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Santos Sanchez

Other Milwuakee, Wisconsin exonerations
Shortly before 2 a.m. on April 18, 1996, 31-year-old Carlos Santiago was fatally shot in the second-floor home of Cristina Depena on West Washington Street in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Depena told police that she and her three daughters were down by the door of the house when Santiago ran up and told them to get up the stairs and be quiet. They were followed by a masked man who entered the apartment and told everyone to get on the floor. She then heard a gunshot.

Depena’s daughters initially told the police the same story. However, they then admitted that their mother told them to lie and tell the story about the masked man.

At the police station, Depena changed her account. She told police that her ex-husband, 46-year-old Santos Sanchez, had shot Santiago. On the afternoon of April 18, 1996, Sanchez was arrested. When he was interrogated, he denied shooting Santiago. Sanchez told police there was an argument at Santiago’s house over a drug sale. Afterward, Santiago, Sanchez, and Depena went to Depena’s house. Soon after, a Hispanic man and a Hispanic woman came to the house. Sanchez said that an argument ensued. He said the man pulled out a gun, hit Sanchez in the head, and then shot Santiago.

At the scene of the shooting, police recovered a nine-millimeter pistol with four live rounds in the magazine. One shell casing was also found. A single fingerprint was found on the gun, but it was not linked to anyone.

Sanchez was charged with first-degree intentional homicide. The prosecution agreed to place Depena and the three daughters—two of whom were Sanchez’s daughters—in the witness protection program.

Trial was scheduled to begin July 15, 1996 in Milwaukee County Circuit Court. However, sometime in June, Depena and the girls fled from Wisconsin.

By the time Depena was located in the state of New York, she claimed that she had sent the girls to the Dominican Republic.

Meanwhile, Sanchez insisted that a Hispanic man named “Pacha” was the killer. In fact, four days after the shooting, while Sanchez was in custody, police received an anonymous tip stating “Pacha Candelario” shot the victim and could be found in “an apartment building in the 1600 block of South 11th Street.” Police claimed they searched both Wisconsin and FBI records and could not find the man.

Sanchez’s attorney requested a continuance in the trial to attempt to locate the girls, but the motion was denied. As a result, when Santos went to trial on October 14, 1996, the prosecution’s main witness was Depena, who said that she didn’t actually see the shooting, but was in her bedroom with the door cracked open. She told the jury she saw Sanchez with a gun before the shot was fired and after the shot was fired, Santiago was dead on the couch. She also admitted that she had told her daughters to lie to police.

Sanchez testified and denied shooting Santiago. He told the jury that a high level drug dealer named “Pacha” was the real killer. He also said that Pacha’s sister, Blanquita, was present. Sanchez testified he told the interrogating officer these names.

When the officer testified, he denied that Sanchez told him about Pacha and Blanquita. The officer admitted that although he interviewed Sanchez for about five hours, the written statement that the officer prepared about the interview was only a page and a half. The officer also admitted that although the interview with Sanchez was conducted in Spanish, the statement the officer drafted and which Sanchez signed was in English, which Sanchez did not speak well.

The prosecution argued that “Pacha” didn’t exist and that Sanchez had concocted him. Moreover, the prosecution told the jury that an experienced high-level drug dealer would not flee and leave his gun behind.

On October 18, 1996, the jury convicted Sanchez of intentional homicide. He was sentenced to life in prison with parole eligibility after 40 years.

In May 1998, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals upheld the conviction, affirming the trial court judge’s conclusion that there was no reasonable expectation that the girls could be located and that the Dominican Republic was beyond the reach of the Wisconsin courts. The appeals court rejected Sanchez’s contention that the trial court should not have taken Depena’s word as to the location of the girls because Depena was a liar.

The Wisconsin Innocence Project (WIP) started working on Sanchez’s case in 2017 as part of the WIP’s Latino Exoneration Project, founded by former WIP attorney Cristina Bordé, and staffed by attorney Maria de Arteaga and intake specialist/paralegal Yvonne Geerts. During the WIP investigation of the case, Geerts found documents revealing “Pacha” actually existed. He was a drug dealer named Fausto Candelario and records showed he was in Milwaukee at the time of the shooting and had ties to the drug trade. Two weeks before Santiago was fatally shot, Candelario was charged with a battery in a domestic incident in a home on the 1600 block of South 11th Street, the same block where the anonymous tipster said police could find him. Several years after Sanchez was convicted for Santiago’s murder, Candelario was convicted in Connecticut and sent to prison for federal drug trafficking.

In 2019, Bordé and de Arteaga filed a motion for DNA testing of the gun, since Candelaria would be in the FBI’s DNA database. The Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office agreed to the testing. However, the testing revealed a complex mixture of DNA profiles that could not be uploaded to the database.

However, based on the fact that Pacha did exist at the time of Santiago’s murder and had the opportunity to commit the crime, the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office reached an agreement with WIP attorneys de Arteaga and Steven Wright to vacate Sanchez’s conviction.

On March 8, 2021, the conviction was vacated. He was released on March 9, 2021, and on April 20, 2021, the prosecution dismissed the case.

Sanchez filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit against the city of Milwaukee and several of its police officers in March 2024, seeking compensation for his wrongful conviction.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 5/22/2021
Last Updated: 3/12/2024
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1996
Age at the date of reported crime:46
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No