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Ramon Alvarez

Other Orange County, California exonerations
At about 9 a.m. on June 28, 1998, police found the body of 23-year-old Ruben Leal in a shed behind a home at 2220 Halladay Street in Santa Ana, California. Leal had been shot once in the side of the head. His body had been wrapped in a tarp, placed in a child’s inflatable swimming pool, and covered with ice. A fan was blowing over the body and a crucifix was on top.

In the yard, police found blood and brain matter as well as a wet pair of size 10 tennis shoes that appeared to have been cleaned up with bleach. A shell casing from a rifle was found in the yard, but no weapon was ever recovered.

A neighbor reported hearing a gunshot in the early morning hours and had called police. But when police came by, they saw no activity and left. A second call to police brought them to the house the second time.

They found nine people in the home, including 23-year-old Ramon Alvarez. All were arrested. Police took samples from their hands for gunshot residue testing, but no tests were ever performed. All were released except Alvarez, who was held on a parole violation.

Police questioned Alvarez, and he denied involvement in the shooting. He said he had arrived at the home not long before police arrived. When police noted that he was barefoot, Alvarez said he had ridden his bike to the house without wearing shoes. Ultimately, Alvarez was released.

A few weeks later, Craig Gonzales, who was in jail, approached detectives. Gonzales said that during a conversation with Alvarez in the jail, Alvarez had admitted that he shot Leal. Gonzales said he wanted something in return—he wanted his state and federal sentences to be concurrent and not consecutive. When police could not accommodate that request, Gonzales said he would not cooperate any further.

The case went cold until 2010 when the Santa Ana police department obtained a grant of funds to review unsolved cases. Detective David Rondou began reviewing the Leal murder. He determined that Gonzales was in a state prison in Corcoran, California. Rondou would testify that he offered nothing and promised nothing to Gonzales, but Gonzales said he would testify because he was terminally ill with liver disease.

As a result, on July 23, 2010, Alvarez was arrested and charged with first-degree murder.

In January 2012, Alvarez went to trial in Orange County Superior Court. The prosecutor, assistant district attorney Mark Geller, told the jury in his opening statement that Leal and Alvarez were both members of the F Troop street gang, one of Santa Ana’s oldest gangs. Geller said that Leal was shot after he began beating up his girlfriend while he was high on methamphetamine. Geller said it was an “in-house killing” of one gang member by another because of Leal’s attack on his girlfriend.

A medical examiner testified that based on the large exit wound and the extensive damage to Leal’s head, he had been shot once in the side of the head with a high-powered weapon, most likely a rifle. The medical examiner said the bullet went straight through, not an at angle and that it was unlikely that Leal had committed suicide. Most suicides by rifle involve a bullet wound under the chin, the medical examiner said.

A crime lab analyst testified that a shell casing found in the backyard was a 5.56 caliber and that it was the type used in a high-powered rifle.

Another crime lab analyst said that the tennis shoes found in the back yard had been tested for DNA, but nothing was found. The analyst said that was likely because it appeared that someone had cleaned the shoes with bleach.

A detective testified that the shoes were size 10 and that the shoes measured about 12 inches in length. The detective said that he measured Alvarez’s feet with a ruler and determined his feet were 10½ to 10¾ inches long.

Gonzales, 52, testified that he first met Alvarez in January 1998—six months before the shooting—when Gonzales was housed at the state prison in Chino, California. Alvarez was there serving a sentence for a parole violation. Gonzales said they exchanged small talk and recalled that the Superbowl was being broadcast over the prison loudspeakers.

Gonzales said that when he arrived in the jail in Santa Ana in June 1998, he was surprised when Alvarez came into his cell. They began talking, and ultimately, according to Gonzales, Alvarez said he had been arrested when he was at a house where a body had been found.

“Over the next couple days, we talked a little more each day about it, you know,” Gonzales said. “And he started talking about when he was there, how the body was found, why the guy died. And he said he shot him.”

Gonzales said Alvarez told him that “once the guy was killed…they wrapped him in a tarp, put him in the shed, and put him on ice until they could decide what to do with the body.” Gonzales said, “He said that they picked up brain matter, skull, pieces of hair and blood that was around; put it in bags and put it with the body.”

Geller asked, “Did he come right out and tell you early on in your conversation with him: ‘Hey, I did this?’”

“Well, he said that he had had trouble with the guy before and the guy wasn’t supposed to be over at [Alvarez’s] girlfriend’s house,” Gonzales said. “He felt disrespected. And he…says. ‘I capped him. I shot him in the head.’”

“Did he tell you what kind of weapon was used?” Geller asked.

“He told me it was an AK47,” Gonzales replied. “He said that they came up with a story and was going to say that the dude shot himself. And as long as [the police] didn’t have a weapon, they couldn’t prove nothing. He said that they’d never find the weapon where he got rid of it.”

Gonzales told the jury that Alvarez said they put ice on the body to try to prevent it from decaying until they could get rid of it—sometime after nightfall on the day of the shooting.

Gonzales said that when he first contacted police in 1998, he hoped to get seven months off his time in custody by cooperating. When Rondou sought him out in 2010 and asked him to testify, Gonzales said Rondou offered him nothing.

“Did he tell you, hey, you know what, I’m going to be able to knock five years off your sentence if you come and testify in a murder trial?” Geller asked.

“No, I wish,” Gonzales said.

“Did he offer you money, like put money on your books or anything like that?” Geller asked.

“No, sure didn’t,” Gonzales said.

Gonzales said he told Rondou he had to think about whether to cooperate. When Rondou returned a few months later, Gonzales said he would testify. He told the jury that he had been diagnosed with a terminal liver disease. He said that previously, he had stopped using drugs and “had brought God into my life…I just thought it was the right thing to do.”

“Were you expecting anything for your testimony?” Geller asked.

“No, I was not expecting anything,” Gonzales replied. He also said that he had not been an informant in Orange County in the past and had not been an informant in either Sacramento, California or Fort Worth, Texas, where he had been convicted in the past.

Rondou testified that he was an expert on gangs in Santa Ana and that Leal and Alvarez were members of F Troop. Geller asked him, “Based upon the facts of our case—and we have to do this in the form of a hypothetical, because you can’t go inside of somebody’s mind—but based upon the facts of our case, if I posed those to you in a hypothetical, do you have an opinion as to whether or not this type of a crime would be done for the benefit of, at the direction of, or in association with the F Troop gang?”

“Yes…it absolutely would,” Rondou said. “It would benefit the F Troop gang because word spreads, like we talked about. Gangs police their own. And if a guy steps out of line or there’s a perceived disrespect, they’re going to handle that. And if you’re going to kill one of your members, that sends a shocking chill to other gangs and the people in the area that we’re going to kill one of our own if he steps out of line, let alone if you step out of line. So it’s going to benefit the F Troop gang to be able to continue to do criminal activity when everybody is scared of them. No one wants to tell on them.”

Defense attorney Roland Rubalcava called two witnesses on Alvarez’s behalf. Karina Lopez testified that she was Leal’s girlfriend. She said that they were staying at her house when Leal got picked up shortly before midnight. She said he later called and asked her to bring him his shoes and that he was at the house on Halladay Street. Lopez said that when she arrived and brought him the shoes in the shed behind the house, Leal attacked her and began beating her. She said he was high on methamphetamine and claimed that he was Jesus Christ and she was the Virgin Mary. She said that others who were in the house came out and pulled Leal off of her. She said she left and went home. Alvarez was not there, she said.

Sylvia Beltran, who was living in the house on Halladay at the time, testified that she was Alvarez’s cousin. She said that in the early morning hours, she was awakened by a gunshot. She said that one of the other residents came into the housing screaming that Leal had committed suicide. Beltran said she wanted to call the police, but that the person whose name was on the lease was afraid of losing her housing. She said that ultimately, she called Alvarez and another friend to come over to try to figure out what to do. She said that Alvarez arrived sometime after 8 a.m., just before police arrived and found the body.

During closing argument, Geller reminded the jury that Gonzales had not been promised or given anything for his testimony. “Craig Gonzales is getting nothing here,” Geller declared.

While a weapon had not been recovered, Geller ridiculed the suicide claim, noting that the evidence pointed to a high-powered rifle that would have been difficult for Leal to fire into the side of his head. Geller pointed to the wet shoes found in the back yard and that Alvarez was shoeless when police arrived. “We’ve got shoes that fit him,” Geller declared.

In February 2012, a mistrial was declared when the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict with six jurors voting to convict and six jurors voting to acquit.

In June 2012, Alvarez went to trial a second time. The evidence was largely the same. On June 13, 2012, the jury convicted him of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

The California Court of Appeals upheld the conviction in January 2014. In 2017, Alvarez filed a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus. That was denied. In 2019, Alvarez filed another state habeas petition that claimed Gonzales had testified falsely when he said he received no benefits and had not acted as an informant in the past. The petition said that the prosecution knew that Gonzales had been promised compensation for his testimony and that the prosecution knew Gonzales had been an informant in a case in Nevada. The petition submitted a copy of a check for $11,000 which Gonzales had cashed in December 2012—six months after the conviction. Ostensibly, the money was paid for burial expenses since Gonzales was believed to be at death’s door.

Also attached were two declarations from Gonzales. In the first, dated July 2018, Gonzales stated that “[i]n exchange for testifying against [Alvarez], Detective David Rondou told me that I would get paid, be moved to any prison that I wanted, and get a reduction on my sentence. Approximately four months after I had testified… Detective Rondou visited me in prison and handed me a check for $11,000.” Gonzales also said that Rondou and Geller mentioned to Gonzales that they were aware of Gonzales’s prior informant work in Nevada. In the second declaration, dated in September 2018, Gonzales stated that Rondou promised him payment “without specifying the amount.” Gonzales also said that “Detective Rondou. . . instructed that if asked in court whether I was going to receive any benefit for my testimony, that I should say no.

This petition was denied in 2020 by the California Supreme Court.

Alvarez had filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus in 2015, but it had been put on hold while he continued to pursue his state post-conviction claims. Ultimately, when his state claims had been denied, he returned to federal court. His attorney, Tony Faryar Farmani, filed an amended petition detailing Gonzales’s assertions as well as the evidence that he testified falsely. He also noted that Alvarez had taken and passed a polygraph examination in 2016 which indicated he was not deceptive when he said that Gonzales was never in a cell with him.

In January 2019, Geller testified during a deposition that he did not learn of the check until years afterward. He was angry, he said, because he didn’t think Gonzales deserved it. Geller also said he did not recall when he learned of Gonzales’s informant history in Nevada and did not remember talking to Nevada prosecutors about it.

In September 2021, U.S. Magistrate Judge Karen Stevenson held a hearing on the petition. Gonzales testified that Rondou initially offered him between $10,000 and $15,000 to testify. Gonzales also testified that Geller was aware of the compensation and told him that Rondou would take care of it.

Gonzales said he was not terminally ill and that he never told Rondou that he was. Gonzales said that his testimony that Alvarez admitted shooting Leal was a lie—that Alvarez had never admitted involvement in the crime. Gonzales also testified that he met Geller in Geller’s office in the Santa Ana courthouse. Gonzales also said that Geller was aware of Gonzales’s prior informant work in Nevada. Gonzales said he met Geller only once, but did not remember when this visit occurred.

Rondou testified and said the money was for burial expenses based on statements to him by Gonzales’s daughter, Danielle, that Gonzales was dying and she did not have the money to pay to bury him.

Danielle testified and denied saying her father was dying or that she needed money for burial expenses.

Geller testified that he had no knowledge of the payment of money to Gonzales, that he relied on Rondou’s word that Gonzales was dying, and that Gonzales testified because he “wanted to do something good before he died.”

On January 27, 2022, Judge Stevenson recommended that the writ be granted on the basis of the failure to disclose the payment of money to Gonzales. She found Rondou’s explanation “implausible.” She also noted that there was no corroboration for Rondou’s version of events, including his claim that Geller knew what was being done.

Judge Stevenson noted that Rondou claimed he had checked with prison doctors to verify Gonzales’s condition and that Gonzales was living in the medical ward at the prison. “The objective medical evidence flatly contradicts these statements,” Judge Stevenson said. “Nowhere in the medical evidence…is there any suggestion by prison doctors that Gonzales’s ‘prognosis was not good’ or that he was ‘close to death.’”

In fact, the medical evidence showed that while Gonzales was being treated for Hepatitis C, his blood counts were good or “mildly elevated” at worst and that his condition was reported as “quite good,” the judge ruled.

On March 23, 2022, U.S. District Court Judge Dolly McGee accepted Judge Stevenson’s recommendation and ordered Alvarez’s conviction vacated.

On May 25, 2022, the Orange County District Attorney’s Office dismissed the charge. Alvarez was turned over to federal authorities to face an unrelated federal felony charge.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 7/12/2022
Last Updated: 7/12/2022
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1998
Sentence:25 to life
Age at the date of reported crime:23
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No