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Daniel Saldana

Other Exonerations in Los Angeles County
At about 10:30 p.m. on October 27, 1989, Esteban Rodriguez was driving five friends to a party in Baldwin Park, California, a suburb of Los Angeles.

Rodriguez, who was 16 years old, and his passengers were all members of the Sierra Vista High School junior varsity football team. They had just left the school when a car pulled in front of Rodriguez’s Monte Carlo, blocking his path.

A man got out of the car and asked Rodriguez where he was from. Rodriguez said: “We’re from nowhere. We don’t want no problems.” The man told another passenger in the car to “Pull out the cuete,” using a Spanish slang for a gun. A second man got out of the car. Rodriguez tried to drive away. Shots were fired. Rodriguez, who was hit in the shoulder, crashed his car into a tree. Jesus Zamudio, who was sitting in front with Rodriguez, was shot in the thigh.

At the time of the shooting, an officer with the Baldwin Park Police Department was conducting a traffic stop about 100 yards east. He heard the shots, looked west, and saw the two cars at the intersection. He drove to the shooting and saw a compact car, possibly a Datsun, drive west and then north down an alley. The officer relayed this information to another officer, who a few minutes later saw a Datsun parked in the back of a restaurant not far from the shooting and a woman walking quickly near the parked car. The officer ordered the woman, April Gallegos, to stop, and she was taken to the police station.

Detective Michael Donovan led the investigation, and he interviewed the four passengers who had not been wounded. They said the shooter was in a blue Datsun B210. Manuel Urquidez said the person who shot at their car was the second man. He said he could identify the first person, who asked the teenagers where they were from, but not the man who fired the shots. His brother, Rueben Urquidez, said he could also identify the first man but not the shooter.

Angel Hernandez said he had seen the first person before, at a restaurant in Baldwin Park, and had been told the man was a member of the Eastside Bolen gang. Angel Ontiveros said he would only be able to identify the first man.

Donovan interviewed Gallegos shortly after the shooting. She denied any involvement in the shooting and said she was on the way to visit a relative at the time she was stopped. The interview wasn’t recorded, and Gallegos was released.

Donovan showed Zamudio and Rodriguez a photograph of Gallegos’s Datsun B210. They said it was the car involved in the shooting. Separately, Donovan interviewed the relative Gallegos mentioned, and he said that Gallegos had been at his house prior to the shooting.

Donovan brought Gallegos in for questioning on November 8, 1989. Again, the interview was not recorded. Donovan told her about his interview with the relative and said her story had “holes.” Gallegos continued to deny involvement.

Separately, Donovan received anonymous tips that a man named Raul Vidal was responsible for the shooting. Vidal was on parole, and police executed a parole search on his house on December 20, 1989. Vidal was home, and Gallegos was also in the house. Vidal was interviewed. He denied involvement in the shooting and was released.

Donovan interviewed Gallegos a third time. She said that on the night of the shooting, she was driving around Baldwin Park when two young men whistled for her to stop. She said their names were “Goofy” and “Angel.” Gallegos looked at a book that contained photographs of people affiliated with the Eastside Bolen gang. She said that Angel was 22-year-old Daniel Saldana, and Goofy was Robert Gaytan.

Gallegos said that they were driving to Saldana’s house when they spotted the Monte Carlo. She said that Saldana and Gaytan said the occupants of the car looked like rival gang members, and they told her to pull up to the vehicle. Gallegos said she heard the men ask the teenagers where they were from and then heard shots. Gallegos said she drove off, leaving Saldana and Gaytan behind. She said she hadn’t known the men had guns. After the interview, Gallegos left the police station.

Donovan prepared photo arrays that included Saldana, Gaytan, and Vidal. Zamudio looked at the photos on December 26. According to Donovan’s report, Zamudio was unable to make a positive identification but “came to the conclusion that the photos of suspect Saldana and Vidal were ‘probably the guys.’” Ruben Urquidez did not view the photos.

The other four teenagers came to the police station on December 27. According to Donovan’s report, Rodriguez and Ontiveros selected Saldana’s photo and said he was the second person to get out of the Datsun. Neither could say whether Saldana was holding a gun.

Hernandez and Manuel Urquidez selected Vidal’s photo but not Saldana’s. None of the witnesses selected Gaytan’s photo. Based on these identifications, police executed a search on Saldana’s home. In a shed where Saldana stayed, police found clothing with gang graffiti and photos of Eastside Bolen members, including a picture of Vidal, Saldana, and Gallegos together.

Police arrested Saldana, who was a construction worker, on January 3, 1990, charging him with six counts of attempted murder, shooting into an occupied vehicle, and weapons violations. Gallegos and Vidal were charged with the same crimes.

At a preliminary hearing for the three defendants on January 18, 1990, Rodriguez identified Vidal as the person who spoke to him and Gallegos as the driver of the car. He did not identify Saldana. Ontiveros testified that Saldana was the second person out of the Datsun. He said he only saw Saldana for about two seconds. Ontiveros said his identification of Saldana from the photo array was “pretty shaky” because another person in the array looked like Saldana.

The three defendants were tried together in Los Angeles County Superior Court in July 1990. Rodriguez testified that Vidal was the person who spoke to him and Gallegos drove the Datsun. He did not identify Saldana, and the state did not bring up Rodriguez’s previous identification of Saldana from the photo array.

Ontiveros testified that he saw the second passenger in the Datsun for a few seconds, but when asked if he saw that person in the courtroom, he said he was unable to make an identification. He did testify that Saldana looked similar to the second man and that he had identified Saldana as the second man from the photo array and during the preliminary hearing.

At the hearing, Ontiveros had testified that he had never seen Saldana prior to October 27, 1989. But at the trial, he said that was wrong. He testified that he realized after the hearing that he had seen Saldana before, in the weight room at his high school.

Over the objection of Gallegos’s attorney, Donovan testified as an expert on gangs. He said that gang members act as “soldiers on patrol” to let the community know that outsiders won’t be tolerated. He said that each defendant “now has a position of esteem within the gang and is often looked upon now with greater esteem because he is considered a psycho, someone that is willing to shoot a person without giving it much thought.”

The prosecutor told jurors during his closing argument: “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to reclaim the streets of the San Gabriel Valley. It’s time to send a message to each and every one of the gangsters, of would-be gangsters or would be-killers and to tell them that if you try to kill someone; if you put a gun and you put bullets into people, we are going to convict you of attempted murder and you’re going to suffer the consequences of your actions.”

The jury convicted the three defendants on all charges on July 13, 1990. Saldana received a sentence of 45 years to life in prison.

Saldana appealed, arguing there was insufficient evidence to support a conviction. California’s Second District Court of Appeal affirmed his conviction on March 24, 1993.

In 2017, Vidal appeared at a parole board hearing and said he wanted to tell the truth about the shooting. He said he had lied about this event during a previous appearance before the board. He said he had a gun that night, and he shot twice. He continued: “I know this contradicts what the report says, but Daniel Saldana, he’s actually a victim of mine. He’s, he’s actually innocent. It’s, uh, Dino Velasquez who was with me. He was a gang member from Eastside Bolen as well.”

Vidal described the shooting, which he said was done to scare the occupants of the Monte Carlo. Asked how Saldana had been swept up in the case, Vidal said he believed it was because Saldana and Velasquez looked similar. A board member asked if Vidal was afraid to name Velasquez. Vidal said, “I’d rather tell the truth than continue to lie.”

Although a prosecutor from the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office attended Vidal’s parole hearing, this information was not given to Saldana or his attorneys.

Vidal was paroled in 2017 and deported to Mexico.

Saldana remained in prison. At his parole hearings, in 2017 and 2022, he continued to profess his innocence. In her parole hearings, Gallegos continued to name Saldana as a participant in the shooting.

In February 2023, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office was told of Vidal’s earlier parole hearing, and his statements concerning the shooting in Baldwin Park. The office’s Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) began an investigation, reviewing the parole board transcripts for all three defendants.

On April 19, 2023, CIU investigators picked up Saldana at a state prison in Lancaster and drove him to Baldwin Park, where he was placed in a cell at the police station. In an interview that day, Saldana said that he had heard after his arrest that Velasquez was involved in the shooting, but he didn’t know whether that was true, because he wasn’t there.

On April 20, 2023, Gallegos was transferred from prison to the Baldwin Park station. She and Saldana were placed in the same area and began to talk. Their conversation is almost entirely redacted in court records. Afterwards, when Saldana saw the CIU investigators, according to the records, he began to cry and mouthed the words, “Thank you.”

The CIU also interviewed Gallegos. Based on her statements and those made by Vidal at his parole hearing, police arrested Velasquez on April 27, 2023.

On May 11, 2023, Michael Romano, Saldana’s attorney and the director of the Three Strikes Project at Stanford University, and Martha Carrillo, the deputy in charge of the CIU, filed a joint petition for a writ of habeas corpus based on factual innocence.

“The recent discoveries made during the CIU investigation … provide a first-hand account of the crime by one of the three perpetrators of the shooting, April Gallegos,” the petition said. “Both Vidal and Gallegos, separately and at different time periods, admitted their own culpability in the shooting, without minimizing, and stated that Saldana had no role in the crime. Furthermore, both of them, independently, named the same third perpetrator, Dino ‘Tiny’ Velasquez, himself a fellow gang member.”

The petition said Ontiveros’s initial identification of Saldana was, in retrospect, unreliable. Saldana and Velasquez were the same age, and roughly the same height and weight. No physical evidence connected Saldana; instead, the petition said, the prosecution presented “association” evidence showing that Saldana belonged to the same gang as Gallegos and Vidal.

On May 25, 2023, Judge William Ryan of Los Angeles County Superior Court granted the petition, vacating Saldana’s conviction, and later dismissing his charges. Saldana was released from custody.

“It’s a struggle, every day waking up knowing you’re innocent and here I am locked up in a cell, crying for help,” Saldana said at a news conference. “I’m just so happy this day came.”

District Attorney George Gascón said: “As prosecutors, our duty is not simply to secure convictions but to seek justice. When someone is wrongfully convicted, it is a failure of our justice system and it is our responsibility to right that wrong.” On July 24, 2023, Saldana filed a claim with the California Victim Compensation Board for state compensation for his wrongful conviction. On August 3, 2023, the board recommended Saldana receive $1.7 million in compensation.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 6/5/2023
Last Updated: 9/13/2023
County:Los Angeles
Most Serious Crime:Attempted Murder
Additional Convictions:Weapon Possession or Sale, Illegal Use of a Weapon
Reported Crime Date:1989
Sentence:45 to Life
Age at the date of reported crime:22
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No