Pin It

Hiding in Plain Sight: A Homicide Suspect Spent Four Years on the Lam 

Wednesday, Sep 26 2012
Comments


Illustration by Yuko Shimizu


POP-POP-POP-POP-POP.

There were glass shards in the street, murdered family members in the car, sirens in the distance growing louder. The car with the gunman peeled off.

Twenty minutes earlier, that car was parked outside a Mission District house. Edwin Ramos was waiting for Wilfredo Reyes. He had called Reyes to tell him he was out front, but Reyes was taking forever. So he leaned back in his charcoal Chrysler 300 and soaked in the reggaeton pouring through the speakers. Ramos had gotten the car three or four weeks earlier; it still looked fresh off the lot.

It was a few minutes before 3 p.m. when Reyes climbed into the passenger seat. The day — Sunday, June 22, 2008 — had already been eventful. Three hours earlier, their mutual friend Marvin Medina was shot. Medina and his buddy Elgado Medrano, both MS-13 gang members like Ramos and Reyes, had been driving through the Mission when a Lexus and a BMW started following them. When the pair got stuck in traffic, the Beamer pulled up beside them and emptied a clip. Medina dived into the backseat, taking three bullets to the thigh and butt. Medrano, unhit, maneuvered the bullet-ridden Mitsubishi into a gas station on Cesar Chavez Street as the assailants drove off.

Reyes lived nearby, so they called him and he drove them to Highland Hospital in Oakland — staying in the city might have drawn more police attention to the gang. There was already plenty of heat on MS-13. The transnational criminal organization, formed in the early '80s in Los Angeles by Salvadorans who had fled the civil war ravaging their homeland, was known for its viciousness.

Who the fuck did this? the three young men seethed as they crossed the bridge. Could have been Norteños. Damn Chapos! Norteños, "Northerners" who were usually Mexican-American, were eternal rivals with MS-13 and other Sureños, "Southerners" who typically emigrated from Central and South America. Nah — Norteños wouldn't be cruising around in luxury cars like that. Probably was some Nieros, those entrepreneurial criminals who specialized in selling fake documents to immigrants. Bastardos! MS-13 had had a beef with the Nieros for a few months now. Nieros conducted business in MS territory, and the gang wanted a cut of the profits. The Nieros refused. Next thing you know, two Nieros were shot dead. Payback was inevitable.

After leaving the hospital, Reyes called Ramos to fill him in and told him to come pick him up when he got back to San Francisco. They'd known each other for three years and talked almost every day. Reyes, then 27, called the shots for the Pasadena Locos Sureños, one of the two MS-13 cliques in the Bay Area, and Ramos, then 21, ran with 20th Street, the other crew.

Reyes was always looking out for Ramos. Reyes helped him get a job at an auto body shop in South San Francisco. He even got Ramos out of an ass-kicking a couple years back. Thing was, Ramos wasn't the most dutiful gang member. He sometimes wore a red 49ers jacket — Norteños color. One time, he stepped in when a group of MS-13 guys were about to jump a Norteño who was his friend and neighbor. Ramos' disobedience merited a beating, which Reyes was supposed to lead. Reyes faked it, though, putting on a show that would have made Vince McMahon proud and leaving Ramos bruise-less. Reyes had saved Ramos' life, too. When gang leaders thought Ramos had jumped into the Pasadena Locos Sureños before officially jumping out of 20th Street, a mortal sin deserving the highest level of punishment in the MS handbook, Ramos' death was greenlighted. He would have been killed had Reyes not defused the situation.

So there they were in the charcoal Chrysler, a few minutes before 3 p.m. on what would become one of the most infamous days in San Francisco's crime history. They rolled southbound through the Mission in the final moments before their lives — and the lives of an innocent family — would disintegrate. Three civilians would die, for nothing more than being in the wrong place at the worst time. Ramos would end up with a life prison term. Reyes, an eyewitness to the murders who may have fired the gun, would flee town, going on the lam for four years. He'd become a wanted suspect, and yet would evade capture without much effort, spurring speculation that San Francisco authorities had turned a blind eye.

Ramos was fiddling with the CD player when he reached the stop sign on Maynard Street at the Congdon Street intersection, a hilly residential stretch of multi-story homes in the Excelsior District. Focused on flipping through songs, Ramos cut the corner turning left, nearly crashing into the green Honda Civic heading up Congdon. The Honda backed up to give the Chrysler space. The street was narrow and lined with parked cars, the typical San Francisco two-laner that could scratch a driver's side mirror if you're not careful. Ramos, his window rolled down, eased his vehicle around the Honda.

Pop-pop-pop-pop-pop.


Anthony Bologna and his sons Michael, Matthew, and Andrew had been on their way home from a visit to Anthony's sister's house near Fairfield. They were almost at their driveway when the shots were fired. Anthony, Michael, and Matthew were killed. Miraculously, 17-year-old Andrew was uninjured. He'd seen a chrome handgun rise up beside the driver's chest and he ducked down, seconds before bullets shattered the window. He tearfully told the cops at the scene what he saw: charcoal Chrysler 300 ... driver holding the gun ... Latin-looking ... "just some random guy."

By Tuesday, not 48 hours after the murders, police got their first big break. Douglas Largaespada, an MS-13 member in custody for a recent stabbing, reached out to Inspector Tom Newland. Largaespada said he knew an MS-13 guy with a charcoal Chrysler 300, and passed along Ramos' home address in El Sobrante. That night officers stormed the house and arrested him.

By 4:30 a.m., Ramos was locked in an interrogation room. For 11 hours, Ramos denied everything. What a coincidence he had the same car, he told the cops. At 3:30 p.m., though, they cracked him. He admitted he was driving the car, but, he quickly added, the triggerman was Wilfredo Reyes, in the passenger seat. Ramos claimed he had no idea Reyes was going to shoot those people. Ramos had been lying to the interrogators, he told them, because he feared Reyes would go after his family if he snitched.

The press conference came three hours later. We got the guy, District Attorney Kamala Harris declared. Soon prosecutors had a narrative: Ramos had mistaken the Bologna family for rival gang members and killed them in retaliation for the earlier shooting. People were outraged and stunned by the cold-blooded and random nature of the crime, which seemed to embody the public's fears about gangs. Months later, public anger crested when the Chronicle reported that Ramos, an undocumented immigrant, had not been deported after his 2004 attempted robbery conviction because of the city's "sanctuary" policy that protected undocumented juveniles. Mayor Gavin Newsom frantically amended the law. At that point, the public and the media had not yet learned that Ramos had not entered the country illegally, but rather had failed to renew a 10-year visa he was granted in 2000. He had become the poster boy for all that was wrong with this limousine liberal city. He had to pay.

With the full weight of public righteousness landing on Ramos, it was easy to forget about the crime's conspicuously missing piece. Ramos' defense team clamored that Reyes was the actual shooter (the murder weapon was never found). And so the SFPD sought to question Reyes about his involvement in the murders.

While Harris didn't have enough evidence to issue an arrest warrant or file charges against Reyes, plenty of circumstantial facts implicated him: Three witnesses at the scene told police that they saw multiple people in the Chrysler; phone records showed that Reyes communicated with Ramos in the minutes before the Bologna murders; cell tower data suggested that Reyes was in the area of the homicide when it occurred; and, as Ramos' defense team would later ask, would Ramos really have been able to aim a gun with his right hand while navigating a tight turn with his left? Would he have orchestrated a drive-by shooting in his brand-new car?

But over the next four years, it seemed as if San Francisco law enforcement barely bothered to look for Reyes. Leads went unfollowed, dots unconnected. Fifteen months after the murders, in September 2009, two San Francisco policemen even flew across the country, into Reyes' original hometown, to extradite an MS-13 member Reyes was rooming with. There, documents proving Reyes' location lay untouched and people with knowledge of his whereabouts were not questioned.

"Just doesn't sound right," says Bill Flynn, a retired detective who commanded the Los Angeles County Major Crimes Task Force and has served as an expert witness on police procedures. "I would definitely say they could have had this guy in custody back in September 2009."

So when police finally nabbed Reyes and charged him as a co-conspirator in July 2012, a month after Ramos had been sentenced to 183 years in prison without the possibility of parole, the speculation hardened.

"[Law enforcement officials] were not looking to catch the right guy," says Myron Moskovitz, a professor at Golden Gate University School of Law. "These guys were looking for a conviction of Edwin Ramos."

Ramos' defense team alleges that city authorities did not go harder after Reyes because catching him might have complicated the high-profile case against Ramos. The DA's office adamantly denies this, noting that they would have been more than happy to prosecute two murder suspects at the same time. (SFPD declined to comment for this story, citing its policy regarding pending cases.)

Back in June 2008, though, the hunt for Reyes began well enough. Almost immediately after Ramos rolled on Reyes, police placed a hold on his passport and crafted an "Attempt to Locate" flier. Officers notified the LAPD (Reyes used to live in the Los Angeles area and had family there) and the San Mateo Police Department Gang Task Force (Reyes had an apartment in Burlingame). Surveillance teams staked out his workplace and his girlfriend's house.

In its request for Reyes' Metro PCS phone records, the SFPD wrote, "A triple murder occurred. ... A second suspect, still at large, may be the owner of the target phone number and is considered armed and very dangerous to the community."

Five days after the murders, search warrants for Reyes were ready. Officers busted into his Burlingame apartment and his girlfriend's house in the Mission. But by then Reyes had vanished.


Denise was pissed that David's friends were marking up her walls with a Sharpie. "MS-13," one of them wrote. It was an August 2009 night and people were kicking back at her house in Duncan, S.C., drinking and smoking, having a good time.

She didn't know the guys with the Sharpie very well, but she did know David. They had met at Club Bongo a year before and eventually grew close. She'd seen his mom and his sister a few times. His family had transplanted from Guatemala to South Carolina some years earlier.

David was a private person, but opened up to Denise more than most. He showed her his tattoos, explained that the devil horns on his back were for the gang he used to be in and that La Bestia would protect him. He liked watching documentaries about MS-13 On Demand.

Those shows would describe how Salvadorans had banded together for protection against the powerful Hispanic gangs that controlled L.A.'s barrios in the 1980s. MS-13 is an acronym for Mara Salvatrucha. "Mara" alludes to a type of fire ant and is the Spanish slang for "gang," and "Salvatrucha" stems from the Spanish word for "trusted" or "loyal." MS eventually adopted the "13" — which corresponds to the letter M — when the group formed an allegiance with the Mexican Mafia prison gang, La Eme. MS-13 has spread across 33 states and almost every country in North and Central America, as deported members brought the culture back to their homelands. By FBI estimates, the organization has up to 10,000 members in the U.S. and 40,000 more abroad.

David told Denise all that was behind him. She suspected he had some trouble in his past. He would nervously peek through the closed blinds of his house, as if he were expecting an unwanted visitor. He wore a beaded necklace that he said was meant to keep away the police.

She'd often see him reading online news articles. One day, he decided to tell her what they were about. He pointed to a name on the screen, "Wilfredo 'Flaco' Reyes" — "Yeah, that's me," he said; he didn't like when people called him "Wilfredo." He confessed to her, she would recall in testimony three years later, that he was a passenger in a drive-by shooting in California, and that's why he moved to South Carolina.

Given all the disclosures, Denise felt a degree of trust in David. So, on that August night, she was mildly surprised when his friends took off with her car, and David told her not to call the police. The two of them left the house in search of the car. They didn't find it, but they did find one of the culprits walking in front of David's duplex in Greenville, 20 miles southwest of Duncan.

With the car still missing, Denise called the police. Patrolmen found the vehicle, totaled, not far from David's place. Within days Duncan police arrested the suspects. One of them was Elgado Medrano, the MS-13 member from San Francisco who had been with Marvin Medina at the shooting near Cesar Chavez Street.

During the investigation, Duncan Police Officer Bryan Teal dropped by Medrano's residence to interview his roommate, the man who said his name was David.

The camera in Teal's patrol car captured the interaction. Teal asked David to show him ID.

"If you're name's David, why does your ID say your name is Samuel Carrillo?" Teal asked.

David mumbled something about a nickname. He was polite and deferential. Teal confiscated the ID, convinced it was a fake.

"I see you got some tattoos there," Teal remarked, noticing the "213" on David's right forearm and the cursive "Mareros" on his left.

Though Teal had no probable cause to suspect David had committed a crime, the officer pulled out a camera, began snapping photos, then asked David to lift up his loose white T-shirt. David complied, revealing the devil horns and "MS" that spanned the width of his upper back. MS-13 hadn't had much of an active criminal presence in the region, so Teal wasn't familiar with the meaning of the tattoos. And he didn't know he was standing next to "a second suspect" in a triple homicide whom SFPD had called "armed and very dangerous to the community."


To San Francisco police, Reyes could have been anywhere. Inspectors certainly hadn't forgotten about him by August 2009. They regularly entered his name into database queries. They contacted authorities in Miami. In spring 2010 they would trek down to L.A. to talk to his brother. And more homicides piled onto the department's docket.

Reyes wasn't the only fugitive from the Ramos investigation. Medrano was a wanted man, too. During Ramos' preliminary hearing in early 2009, prosecutors had subpoenaed Medrano for a perjury case against Medina, who had claimed under oath that he was never an MS-13 affiliate, despite the "MS" tattoo on his back.

In a fortunate bit of timing, police interviewed one of Medrano's friends soon after his arrest. The friend mentioned that Medrano was in custody somewhere. Investigators ran Medrano's name through the National Crime Index, and there he was, in the Spartanburg County jail in South Carolina.

Inspector Newland and Sgt. Mario Molina arrived there on Sept. 24, 2009, to extradite Medrano. They asked him where Reyes was. The link was Saran-wrap clear: Out of nowhere, a Bay Area MS-13 member evading arrest materialized 2,600 miles away in the rural city where Reyes' mother lived.

Medrano told the policemen that Reyes was probably in Guatemala. He did give them his own address, though — the duplex with "Samuel Carrillo" on the lease.

This is where the dots should have connected. The SFPD already had reason to suspect that Reyes was in South Carolina: Reyes' family's address was accessible, as they'd stayed in the same house for years; phone records showed his San Francisco girlfriend had called a South Carolina area code; and now Medrano popped up there.

The MS-13 car theft police report contained proof that Reyes was nearby. It provided names of people who knew Medrano, and so likely also knew Reyes. One of those names, Medrano's roommate, "Samuel Carrillo," was listed as an emergency contact on a South Carolina lease shared by Reyes' mother and Reyes' San Francisco girlfriend. Duncan police had video of Reyes holding a "Samuel Carrillo" ID. Moreover, the victim on that police report, Denise, had allegedly even spoken to Reyes about the Bologna murders.

"It would have been easy information to pick up," says Frank Jordan, who served as San Francisco chief of police before becoming mayor. "It doesn't hurt to talk to as many people as possible. You gotta cover as much ground as you can as quickly as you can, while the leads are still hot."

Yet during their two-day stay in South Carolina, the city's policemen did not question any of those people except Medrano. They did not dig into Duncan PD's investigation of the car theft. So they did not see the videos and photos of Reyes, and they did not know about the "Samuel Carrillo" fake ID.

"Common sense would dictate that all of a sudden an MS-13 associate pops up in Greenville, you gotta start knocking on all doors," says Flynn, the retired detective. "There's not a reason in the world the investigators should not have done that."

Newland would later testify that he gave the Greenville Sheriff's Department an "Attempt to Locate" flier on Reyes. Greenville Deputy Brandon Browne would later say that he didn't remember seeing it.

At the Ramos trial, Teal testified that he mailed the San Francisco DA's office a package containing the documents related to the Medrano case, including the footage and photographs of Reyes. Assistant DA Harry Dorfman, who handled the murder case, stated under oath that he never received that package. To this day, what happened to it remains a mystery.


Ramos' defense team's case hinged on the theory that Reyes was the shooter. With Reyes nowhere to be found, though, it was a challenging narrative to present. When Ramos' state-appointed attorney, Marla Zamora, heard about Medrano's South Carolina arrest, it piqued her interest. This offered the first real possibility to corroborate a key portion of Ramos' story, that Reyes was in the passenger seat.

The only witness to identify Ramos as the triggerman, Andrew Bologna, had stated that he could only see one person in the car. To convince a jury that Reyes held the gun, Zamora first needed to prove that Bologna's recollection wasn't completely accurate. If he couldn't see the man in the passenger seat, her argument went, how could he know whose hand was holding the gun?

But Zamora faced a critical obstacle. As a state-appointed attorney, she received just $40,000 in public funds for the defense. For a complex triple-homicide, gang-related case like this — which would produce more than 40,000 pages of transcripts and nearly 5,000 items in evidentiary discovery — that sum hardly covered the cost of expert witnesses. A cross-country fishing expedition for Reyes was out of Zamora's financial reach. As the court proceedings dragged on, she filed three motions for more funding. All three were denied. Zamora says that she took on five or six other cases to help subsidize Ramos' defense.

Just before opening arguments were set to begin, in early 2012, Zamora's fourth motion for funding was granted — more than $100,000 from the state bar. Days into the trial, the defense team's private investigator, Tim O'Brien, departed for South Carolina.

Like the SFPD contingent, O'Brien spent two days there. Unlike the SFPD contingent, he returned to the Bay Area with substantial evidence that Reyes had been hiding in Greenville, and with information that could definitively tie him to the murders.

During his stay, O'Brien knocked on the doors of Reyes' relatives. Reyes' sister confirmed that he recently had been living in Greenville, crying as she explained that her brother had always been the black sheep of the family. Reyes' uncle told O'Brien that his nephew was never the same kid after he went off to California all those years ago.

Following up with the names listed in the car theft police report, O'Brien met with Denise. He showed her a picture of Reyes. "Yeah, that's David," she told him. She volunteered that he had discussed the shooting. She offered up dark details, which she would later repeat in testimony. On the stand, she would say that she had twice seen Reyes with a gun. She would tell a story about the time a stripper Reyes was seeing threw a beer can at him. Furious, Reyes allegedly grabbed his friend's gun, saying he was going to blast the girl for disrespecting him. Friends had to snatch the weapon away from him. He had been snorting cocaine, Denise would recollect, and he was a different, more unpredictable person when he was on coke.

O'Brien was hoping to meet "Samuel Carrillo," because, as Medrano's roommate, Carrillo probably knew Reyes. (Duncan police did not cooperate with O'Brien, so he did not know about the fake ID.) He visited multiple addresses for that name, but he couldn't find Carrillo. At one of those residences, an apartment building, he ran into a young boy walking by the swimming pool. He showed the boy Reyes' picture; the boy said that the man in the photo had played soccer with him in a grassy expanse at the complex.

Mining for more clues from the car theft investigation, O'Brien called Spartanburg County prosecutor Daniel Cude, who referenced the package of videos and photos that Teal had mailed to San Francisco. O'Brien was shocked. This was the first time Ramos' defense team had heard about these images.

Now, O'Brien had documented proof that Reyes had been in Greenville, and he had a witness willing to testify that Reyes admitted involvement in the murders.

Denise, whose last name was not publicly disclosed for her protection, testified in March. That same month, three years and nine months after charging Ramos, the DA's office issued an arrest warrant for Reyes, though prosecutors will not say what specific information triggered the action.

"The question with prosecuting Reyes," says Assistant District Attorney Alex Bastian, "was whether we could prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt, independent of Edwin Ramos' self-serving statements. We obtained that information this year and acted on it immediately."

Had San Francisco police contacted Denise in September 2009, there's a good chance the city would have had its probable cause against Reyes two and a half years earlier. Instead, when Ramos took the stand in his own defense, he appeared to be blaming the murders on a ghost.


On July 9, 2012, the SFPD, with help from federal immigration agents and local sheriff's deputies, burst into a house in Salisbury, N.C., and arrested Wilfredo "Flaco" Reyes as he tried to escape through a window. The SFPD said officers were acting on a tip from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Reyes' roommate was undocumented).

"This individual will have to answer for the vicious crimes committed against the Bologna family in a San Francisco courthouse," proclaimed District Attorney George Gascón.

Zamora maintains that the timing of the arrest was suspicious: After four years of searching, police found Reyes just weeks after Ramos' trial had concluded. She argues that arresting and charging Reyes in 2009 or 2010, midway through Ramos' prosecution, would have undermined the reliability of Andrew Bologna's eyewitness testimony that the driver pulled the trigger and given credibility to Ramos' side of the story.

"There wasn't a lot of political pressure to really investigate Reyes," says O'Brien. "The political pressure was to get Edwin Ramos."

Prosecuting Reyes during the Ramos proceedings, however, might not have changed Ramos' fate. Peter Keane, a professor at Golden Gate University School of Law who used to work in the city's Public Defender's office, as well as two other law professors SF Weekly spoke with, agree that prosecuting Reyes earlier wouldn't have necessarily hurt the case against Ramos.

"It would have strengthened Ramos' argument that it was this second guy," says Keane. "It's hard to say if that would have made any difference."

Indeed, Ramos got his life sentence, although the jury was not convinced he was the shooter. Jurors hung on the "discharge of a firearm" count. Their belief that he was at least a co-conspirator was enough for the first-degree murder conviction.

Gascón charged Reyes with first-degree murder, as well as aiding and abetting in the discharge of a fireman at an occupied vehicle, among various other counts. He pleaded not guilty. That Reyes was not charged with firing the gun indicates that prosecutors are sticking with their narrative from the Ramos case, that the driver pulled the trigger. We may never know who really held the gun that day.

On a recent Wednesday morning, Reyes stood before a judge for a status update, one of the many unremarkable hearings that mark the wind-up to a trial. Like every other inmate who entered the courtroom that day, Reyes wore an orange sweater and orange sweatpants, steel shackles around his wrists. In the sparsely filled viewing benches behind him, indifferent strangers looked down at papers or whispered to each other about traffic tickets and probation officers.

The hearing was brief, and Reyes didn't say a word, just calmly nodded to his attorney two or three times. During those years in South Carolina, Reyes must have held out hope that he had escaped for good, made the right moves in the maze to freedom. Now, he was back in San Francisco, where four years' worth of emotional scabbing were scraped off by the prospects of a new villain. The judge excused him and he ambled back into the adjacent holding room, the door closing behind him.

About The Author

Albert Samaha

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Slideshows

  • Arcade Fire at Shoreline
    Arcade Fire opened their US tour at Shoreline Amphitheater to a full house who was there in support of their album "Reflector," which was released last fall. Dan Deacon opened the show to a happily surprised early audience and got the crowd actively dancing and warmed up. DEVO was originally on the bill to support Arcade Fire but a kayak accident last week had sidelined lead singer Mark Mothersbaugh and the duration of the west coast leg of the tour. Win Butler did a homage to DEVO by performing Uncontrollable Urge.
  • Comic Con 2014

    Comic book enthusiasts, Cosplayers, TV and movie fans, and celebrities descended to sunny San Diego for the annual gathering at Comic-Con International.

    Whether hitting up a panel to check out The Simpson's announcement of a cross over with Family Guy or Futurama. Or hearing a new movie with Sam Raimie based on a video game or accidentally rubbing shoulders with Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter) in cosplay, being a cosplayer, San Diego Comic-Con is the place to be. Photographs by Christopher Victorio

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed
  1. Most Popular