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Alfred Castellano

Other Harris County Exonerations
On November 8, 1984, police in San Antonio, Texas arrested 42-year-old Alfred Castellano on a charge of arson for setting fire to a Fred’s Fish Fry restaurant on October 31, 1984. The Fred’s Fish that burned down was one of 16 such restaurants that Castellano owned in San Antonio.

On October 8, 1985 Castellano went to trial in Bexar County Criminal District Court. The prosecution presented an arson investigator who said he examined the debris and concluded the fire had been deliberately set.

Maria Sanchez testified that she was a restaurant manager for Castellano but had been fired a few days after the fire. She testified that at the urging of a restaurant security guard, Chris Fragozo—who was also a San Antonio police officer—she had taped a telephone conversation with Castellano.

On the tape, which was aired at the trial, the person alleged to be Castellano made incriminating statements that indicated he had set the fire.

Fragozo, a San Antonio police sergeant who was in a romantic relationship with Sanchez, testified that he helped Sanchez set up the tape recording and was with her when she telephoned Castellano.

Castellano testified and denied setting the fire. He also denied that the voice heard on the tape was his. He said that Fragozo wanted revenge against him for a prior incident. Castellano, who was a member of San Antonio Fire and Police Civil Service Commission, said Fragozo quit working as a security guard after Castellano refused Fragozo’s request to covertly provide him with a copy of the police lieutenant exam.

Castellano said that two days before the fire, he discovered that money that Sanchez said she deposited in the bank was missing. He said he fired Sanchez when she refused to take a polygraph examination pursuant to her employment agreement.

On October 15, 1985, the jury convicted Castellano of arson. He was sentenced to five years of probation.

Castellano later filed a state law petition for a writ of habeas corpus claiming that Sanchez and Fragozo had manufactured the tape and testified falsely that Sanchez had recorded Castellano.

Castellano presented the testimony of an expert who examined the tape recording and concluded that the voice was not Castellano’s. The expert said that the voice that was attributed to Castellano was actually Fragozo.

The petition said that Fragozo had threatened two witnesses to testify falsely that they knew Castellano set the fire. Both witnesses refused to implicate Castellano. One of the witnesses was Luis Cantu, an employee of Castellano’s. Cantu said that Fragozo and an arson investigator ordered him out of his house and into Fragozo’s car. During their conversation, Fragozo pulled out his police weapon and placed it on the car seat in an attempt to scare him.

The other witness, Clemencia Jiminez, testified at a hearing on the habeas petition that Sanchez told her that she had altered the tape to make it appear that Castellano had admitted setting the fire. Jiminez said that Fragozo told her to falsely accuse Castellano of admitting he set the fire. Jiminez said she refused even after Fragozo took her to the prosecutor’s office.

Although the trial court determined that Sanchez and Fragozo had committed perjury to frame Castellano, the judge refused to grant the writ. The judge ruled that the prosecution was unaware of the perjury and therefore did not knowingly present perjured testimony. The judge further said that Fragozo’s perjury was not part of his official duties as a police officer, and therefore he was not part of the prosecution. As a result, the judge said, Castellano was not entitled to a new trial.

“I find no authority in the State of Texas to grant a writ of habeas corpus merely on the fact that perjured testimony was used,” the judge declared.

The Fourth District Court of Appeals upheld that ruling, but in September 1993, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals vacated Castellano’s conviction and ordered a new trial.

The court ruled there was ample evidence that Fragozo was acting as a member of the prosecution, particularly in his efforts to coerce Cantu and Jiminez to falsely accuse Castellano.

“Maria Sanchez and Chris Fragozo collaborated together and without their testimony and the altered tapes, there is insufficient evidence to sustain a finding of guilt in this case,” the court said.

On December 29, 1993, the prosecution dismissed the case.

In 1994, Castellano filed a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking compensation for his wrongful conviction. In 2000, a jury awarded him $3.5 million.

However, in 2003, the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals set aside the award and ordered a new trial. In 2006, Castellano settled the case for $225,000.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 8/8/2018
Most Serious Crime:Arson
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1984
Age at the date of reported crime:42
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No