewriter and crumpled it up," the lawsuit states.

"Defendant slapped Mr. Villegas and told him he would be executed, and that Marquez would pull the switch on the electric chair himself, if Mr. Villegas did not confess to being the shooter."

Villegas says Marquez began to feed him information placing him as the shooter under the guise "that if he made a statement he would be taken to the juvenile probation department and not to jail. If he refused, then Marquez told Mr. Villegas that he would beat him," the complaint states.

It continues: "Eventually, at 2:40 am on April 22, 1993, the defendant officers' coercion forced Mr. Villegas to involuntarily sign a one-page typewritten false statement that had been prepared by defendant Marquez. The statement falsely implicated Mr. Villegas as the shooter in the murders, but provided no corroborating details apart from those already known to the police. ...

"Because Mr. Villegas' statement was a coerced false statement rather than a true voluntary confession, despite defendant officers' best efforts to fabricate a compelling and consistent confession, his statement contained numerous details which were demonstrably false."

Villegas began recanting the statement almost immediately. That same morning, he told a juvenile probation officer that he "didn't do it" and that he confessed only because police had coerced him, according to the lawsuit.

An eighth-grade dropout with the reading ability of a third-grader, court-ordered psychological evaluations conducted after the 16 year-old's arrest found that Villegas had "questionable" insight and judgment.

Villegas says police dismissed information implicating two brothers in the murders as "rumors" and eliminated them as suspects early in the investigation.

"Defendant officers had tunnel vision. They ignored evidence and failed to pursue leads that might contradict their fabricated evidence implicating Mr. Villegas," the complaint states.

It says that even before Marquez's interrogation of Villegas, Marquez had a "lengthy disciplinary record, including allegations of criminal conduct and assault."

Marquez "has admitted that he has worn a doctor's smock during interrogations in order to trick suspects into giving statements to him" and stated that "he could have gotten anybody to confess to the Lazo and England murder if he wanted to do so," according to the complaint.

It adds that the judge who freed Villegas concluded that Marquez was "not credible" and had a history of committing egregious misconduct.

But Villegas, who now works in the construction industry, faces a third trial, according to media reports.

A state judge in 2014 suppressed his false confession as involuntary and ordered that it not be used against him at retrial, the complaint states.

"The court found that defendant officers had obtained the statement 'in violation of [Mr. Villegas'] constitutional rights,' and that the testimony of defendants Marquez and Ortega regarding his interrogation was 'not credible.' Finding no possible basis to disagree with the court's ruling, the state did not appeal." (Brackets in complaint.)

Villegas, a father of two, says his wrongful incarceration stripped him of the pleasures of basic human experiences, including contact his children and fiancée. His daughter was an infant when he was convicted in 1995.

He says spending almost two decades in prison caused tremendous damage, including "numerous instances of physical abuse perpetrated by both guards and prisoners, as well as numerous instances of attempted sexual assault."

Villegas seeks punitive and compensatory damages for constitutional violations, false imprisonment, conspiracy and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

He is represented by Felix Valenzuela of El Paso.

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