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Evaristo Salas

Other Washington Exonerations
At about 6:15 p.m. on November 14, 1995, 24-year-old Jose Arreola was shot to death inside a pickup truck near his home in Sunnyside, Washington.

It was a foggy night, and Arreola’s girlfriend, Ofelia Gonzalez, told police that she, Arreola, and their infant son had just returned from Walmart. Gonzalez said she and Arreola sat in the truck talking, when two boys approached the truck from the rear. She said that one boy, the shooter, was about 15 years old, skinny, and about 5’ 2” tall, and that she saw him for two to three seconds. The other boy, she said, was about 7 years old.

Gonzalez said she got out of the truck with her son and motioned at Arreola to get him to look at the younger boy, who was near the passenger side of the tailgate. She said she began going inside and heard two gunshots, then saw the boys run away.

Gonzalez’s description was at odds with other witness statements. Robert Perales, who was playing outside at the time, described the shooter as a white man with a mustache, around 30 years old, wearing a Chicago White Sox shirt and a Chicago Bulls hat. Albert Perales, his younger brother, gave a similar description.

At the Sunnyside Police Department, Gonzalez looked through several photo arrays. She also viewed a book of mugshots and a yearbook but did not identify any suspects. She would view more than 10 photo arrays. At one point, according to the police reports, she said she didn’t want to meet with the police anymore because she felt they were harassing her.

The bullet that killed Arreola had been fired through the truck’s passenger tinted window, shattering much of the glass, and the truck was towed to an impound lot, with instructions that it be held as evidence.

Det. Jim Rivard, the lead investigator, called the towing company on November 21, 1995, asking for the vehicle. The company owner told him that he had released the truck to Gonzalez. It was repaired and sold and never examined by the police.

William Bruhn, one of Rivard’s informants, would later testify that Rivard asked him in March 1996 if he had heard anything about the Arreola case. Bruhn said that he told Rivard that two months earlier he had been hanging out at an apartment complex and had spoken to a boy who made several comments suggesting he was involved in the shooting. Bruhn would say that Rivard told him to find out this person’s name.

During this period, Evaristo Junior Salas came to the attention of the police. Salas had just turned 15 years old, and he was a member of a Sunnyside gang. On January 25, 1996, he was charged with two counts of assault, based on a fight at school that happened in October 1995. He was held in juvenile detention, then released after agreeing to no longer associate with gang members.

In May 1996, Salas ended up at a party where someone was later shot to death as part of a feud between two gangs. Salas was brought in for questioning. He said he hadn’t heard about the death at the party. Rivard asked Salas if he could take some photos of him. Salas agreed, and Rivard took three Polaroids.

On May 6, 1996, Bruhn was in Rivard’s office, and he would later testify that he happened to see the photos of Salas. He would testify that he told Rivard that Salas was the young man he heard talking about the Arreola murder.

Three days later, Gonzalez identified Salas as the boy she said she saw shoot Arreola. Police arrested Salas on May 22, 1996. Detective Jose Trevino interviewed Salas, who denied any involvement in Arreola’s death. Salas said that he knew of Arreola, but that their respective gangs were on friendly terms.

Because of Salas’s age, he was originally charged as a juvenile. But prosecutors moved to decline juvenile jurisdiction, and a judge granted the request. After the ruling, Salas, who weighed about 100 pounds, was moved from the juvenile detention center to the Yakima County Jail to await trial.

There was no physical or forensic evidence connecting Salas to Arreola’s death. The state’s case relied on the testimony of Gonzalez and Bruhn.

The trial in Yakima County Superior Court began on December 9, 1996, and took place in a courtroom in the basement of the county jail. Gonzalez identified Salas as the person who shot Arreola. She testified that she “got an extremely good look” at the shooter for about two to three seconds when he was about five feet away.

Bruhn testified about meeting Salas and another boy at the apartment complex in January 1996 and overhearing Salas say that he “wished he still had the pistol,” how he “would have hated to have to clean up the truck,” and that he wished he had also shot the woman with Arreola. Bruhn testified about viewing Salas’s photos on Rivard’s desk, which would later be described as “accidental.”

During cross-examination by Attorney George Trejo, Bruhn testified that he was a regular informant for the police but that he had received no compensation related to his work on the Arreola case. He said he was testifying out of a desire to make the community safer.

Bruhn also said during cross-examination that he had made up a story about riding in a car with Salas and seeing him at a house. He testified that he had a symptom called “CRS,” which stood for “Can’t Remember Shit,” and said that he might have been “suffering” from it when he said he encountered Salas in January 1996. He also testified that he gave false information to Salas’s defense team as it prepared for the trial. He said his goal was to be viewed as such an unreliable witness that the state would not call him to testify.

Rivard testified about the investigation and said Bruhn had not been compensated for his work on the case.

Several witnesses testified about what they saw at the time of the shooting. Benito Martinez, who lived in a nearby apartment, said he heard gunshots and then looked out his window. He said he saw a large man in his mid-20s get into a black car parked behind the truck and then drive away.

Robert Perales testified that he heard people arguing, then shots, and a man yelling, “Ricardo, leave them alone.” (In his statement to police, he had said a woman yelled that.)

The defense also called Sylvia Siller, who worked at a 7-Eleven convenience store near Salas’s house, which was about a mile from the shooting. Siller said that Salas came into the store at about 7 p.m. on November 14 and that she asked him if he had heard about the shooting. She said he seemed surprised and asked her a few questions about what happened. Prior to her testimony, Rivard had reminded Siller about an investigation he was conducting related to an allegation that she had committed a minor theft. The trial judge admonished Rivard not to intimidate a witness.

In their closing argument, the prosecutor said an “unbroken chain” of events was proof of Salas’s guilt: First, Bruhn had an impromptu encounter with a boy who confessed to the shooting. Then, Bruhn happened to view the photos of Salas, whom he identified as the boy he met. Finally, Gonzalez identified Salas as the shooter.

The prosecutor said, “The state has nothing to hide about Bill Bruhn” and “Bill Bruhn is not being paid in this case.”

The jury convicted Salas of first-degree murder and unlawful possession of a weapon on December 19, 1996, two days after Salas turned 16. He received a sentence of 32 years and nine months in prison.

Salas appealed, first asserting that a judge erred in granting the state’s motion to decline juvenile jurisdiction. After an appellate court affirmed his conviction, he filed a second appeal, arguing that his due process had been violated because his trial took place in the jail, creating the appearance of guilt. An appellate court rejected that appeal as untimely.

At some point in the early 2000s, Salas wrote a letter to Joe Berlinger, a film producer and director whose work often explored the criminal-justice system. A decade later, according to a court filing, Berlinger found the letter when he was developing a documentary series for the Starz network about potential wrongful convictions. Salas’s case was featured in the first season of “Wrong Man,” along with episodes on Christopher Tapp and Curtis Flowers.

As part of the investigation, Berlinger’s team interviewed Bruhn, who recanted his testimony. Salas learned of the recantation when the episode aired in June 2018. Bruhn signed an affidavit detailing the recantation in 2019.

In the affidavit, Bruhn said he lied when he identified Salas from the photos and that Rivard told him to lie. He said that he never heard Salas say he was involved in Arreola’s death. Bruhn said that he began working for Rivard in 1993 after he was charged with possession of a weapon and drugs. He said Rivard paid him after each assignment, but that sometimes the officer would delay payment to create a fictitious record that disguised Bruhn’s involvement with a particular case. That happened in the investigation into Arreola’s murder.

Bruhn said that not long after Arreola’s death, he stopped by the police station to collect payment from Rivard on another assignment. Salas was at the station. Bruhn said Rivard told him that he was going to get Salas. Bruhn said that Rivard gave him some marijuana and $40 and told him where Salas liked to hang out.

After Bruhn saw the photos of Salas on Rivard’s desk, Rivard told him to sign a statement incriminating Salas. Bruhn said in the affidavit that he didn’t want to sign the statement, but Rivard told him not to worry because Salas would plead guilty and the case would never go to trial.

Separately, the investigation by Berlinger’s team also discovered that Rivard had requested that the Yakima County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office charge Gonzalez with Rendering Criminal Assistance based on her actions in removing the truck from the impound lot. According to Rivard, Gonzalez gave conflicting stories about the events, and he said in his reports that he could not find any officer who authorized the release. This information, which could have been used as impeachment evidence against Gonzalez, was not disclosed to the defense.

On January 2, 2020, Salas, now represented by Attorney Laura Shaver and attorneys with the Washington Innocence Project, filed a motion for a new trial based on new evidence of innocence.

As part of their investigation, the attorneys had discovered a note in Rivard’s case file that said, “Ofelia would undergo hypnosis if it would help.” Arreola’s mother, Reyna Arreola, said in an affidavit that Gonzalez told her that she was hypnotized prior to identifying Salas on May 13, 1996. This information was not disclosed to Trejo. Under Washington State law, testimony derived through hypnosis is not admissible.

The motion also said jurors did not hear evidence about the unreliability of eyewitness identifications and the problems with incentivized witnesses. The eyewitness identifications were a particular problem. First, the time of day and the weather made it difficult to see. Second, Gonzalez’s descriptions were at odds with those of other witnesses.

On October 27, 2021, Judge David Elofson of Yakima County Superior Court denied Salas’s motion for a new trial. Judge Elofson did not hold an evidentiary hearing, had previously declined Salas’s motions for discovery, and his order contained no findings of fact or conclusions of law.

In his appeal, Salas argued that Judge Elofson had abused his discretion when he affirmed the conviction without holding an evidentiary hearing. The appeal said the new evidence, such as Bruhn’s recantation, and the undisclosed evidence could have changed the jury’s verdict, requiring a new trial.

In addition, the appeal referenced an open letter written by the Washington Supreme Court in 2020 that formally recognized the racial bias in the criminal-justice system.

“Junior’s case is a stark example of these injustices,” the appeal said. “His prosecution was born of the very bias and structural disadvantages that have historically plagued the justice system, and unsurprisingly produced inequitable results, in cases involving poor minorities. He was an unsophisticated adolescent charged with the most serious offense, easily scapegoated as a violent youth by prosecutors working hand in glove with the police who were targeting Hispanic minorities and he was convicted on evidence which on examination raises significant and troubling questions regarding its efficacy.”

On June 15, 2023, a three-judge panel in Division III of the Washington Court of Appeals remanded the case to Yakima County for an evidentiary hearing. The appellate judges said Judge Elofson had failed to follow proper procedure in evaluating Salas’s motion.

The evidentiary hearing began on August 14, 2023, before Judge Ruth Reukauf. Reyna Arreola testified that Gonzalez told her she had been hypnotized. “She told me they would like to put her to sleep,” Arreola said, according to the Yakima Herald-Republic. “I would stay there in the office and they would take her.”

In her testimony, Gonzalez denied being hypnotized or telling Arreola that she had been. She said that Rivard had just mentioned the idea. Gonzalez also said she had not misled anyone about the removal of the truck from the impound lot. She said the police told her to go get it.

During the hearing, Trejo testified that the state’s failure to disclose its payments to Bruhn and the issues with Gonzalez harmed his ability to present a vigorous defense. The state pressed Trejo, arguing that he could have found this evidence with little effort; he knew the truck had been sold and that Bruhn was an informant, but he didn’t follow up and ask for more information. Trejo said that was not how the system worked. Defense attorneys, he said, relied on the integrity of prosecutors to turn over evidence.

Rivard took the stand on the hearing’s third day. He denied coaching Bruhn or forcing him to testify against Salas. During cross-examination, Rivard acknowledged paying Bruhn for his work on this case and discussed his methods for disguising the payment records. (Prior to the hearing, Salas’s attorneys had supplemented their motion with new records of the payments Rivard authorized to Bruhn, detailing the overlap between the investigation into Arreola’s death and the money Bruhn received.)

Police reports from 1996 showed that another boy, purportedly also mentioned by Bruhn, was arrested for suspicion of murder around the time of Salas’s arrest. But he was released and then moved away. Rivard said he couldn’t recall whether Gonzalez ever viewed that boy’s photo.

On August 17, 2023, the day after Rivard’s testimony, the state moved to vacate Salas’s conviction and dismiss his charge. The motion said that the testimony from the hearing suggested that the appellate court would most likely grant Salas a new trial.

“Testimony and evidence elicited during the reference hearing demonstrate that the state’s case has weakened considerably beyond what would normally be expected with the passage of over 25 years since the case was originally prosecuted,” the motion said. “The credibility issues revealed during the reference hearing indicate that the state can no longer prove the matter beyond a reasonable doubt and is therefore duty-bound to act accordingly.”

Yakima County Prosecuting Attorney Joseph Brusic said Rivard’s testimony was central to the dismissal. Brusic told the Herald-Republic, “He admitted under oath … that he provided some money to Mr. Bruhn and we were unaware of that.”

Judge Reukauf granted the motion, releasing Salas from custody.

“It’s incredibly hard to represent people who have been wrongfully convicted,” Shaver said. “Junior wrote to me six years ago. For six years, I lived and breathed through ups and downs to right this wrong that robbed this 15-year-old kid of his entire future.”

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 9/11/2023
Last Updated: 9/11/2023
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Weapon Possession or Sale
Reported Crime Date:1995
Sentence:32 years and 9 months
Age at the date of reported crime:14
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No