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Ariel Gomez

Other Cook County Exonerations with Official Misconduct
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On June 13, 1997, 32-year-old Concepcion Diaz was fatally shot as he waited for a bus at the intersection of Cicero and Diversey Avenues in Chicago, Illinois. He happened to be among a large crowd of revelers who gathered to celebrate the Chicago Bulls NBA championship victory over the Utah Jazz that evening.

A witness said a gunshot was fired by a youth sitting half-in and half-out of a red Nissan Pathfinder that sped away. The witness, George Soria, gave police a license plate number from the vehicle.

In the chaos at the scene, several witnesses reported that as many as five shots had been fired. Across the city, revelers were reportedly firing random shots into the air to celebrate the Michael Jordan-led victory.

Not long after the shooting, police received a report that a red Pathfinder had been found crashed into a building a couple of miles away. Chicago police detective Reynaldo Guevara went to inspect the vehicle. He saw that the license plate number substantially matched the one provided by Soria—off by one digit.

The car appeared to have been intentionally crashed—a brick was found on top of the accelerator and another brick was under the brake. A cable was attached to the gearshift as if to pull it back and the keys were in the ignition.

Reynaldo radioed for a license plate check and learned the vehicle was registered to Celia Gomez. By the time police arrived to speak with her, Gomez’s 17-year-old son, Ariel, had returned home with some of his friends and reported that the Pathfinder had been stolen while they were in a movie theater.

At the Gomez home, Guevara recovered an unloaded .45-caliber semi-automatic pistol. Gomez and his friends, 17-year-old Ivan Dominguez, 16-year-old Dragon Jovanovich, 16-year-old Paul Yalda, and 16-year-old John Yacoub, were taken in for questioning. By the next afternoon, all had signed statements implicating Gomez as the gunman who fired from the Pathfinder.

Gomez told Guevara that when he went out earlier in the evening, he had secured the gun under the hood of the Pathfinder in case they needed it for protection, but hid it in case police stopped them. He said that the gun had two bullets, and that Dominguez had fired one into the air after they heard on the radio that the Bulls had won. He said he put the gun back under the hood and they continued to drive around.

At about 11:30 p.m., when they were stopped at a traffic light at the intersection of Cicero and Diversey, the vehicle was pelted by rocks and debris from some members of the crowd gathered there. A brick shattered a rear passenger window, injuring Yalda. Gomez said they tried to drive away, but the crowd surged. He then drove down a side street and into an alley. There, he got the gun out and got into the passenger seat. Dominguez got behind the wheel.

Gomez said he fired a shot into the air as they drove back into the crowd before they managed to escape. He admitted that he decided to wreck the vehicle and report it stolen.

He denied that he fired into the crowd. However, in his statement signed at 1 p.m. on June 14, Gomez said he fired into the crowd. Gomez later said the statement was false and he only signed it after Guevara had beaten him. Gomez said that Guevara had placed a piece of cardboard over the interrogation room window and slapped him repeatedly.

All five youths were charged with first-degree murder. They went to trial in July 1998 before Cook County Circuit Court Judge Dennis Dernbach, who heard their cases simultaneously without a jury.

The prosecution presented the statements the five youths gave under questioning by Guevara. George Soria, who had provided the license plate number of the Pathfinder, also testified. Other witnesses testified that a shot was fired from the Pathfinder—although no one specifically identified Gomez as the gunman.

The defense presented testimony from witnesses who said they heard more than one shot—and as many as five—fired at the time. In addition, ballistics testing showed that the gun seized from Gomez’s home was not the gun that fired the bullet that was removed from Diaz’s body.

The prosecution contended that the youths had a second weapon that fired the fatal shot. The prosecutor theorized that, much like the crashing of the Pathfinder was an attempt to hide evidence, the youths had discarded the second weapon.

On August 11, Judge Dernbach acquitted Jovanovich, Yacoub, and Yalda, although he called them “cowards” for failing to try to stop Dominguez and Gomez from returning to the intersection. Dernbach concluded that Gomez had deliberately fired into the crowd, and rejected the claim that he had fired into the air. He convicted Gomez and Dominguez of first-degree murder. Dernbach sentenced Gomez to 35 years and Dominguez to 25 years in prison.

In September 2000, the Illinois Appellate Court upheld Gomez’s conviction and sentence. In May 2001, however, the Illinois Appellate Court vacated Dominguez’s murder conviction, ruling that there was a “total lack of supporting evidence.” The court said that Judge Dernbach had erred when he accepted the prosecution claim that there had been a second weapon. The court reduced Dominguez’s conviction to aggravated discharge of a firearm.

Subsequently, Gomez filed a federal habeas petition claiming his defense lawyer failed to advise him that he had a right to testify in his own behalf. The petition was dismissed.

In the early 2000s, evidence began to mount that Guevara had engaged in misconduct—including physically abusing suspects and witnesses—in the investigation of murders in Chicago.

In 2004, a jury acquitted Juan Johnson of murder after he won a new trial based on allegations of Guevara’s brutality during interrogations.

During the next several years, pressure from defense attorneys and activists alleging that Guevara was responsible for numerous false convictions began to mount. This prompted the city of Chicago to ask the law firm of Sidley Austin LLP to conduct an independent investigation of Guevara’s cases. In 2015, the Sidley Austin report was completed. It concluded that Jose Montanez and Armando Serrano, among others, were “more likely than not actually innocent.” In July 2016, Montanez’s and Serrano’s convictions were vacated and their charges were dismissed, joining the ranks of Johnson and Jacques Rivera, who had been exonerated in 2011 in part based on evidence of Guevara’s misconduct.

Meanwhile, in 2010, journalism students at the Medill Justice Project at Northwestern University published a lengthy report based on an investigation of Gomez’s case. The report noted that at least three witnesses said they had been repeatedly pressured to identify Gomez as having shot into the crowd. Detectives, including Guevara, had threatened to have them subpoenaed to court against their will unless they identified Gomez. All three said they repeatedly said they had not seen the shooting, and ultimately none was called to testify.

Gomez told the students in a prison interview that he repeatedly told Guevara that he fired straight into the sky. “I’m telling him, ‘No, no, no.’ He hits me and hits me,” Gomez said. He said Guevara punched him in his side several times and once in his face, leaving his nose bloody. Gomez said another officer came in and hit him as well, and that the beating continued for about 20 minutes. Eventually, Gomez said he conceded to the officers that it was possible he fired upward but slightly toward the crowd. Gomez said the beating stopped when police allowed his older brother, Matos, and mother, Celia, to see him. Before they entered, Gomez said, Guevara cleaned the blood off his face with paper towels.

Subsequently, David Owens, an attorney at the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School, filed a post-conviction petition seeking a new trial for Gomez. The petition said a witness to the shooting had been discovered. Ruth Antonnetty said that she saw Gomez fire the shot with his arm straight up in the air and that immediately afterward, a gang member fired at the Pathfinder. Antonnetty said the shot missed and she saw Diaz fall to the ground at the bus stop across the street. Antonnetty said she told Guevara what she had seen. Her account was never disclosed to Gomez's defense lawyers prior to his trial.

The petition also cited the report of a ballistics expert who examined the autopsy report and noted that the bullet entry wound on Diaz was not a downward entry as would be expected if a bullet was fired into the air and came down. Moreover, the expert said it was not likely that a bullet coming down would "not cause significant injury to a human and certainly could not have caused the fatal injury to Mr. Diaz."

And the petition also detailed evidence of Guevara’s misconduct in numerous other cases as well as Gomez’s claim that Guevara had beaten him during the interrogation.

Ultimately, Gomez was granted a hearing, which was scheduled for February 2018. On October 17, 2017, Gomez was released from prison on parole.

As the date of the hearing approached, six more men were exonerated of murder charges based on Guevara’s misconduct—either during interrogations of them or witnesses. Robert Almodovar and William Negron were exonerated in April 2017 after evidence showed that Guevara had improperly influenced witnesses to identify them as the shooter and driver in a drive-by shooting that killed two people and wounded a third.

In November 2017, Jose Maysonet was exonerated when evidence showed he falsely confessed after a 17-hour interrogation punctuated by beatings and torture by Guevara.

In December 2017, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office dismissed the murder prosecutions of Gabriel Solache and Arturo DeLeon-Reyes, who had been convicted of murder in 2000 based on false confessions made after Guevara beat them during more than 40 hours of interrogation.

And in January 2018, a month before Gomez’s scheduled hearing, Thomas Sierra became the 10th person to be exonerated based on Guevara’s misconduct.

In the months before Gomez’s hearing was scheduled to begin, Guevara had refused to testify in some of the cases by asserting his Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination. The prosecution gave Guevara immunity in the Solache and DeLeon-Reyes case, and Guevara denied that he had physically abused them. The judge, however, found Guevara’s testimony untruthful.

On February 15, 2018, the prosecution agreed to vacate Gomez’s conviction and dismissed the charge.

On March 27, 2018, Ricardo Rodriguez became the 12th man whose conviction was obtained through misconduct by Guevara have his conviction vacated and the charges dismissed.

In May 2018, Gomez filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Chicago seeking compensation for his wrongful conviction.

On June 25, 2018, Robert Bouto became the 13th man whose conviction was obtained through misconduct by Guevara have his conviction vacated and the charges dismissed.

On June 29, 2018, a federal jury awarded Rivera $17.175 million in damages from the city of Chicago.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 2/20/2018
Last Updated: 7/1/2018
State:Illinois
County:Cook
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1997
Convicted:1998
Exonerated:2018
Sentence:35 years
Race:Hispanic
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:17
Contributing Factors:False Confession, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No