Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content

Gerardo Cabanillas

Other Los Angeles County, California exonerations
Shortly before 11 p.m. on January 16, 1995, 25-year-old Maria A. and 23-year-old Raul Flores were sitting in Flores’s car near the corner of Independence and Evergreen Avenues in South Gate, California when two men approached. A man with a gun knocked on the driver’s side window and told Flores to open the door. A man with a knife with a three-inch blade approached Maria’s side and demanded that she open the door.

The men took Flores’s wallet and watch. As Maria took off her necklace with a crucifix, the chain broke, and the crucifix fell. She looked up and saw the face of the man with the knife, and he told her to keep looking down. The man was wearing a hooded sweatshirt, so she did not get a good look at him. Flores and Maria got out of the car, but the man with the knife forced her back into the car in the back seat. Flores began screaming, and the men threatened to kill him.

The gunman got into the driver’s seat, and the man with the knife got into the front passenger seat. They drove away as Flores ran to summon police. While the car was driving, the man with the knife leaned his seat back and began sexually molesting Maria. The car stopped, and the passenger told her not to run—that he had already killed someone, and if she ran, he would kill her as well.

They went into a vacant home where she was forced to engage in oral sex, was raped, and one of the assailants tried to sodomize her. During the assault, Maria heard a voice, and the man with the knife left. When he returned, both men left and told her to remain on the floor. She began getting dressed, and when the men came back, she fled to a nearby home and asked the residents to call the police.

Maria went to a hospital where a rape kit was taken.

Flores told police the gunman was Hispanic, about 35 years old with long curly hair and about 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighing 200 pounds. He said the man with the knife was Hispanic, about 25 years old, about 160 pounds with black hair and a dark complexion.

Two days later, at about 7:30 p.m., on January 18, 1995, 19-year-old Ricardo Sanchez and 23-year-old Maria Lomeli were sitting in Sanchez’s car near the intersection of Santa Ana Street and Chestnut Avenue in South Gate when a man with a gun came to the passenger side window and pointed a gun at Lomeli’s head. The man was wearing a black jacket and a sweater with no hood or cap. Speaking in Spanish, the man said to Sanchez: “Stupid, give me your wallet. I’m taking the car and she’s going with me.”

Sanchez got out of the car, slapped his pockets, and said he had no wallet. The man walked around the car and got behind the wheel. He tried to start the car, but it would not start. Lomeli began crying and said she had a baby. The gunman ordered her out of the car and demanded her purse and jewelry. While she was taking off her jewelry, the man got out of the car, grabbed her purse, and ran away.

They told police the man was 25 to 28 years old with short wavy brown hair, a light complexion, 5 feet 8 inches tall, about 130 pounds, and wearing red pants, a black jacket, and huarache sandals.

On January 20, 1995, Detective Lee Jack Alirez saw 18-year-old Gerardo Cabanillas standing on a street corner in South Gate with two other men. He was wearing red pants. Alirez thought Cabanillas resembled the description of the perpetrator of the robbery of Sanchez and Lomeli. He arrested Cabanillas on an outstanding traffic warrant. He took a photograph of Cabanillas and put him in a photographic array. Sanchez and Lomeli both identified him as the gunman.

Alirez then began interrogating Cabanillas about both crimes. Cabanillas denied involvement, swearing on the life of his eight-month-old daughter that he was not responsible. Alirez later would testify that Cabanillas ultimately confessed to both crimes. Alirez said that Cabanillas directed him to the house where Maria had been attacked. Alirez also said Cabanillas said that he was with someone he knew as “Armando” who lived in Mexico and occasionally visited Cabanillas.

According to Alirez, Cabanillas said he was the man with the knife and Armando was the man with the gun in the attack on Flores and Maria. At the conclusion of a seven-hour interrogation, Cabanillas gave a recorded confession.

Cabanillas was charged with robbery, carjacking, kidnapping, rape, sodomy, and oral copulation by force in the attack on Flores and Maria. He was charged with attempted carjacking, attempted robbery of Sanchez, robbery of Lomeli, and attempted kidnapping of Lomeli.

In August 1995, Cabanillas went to trial in Los Angeles County Superior Court on all the charges.

Lomeli identified him as the perpetrator in the January 18, 1995 incident. The prosecution presented the testimony of Sanchez, who was not available for the trial, during a preliminary hearing. At that hearing, Sanchez had identified Cabanillas as well.

Maria A. was unable to identify Cabanillas. She testified that when shown the photographic array, she said that Cabanillas “looked like” her attacker, but said she was not sure. She said that she thought she could identify his voice if she heard him. She had signed the lineup card after Alirez told her that Cabanillas had confessed, she said.

Maria had to be directed by the judge to look at Cabanillas during the trial and even then, she said she could not say he was the perpetrator. “Now, every time I look at men, I think it’s them,” she said.

Flores said he was not sure that Cabanillas was one of the two men who attacked him and Maria. When shown the photographic lineup, Flores had said that Cabanillas “looks like him, but I cannot be sure.” At the trial, he maintained that he could still not be sure. He denied a claim by police that when he saw the photographic array, he pointed to Cabanillas and said, “That’s the guy.” He said that Alirez told him that Cabanillas had confessed.

Alirez testified that Cabanillas had confessed to both crimes and directed him to the location of the house. Alirez said that Cabanillas admitted that he forced Maria to engage in oral sex and that he ejaculated in her mouth. During cross-examination, Alirez said he had been informed that the oral swab had been negative for the presence of semen. Alirez also said that a fingerprint had been lifted from Sanchez’s vehicle. He said that Cabanillas had been excluded as the source of that fingerprint.

Cabanillas testified and denied involvement in the crimes. He said he agreed to confess because he was scared and because Alirez promised he would be released on probation—a claim that Alirez denied. Cabanillas said he concocted “Armando” because Alirez told him that two men were involved in the attack on Flores and Maria.

Cabanillas said Alirez falsely told him that police found his fingerprints on the vehicles. Cabanillas also testified that Alirez fed him the details of the crimes and that his recorded confession was the result of coaching by Alirez on what to say. Cabanillas said that if he got a fact wrong, Alirez would correct him and tell him what to say. Alirez denied feeding details to Cabanillas.

The defense also presented Cabanillas’s wife, Angelica, and Jose Ramirez, who lived with the Cabanillas family. Both testified that Cabanillas was always home for dinner before 7 p.m. and that he never went out afterward.

The defense also sought to present evidence that Alirez had investigated a man named Juan Angulo as possibly being involved in both crimes. Angulo was known to wear a black jacket and sandals, and he had been arrested for similar crimes in the area. He was 5 feet 6 inches tall, 140 pounds, and 22 years old. However, none of the victims, when shown photographic lineups containing Angulo’s photograph, had identified him as one of the perpetrators.

On August 16, 1995, the jury convicted Cabanillas of charges relating to the attack on Sanchez and Lomeli: attempted robbery, attempted carjacking, and robbery. He was acquitted of the attempted kidnapping charge.

The jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict on the charges relating to the attack on Maria and Flores. The jury reported it was deadlocked 7-to-5, although the jury did not say how many favored conviction.

In April 1996, Cabanillas went to trial a second time on the charges relating to the attack on Maria and Flores. The evidence was largely the same. The prosecution was allowed to present the evidence relating to the attack on Sanchez and Lomeli.

On April 17, 1996, the jury convicted Cabanillas of the robbery of Flores and Maria, as well as carjacking and the kidnapping and sexual assault of Maria. He was sentenced to 15 years to life for the attack on Sanchez and Lomeli and a consecutive sentence of 72 years and four months for the attack on Flores and Maria.

In January 1998, the California Second District Court of Appeal upheld the convictions and sentence. The appeals court rejected a defense argument that the trial prosecutor had improperly argued facts in evidence. During closing arguments in the trial of the case involving Maria A. and Flores, the prosecutor offered a theory for why there was no semen found on the oral swab. “Well, that makes sense,” the prosecutor declared. Think about the purpose of a mouth. It’s to digest foods…It gets rid of it. What’s the purpose of a vagina? It’s to have babies. It’s there to keep a pool of semen….There is nothing detected in the oral swab because it’s just a matter of the way our bodies work and function.” The court noted that the judge had sustained a defense objection and so no further relief was required.

In 1999, a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus was denied. Cabanillas filed several federal petitions for a writ of habeas corpus. All failed.

In 2017, Cabanillas contacted the California Innocence Project (CIP) at California Western School of Law. In 2019, CIP attorney Alissa Bjerkhoel filed a motion for DNA testing of the rape kit. An unidentified male DNA profile was found in the sperm from the vaginal swab. Because this could have been the man with the gun, the profile was entered in the California DNA database as well as the FBI DNA database. This profile “generated a hit” to a profile of a suspect in a murder that occurred five years after Maria was assaulted. In the pubic hair combings, a partial profile of a second male was found. Cabanillas was excluded from both DNA profiles. The second profile was entered into the DNA databases, but there were no hits.

In April 2021, the CIP requested that the Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) in the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office examine the case.

In December 2022, while that review was continuing, Bjerkhoel and CIP attorneys Audrey McGinn and Alex Simpson filed a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The petition cited the DNA evidence as well as an analysis of Cabanillas’s interrogation by Dr. Philip Gaines, an emeritus professor at Montana State University with an expertise in the analysis of false confessions from a linguistics perspective.

Dr. Gaines concluded: “Based on my review of the documents and in my professional opinion, the police interview of [Cabanillas] contains many instances of the two predominant signs of a false confession…inconsistencies and contradictions in the suspect’s statements and…the inability to reveal non-public facts without prompting from the interviewer.”

The petition said that the prosecution had failed to disclose to Cabanillas’s defense attorney that Maria and Flores and Lomeli expressed doubts about their ability to make an identification, had failed to disclose evidence that Maria and Flores were both informed that Cabanillas had confessed before they made their tentative identifications, and had failed to disclose that Lomeli and Sanchez made their identifications standing next to each other, increasing the risk of co-witness contamination.

The petition declared, “With the DNA and false confession evidence discovered post-conviction, it is clear that Cabanillas did not commit these crimes.”

On May 16, 2023, with the agreement of the prosecution, Cabanillas was released on a bond secured by his signature. He had spent nearly 28 years in prison since his first conviction.

On September 21, 2023, Bjerkhoel and Martha Carrillo, the prosecutor in charge of the CIU, filed a 16-page “concession letter” which outlined the CIU investigation, and said that the prosecution had concluded that Cabanillas was factually innocent. At that time, Cabanillas’s convictions were vacated, the judge declared him factually innocent, and the case was dismissed.

Additional evidence cited by the prosecution included a statement by Juan Angulo, who had been considered and then rejected as a suspect. Angulo had been convicted in 1996 of several robberies, two rapes, and a murder under circumstances similar to the two crimes for which Cabanillas had been convicted. He had been sentenced to life in prison. Angulo admitted that he committed the attack on Sanchez and Lomeli. He also identified the two men who committed the attack on Flores and Maria. Angulo said that Cabanillas was not involved in either crime.

Alirez retired in 2010 from the Huntington Park, California police department. He was hired by the Hatch, New Mexico police department as chief in 2013. Alirez left the Hatch department in 2014 and later was hired as chief of police in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. By 2020, Alirez was chief of police in Bayard, New Mexico. In June 2021, the Bayard City Council voted to terminate him following allegations of harassment.

The prosecution’s concession letter noted that in 1996, a deputy public defender who had initially represented Cabanillas sent a memo to superiors about Alirez. The memo said that Alirez had developed a reputation for being a detective who “always has a confession.” The memo said that several different defendants reported being “sweet-talked” into confessing based on promises of leniency.

On September 26, 2023, at a press conference to announce the exoneration, Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón said, “It is imperative that we reflect upon this case as a stark reminder that our criminal legal system is not infallible…We must collectively commit to doing better, to continuously improving our procedures, and to ensuring that every person who enters our legal system is afforded a fair and just process.”

“Police are permitted to lie to suspects, including promises of leniency if the person confesses,” Bjerkhoel said. “That is exactly what happened here.”

The California Victim Compensation Board awarded Cabanillas $1.447,750 in state compensation in December 2023.

– Maurice Possley

Report an error or add more information about this case.

Posting Date: 10/2/2023
Last Updated: 4/12/2024
County:Los Angeles
Most Serious Crime:Sexual Assault
Additional Convictions:Robbery, Kidnapping, Attempt, Violent, Other Violent Felony
Reported Crime Date:1995
Sentence:87 to life
Age at the date of reported crime:18
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False Confession, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes