A federal judge has overturned the murder conviction of a Santa Ana man found guilty in 2012 of shooting a fellow gang member in the head and stashing his body in a children’s pool. Prosecutors will not seek a new trial.
U.S. District Court Judge Dolly M. Gee reversed the conviction based on evidence that a Santa Ana homicide detective secretly promised money to a jailhouse informant to testify that defendant Ramon Alvarez had confessed to him.
Six years after the conviction, informant Craig Gonzales said in a sworn declaration that he lied when he testified against Alvarez because he wanted an unspecified amount of money promised him by now-retired Detective David Rondou. Gonzales testified that he also was told he could move to any prison that he wanted.
Rondou countered in court testimony that he paid Gonzales $11,000 from a state reward fund after the trial to cover the informant’s burial costs. He testified Gonzales was terminally ill and close to death at the time.
Gonzales was not dying, however, court records show.
Detective not credible
U.S. Magistrate Judge Karen L. Stevenson ruled in a special report in January that Rondou’s explanation was not credible.
“A reasonable fact finder would not credit Detective Rondou’s testimony about the money to Gonzales,” Stevenson concluded. “Detective Rondou’s testimony was implausible because no evidence corroborated his testimony that the purpose of the money was Gonzales’ burial expenses.”
For his part, Rondou disputed Gonzales’ contention that he was promised money before he testified in the murder trial and was told to lie about his history as an informant.
Although Alvarez’s murder sentence of 25 years to life was vacated, he was turned over by state authorities to a federal prison for an unrelated felony charge.
Body found in pool
The murder case against Alvarez stemmed from a 911 call about shots fired in a Santa Ana neighborhood in June 1998. While investigating, police found the body of Ruben Leal in an inflatable children’s pool in a backyard shed.
An autopsy showed that the muzzle of an assault-type rifle had been placed against the side of Leal’s head and fired. His brains and ice were found in a plastic bag beside his body in the pool. Other nearby bags contained blood and dirt.
Alvarez was found by police in the house, but he was not convicted until 14 years later, based on the testimony of Gonzales, the key witness.
Although Alvarez maintained his innocence, Gonzales testified the defendant described how he killed Leal and how he considered telling police it was a suicide.
The promise of payment to Gonzales and his history as an informant was withheld from the defense and the trial jury — a violation of the Brady disclosure law. Gonzales later said he was instructed by police to testify that he was not promised anything and to deny that he was an informant in any prior case.
Rondou countered that Gonzales didn’t know he was getting money until the detective showed up at the prison with a check.
Judge Stevenson acknowledged that Gonzales had a lengthy criminal history and spotty credibility. But she said it was even more difficult to believe Rondou.
“Significant parts of Detective Rondou’s testimony were contradicted by other witnesses, not just Craig Gonzales,” Stevenson wrote.
Retired prosecutor Mark Geller denied Rondou’s contention that he knew in advance about the payment. Gonzales’ daughter also denied Rondou’s statement that she phoned him and was worried about money to pay for her father’s pending burial expenses.
“Detective Rondou’s account of the money had no credibility because it was uncorroborated and contradicted by multiple sources of evidence, including the prosecutor’s testimony and Gonzales’ objective medical evidence,” Stevenson ruled.
The District Attorney’s Office has decided not to retry the case after losing its key witness.
Kimberly Edds, a spokesperson for the office, said the federal court overturned the conviction because of “the unscrupulous behavior of a Santa Ana police detective who paid a jailhouse informant for testimony and then never disclosed it to the prosecutor. The court clearly found our prosecutor was credible when he testified he was completely unaware of any payment being made to this individual.”
Edds added, “Because the jailhouse informant and the Santa Ana police detective have no credibility and there is insufficient evidence for a conviction in this case … the prosecutorial team agreed that we could not retry this case.”
Under a policy change in the D.A.’s office, Edds said, District Attorney Todd Spitzer now must sign off on the use of jailhouse informants and no such informant has been used since he took office in 2019.
Other cases affected
Rondou’s use of informants has led to the downfall of other cases as well.
For instance, in 2014, defendant Isaac Palacios was allowed to plead guilty to second-degree murder — admitting he shot his victim 15 times. But he left jail that night as part of the plea bargain after serving only 3½ years behind bars.
The reason for the deal was the improper use of jailhouse informants by Rondou, other Santa Ana detectives and prosecutors. By using jail informants to extract incriminating statements from Palacios, authorities violated his right to have an attorney present.
Evidence emerged showing that the informant sought compensation for himself in exchange for his testimony, even linking the quality of his memory to the size of his reward, according to court records. That evidence was withheld for years from the defense team.
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The misconduct by Orange County police and prosecutors under former District Attorney Tony Rackauckas was repeated over and over again, according to years of investigation headed by Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders.
Sanders renewed his call Wednesday, June 22, for an independent probe into all of Rondou’s cases.
“We began presenting evidence in 2014 that showed why every one of Rondou’s cases needed to be reexamined. It’s been win at all costs and truth be damned, as he and his buddies trashed the rights of the accused again and again,” Sanders said.
In another Rondou-involved case, convicted killer Leonel Vega had his life sentence reduced to 15 years because Santa Ana police improperly used a jailhouse informant to gain information.
Said Edds: “It is beyond tragic that the misuse of the system by a dishonest police detective has caused so much pain to the family of the victims.”