On July 30, 1980, 16-year-old Maria Rodriguez was found strangled to death in a closet of her Long Branch, New Jersey apartment.
Police focused on Damaso Vega, 37, because he allegedly had a romantic relationship with the victim, even though she was living with a boyfriend.
On February 4, 1982, Vega was indicted for murder and went to trial on June 2, 1982. The prosecution’s key evidence was the testimony of three witnesses. One—the victim’s sister—said she saw Vega and the victim kissing and hugging at some point before the murder, another said he had seen Vega on the victim’s porch the night before her body was found and a third witness, a friend of Vega’s, said that Vega had admitted he killed Rodriguez.
On June 8, Vega was convicted and the following day was sentenced to life in prison, eligible for parole after 25 years.
Over the next several years, Vega’s appeals were denied.
Ultimately, Vega reached out to Centurion Ministries and its director, James McCloskey, who conducted an investigation and obtained recantations from all three witnesses.
In June, 1989, a hearing was held on a petition for new trial at which the witnesses recanted. The witness who had originally said Vega admitted to the killing said he was promised a deal to dismiss assault charges pending against him.
Another witness said he was pressured by the lead detective on the case, Pat Lipka, to say that Vega was on the victim’s porch. The witness said he had seen someone, but it didn’t fit Vega’s description. The witness said the detective also persuaded him to change the time he saw the man so it would not conflict with Vega’s alibi.
The third witness—the victim’s sister who said she had seen Vega and the victim kissing and hugging—conceded that she helped the detective fabricate the case because the detective had convinced the family that Vega was the killer.
Further, some of Lipka’s reports on the case had been altered and were never turned over to the prosecution or the defense.
On November 15, 1989, Superior Court Judge Robert Figarotta vacated Vega’s conviction and ordered a new trial, saying that “the entire process was one that called into question everything Detective Lipka did, and everything he testified to…before the jury in 1982.”
The judge said that some of Lipka’s reports had been doctored to the point that “vital information for the purposes of the investigation and cross-examination” had been removed.
On December 14, 1989, Monmouth County Prosecutor John Kaye dismissed the charges.
– Maurice Possley