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Roberto Angeles-Acosta

Other Queens County, New York exonerations
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At 10 a.m. on April 26, 1993, three men wearing dark suits bearing identification tags knocked on the back door of the home of Hilde and Olga Vargas in Queens, New York, and said they were boiler inspectors from the city of New York. When Olga Vargas refused to allow them inside, one of the men drew a gun and they forced their way inside.

They demanded to know the location of a safe. Two of the men went to the basement where they found Betsy Rodriguez, a friend of Olga Vargas who was staying with the family.

The man still upstairs took Vargas to her bedroom. He said that they had kidnapped her husband, Hilde, and would kill him if she did not reveal the location of their safe. Vargas then emptied a safe that was in the bedroom and turned over its contents, including $10,000 in cash and some jewelry.

After saying that they knew where her children went to school, the men said they would return and kill the women if they called police. After the three men left, Vargas called her husband, who came home and called police.

On May 5, 1993, Olga Vargas and Rodriguez viewed a lineup and identified Jose Marte as one of the three robbers. Two days later, Hilde Vargas received a phone call from a man speaking Spanish with a Dominican accent. The man said that if Olga Vargas testified before a grand jury, the entire family would be killed. Another similar call was made on May 10.

At 1:15 a.m. on May 11, the day before Rodriguez and Olga Vargas were scheduled to appear before the grand jury, the Vargas’s home was sprayed with bullets. The bullets shattered windows in the front of the house, the porch, the Vargas’s bedroom, and one bullet pierced the wall of their child’s bedroom.

On May 12, 1993, police arrested Luis Morales in his apartment and recovered eight spent shell casings. Police later said that at least one shell casing found at the Vargas home was similar to the casings recovered from Morales. Later that day, Rodriguez and Olga Vargas identified Morales in a police lineup as one of the men who forced their way into the home on April 26.

On December 1, 1993, the FBI, acting on a tip from a confidential informant, arrested 37-year-old Robert Angeles-Acosta, who had emigrated from the Dominican Republic, on an unrelated matter. In his wallet, the agent found a pawn ticket from a Bronx pawn shop. Subsequently, Vargas’s husband viewed the items at the pawn shop that were in Angeles-Acosta’s account and said that some of the jewelry was his that had been taken on the day of the robbery.

On August 4, Olga Vargas viewed a lineup and identified Angeles-Acosta as the third man involved in the robbery. Rodriguez did not view the lineup.

In April 1995, Angeles-Acosta, Marte, and Morales went to trial in Queens County Supreme Court. Olga Vargas and Rodriguez identified them as the three robbers. Hilde Vargas said some of the jewelry recovered from the pawn shop was part of the jewelry stolen from the safe.

On May 19, 1995, the jury convicted the men of attempted murder, robbery, burglary, criminal possession of a weapon, and tampering with a witness. Morales was sentenced to 20 to 40 years in prison. Marte was sentenced to 12 to 25 years in prison. Angeles-Acosta was sentenced to 16 2/3 to 50 years in prison.

In 1998, the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of New York, Second Department, upheld Angeles-Acosta’s convictions. He later filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus, but that was denied in 2003.

In 2008, Angeles-Acosta wrote to Adele Bernhard, who was running an innocence clinic at Pace Law School. A review of the case failed to turn up new evidence. However, five years later, in 2013, Morales filed an application for parole. At that time, he said that although he was guilty, Angeles-Acosta was innocent. Morales signed an affidavit that he submitted to the parole board. Morales told Bernhard that at the time he went to court after his arrest, he knew that Angeles-Acosta was not involved. However, because Morales believed that Angeles-Acosta was an informant, he said nothing.

After Morales was granted parole, he went to the 106th Precinct police station in Queens and provided the name of the third person who committed the crime with him and Marte. Police directed him to the Queens District Attorney’s office.

On February 15, 2018, Bernhard, accompanied by Morales, went to the Queens County District Attorney’s Office and presented a prosecutor and two detectives with her report of the re-investigation of the case as well as the name of the third person involved in the crime, Rubin Sierra.

During questioning, Morales said that the Vargas home was targeted because a relative of Olga Vargas told a taxi driver named Luis Salazar that drugs and cash were kept there. Morales said that he, Salazar, Sierra and Marte planned the robbery of the home, but when Salazar failed to respond to a page on the day it was planned, so only Morales, Sierra and Marte entered the home. Morales said that even though they were led to believe that there was upwards of $10,000 in the home, the jewelry collected barely made up $1,000. He said that Sierra drove them to Chinatown where they sold off the jewelry. Morales said that at Marte’s urging, he and Salazar and Sierra drove by the Vargas home and fired 12 shots into the home.

Morales said that he recalled that when he first met Angeles-Acosta in custody, Angeles-Acosta was complaining about not knowing why he was there. Morales said he didn’t realize Angeles-Acosta was charged in the same case with him and Marte until they were called into the courtroom. Morale said he told his attorney that he didn’t recognize Angeles-Acosta and his attorney said, “They all say that.” From that point on, Morales said he believed Angeles-Acosta was working as a police informant. The prosecution began to re-investigate the case. By that time, Marte was dead.

In August 2019, attorneys for Angeles-Acosta filed a motion seeking to set aside Angeles-Acosta’s convictions based on Morales’s affidavit.

On October 2, 2019, during a hearing on the motion, Robert Masters, an assistant Queens County district attorney, said that the prosecution was requesting that Angeles-Acosta’s convictions be vacated. Masters noted that the third person named by Morales had been paroled not long before the crime for a different home invasion that involved the theft of 62 kilograms of cocaine. Masters said the third man fit the description given by Vargas and Rodriguez and noted that at the time of the crime, the witnesses said the third man had a beard. Sierra had a beard and Angeles-Acosta did not.

Morales took police-administered polygraph examinations and was deemed to be truthful when he denied Angeles-Acosta was involved in the crime. Angeles-Acosta also took a polygraph and was determined to be truthful when he denied involvement.

“The evidence presented at trial against the defendant regarding these matters was strong and it’s the view of the People that at that time it merited conviction,” Masters said. “However, based on the newly presented evidence from Mr. Morales, a careful review of the initial case and a thorough reinvestigation of this matter, there is cause to conclude that that's no longer the case.”

Masters added that subsequent reinvestigation “undermined the strength of the jewelry identification” and failed to find “any connection between Angeles-Acosta and Morales and Marte.

Justice Kenneth Holder granted the motion to vacate the convictions. Masters then dismissed the charges and Angeles-Acosta was released.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 1/20/2020
State:New York
County:Queens
Most Serious Crime:Attempted Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery, Other Violent Felony, Burglary/Unlawful Entry, Illegal Use of a Weapon
Reported Crime Date:1993
Convicted:1995
Exonerated:2019
Sentence:16 2/3 to 50 years
Race:Hispanic
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:37
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No