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John Galvan

Other Cook County, Illinois arson exonerations
In the early morning hours of September 21, 1986, a fire erupted in a home at 2603 W. 24th Place in Chicago, Illinois. Nineteen-year-old Julio Martinez and his 28-year-old brother, Guadalupe, died. Another brother, 22-year-old Jorge, and a sister, 33-year-old Blanca, managed to escape. During the blaze, 31-year-old Raudel Casanova, a Chicago firefighter, was injured when he fell through the roof.

Socorro Flores, who lived across the alley behind the house, told police that she got up around 4 a.m. to make her husband’s lunch. She looked out her second floor window, and she saw some boys walking and talking in the alley. She said she saw one boy with a towel or cloth, and that something was thrown onto the second floor of the house. She said she heard glass break and a small fire was visible.

Blanca Martinez and some neighbors told police that a woman named Lisa Velez had threatened to burn down the home to seek revenge because she believed her brother, Mario, had been killed by members of the Latin Kings street gang. And, in fact, Jorge Martinez was a member of the Latin Kings. Police interviewed Velez who denied setting the fire.

Police re-interviewed Flores who said she saw Frank Partida in the alley as well. In early June 1987, police interviewed Partida, who said that he had bumped into two teenagers and, as they were talking, they saw three other young men walking in the alley. He identified the two young men he was talking with by their nicknames. On June 8, police interviewed one of them, Jose Ramirez, who said two of the three boys were 19-year-old Michael Almendarez and 18-year-old John Galvan. The Galvan and Almendarez families lived in the neighborhood.

That same day, detectives interviewed Michael Almendarez. Michael would later testify that the officers handcuffed him, threatened his life and repeatedly hit him in the abdomen. The officers took Michael to a rival gang’s territory and threatened to leave him there unless he gave a statement. As a result, Michael agreed to give a statement and was returned to the police station where he said that he had heard Galvan and 22-year-old Francisco Nanez admit they set the fire.

Police then arrested Galvan, who gave a statement implicating Nanez and Michael Almendarez’s 20-year-old brother, Arthur Almendarez. In the statement, Galvan admitted being the initiator of the plan and that all three were together when Nanez threw a bottle filled with gasoline at the building. Galvan would later testify that Detective Victor Switski wrote out the statement, but Galvan, who was 5’2” tall and weighed about 100 pounds, refused to sign it because it was false and that none of them had any involvement in the fire. Galvan said that Switski “pushed my head against the wall, pressing real hard” and then left him alone to “think about it.” When Galvan continued to refuse to sign it, Switski returned, kicked him, punched the back of his head, and left the interrogation room, after telling Galvan to “study it” and that the only way he could go home was if he signed it. So, Galvan said, he signed the statement. The statement said that when the bottle broke but no fire erupted, Galvan threw a cigarette at the liquid, and it ignited.

Galvan’s older brother, Isaac, also was questioned—11 hours in all—but did not make any statement. Isaac later testified that he heard yelling, crying, and noises on the wall and table in the interrogation room where John was being held. Isaac was released without being charged.

Police then arrested Arthur Almendarez and Nanez. After denying involvement, both ultimately gave statements implicating each other and Galvan in starting the fire. Arthur later testified that Switski and another detective, James Hanrahan, physically abused him. The abuse included being kicked in the groin and repeatedly struck in the back of the head. Arthur said he was never read his Miranda rights and was denied a request to speak to family members or an attorney.

Arthur said the detectives told him that Galvan and Nanez had made statements that did not implicate him and that if he signed a statement implicating them, he could go home. Arthur’s statement, which he signed so the physical abuse would stop, said that he was with Galvan and Nanez on the night of the fire and that Galvan said he wanted to burn a house on 24th Place because some guys that lived there had shot at him a couple of weeks before.

According to the statement, the three went to a gas station nearby, where Galvan held an empty milk container while Almendarez pumped gasoline into it. Then they walked down the alley behind the Martinez home. The statement said Almendarez waited next to a garage about 20 feet from the home while Galvan and Nanez walked around the garage. Several minutes later, Galvan and Nanez ran out and told Arthur to run.

Nanez was then arrested. He also signed a statement saying he was a reluctant participant, but was present when the three got gasoline. This statement said Galvan lit the rag stuffed in the bottle and tossed it at the house before they all fled. Nanez later said he was drunk when he came in and was without his glasses, which left him unable to see what he was signing. He also said the police did not read him his Miranda rights.

Galvan, Arthur Almendarez, and Nanez were each charged with first-degree murder and aggravated arson.

In May 1989, Galvan went to trial alone in Cook County Circuit Court. His attempt to suppress his statement had been denied. At the suppression hearing, Michael Almendarez testified that his statement was false.

The prosecution contended that Galvan lit a Molotov cocktail with a cigarette to get revenge on the Martinez brothers. Jose Ramirez testified that he saw Galvan and someone he knew as “Michael” in the alley behind the Martinez home.

Detective Mark Scheithauer from the Chicago Police Bomb and Arson section testified that he saw significant burning and deep charring on the first-floor porch, as well as areas of burn-through in front of the back doorway. He testified that this burn-through indicated “something was laying on the surface of the floor that involved the wood to a greater degree than the surrounding areas causing it to burn down and through the floor.” He also testified that he found “a considerable amount of glass” in his examination, including “crazed” clear glass from the windows which was caused by a very hot fire or a rapid buildup of intense heat. He also identified areas of brick that were clean and testified these were the result of intense heat. Scheithauer pinpointed the origin of the fire to the first-floor porch in front of the doorway going into the first-floor apartment. He identified the cause as “propagated by means of a liquid accelerant” with an unknown ignition source. He said the reason there was no evidence of accelerants at the scene was because the fire had consumed all the accelerant evidence.

Detective Switski said that after he confronted Galvan with what Michael Almendarez had said, Galvan “sort of hung his head” and said he would confess. According to Switski, Galvan said that he and Arthur and Nanez got the gasoline, and then he made the Molotov cocktail. He said Nanez threw it against the back of the house, spilling the gasoline, but it did not ignite. Galvan said he walked up to the house and threw a lit cigarette onto the soaked wood, igniting the blaze.

The defense called family members who testified that Galvan was home by 3 a.m.—at least an hour before the fire—and slept until the morning. The defense also sought to call Blanca Martinez to testify about the threats from Lisa Velez, but the prosecution objected. The judge barred the testimony.

Galvan testified and denied involvement in the fire. He testified that he was coerced to sign the statement because Switski kept hitting him in the back of the head.

In rebuttal, Switski denied physically abusing Galvan.

On May 30, 1989, the jury convicted Galvan of first-degree murder and aggravated arson. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

In January 1990, Arthur Almendarez and Nanez went to trial together in Cook County Circuit Court before separate juries. The prosecution presented their statements as well as the testimony of Scheithauer, the arson expert. Switski and Hanrahan denied abusing anyone during interrogations. On January 29, 1990, the separate juries convicted Almendarez and Nanez of first-degree murder and aggravated arson. Both were sentenced to life in prison without parole.

All three men’s convictions were upheld on appeal.

In 2007, Galvan was about 21 years into his sentence when he saw something on a prison television that he thought might help his case--an episode of MythBusters. The episode, “Hollywood on Trial,” which had originally aired in 2005, showed the hosts try to ignite a pool of gasoline with a lit cigarette, but were unable to do so, despite such scenes being showed on television and in films. After several attempts, the team determined it was highly unlikely that dropping a cigarette into gasoline could cause a fire. Galvan immediately reached out to his attorney, Tara Thompson, at the Innocence Project.

There followed several years of filings of post-conviction petitions. Ultimately, a hearing was ordered, and a prosecution motion to dismiss was denied. The prosecution filed a motion to reconsider that ruling, and that was denied as well. The trial judge was then transferred, and, for more than a year, the case bounced among several different judges. Before a hearing occurred, a new judge took over the case, granted the prosecution motion to reconsider, and dismissed the petitions. Following an appeal, in 2012, the Illinois Appellate Court reinstated the petitions and ordered a hearing.

By that time, Thompson and fellow attorney Joshua Tepfer, who were at the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School, were deeply involved in the case. The Exoneration Project would later come to represent Almendarez as well.

At the hearing, Dr. Russell Ogle testified as an expert on fire investigation. He said there was no evidence as to what started the fire and there was nothing about the scene that would support that this fire was deliberately set, other than the testimony of Socorro Flores. Ogle said Flores’s testimony could not support a scientific conclusion about the nature of the fuel or the ignition source.

Ogle said Galvan’s statement was false because it was scientifically “impossible.” He said it was undisputed in modern science that a burning cigarette cannot ignite a flammable vapor. He also said that a Molotov cocktail was not involved in the ignition of the fire because a burning cigarette cannot ignite wood that has been soaked in gasoline. In addition, he said, “[T]he volume of gasoline is too small and it requires an ignition source. The lit cigarette, that cannot ignite the gasoline.”

Dr. Ogle also said that Scheithauer’s trial testimony about the origin of the fire being at the back of the first-floor porch was wrong. Dr. Ogle testified that this was too specific, but that the fire did begin somewhere in the rear of the building, where the fire was fully involved. There was so much fire damage, however, that there was no way to determine where exactly it began, he said.

Dr. Ogle testified that the most likely place for the fire to have begun was the stairwell itself.

Dr. Ogle said Scheithauer reached his opinions on the cause and origin of the fire by relying on his interpretation of fire patterns, but his analysis of fire patterns as a method for analyzing a fire had been repudiated by modern fire science. In Dr. Ogle’s opinion, no one could make a determination as to where on the first-floor porch the fire originated.

Moreover, although old fire science tied the specific scene patterns that Scheithauer observed to liquid accelerants, modern fire science had shown that none of these phenomena have anything to do with burn patterns, Dr. Ogle testified.

Frank Partida testified that Galvan was not in the alley that night. He also testified that Ramirez was drunk and admitted at the time that he had been smoking marijuana dipped in PCP.

Galvan, Michael, and Arthur Almendarez testified that they were physically abused. And the defense presented testimony from other individuals who said they had been similarly abused by Switski and other detectives in other unrelated cases.

The petitions were denied. The judge ruled that Galvan and Almendarez did not meet the necessary burden of proof to entitle them to post conviction relief. The court found that the witnesses were not credible and that their testimony did not lead to any conclusion that if the pattern of police misconduct had been presented at their pretrial hearings on their motions to suppress their confessions, such motions would have been granted.

In 2019 and in 2020, in separate rulings, the Illinois Appellate Court reinstated the petitions and ruled that Galvan and Almendarez should receive new suppression hearings and, “if necessary, a new trial.”

After a further hearing on remand, the trial court, in December 2020, declined to suppress the statements and closed the case.

Another appeal followed, and on June 17, 2022, the Illinois Appellate Court ruled that in fact it had vacated the men’s convictions and had ordered a new trial. “This court did not intend that if the circuit court denied the motions to suppress, that no new trial should take place,” the appellate court declared. “Accordingly, the circuit court’s taking the matter ‘off call’ left the need for a new trial unresolved and thus was not a final and appealable order.”

“Therefore, with the clarification that Galvan’s and Almendarez’s convictions were vacated…necessitating a new trial, we dismiss this appeal for lack of jurisdiction,” the appellate court said.

On July 13, 2022, the prosecution dismissed the charges against Almendarez and Galvan, and they were released. At the same time, a prosecution motion to vacate Nanez’s convictions was granted, the charges against him were dismissed, and he was released. The three men each had spent more than 35 years in custody since their arrest.

In May 2023, Galvan filed a federal civil rights against the city of Chicago seeking compensation for his wrongful conviction.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 8/8/2022
Last Updated: 10/23/2023
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Arson
Reported Crime Date:1986
Sentence:Life without parole
Age at the date of reported crime:18
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False Confession, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No