In­ter­ro­ga­tion, then re­venge

Po­lice told a gang mem­ber a girl he knew had iden­ti­fied him as a killer. Soon she was dead.

Los Angeles Times - - Front Page - By Joel Ru­bin and Ari B. Bloomekatz

On a cool spring night five years ago, 16-year-old Martha Pue­bla sat on the curb out­side her Sun Val­ley home, talk­ing to a friend, when aman walked up from be­hind.

“Who are you?” the man de­manded of Pue­bla.

“I’m Martha,” she re­sponded. “You know me.”

With that, the man pulled a 9-mil­lime­ter hand­gun from his sweat shirt pocket and started shoot­ing. The fa­tal shot — fired from so close that it left soot and burn marks on Pue­bla’s cheek — struck just be­low her left eye.

Alarmed by the gun­fire, Pue­bla’s mother rushed out­side. “¡ Dios mío! ¡Está muerta!” the neigh­bors heard her cry from down the block. “My God! She’s dead!”

Po­lice swarmed the area, rop­ing it off with yel­low tape. Plas­tic let­ters mark­ing pieces of ev­i­dence dot­ted the street. Cam­eras flashed. And, of course, there was the body. Pue­bla lay sprawled on her back in the street, legs splayed, eyes still open, her white sweater drenched in blood.

Martin Pin­ner, a homi­cide de­tec­tive with the Los An­ge­les Po­lice De­part­ment, was home that night. But when a po­lice su­per­vi­sor learned the young girl’s name, he called Pin­ner.

Pin­ner and his part­ner, Juan Ro­driguez, had been to that same dreary cor­ner of Lull Street and Case Av­enue months be­fore to in­ves­ti­gate the mur­der of an­other teen. They had met Pue­bla then. The de­tec­tives, who were as­signed

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[ the case, worked through the night and into the next morn­ing track­ing down leads. It would be years be­fore the pieces of the case would fully come to­gether, but in those early hours there should have been an ob­vi­ous ques­tion: In try­ing to solve one mur­der, had the de­tec­tives set into mo­tion an­other?

The events lead­ing to Martha Pue­bla’s slay­ing be­gan five months ear­lier out­side her bed­room win­dow. Shortly be­fore 2 a.m. on Nov. 27, 2002, a girl­friend of Pue­bla’s pulled up out­side her house. The teenage girl, whom The Times is not iden­ti­fy­ing for her safety at the re­quest of a pros­e­cu­tor, had come with an­other friend, Chris­tian Var­gas. He stayed in the car while the girl went to Pue­bla’s ground-floor win­dow and asked if she wanted to come hang out.

As the girls talked, gun­shots sud­denly filled the night air. The girl jumped through the win­dow, cow­er­ing in Pue­bla’s room. Af­ter a few min­utes, she ap­proached the car, where she found Var­gas’ body rid­dled with bul­lets. He begged the girl for help and then died, his head slumped against the steer­ing wheel.

Af­ter early in­ter­views, sus­pi­cion fell quickly on Jose Ledesma, a mem­ber of the Vineland Boyz — a no­to­ri­ous, vi­o­lent gang that con­trolled much of the drug sales on the streets of Sun Val­ley. That night de­tec­tives searched his fam­ily’s home. Un­der his mat­tress, they found a loaded as­sault ri­fle and let­ters from other Vineland Boyz, many of them writ­ten from prison.

“Peps,” as Ledesma was called in the gang, wasn’t there. The de­tec­tives were told that he was hang­ing out with an­other Vineland Boyz mem­ber, Mario Cata­lan.

The next morn­ing, af­ter hear­ing that the po­lice had been at his house, Ledesma crossed the border with Cata­lan and checked into a mo­tel in Ti­juana.

Two days later, Pin­ner and Ro­driguez caught a break.

Mex­i­can po­lice, re­spond­ing to a do­mes­tic abuse call from a passerby, found Ledesma, Cata­lan and Cata­lan’s girl­friend drunk af­ter a day at a sea­side re­sort town. Cata­lan and his girl­friend had got­ten into a fight. Ques­tioned by Mex­i­can au­thor­i­ties, the wo­man told them that Ledesma and Cata­lan were wanted in Los An­ge­les for mur­der.

By night­fall, the sus­pects had been hauled back to LAPD’s North Hol­ly­wood sta­tion for book­ing. Pin­ner and Ro­driguez brought Ledesma, 19, into an in­ter­view room and flipped on a tape recorder. Ro­driguez read Ledesma his Mi­randa rights, and Pin­ner started grilling him. Ledesma, who didn’t call a lawyer, showed no signs of crack­ing. He mocked and swore at Pin­ner, re­peat­edly deny­ing any role in the killings.

“You got the wrong per­son, buddy,” Ledesma said.

“OK. I don’t agree with you, and I have the ev­i­dence to prove it,” Pin­ner said. “I have mul­ti­ple wit­nesses who are go­ing to tes­tify that you were the shooter.”

Pin­ner told Ledesma he knew the gang mem­ber had been on his way to Martha Pue­bla’s house to visit her the night Var­gas was killed out­side her house.

To drive home his point, Pin­ner laid down a “six-pack” — an ar­ray of mug shots that de­tec­tives of­ten show to wit­nesses or vic­tims of crimes. On it, Ledesma’s photo was cir­cled, and the ini­tials “M.P.” were writ­ten be­low it. “Those is the guy that shot my friends boyfriend” was scrawled along the mar­gin, fol­lowed by Pue­bla’s sig­na­ture.

“I don’t even know a Martha,” Ledesma lied.

Pin­ner kept try­ing, press­ing Ledesma about Pue­bla and the in­for­ma­tion he said she had given up. At one point he asked Ro­driguez for a photo of the girl to show Ledesma. Noth­ing worked. Ledesma in­sisted he did not know her.

“Well, she knows you,” the de­tec­tive said.

Even though the in­ter­ro­ga­tion was go­ing nowhere, the case against Ledesma was grow­ing stronger. Other LAPD de­tec­tives searched the car Ledesma and Cata­lan had driven to Mex­ico. They re­cov­ered a hand­gun that would even­tu­ally be matched to Var­gas’ death and an­other killing that had hap­pened the same week.

Pin­ner gave up try­ing to get Ledesma to con­fess and tried a dif­fer­ent tack. He told Cata­lan that the gun had been found and, then, hop­ing that the two sus­pects would say some­thing to in­crim­i­nate them­selves, put them in a hold­ing cell to­gether at the Van Nuys jail. A hid­den mi­cro­phone recorded what they said.

Cata­lan told Ledesma about the weapon im­me­di­ately. Ledesma was grow­ing ag­i­tated.

The next night, Ledesma reached for a pay phone out­side his cell. “Cokester,” he said into the re­ceiver, call­ing his friend Javier Co­var­ru­bias by one of his gang monikers, “do you know the slut that lives there by . . . my house? Her name starts with an M. . . I need her to dis­ap­pear. She is drop­ping dimes.”

To the gang, Pue­bla was a snitch and needed to be dealt with.

“Uh huh, like that,” Ledesma told Co­var­ru­bias, us­ing a mix of Span­ish and English. “But [keep a] low­pro[file]. . . . Stay on your toes, homie. And don’t get caught.”

Pue­bla was ap­par­ently aware that she had been la­beled a snitch. She told a friend that she knew the Vineland Boyz were blam­ing her for help­ing po­lice with the Var­gas mur­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

As the de­tec­tives pro­ceeded with their mur­der case against Ledesma, the gang­ster’s friends schemed to do away with Pue­bla. Co­var­ru­bias per­suaded other Vineland mem­bers to help. Some went to a fir­ing range to test a gun they wanted to use, dis­carded it as un­ac­cept­able and found an­other.

Then, on that May night, Co­var­ru­bias and other gang mem­bers drove to Pue­bla’s block. One of them got out of the car, walked up to the girl and killed her.

As Pin­ner and Ro­driguez worked Pue­bla’s mur­der scene, the truth was on the tape of Ledesma’s jail-cell call. But they hadn’t lis­tened to it. The jail-cell record­ing, Pin­ner said in sworn tes­ti­mony, was badly tran­scribed twice by an out­side com­pany used by the LAPD. Its con­tents re­mained un­known un­til Jan­uary 2005, when dur­ing prepa­ra­tion for Ledesma’s trial for Var­gas’ slay­ing — more than two years af­ter the record­ing was made — Span­ish-speak­ing LAPD of­fi­cers lis­tened to it and learned of the or­der to kill the girl, Pin­ner tes­ti­fied.

Pue­bla, in fact, hadn’t dropped a dime. She had not told de­tec­tives much at all. Far from help­ing the po­lice, the re­al­ity was that Pue­bla had ac­tu­ally tried to pro­tect Ledesma in the hours af­ter the shoot­ing. She al­legedly threat­ened her girl­friend, telling her that if she co­op­er­ated with au­thor­i­ties Pue­bla would tell the Vineland Boyz where the girl’s fam­ily lived.

Pue­bla’s girl­friend had told de­tec­tives that as the gun­shots went off, Pue­bla had yelled, “It’s Peps!” But Pue­bla de­nied it, telling Pin­ner, Ro­driguez and two other de­tec­tives that she had only spec­u­lated that Ledesma may have been the shooter.

When Pin­ner and Ro­driguez stepped into the in­ter­ro­ga­tion room with Ledesma, they had lit­tle real in­for­ma­tion to work with.

So they made up what they needed.

The photo six-pack was a com­plete fake. Ro­driguez had doc­tored it, cir­cling Ledesma’s photo and forg­ing Pue­bla’s state­ment and sig­na­ture.

The “ruse,” as Pin­ner would later call it in court, was a le­gal move. Fed­eral and state courts through­out the coun­try have re­peat­edly up­held the right of po­lice of­fi­cers to lie to peo­ple they have in cus­tody.

In­ter­ro­ga­tion rooms, ex­perts say, are free­wheel­ing places. De­tec­tives lie fre­quently, typ­i­cally telling a sus­pect that they have DNA ev­i­dence or video footage or wit­nesses. Some­times they go the ex­tra step of mak­ing up doc­u­ments to bol­ster their lies. De­tec­tives are not al­lowed to strike deals with sus­pects in ex­change for a con­fes­sion, and they are not al­lowed to threaten them with bod­ily harm.

At the same time, “you’ve got to use some com­mon sense,” said Den­nis Kil­coyne, pres­i­dent of the Cal­i­for­nia Homi­cide In­ves­ti­ga­tors Assn. and a de­tec­tive with the LAPD’s Rob­bery­Homi­cide Di­vi­sion. “You’re not go­ing to be telling gang mem­bers ‘Ms. Brown down the street saw you do­ing this,’ be­cause you put their lives in jeop­ardy.”

When a po­lice of­fi­cer be­lieves some­one may be in dan­ger be­cause of their in­volve­ment in a case, Kil­coyne and oth­ers said, it is stan­dard pro­ce­dure to warn the per­son and of­fer them pro­tec­tion.

But Pue­bla’s par­ents, who have re­cently filed a civil law­suit against the de­tec­tives and the LAPD, said in an in­ter­view that no one from the LAPD ever warned their daugh­ter that she might be in dan­ger. And a de­tailed log the de­tec­tives kept of their in­ves­ti­ga­tion shows no in­di­ca­tion that they had con­tact with Pue­bla or her par­ents af­ter they used the girl to bait Ledesma dur­ing the in­ter­ro­ga­tion.

A fed­eral pros­e­cu­tor in­volved in the case said he re­called see­ing notes from a meet­ing at which of­fi­cials from the L.A. County dis­trict at­tor­ney’s of­fice of­fered pro­tec­tion to Pue­bla. The pros­e­cu­tor ac­knowl­edged that he did not at­tend the meet­ing, which oc­curred about five months af­ter de­tec­tives had given Pue­bla’s name to Ledesma.

Pin­ner, Ro­driguez and the dis­trict at­tor­ney’s of­fice de­clined to com­ment for this ar­ti­cle.

Eleven days be­fore she was killed, Pue­bla tes­ti­fied at a pre­lim­i­nary hear­ing in Ledesma’s mur­der trial. She was a re­luc­tant and un­help­ful wit­ness, as she had been with Pin­ner and Ro­driguez the morn­ing of the shoot­ing, telling the pros­e­cu­tor that she had not seen the shooter. She said she had not seen much of any­thing at all.

Her tes­ti­mony, how­ever, ei­ther did noth­ing to pla­cate Ledesma or he was un­able to stop the killing he had or­dered.

In 2004, fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tors got in­volved in the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Pue­bla’s killing as part of a larger case against the Vineland Boyz. Last year, in a fed­eral plea deal to avoid the death penalty, Ledesma, Co­var­ru­bias and the gang mem­ber thought to be the gun­man ad­mit­ted to tak­ing part in killing Pue­bla. A fourth Vineland Boyz mem­ber who par­tic­i­pated is thought to have fled to Mex­ico and is be­ing sought, a fed­eral pros­e­cu­tor said.

With the ar­rival of fed­eral au­thor­i­ties, Pin­ner and Ro­driguez were phased out as the lead in­ves­ti­ga­tors. They soon were sep­a­rated as part­ners. Ro­driguez was trans­ferred to an auto theft de­tail and is cur­rently as­signed to a vice unit. Pin­ner re­mains a homi­cide de­tec­tive in North Hol­ly­wood.

Be­fore fed­eral prose­cu­tors and the LAPD sorted out Pue­bla’s mur­der, how­ever, Pin­ner and Ro­driguez had ar­rested an in­no­cent man in con­nec­tion with Pue­bla’s slay­ing. Based on bad in­for­ma­tion from sources, the de­tec­tives pinned the slay­ing on Juan Cata­lan — Mario Cata­lan’s brother. Juan Cata­lan sat in jail for five months await­ing trial un­til his lawyer turned up video footage show­ing Cata­lan was at a Dodgers game at the time of the shoot­ing. A judge threw out the case, and Cata­lan was awarded $320,000 in a wrong­ful-ar­rest suit.

The day the de­tec­tives ar­rested Juan Cata­lan, they thought they had the right man. They brought him into an in­ter­view room in the same North Hol­ly­wood sta­tion where they had grilled Ledesma nine months be­fore. Once again they switched on a recorder. Cata­lan begged the de­tec­tives to be­lieve him, that he had noth­ing to do with Pue­bla’s death. He asked to take a lie-de­tec­tor test.

But Pin­ner and Ro­driguez weren’t hav­ing any of it. Pin­ner told Cata­lan that peo­ple had seen him shoot the girl. He pushed three six-packs in front of him. His pic­ture was cir­cled. Wit­nesses had signed their names.

They were all fake. But Cata­lan, of course, didn’t know that.

“You see,” Ro­driguez told Cata­lan, “the pic­tures don’t lie.” joel.ru­[email protected]­times.com [email protected]­times.com

DEAD: LAPD de­tec­tives may have put Martha Pue­bla’s life in jeop­ardy while ques­tion­ing a sus­pect in a slay­ing.

AF­TER­MATH: An LAPD crime scene photo ob­tained by The Times shows the body of Martha Pue­bla, 16, who was shot and killed out­side her Sun Val­ley home five years ago. The shooter was so close that the gun­shot left soot and burn marks on her cheek. A...

‘ SIX- PACK’: In a photo ar­ray shown to Jose Ledesma, de­tec­tives at­trib­uted a state­ment and sig­na­ture to Pue­bla. This ar­ray was later ad­mit­ted into ev­i­dence in L.A. County Su­pe­rior Court in Van Nuys.

PO­LICE: LAPD homi­cide Dets. Martin Pin­ner, left, and Juan Ro­driguez, seen in a video de­po­si­tion, iden­ti­fied Martha Pue­bla to sus­pect Jose Ledesma as a wit­ness in the slay­ing of Chris­tian Var­gas.

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