Serrano and Montañez, a long journey to justice

Armando Serrano and José Montañez spent 23 years in jail for a crime they didn’t commit. After a long and painful process both, were exonerated and liberated from jail back in July of this year. But the scars of injustice and the shadow of the detective who wrongfully implicated them still haunt both men. They told their stories, exclusively to La Raza
Serrano and Montañez, a long journey to justice
José Montañez and Armando Serrano were exonerated after spending 23 years in jail for a crime they didn´t commit.
Foto: Illinois Department of Corrections

In the morning of February 5 of 1993, a man named Rodrigo Vargas was sitting inside his van at his house in Humboldt Park, getting ready to go to work. The van’s engine was running. Vargas had a radio turned on and a wallet with $190 in cash.

Minutes later, he was shot multiple times and killed.

It was around 5:32 am. Some neighbors heard the gunshots. His widow, Wilda Vargas, told the police her husband didn’t and never had any enemies. Nobody witnessed the shooting, only one neighbor testified that when he heard the shots he looked outside his window and saw a GM brown sedan fleeing the crime scene, according to court records.

Months later, three men of Puerto Rican descent from Humboldt Park were arrested for Vargas’ homicide.

Without any witnesses to the shooting, nor physical evidence, nor ballistic evidence, nor weapons found, nor DNA evidence, nor any possible motives, these three men were found guilty of Vargas’ murder and sentenced to 55 years in prison: Armando Serrano, José Montañez y Jorge Pacheco.

When the judge read the verdict, Montañez got on his knees in front of the judge, swearing his innocence, begging the judge to reconsider, said his mother Carmen, to La Raza, in a recent interview.

A short time later, for inexplicable reasons, Pacheco was acquitted of the murder by Judge Michael Bolan, the same judge who initially had sentenced all three. “The evidence against Pacheco is basically identical to the evidence against the others,” dictated an opinion decided in June of this year by the Illinois Appellate Court, First District.

Serrano and Montañez didn’t have the same luck as Pacheco; both remained in prison for 23 years.

But their fate changed on July 20th, 2016, when, after a lengthy legal battle, Serrano and Montañez were declared not guilty and set free after an investigation carried by the Cook County State Attorney’s Office at the request of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. “Based on the unique facts and circumstances of this case and based upon the most recent Appellate Court opinion, the Office determined that all charges were dismissed,” said the State Attorney’s Office in a statement to La Raza.

When both men were set free from their respective prisons – Serrano from the Dixon Correctional Center and Montañez from Danville – both found themselves in front of a huge crowd of family, friends, news reporters and curious people, observing the event from the distance. They were free. Going back to the outside world was for each like traveling in a time machine to the future.

The complex case involving a CPD detective

Montañez, Serrano and Pacheco were victims of alleged police misconduct by retired detective Reynaldo Guevara from the Chicago Police Department, according to the Appellate Court.

Guevara fabricated a testimony so that a man named Francisco Vicente –who, according to court documents, was a heroin addict and was in jail for three armed robberies– would testify against all three men in exchange for a shorter sentence.

Vicente accepted. Had he been sentenced for his alleged crimes, Vicente could have faced 100 years in jail, but thanks to Guevara’s deal, he received nine, according to court documents.

“He received a lot of benefits in exchange for his testimony. They put him in the witness cue, where he was able to have access to cigarettes, food, visits, and conjugal visits,” said Serrano’s lawyer Jennifer Bonjean of Bonjean Law Group Firm with offices in New York and Chicago. Bonjean and Montañez’s lawyer, Russell Ainsworth, worked and investigated this case for more than five years through the Exoneration Project of the University of Chicago.

According to Bonjean, Vicente also was used by Guevara and the Cook County State Attorney’s Office in two other murder convictions to “say that those men had admitted the murders to him. He had the nickname of the ‘Pope of Humboldt Park’ because everybody would ‘confess’ to him,” Bonjean said.

But before the arrests of Montañez, Serrano and Pacheco, and before Vicente was used as a witness, Guevara and detective Earnest Halvorsen tried to get another fake witness, a man named Timothy Rankins, who, after being beaten, declined to give a false testimony, according to the Court.

Sometime later, Rankins signed an affidavit stating that both detectives gave him photographs of the three defendants and forced him to sign a statement to say that those were the killers. “Guevara used violence in an attempt to get him to incriminate the defendants in this case,” according to the Court document.

Afraid of a retaliation, Rankins later left for Puerto Rico, Bonjean said.

In 2004, once out of jail, Vicente decided to sign an affidavit to tell the truth about Guevara. In the affidavit notes obtained by La Raza, Vicente affirms that he was put into the Witness Protection Program, where he had benefits and special treatments such as receiving jewelry, cash from Guevara, steaks, pizza, two visits a day and clothes.

In the beginning, according to Vicente’s declaration, Guevara had told him: “We want you to say that you were there, you were driving the car, you saw it”. But Vicente declined to give that testimony. Guevara then continued brainstorming ideas until he would come up with a testimony that Vicente would agree to so that Vicente wouldn’t be implicated in the murder, according to Vicente’s sworn testimony. Detective Halvorsen had said to him, “we’re gonna make sure that you don’t get charged [with the murder of Vargas], you don’t get sentenced, everything will be all right”.

Vicente also declared that the prosecutors from the Cook County State Attorney’s Office who worked on the Vargas case, Michel Coghlan and John Dillon, were present when the detectives were working with Vicente. “Coughlan and Dillon knew what was happening behind closed doors. They were sitting there listening when Guevara was brainstorming,” Vicente stated.

Guevara had a close working relationship with the judges and prosecutors, Bonjean said.

“Guevara was a bad cop but no cop can do all of that alone. It’s not possible. There has to be an infrastructure that allows him to behave this way. It resulted in the wrongful conviction of hundreds of people. Guevara is only a scratch on the surface,” Bonjean said.

According to Court findings, Coghlan handled two other murder cases where he allegedly used other false testimonies from Vicente.

Today, Coghlan is a judge for the Circuit Court of Cook County. He was elected in 2000 prior to serving in the Cook County State Attorney’s Office for 13 years. Prior to the elections in 2000, the Chicago Bar Association enlisted Coghlan in its guide for voters as “not recommended” for judge for “lack of legal experience”.

La Raza contacted Coghlan who declined to respond. However, Pat Milhizer, director of Communications for the Office of the Chief Judge, replied for him saying: “Judge Coghlan may not comment about the matter you are asking about because the rules that govern judicial conduct in Illinois state that judges should abstain from public comment about matters that currently are or may come before any court”.

Until today, Coghlan has not been investigated nor formally accused of any wrongdoing.

Why them?

Why did Guevara pick Montañez, Pacheco and Serrano in Vargas’ case?

“Some of the people were chosen randomly [by Guevara and other detectives from Area 5]. They just wanted to close cases because they got benefits from closing cases. There are reports that he would let people buy their way out of cases and that he would set up innocent people so that he could protect gangbangers and other criminals who were the guilty party and get paid for it. There is evidence of it,” Bonjean said.

“One of the better pieces of evidence of that was [Joseph] Miedzianowski, the most corrupt cop in the city’s history [from Area 5] who was prosecuted and found guilty and was sentenced to life in prison. He did business with gangs and did it for money. One of the gangbangers he had done business with him… spoke to the FBI and told them information and cooperated with the FBI and told everything he knew about Area 5 and Guevara, how he bought his way out of cases. They didn’t see these kids as humans, they were… interchangeable, it didn’t matter,” Bonjean said.

Guevara pleads the Fifth Amendment

On May 15 of 2013, when Serrano and Montañez were represented by Bonjean and Ainsworth respectively, Guevara was summoned to an evidentiary hearing where he took the Fifth Constitutional Amendment, a law that protects an individual to be a witness against him or herself and to answer questions that could be held against him or her.

To find answers as to why Guevara has not been prosecuted for these allegations of police misconduct, La Raza contacted the Office of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, which responded that his office “doesn’t handle this type of information,” directing us to the Chicago Police Department, which directed us to the entity that investigates police misconduct, the Independent Police Review Authority, which informed us that such agency doesn’t have the powers to investigate cases of retired policemen.

In essence, while Guevara invokes the Fifth Amendment not much can be done in legal terms, Ainsworth said. The only way would be opening a criminal investigation by the Cook County State Attorney’s Office.

La Raza contacted Cook County State Attorney Anita Alvarez who didn’t reply directly. However, her office sent this statement: “Regarding former Detective Guevara, the City of Chicago contracted with the law firm of Sidley and Austin to investigate claims of misconduct regarding this detective. Based upon the reports of this independent review that the State Attorney’s Office has seen, that investigation did not produce evidence of a pattern and practice of misconduct on the part of Guevara and at this point in time we have no evidence of the contrary”.

Through the Freedom of Information Act (FOA), La Raza obtained a copy of the firm’s investigation.

Based on the reports provided by the City of Chicago Department of Law, the firm’s investigation was conducted on the cases of Montañez and Serrano, and also other murder cases involving alleged misconduct by Guevara: the cases of William Negron, Roberto Bouto, and the Gabriel Solache and Arturo Reyes case.

Guevara and Vicente both declined to be interviewed by the firm and the transcriptions of the interviews conducted by the firm to dozens of individuals are not included in the reports. But the firm concluded that in some of the cases “the accusations of physical abuse are credible” and that in some cases “more probably than not, Guevara was involved in police misconduct”.

Regarding the case of Montañez and Serrano, the report concluded that “Montañez and Serrano are more likely than not actually innocent”.

According to Andrew Schroedter, an investigative reporter with the Better Government Association (BGA), who has investigated this and other cases of police misconduct for years, Sidley and Austin’s investigation started in 2013 and it has costed taxpayers more than $1.8 million.

The City of Chicago also has paid more than $20 million to “investigate, defend and settle cases involving police misconduct allegations against Guevara, who retired from CPD in 2005 and continued working for the Chicago Park District,” Schroedter reported.

Guevara, now retired, is 72 years old and receives an annual pension of $81,030 per year, according to BGA.

La Raza was unable to find Guevara’s contact information to request an interview.

According to Ainsworth, it is estimated that as of today there are probably about 100 cases of people incarcerated because of Guevara’s alleged misconduct.

Bonjean and Ainsworth are both working in other cases related to Guevara.

Antonio Serrano is back at his home in Chicago.
Antonio Serrano is back at his home in Chicago.

Armando Serrano: “It was hell”

Serrano, 43, said that months after Vargas’ murder the CPD took him in for questioning. When he entered the interrogation room, he said that Guevara threw pictures on the table.

“It looked like [the person in the pictures] he had been beaten very bad because his face was full of blood. I instantly told him I had nothing to do with this. Then Guevara slapped me with an open hand and every time I told him I had nothing to do with it, he’d slap me,” Serrano said.

He then was let go by the CPD. But days later, Serrano was arrested. “I was in shock, I wasn’t expecting it, I really believed I was going to go home soon because I knew I was innocent,” he said.

Serrano remembers that when Judge Bolan sentenced him: “I sat in space, I couldn’t believe it. I don’t think Bolan cared, they don’t value our lives or our families. I have always wondered why they did this to me. Nobody wanted to listen. It was so obvious I was innocent,” Serrano said.

Jail for Serrano was “hell, a torture”. He said that the anger he carried inside led him to have fights in prison. But despite the agony of the seclusion from the outside world, the pain of not being able to see his two sons grow up and his parents grow old, Serrano found a way to survive by working out, writing, engraving little mirrors so he could sell them. Years later, he took college courses until he graduated with an associate’s degree in Social Studies.

“You go on with life. But I felt like this is it, this is life for me. Sometimes I felt suffocated and desperate, I felt like I should be home with my family. It was stressful not being there on important days for my sons,” he said.

Serrano was a member of the gang Imperial Gangsters. He had problems with the law, especially when he was arrested and charged for armed robbery, crime which was later substituted for a misdemeanor because the gun he had used was fake, he said.

“I was no saint, I was no angel, but I never hurt anybody. It was easy for them to put the case on us,” Serrano said.

The Serranos spent thousands of dollars in lawyers. When Serrano was arrested, his mother, Neida Serrano, said that a lawyer told them he would take the case but it would cost $60,000. “Soon, another lawyer told us he would do it but he would need $18,000 in cash. We then asked for a bank loan, we took him the money in cash, but when we got to court and saw his work, we quickly realized that lawyer had no idea of what he was doing,” Mrs. Serrano said.

When Serrano was out of jail, he said he felt it wasn’t real. “I couldn’t believe it was happening. It felt weird, people were taking pictures with their phones, it all happened too quickly. I saw family members I haven’t seen in years. The neighborhood has changed a lot. Logan Square is nice and clean,” he said.

As the days go by, Serrano is putting his life back in order, obtaining his IDs, getting used to a new routine, strengthening his relationship with both of his grown sons, and seeing what destiny brings in for him. But in the meantime, he lives day by day with caution, because he is afraid that what happened to him 23 years ago might happen again.

“It feels like it’s temporary, like it’s going to end. I don’t want it to end,” he said.

“We are very guarded. We are happy but we know that at any given point it could happen again. Nobody thinks how hard it is for these guys to adjust back into society,” his sister, María Serrano, said.

What would Serrano say to Guevara if he had the chance to see him face to face? “What difference would it make?,” he said. “He is cold blooded. He has no remorse”.

José Montañez and her mother Carmen Montañez.
José Montañez and her mother Carmen Montañez.

José Montañez: “My life left my body”

For the past 23 years, Montañez had been behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit. When Judge Bolan read his sentence, “my life left my body, I was just numbed. It was too painful. The only people I stayed in contact with were my mom, dad and sisters,” Montañez, 48, said to La Raza in a recent interview. Born and raised in Chicago, Montañez is of Puerto Rican descent.

Despite the circumstances, Montañez did everything he could to remain positive. “I worked, kept myself busy working, did clerical work, janitorial work. From 7 to 3 I worked and then I would go to my cell to be by myself, watch TV, cook, read novels, work out, play basketball,” Montañez said, adding that when he watched TV shows from Chicago he would observe the audience to see if he could recognize anybody.

He had friends, many of them Mexicans, with whom he liked to joke around to make them laugh, deep inside to hide his pain. “You can’t show weakness in there. I bottled everything up. Tears came, that happened a lot. There were times I felt anger but you can’t feel anger because there is nothing you can do in there,” he said.

Months after Vargas’ murder, Montañez said that he had found out that Guevara was going around Humboldt Park with Montañez’s picture asking questions to people that knew him. In those years, just as Serrano, Montañez was also a member of the Imperial Gangsters and had a history of misdemeanors.

When he was arrested, Montañez contacted his private lawyer, who asked for $50,000, an unreachable sum for Montañez. He had no other choice but to use a public defender. His public defender recommended a bench trial. “He said that that judge knew the law, that because there was no evidence there was no way he could convict me,” Montañez said.

During all those years in prison, Montañez endured a long legal battle with different lawyers who filed appeals but always lost. His mother, Carmen, said that between her and her husband they spend $30,000 to $40,000 in legal fees. They sold a home, got loans from banks and family members and worked overtime.

“We went from courtroom to courtroom, but everywhere you turn, where you need to go, they put a roadblock on you,” Jose Montañez said.

“When I got out of jail I was overwhelmed,” he said. Surprisingly, Montañez didn’t find out about his exoneration until a few minutes before leaving jail.

“They told me, ‘hey, your lawyer is coming to get you’. I called my sister. She didn’t want to say anything because she wanted it to be a surprise, but I begged her to tell me. She said ‘you won the case’, and I started to cry,” he said.

“When I was out I saw the camera people and I thought this is it. It was surreal, it wasn’t real. People kept giving me cell phones, it was crazy,” he said.

To him, the changes in Chicago were notorious; he could see them all around him. He noticed that neighborhoods had changed, cars were bigger and more modern and the cellphones were especially neat to him. “A dangerous tool is what it is,” he said laughing. “It is like traveling to the future. All children [in his family] have grown, all of them are so beautiful,” he said.

Although he is happy for his freedom, just as Serrano, Montañez states he feels afraid, and is not ready to drive and be alone. He lives cautiously, with a constant fear that what happened to him with Guevara might happen again. “I’m scared of life. I’m scared to go out there. There is that element, the CPD, they are there, and I’m scared of them. Guevara is powerful, he knows a lot of people,” he said.

The suffering that the Montañez family endured while Montañez was in prison was profound. In tears, Mrs. Carmen Montañez described what it was like for her to see her son behind bars: “I have lived a life of sadness for 23 years. It’s something so terrible to take somebody’s life like that. He didn’t have a chance to get married and have children. But I relied on God, I prayed every day for him,” she said.

What would Montañez say to Guevara if he had the chance to see him face to face? “I would tell him, ‘open up and tell the truth’. I don’t mind if they give him immunity, but to tell the truth so that all these other guys can get out. But I’ll let God deal with him. He is Puerto Rican, he is part of Humboldt Park, and he did this to his own people. I spent 23 years of my life in prison, years I’ll never get back”.

The Exoneration Project

https://www.exonerationproject.org/

Guevara’s video pleading the Fifth Amendment

The video posted by BGA showing Guevara pleading the Fifth Amendment during an evidentiary hearing can be found at www.youtube.com/watch?v=w1mtCb3qbnY

 

 

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