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James Hill

Other Lake County, Indiana exonerations
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On March 17, 2022, Lake County, Indiana prosecutors dismissed murder and attempted robbery charges against 59-year-old James Hill, who was serving a 40-year prison term for the 1980 murder of 33-year-old Lawrence Pucalik, an off-duty Hammond, Indiana police officer gunned down while working as a security guard in a Holiday Inn motel.

The dismissal left Pucalik’s murder officially unsolved.

The prosecution admitted that it “inadvertently” failed to disclose evidence impeaching two of its witnesses and that post-conviction DNA testing excluded Hill and a co-defendant from evidence seized in the alleged getaway car.

For Hill, it was the second time that a conviction had been vacated and dismissed after evidence emerged that pointed to his innocence.

In 2009, Hill was exonerated of a rape, robbery and kidnapping that occurred just five weeks before Pucalik was murdered. His arrest in that case prompted police to focus on him in Pucalik’s murder when Hill—unprompted, police said—told them: “I know you guys think I shot that Hammond cop.”

The legal saga that would span more than four decades began on October 5, 1980, when two Black men, one armed with a pistol, entered a gas station in Hammond, Indiana. One of the men put a blue denim bag on the counter and demanded that the clerk, a 20-year-old white woman, put the money inside. Then the men, one of whom was noticeably taller and heavier than the other, forced the woman into their car. After driving around and taking turns raping the woman both orally and vaginally, the men dumped her onto the street and drove off.

The victim sought help and was taken to a hospital where a rape kit was completed. She told police that only the shorter attacker ejaculated.

Five weeks later, on November 14, 1980, two men attempted to rob a Holiday Inn hotel on Cline Avenue in Hammond. Pucalik was working as a security guard. When he intervened, he was shot and killed. The robbers fled but left behind a blue denim bag matching the description of the bag used in the gas station robbery.

Later that day, Hammond Police Detective Robert Seaman received an anonymous phone call from a person who stated, “Pierre Catlett killed your cop.”

In their investigation, detectives looked into yet another robbery—this one of a Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) restaurant—which occurred prior to the gas station robbery. The victims in this crime said there were two robbers and that one had a blue denim bag. Detectives also learned that earlier in the year, two women reported to police that they were raped after being picked up while hitchhiking toward Chicago on Interstate 80-94 outside of Hammond. The women had said that two cars had stopped, but that the driver of the second car told them to get in the second car because the first car was not working well.

The women had reported that the two cars went to a home where the poorly-functioning car was dropped off. The women said they were driven around in the other car and two men raped them.

Because of the similarity in the description of the two rapes, detectives re-interviewed the women in the double rape and learned the location where the malfunctioning car was dropped off. A woman who was listed as the owner of the car told police she didn’t drive it, but that her brother did. Police then interviewed the brother and realized he did not fit the description of either of the rapists. The brother, however, said that his nephew, James Hill, a 17-year-old student at Roosevelt High School in Gary, Indiana sometimes drove it.

Police went to the school, obtained a photograph of Hill, and put it in a photographic lineup. Multiple victims—including from the KFC robbery, the hitchhiker rape victims, and the gas station clerk—identified Hill as one of the men involved in the crimes.

On November 18, 1980, Hill was arrested. He was charged with armed robbery, kidnapping, and rape in connection with the gas station and KFC robberies, as well as the rape on October 5, 1980. He was not charged in the Pucalik murder.

In the meantime, an informant told police that the gas station robbery was committed by Mike Deneal and 30-year-old Larry Mayes. Police put a photograph of Mayes into a photographic lineup and the gas station clerk identified him as the smaller of the two men who robbed and raped her. Mayes was then charged with rape, robbery, and kidnapping for the gas station crime.

On March 9, 1981, while awaiting trial, Hill asked jail staff if he could speak with a detective. According to the detective, Hill confessed that he drove the vehicle used in the attempted robbery and murder of Pucalik. Hill claimed that Mayes, who he identified as “Lee,” and a man he knew only as “Michael,” went into the Holiday Inn. Hill was shown photographic lineups and picked out Larry Mayes as the man he knew as Lee Mayes. He picked out Pierre Catlett as the man he called “Michael.”

Hill and Mayes were tried separately in Lake County Circuit Court on the gas station charges. At Hill’s trial, the victim identified him as the taller robber and said he raped her. A classmate of Hill’s, Arthur Ezell, testified that he had seen Hill carrying a blue denim bag. He said Hill told him he had made it himself, suggesting that it was one-of-a-kind and that only Hill had such a bag.

The victim identified Mayes at his trial and said he was the smaller of the two robbers and that he had ejaculated. The victim admitted that she had been unable to identify Mayes in two live lineups, but she eventually picked his photo out of a photo array. She had previously described her assailant as having a gold tooth. Mayes had a gold tooth.

On February 2, 1982, Hill was convicted. He was sentenced to 35 years in prison. Charges against Hill in the other two crimes were then dismissed.

On July 8, 1982, Mayes was convicted. He was sentenced to 80 years in prison.

No one had been charged with the murder of the off-duty police officer during the attempted robbery of the Holiday Inn.

In October 1983, about a year after Pucalik’s murder, detectives interviewed Jimmy Dale Woods, who recalled that at about the time of the shooting, Mayes came to Woods’s home. According to Woods, Mayes was “walking back and forth, really nervous, speaking out the window.” When Woods asked Mayes what was going on, Mayes said the police were looking for him. According to Woods, Mayes said, “Something went wrong in Hammond. A security guard was shot.” Mayes borrowed $160 from Woods’s mother and left for Indianapolis, according to Woods.

Still, no one was charged.

Hammond Detective Michael Solan later testified: “We had substantial evidence, but we did not have enough evidence— we had substantial evidence, but [in] my opinion, I was the one that would decide if we were going to charge. We had substantial evidence, but we weren't going to charge, roll the dice because we had some problems with the investigation at that time so we continued on.”

In 1996, the Innocence Project, based in New York, accepted Mayes’s plea to investigate his rape conviction. Project students assigned to his case spent years searching for the rape kit used at trial, only to be told that it had been lost. A persistent summer intern convinced a diligent court clerk to search again in the evidence room of the courthouse. The rape kit was discovered, and the Innocence Project moved to have it preserved. The Innocence Project was joined by the Innocence Project at the Indiana University School of Law, which moved to have the evidence in the case subjected to DNA testing.

In response to the motion to test the DNA, new prosecutors on the case contacted the victim. She revealed that the police had hypnotized her prior to her identification of Mayes and Hill from the photographic lineup—a fact that had never been disclosed to the defense.

DNA testing was performed in 2001 and excluded Mayes as the source of the biological evidence from the rape kit. In December 2001, the charges against Mayes were dismissed. Mayes was exonerated and released.

Meanwhile, Hill had been released from prison on parole in May 1998. In 2005, four years after Mayes was exonerated, Hill filed a post-conviction motion to vacate his conviction. Hill claimed that the prosecution had withheld evidence of a statement by an informant that others committed the crime and a statement by Ezell to police about the blue denim bag. In that statement, Ezell said that Hill told him he got the bag from a friend. Ezell never said in the statement that Hill had said he made it himself.

Meanwhile, the investigation into the Pucalik murder remained stalled. In May 2007, the Hammond Fraternal Order of Police and Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. pledged a total of $50,000 as a reward for information on the Pucalik murder.

On October 6, 2009, Lake County Circuit Court Judge Salvador Vasquez granted Hill’s petition to vacate his conviction and ordered a new trial. The Lake County District Attorney’s Office then dismissed the charges.

By that time, Mayes had been awarded $9 million in a wrongful conviction lawsuit against Indiana and Lake County law enforcement officials. The suit was later settled while on appeal for $4.5 million.

Also in 2009, Woods, the man who claimed in 1983 that Mayes came to his house worried that police were looking for him, came under federal investigation for possession of firearms and drug trafficking. U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives Agent Jason Gore interviewed Woods, who now said that Mayes said on that night: “I think I did something today. I think I killed somebody.”

According to Gore, Woods said that Mayes said that he, Hill, and “Mike” were driving around looking to rob someone, and they found a Holiday Inn that only had one female desk clerk. Woods remembered Mayes stating that they figured the desk clerk was alone and would be an easy target. Woods told Gore that Mayes recounted how, during the robbery, a security guard came out from the backroom, and went for his gun. Woods said that Mayes told him he shot the security guard and fled without getting any money.

In 2010, Hill filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Hammond police department seeking damages for the wrongful rape conviction. Among officers named as defendants were detectives who worked on the Pucalik murder investigation.

In early 2011, the Northwest Indiana Major Crimes Task force reopened the investigation into Pucalik's murder, reviewed old files and re-interviewed witnesses. On June 22, 2012, Hill, Mayes, and Catlett were charged with Pucalik's murder. The charge against Catlett was dismissed because he was serving another sentence in Illinois. The charge against Mayes was dismissed after he suffered a major stroke and was incompetent to stand trial.

On March 27, 2014, the charges against Hill for the Pucalik murder were dismissed.

On September 1, 2016, prosecutors again filed charges of murder, murder in perpetration of a robbery, and attempted robbery against Hill for Pucalik's murder. The charges against Mayes were never refiled because he remained medically incompetent to stand trial.

Prior to trial, Hill’s defense attorneys, Scott King and Russell Brown, moved to dismiss the charges, claiming his alibi witnesses had died and that he had been unfairly prejudiced by the delay in refiling the charges. Hill stated his great-uncle, James Stokes, and his great-grandmother, Elnoria Stokes, would have testified that they lived with Hill at the time and “Mr. Hill was home the entire night and did not leave the residence.” However, Elnoria had died in 1996, and James had died in 2008.

During a hearing on the motion, Gore testified that the prosecutor handling the case told him the charges were dismissed in 2014 because “the case that we had against Mr. Hill was tied to Mr. Mayes. The two cases were in part together.”

The defense motion to dismiss was denied. The defense was allowed to appeal and in January 2018, the Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of the motion.

In August 2018, Hill went to trial in Lake County Circuit Court. Lake County Sheriff’s officer Keith Foor testified that when he arrived at the Holiday Inn at 3:54 a.m., he saw a blue denim drawstring bag on top of the cash register.

Later in the trial, three witnesses testified that they had seen Hill with the same blue bag at different times and places. One woman said she was working at the gas station in Hammond on October 5, 1980, when Hill entered carrying a blue denim draw-string bag. A second woman said she was working the night of October 19, 1980 at the KFC in Hammond when Hill and a second man came into the store. She said Hill had a blue denim bag. A third woman, who was manager for the KFC, also said she saw Hill with a blue denim bag.

Hammond police detective Ronald Gennarelli testified that he noticed a scrape mark on the curb and a hubcap by the Holiday Inn's entrance. He took the hubcap to the crime lab.

Hammond police officer Monte Miller testified that not long after the crime, he saw a car that matched the description of the getaway vehicle—a blue Chevrolet Impala—at a nearby apartment complex. The ignition was “popped,” which he said can indicate that a vehicle had been stolen.

The car was seized. A hubcap was missing. Foor testified that the hubcap found at the Holiday Inn was a likely match for the Impala.

While searching the vehicle, police found a piece of paper under the passenger seat. The note contained an identification on it and appeared to have been a note left by someone who had been kidnapped. That testimony was stricken by the judge after the defense objected.

Officer Miller also testified that the vehicle's glove box was forced open and that among items removed from the car were some decorative pillows.

A woman identified as T.W., testified that on November 12, 1980—two days before Pucalik was killed—she and a friend hitchhiked from Marion, Illinois, to T.W.'s mother's house in Lake County, Indiana. T.W. said she and her friend accepted an offer of a ride from Hill and another man who were driving a blue Impala. During the drive, the Impala got a flat tire. T.W. said Hill said he would go get his cousin's car, and soon returned with another blue Impala.

T.W. said they got into the second Impala, which she said had decorative pillows in the back. T.W. said she did not have a driver’s license, so she carried a piece of paper with her personal information. While in the second Impala, T.W. said she put the paper under the passenger seat. She testified that she and her friend were dropped off at her mother’s house.

A police detective testified to Hill’s statements admitting involvement in the crime. (A pretrial defense motion to suppress the statements had been denied.)

Leroy Ford testified that on the morning of Pucalik’s murder, he saw Pierre Catlett in a maroon Oldsmobile—a car that a witness at the scene of the shooting had described as being at the scene.

On August 31, 2018, the jury acquitted Hill of the murder charge, but convicted him of murder in perpetration of a robbery and attempted robbery. He was sentenced to 47 years in prison.

In December 2019, the convictions were upheld by the Indiana Court of Appeals. However, the court said Hill had been erroneously sentenced and vacated the 47-year sentence. In June 2020, Hill was resentenced to 40 years in prison.

In July 2020, defense attorney Russell Brown discovered a summary of the case written by Detective Solan, who had since retired. The summary said that Ford, when he was shown photos of the maroon Oldsmobile, did not identify the vehicle as the one he saw Catlett get into on the day of the murder.

Brown also discovered there was an audio recording of the police interview of Ford during which he was unable to identify the car.

Additionally, the defense discovered a pretrial interview by police of a woman who testified at the trial that she recognized Hill as being in the blue Impala. In the interview, however, the woman said she could not identify Hill or the blue Impala.

Brown subsequently filed a motion with the Indiana Court of Appeals, requesting that the case be remanded to the trial court. The motion was granted. Subsequently, the defense learned that the prosecution had sought DNA testing on a towel found in the blue Impala. The DNA testing—which was not disclosed to the defense—revealed the profile of one of women who said she had been raped. The profiles of two unidentified males also were found. Catlett, Mayes, and Hill were all excluded, according to the test results.

Hill’s lawyers then obtained videotapes of police interviews with the three women who had linked Hill to the blue denim bag in the gas station and the KFC. The interviews, which had not been disclosed to the defense, contained impeachment evidence regarding their ability to identify Hill and the blue bag.

The defense then filed a motion for a new trial claiming that the evidence of the interviews had not been disclosed to the defense. The interviews could have been used to impeach the witnesses’ testimony, the motion said.

On May 11, 2021, the defense and prosecution filed a joint motion to vacate Hill’s convictions. The motion said that they all agreed the evidence had not been disclosed prior to Hill’s trial, that it was exculpatory, and that it should have been disclosed. The prosecution, after investigating, concluded that the failure to turn over the evidence “was the result of oversight and not intentional.”

Lake County Circuit Court Judge Salvador Vasquez granted the motion. On May 12, 2021, Hill was released on bond pending a retrial.

On March 17, 2022, Judge Vasquez dismissed the charges after the prosecution moved to dismiss the case. In the motion, First Assistant Deputy Prosecutor Peter Villarreal wrote, "After a thorough and exhaustive review of the currently existing evidence from this incident that occurred in 1980, there is insufficient credible evidence to prove these charges beyond a reasonable doubt."

Scott King, also a member of Hill’s defense team praised the decision to dismiss the case, and said that Hammond police, in their "zeal" to solve Pucalik's murder, engaged in “absolutely egregious” behavior.

The case against Catlett, who had never gone to trial, was dismissed as well.

Hill’s federal civil rights lawsuit, filed in 2016 seeking damages for his wrongful conviction in the rape case, was still pending in May 2022.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 5/23/2022
Last Updated: 5/23/2022
State:Indiana
County:Lake
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Attempt, Violent
Reported Crime Date:1980
Convicted:2018
Exonerated:2022
Sentence:47 years
Race/Ethnicity:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:17
Contributing Factors:False Confession, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes