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John Klene

Other Los Angeles, California exonerations
At about 11 p.m. on June 28, 1997, 25-year-old Antonio Alarcon was fatally shot in a drive-by shooting near a pay telephone at 11650 Prairie Avenue in Hawthorne, California. He was shot six times by a semi-automatic weapon.

The pay phone was located outside of an auto repair shop owned by Daniel Curiel. Police said that in his initial statement, Curiel said that Alarcon asked for 20 cents to use the pay phone because his cell phone battery had died. Curiel said that when he heard the shots, he thought it was a friend playing a joke by lighting firecrackers, so he went out of the back door of the shop. When he saw nothing, he went out to the street and saw Alarcon on the pavement.

Police said that Curiel told them that a person in the car, which he said was dark green, had yelled an epithet condemning the Lil’ Watts street gang. Police suspected the shooting was committed by members of the Lawndale 13 street gang, a rival to the Lil’ Watts gang, to which Alarcon had formerly belonged. Nineteen-year-old Luis Medrano, who was not a gang member, but lived in Lawndale, had been severely wounded during a drive-by shooting the night before.

On July 1, 1997, Santo “Payaso” Alvarez was arrested in Torrance, California for possession of a weapon and a hypodermic needle. Alvarez said he was a former member of Lawndale 13 gang and proffered information on the murder of Alarcon in exchange for his release.

He claimed that he had seen 15-year-old Edward Dumbrique and 18-year-old John Klene together, and heard Klene announce his intention to kill someone from Lil’ Watts. He said that Robert Caputo drove a dark green Ford Escort and that he had seen Klene and Dumbrique in Caputo’s car on the day of the shooting. Caputo, Dumbrique, and Klene were Lawndale 13 members. According to Alvarez, Klene was a close friend of Medrano, and the shooting of Alarcon was to avenge the shooting of Medrano. Alvarez also said that the day after Alarcon was killed, Alvarez heard Klene say that he had “blasted a fool.”

On July 9, police stopped a car that they believed resembled the car from which the shots that killed Alarcon were fired. A member of the Lawndale 13 was driving the car. Dumbrique was a passenger in the vehicle. He was arrested and the car was confiscated.

On July 10, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Sergeants Doral Riggs and Donald Garcia showed several photographic lineups to Curiel. What happened during that session would be disputed. The detectives said that Curiel identified Dumbrique as the gunman and Klene as the person in the front passenger seat who was shouting a gang epithet.

Curiel would later testify that he told the officers he was unable to make any identification. And so Riggs pointed to the photos of Klene and Dumbrique, and said that one of them was “bragging” about having shot Alarcon.

Not long after, police learned that Alvarez had lied about at least two matters—that he was no longer a member of Lawndale 13 and that Medrano was a close friend to Klene.

On July 21, 1997, the body of 30-year-old Richard Daly was found burning in an alley in San Pedro, California. Over the next three weeks, Los Angeles Police Detective Marcella Winn began receiving tips from confidential informants that Daly was killed by members of the Lawndale 13 street gang.

The informants said Alvarez and two other gang members named Lester “Wicked” Monllor and Chad “Ghost” Landrum beat Daly to death with a claw hammer in a house at 16416 Firmona Avenue in Lawndale, California.

Winn and Riggs conferred at least twice about the two cases. Winn focused her investigation on Landrum, Monllor and Susan Mellen. Mellen was one of several people who had lived in the house where Daly was beaten to death, but she had moved out five months prior to the beating. At the same time, Alvarez was dropped as a suspect in the Daly murder.

On August 14, Klene was arrested on a charge of first-degree murder.

On October 30, 1997, Curiel was asked to view a live line up. By that time, Klene—at the urging of his defense lawyer—had allowed his hair to grow out and had shaved his facial hair. When Klene walked into the lineup room, Detective Riggs didn’t recognize him and stopped the procedure because he suspected Klene had switched identification wristbands with another inmate to avoid being in the lineup. After Riggs confirmed that it was in fact Klene, the lineup went forward and Curiel identified Klene. Curiel would later testify that he recognized Klene from the photo array procedure.

In March 1998, Landrum was convicted of Daly’s murder and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. In May 1998, Mellen was convicted of murder and also was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Monllor was acquitted in a separate trial.

At about the same time, Landrum reached out to Dumbrique’s family and said he was the gunman who shot Alarcon. Klene’s lawyer, Frank DiGiacomo, arranged for Landrum to be transported to the Los Angeles County Superior Courthouse in Torrance for an interview.

However, the interview never took place. After inmates were taken by bus to a holding cell at the courthouse, a fight broke out and Landrum stabbed another inmate several times. Neither DiGiacomo nor Walter Urban, attorney for Dumbrique, ever interviewed Landrum.

In November 1998, Klene and Dumbrique went to trial in Los Angeles County Superior Court. The prosecution’s theory was that Dumbrique shot Alarcon from the rear passenger seat of a car driven by another Lawndale 13 gang member, and that Klene had shouted the epithet about the Lil’ Watts gang from the front passenger seat. Only Dumbrique and Klene were charged in the crime.

No physical or forensic evidence connected either Klene or Dumbrique to the shooting. The prosecutor, Valerie Cole, presented evidence that gunshot residue had been found on the inside of the front and rear seat passenger side doors of the car that Dumbrique was riding in when he was arrested.

A physician who conducted the autopsy said Alarcon was shot six times.

Curiel testified and said that in fact he had not identified Klene and Dumbrique in the photo arrays. Curiel said he told Riggs that he couldn’t make an identification because he wasn’t wearing his glasses. During questioning, he took off his glasses and said that anyone approximately 20 feet away would be blurry and difficult to identify. He said that he was more than 20 feet away from the street at the time of the shooting.

As a result, Riggs had pointed to Dumbrique and Klene as the ones to identify. “He [Riggs] told me, ‘We got the vehicle,’” Curiel testified. Riggs pointed to Dumbrique. “He told me this was the shooter and this guy’s been bragging.”

Curiel also said that Riggs told him that “this case wasn’t even going to trial…They are snitching on each other, you know, this is an open and close[d] case.”

Curiel said that when he identified Klene in the live lineup several weeks later, it was because Riggs “had already shown me the [photo arrays]. I already knew who he was looking for.”

Curiel denied that he ever said that he feared retaliation from gang members.

Santo Alvarez was called as a witness and repeatedly said he did not remember when asked if he had made statements implicating Dumbrique and Klene. The prosecution was then allowed to impeach him with his statement to Riggs.

Sheriff’s deputy John Hanson testified as an expert on street gangs. He said that the shooting of Alarcon was gang related. He testified that two disposable cameras had been found in the car in which Dumbrique was arrested. Photographs from them showed Dumbrique, Klene, and other members of the Lawndale 13 gang flashing gang signs, he said.

Sgt. Garcia testified that he and Riggs handled the presentation of the photographic arrays to Curiel. He denied that Riggs pointed out Klene and Dumbrique to Curiel.

Sheriff’s Sgt. Reynold Verdugo testified that he came to the scene of the shooting not long after the shooting occurred. He told the jury that Curiel said he had been threatened and that he feared retaliation if he cooperated in the investigation.

Alex Irizabal, who had been a Hawthorne police officer and responded to Alarcon’s shooting, testified that Curiel told him the shots were fired from a teal-colored Honda Accord—a description that was similar to the car that Dumbrique was riding in when arrested.

Sgt. Riggs denied that he had pointed to Klene and Dumbrique during the photo array procedure with Curiel. Riggs also said he never saw Curiel wearing glasses at any time.

The defense presented numerous witnesses who testified that on the night of the shooting, Klene was hosting a barbeque at his home. They specifically remembered the night because the party was held to watch the heavyweight title fight between Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield. The fight was a rematch—Holyfield had defeated Tyson several months earlier. The fight on the night of the shooting was memorable because it was ended in the third round after Tyson bit off a part of Holyfield’s ear.

The witnesses included Klene’s mother, Karen Cunningham, who testified that Klene spent the day cleaning the house for the gathering. One witness testified that she called the house at least three times to speak to her boyfriend and that Klene answered the phone each time.

The witnesses all testified that even though the fight was over by about 9 p.m., everyone stayed around for the post-fight interviews and the party didn’t break up until around midnight. Klene was there throughout, the witnesses testified.

Kathy Renda testified that she called Klene’s house around 11:05-11:10 p.m. and Klene answered the phone. Alarcon had been shot at 11:03 p.m., at a location that was an eight- to twelve-minute drive several miles away. Renda said Klene answered the phone, and spoke to her for a few minutes to provide the update on the Tyson-Holyfield fight. Renda called from home with her husband, Dominick, by her side.

Antonio Lowery, who lived across the street from Klene, testified that he got home from work about 11:10 p.m.—about the same time that Alarcon was shot—and saw Klene outside the house talking on a cordless telephone.

The prosecution argued that the witnesses were lying to protect Klene because they were members of either his family or Lawndale 13, or they were friends of Lawndale 13 gang members.

The defense argued that Alvarez was the liar in the case, noting that the car Alvarez claimed Caputo was driving on the day of the shooting on June 28, 1997 had been sold in February 1997.

On December 4, 1998, the jury convicted Klene and Dumbrique of first-degree murder. Both were sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Their appeals were denied. In March 2012, Klene learned for the first time that Landrum had admitted he had murdered Alarcon. Klene reached out to Innocence Matters, a non-profit organization headed by Deirdre O’Connor that investigates wrongful convictions. In October 2012, Klene filed a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus.

The petition claimed that the prosecution had withheld evidence of Alvarez’s involvement in the Daly murder to preserve him as a witness against Klene and Dumbrique. The petition said that the prosecution also failed to disclose that Alvarez had lied when he said that Medrano and Klene were close friends. In fact, the petition said, the prosecution knew that wasn’t true and still allowed Alvarez to testify that Medrano and Klene were close friends.

The petition also said that Klene’s lawyer had provided an inadequate legal defense by failing to buttress the alibi witnesses’ testimony with telephone records as well as information about their background that supported their credibility. Klene’s mother, for example, was a college graduate and school district employee. Kathy Renda was a married stay-at-home mom of an eight-year-old and an active PTA Board member. The petition said the defense failed to obtain the official records showing that Caputo’s car had been sold months before the shooting. Perhaps most significantly, Klene’s lawyer had never sought to interview Landrum after the first attempt was aborted by the stabbing in the Torrance courthouse holding cell.

In 2013, Landrum gave a formal statement admitting that he committed the crime and that Klene and Dumbrique were not involved. Landrum subsequently died in prison.

Not long after, Dumbrique joined the habeas petition.

During that the same time, O’Connor began reinvestigating the murder of Daly because Mellen contended that she was innocent of that crime. In 2014, Alvarez, the gang member who had implicated Klene and Dumbrique in the Alarcon murder, admitted that Mellen was not involved in Daly’s murder. Alvarez admitted that he, along with Monllnor and Landrum, had killed Daly. Klene took a polygraph examination and his denials of participating in the crime were declared to be truthful. Cunningham, Klene’s mother, also took a polygraph that concluded her statements confirming Klene’s alibi were also truthful. In addition, Curiel took a polygraph, and his statements were deemed truthful when he said he was told who to select during the photographic lineups.

In September 2014, O’Connor filed a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus seeking to vacate Mellen’s conviction. On October 10, 2014, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office informed the court that it had no intention of continuing to prosecute the case because there was no evidence of Mellen’s guilt. The court vacated the conviction, the charge was dismissed, and Mellen was released.

Meanwhile, although there was an active investigation into the Klene and Dumbrique case, the prosecution never filed a reply to the habeas petitions, despite a court order to do so that was issued in November 2012.

In June 2020, O’Connor filed an amended habeas petition and in July 2020, Superior Court Judge Edmund Clarke Jr. denied the petition as procedurally barred.

Subsequently, in August 2020, O’Connor filed a motion claiming that Judge Clarke’s denial was based on an erroneous conclusion that the prosecution had never been ordered to respond to the original petition filed in 2012. In fact, such an order was entered in November 2012, O’Connor noted. Judge Clarke retired in September 2020.

In November 2020, Superior Court Judge Amy Carter, who took over Judge Clark’s cases, vacated the ruling that denied the habeas petition, noting that it was based on an erroneous reading of the court record in the case. Judge Carter ordered the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office (LADA) to file a response to the habeas petition.

On February 18, 2021, the prosecution requested that the conviction be vacated and the charge be dismissed “in the interest of justice.”

The prosecution said it had “reviewed the [habeas] Petition, the accompanying exhibits, the court reporter's transcripts of the trial, the court clerk's transcripts, the District Attorney file, and the relevant statutory and case law. Based on our review, LADA concedes that, as a result of the cumulative impact of several errors that occurred before and during Mr. Klene's trial, LADA can no longer maintain confidence in the conviction. The verdict is unreliable and must be reversed.”

On February 19, 2021, the motion to vacate was granted, the charge was dismissed, and Klene was released. The prosecution also agreed to vacate Dumbrique’s conviction. On March 19, 2021, his case was dismissed and Dumbrique was released.

In March 2022, Klene was awarded $1,202,740 in compensation from the state of California.

In November 2022, Klene and Dumbrique filed a federal lawsuit against the Los Angeles County sheriff's department and the Los Angeles police department alleging they were framed. The lawsuit was settled in 2024, with the two men receiving $24 million.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 4/6/2021
County:Los Angeles
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1997
Sentence:Life without parole
Age at the date of reported crime:18
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No