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James Soto

Other Cook County, Illinois homicide exonerations
At about 9:30 p.m. on August 16, 1981, shots were fired from a gangway into Piotrowski Park on the southwest side of Chicago, Illinois. Three people were shot, two of them fatally. Dead were 16-year-old Julie Limas, who aspired to be a police officer, and 18-year-old Hector Valeriano, who was on leave from the U.S. Marine Corps. Nineteen-year-old Juan Padilla was wounded and survived.

There were about 30 people in the park, mostly young people, some of whom had been playing softball. Some of them included members of the Latin Kings street gang, even though the territory was controlled by the Two-Six street gang. Descriptions of what happened varied, but police reports would later show that two suspects emerged almost immediately: 20-year-old J.J. Rojas and 16-year-old Victor “Fat Victor” Rodriguez.

Just before the shooting, some witnesses said they saw a van bearing the insignia and lettering of the city of Chicago’s animal control department. At the time, Rojas was employed in that department. He left the city right after the shooting.

On October 5, 1981, Rodriguez was arrested and charged as a juvenile with the shooting. A Juvenile Court judge refused to grant a prosecution motion to move the case to adult court, ruling that there was insufficient evidence that Rodriguez was involved in the crime. Rodriguez was released.

On October 15, police began arresting numerous members of the Two-Six gang, and on October 17, 1981, nine members of the gang were indicted. Four of them were charged with murder, attempted murder, and conspiracy to commit murder: 18-year-old David Ayala; Ayala’s 20-year-old cousin, James Soto; 20-year-old Ruben Palomo; and 18-year-old Wally “Gator” Cruz. Rojas, who was a fugitive, also was indicted for murder. Four others, who were not identified publicly, were charged with obstruction of justice.

In September 1982, Ayala, Soto, and Palomo went to trial in Cook County Circuit Court. By that time, Cruz had pled guilty to conspiracy to commit murder and agreed to testify for the prosecution. In return for his testimony, the trial prosecutors, Greg Owen and Tim McMahon, had agreed to a sentence of five years with a release after serving half of his sentence.

The prosecution theory was that Ayala was a high-ranking member of the Two-Six gang, and during a meeting on the day of the crime with numerous other gang members, had ordered that the gang shoot up the park because members of the Latin Kings were present.

Cruz testified that he was present at the meeting from noon to about 6 p.m. in the basement of Ayala’s home in suburban Westchester, Illinois. He said other gang members present were Robert Jacquez, Vince Hodge, Randy Hodge, Tom Gutierrez, Alex Valle, and Sal Guzman. He said that Palomo and Soto were upstairs with Tyrone Ayala, Theodore Ordonez, and Martha Ordonez. (A detective later testified that Cruz also said Robert Villagomez had been there as well.)

By 6 p.m., Cruz said, everyone had left except for Ayala, Soto, Palomo, and himself. He said that not long after, Ayala got a phone call. Cruz said he heard someone yell out “Kings!” and Palomo told Cruz to start Ayala’s van. He said he started the van and came back inside where he saw Ayala with a handgun and a rifle. Cruz said Ayala handed Soto the handgun, and Palomo grabbed the rifle, wrapped it in a sweater, and gave it to Cruz, who took it outside and put it in the back seat of the van.

Cruz got into the driver’s seat, Palomo sat next to him, and Soto got into the back seat. He said he drove to Piotrowski Park. After passing the park, he said he saw two girls he knew, 18-year-old Isabelle Gomez and her friend, Lisa Suarez, at an abandoned gas station. Cruz said Palomo asked the girls “if the Kings were still in the park.” When the girls replied, “They are,” Palomo said, “Go home, and we’ll take care of it.” Cruz said Palomo ordered him to drive back to the park.

Cruz said that while driving back to the park, he stopped so that Palomo could get out and talk to Rojas and “Fat Victor,” who were in a reddish-colored Matador car. Cruz said that he did not hear the conversation, but after it ended, he drove to an alley beside the park. He said Palomo took the rifle, and Soto took the handgun. They walked to a gangway behind the van. He said he then heard shots, and Palomo and Soto returned and got into the van. Cruz said one of them said, “Let’s go; we might have hit somebody.”

Cruz testified that they drove back to Ayala’s home. A short while later, Ayala got a phone call. When he hung up, he said, “Two people got killed at the park and one got wounded.”

During cross-examination, Cruz admitted that he had previously given police the names of other individuals who were at Ayala’s house that day, including Javier Jacquez and the initial suspects in the shooting, J.J. Rojas and Victor “Fat Victor” Rodriguez.

Cruz also admitted telling police initially that he had seen Rojas and Fat Victor walk into the alley carrying guns after the shooting.

Hugo Flores, who was in the park at the time of shooting, testified that he first heard two gunshots, followed by a second burst of four more shots, fired from a gangway. He said he saw the gunmen and gave physical descriptions. He said he was never asked to view any lineups. He did not identify anyone in court.

John Orozco said he had played softball earlier in the day at the park and that evening he and his friends were hanging out, talking, and drinking beer. He said several Latin King gang members came to the park and were drinking beer as well. Orozco said he saw a light blue “animal care” van drive into the park, stop, and shine a spotlight on the crowd, before leaving after a few minutes. He said that after the shooting, he told police that he believed Rojas may have been the driver because he knew Rojas worked for that department.

Orozco said that about a half hour later, another van, this one dark blue, came into the park. He said it was known as a Two-Six van; he had seen Cruz and Rojas driving it in the past. Not long after, Orozco said, he heard gunshots, though he did not see the shooters.

Padilla, who had been shot in the buttocks, testified that he was a member of the Latin Kings and that he and other Latin Kings were there that night. He said he did not see the dark blue van, but recalled seeing an “animal care” van shine a spotlight on the crowd. He said he did not see the gunmen.

Isabel Gomez testified that she was in the park with her friend, Suarez, prior to the shooting. She recalled that one of those present was Mario Abarca, who was a member of the Latin Kings. She said she and Suarez left and walked to a restaurant where she saw Suarez make a phone call. Gomez testified that Suarez said she had called Ayala’s home. The defense objected, and the trial judge ordered the jury to disregard the testimony.

Gomez also testified that she and Suarez were walking home from the restaurant when they saw Cruz and Palomo in the parking lot at the abandoned gas station. She said Cruz was driving a dark blue van, and Palomo was in the passenger seat. She could not see if anyone was in the rear seat. Gomez said that Palomo asked who was in the park, and she told him that Abarca was there. She said that Cruz drove off toward the park, and she later heard gunshots.

During cross-examination, Gomez said that about two or three weeks after the shooting, police came to her home to interview her. The detectives came every two or three days. She said the officers threatened her. She said the officers said, “We are going to take you by the park. We are going to tell all the people that you did it and you set them up.” She said she called the police department’s Office of Professional Standards to make a complaint.

A month later, she and Suarez were arrested and charged with the murders, she said. Overnight, their homes were searched, she said. And the charges were dropped the following day.

Gomez also revealed that she was one of those who had been charged with obstruction of justice. The defense lawyers claimed the prosecution had failed to disclose that Gomez had been charged. The others similarly charged were Suarez and Vince and Randy Hodge. The prosecution said the lack of disclosure was not intentional, and the charges were part of the public record.

Gomez disclosed that the prosecution had told her the charge would be dismissed after her testimony.

The remainder of the trial consisted of testimony that bullet fragments were collected from the scene, a firearms examiner who presented a demonstrative rifle that might have been similar to the one used by the gunmen, the medical examiner explaining the cause of death was by gunshot, and a detective who identified Ayala, Soto, and others as members of the Two-Six gang. No physical evidence was presented tying Soto or Ayala to the crime.

The defense called several witnesses in an attempt to impeach Cruz’s credibility.

Alex Gomez said he was not at Ayala’s house because he was incarcerated at the Juvenile Detention Center. The defense presented evidence that Valle had been arrested on August 6—10 days before the shooting—and was still in custody at the time of the trial.

Robert Villagomez said he was not at the basement meeting, either. He was in the hospital recovering from a motorcycle accident and wasn’t released until three days after the shooting. He said that he had been arrested for the murders, but the charges had been dismissed. A hospital records clerk confirmed Villagomez’s presence at the hospital.

Javier Jacquez said he was not at the meeting and was at his own home. He said he also had been charged with the murders, but the charges had been dismissed.

Tyrone Ayala testified that he was at his mother’s house in suburban Woodridge, Illinois at the time of the shooting and was not at the meeting. He said he had been charged with the murders as well, and the charges had been dismissed.

Martha Ordonez, who Cruz had said was upstairs at the time of the meeting, testified that she was there, as was Soto, who was her brother, and that Soto never left the home that night. Ordonez also said that Tyrone Ayala, who Cruz said was present, was not there that day.

Diana Guana, Soto’s girlfriend, who Cruz had not identified as being present, testified that she was there, and that Soto never left the house. She said she didn’t see Cruz there that day, and she denied any gang meeting took place.

Alisa Orozco testified that she crossed paths with Cruz, whom she knew from grammar school, in the witness quarters of the State’s Attorney’s Office. Thereafter, Cruz occasionally called her, she said. During some of those calls, Cruz told her he had testified falsely to the grand jury about the involvement of Soto and Ayala in the shooting and also told her he would lie at the trial.

Carol Chapa testified that Cruz called her as well. She said he told her he was going to lie because he was “afraid.”

The defense also presented evidence that Ayala did not have a dark blue van registered to him at the time of the shooting.

On September 30, 1982, after eight hours of deliberation, the jury reported it was deadlocked on all but one charge against Soto and Ayala. The jury was instructed to continue deliberating and two hours later convicted Soto and Ayala on all charges. The jury also convicted Palomo of attempted murder, but failed to reach a verdict on the murder and murder conspiracy charges. A mistrial was declared on those charges. Palomo later pled guilty to murder and was sentenced to 30 years in prison on the murder and attempted murder convictions.

Soto and Ayala were both sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Their appeals were denied in 1986 by the First District Illinois Appellate Court. On August 29, 1991, Soto, acting without a lawyer, filed a post-conviction petition alleging his trial defense attorney had provided an inadequate legal defense. The lawyer, John DeLeon, had failed to call six other witnesses who would have testified that Cruz lied when he said they were at Ayala’s for a gang meeting. The petition also contended that DeLeon had a conflict because he had represented Victor “Fat Victor” Rodriguez.

The petition noted that police reports quoted Abarca, the Latin Kings gang member, as well as other eyewitnesses in the park, as saying that Rodriguez was one of the gunmen. DeLeon had failed to call any of these witnesses to present testimony implicating Rodriguez, the petition said.

The petition was dismissed on September 17, 1991. On October 11, 1991, Soto filed a motion for reconsideration and a supplemental post-conviction petition. He attached affidavits from Robert Jacquez, who said Cruz lied about him being at the meeting, and from Padilla, who had been wounded in the shooting.

Jacquez wrote he had been told he was going to be charged with the murders and would get the death penalty unless he admitted being present at Ayala’s home. He wrote he was intimidated and went before the grand jury where he attempted to say he had not been present at Ayala’s. He said he was forced to assert his Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination and did not finish testifying.

Padilla wrote he had told the prosecutors that he saw the shooters and recognized them as Cruz and Rojas. He wrote that he was pressured by the prosecution to testify that he had not seen the faces of the gunman.

The motion for reconsideration and the supplemental petition were dismissed November 8, 1991. Soto appealed, and in February 1993, the First District Appellate Court rejected the conflict of interest claim, but remanded for a hearing on the claims raised by the affidavits.

After years of on-again, off-again litigation, Soto’s claims were denied, and in 2013, the appellate court affirmed, ruling that the claims were either forfeited or barred.

In 2015, Ayala, represented by attorney Amanda Graham, filed a post-conviction petition. Soto, represented by attorney Jennifer Blagg, also filed a petition. The petitions contained numerous affidavits from witnesses identifying the gunmen as Victor Rodriguez and J.J. Rojas. Some of them recounted that police officers slapped and hit them until they agreed to say that a meeting had taken place. Robert Jacquez, for example, said police told him that unless he signed a statement, he would go to jail for the rest of his life. He also said that he had spoken with Cruz after Cruz was released from prison and that Cruz admitted to him that he had falsely implicated Ayala and Soto.

Padilla again recounted how he told the prosecutors that Rojas and Rodriguez were the gunmen, but he was told he “could not say that.” He said he was threatened with revocation of his probation unless he testified that he did not see the faces of the gunmen.

Isabelle Gomez wrote in an affidavit that prosecutor Owen told her “exactly what to say” to the grand jury. “Greg Owens [sic] and his partner told me if I didn’t cooperate, I would be charged with murder,” Gomez said. “The detectives told me if I didn’t cooperate, they would tell the Latin Kings where I reside, and they would threaten me. They also told me that they would drop me off by the Latin Kings so they could rape me. At this point, I was so frightened and confused that I felt I had no choice but to testify as to what I was told. I didn’t want to be charged with murder or harmed by the Latin Kings.”

Ultimately, in 2020, the petitions were dismissed. Lawyers from the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School joined Soto’s team, with Lauren Myerscough-Mueller filing a clemency petition in September 2020 and Deb Loevy spearheading the appeal of the dismissal. In June 2022, the First District Appellate Court reversed the dismissals and reinstated the petitions. The court found that Ayala and Soto were entitled to a full hearing on their claim that DeLeon had a conflict of interest because of his representation of Rodriguez in juvenile court. The appellate court also said that Ayala’s attorney, Sam Adam Jr., worked in concert with DeLeon.

Citing the numerous affidavits outlining police physical abuse during interrogations of witnesses, as well as threats of being charged with the murder and the claims that Cruz had lied about the alleged meeting at Ayala’s home, the court also ruled that Ayala and Soto were entitled to an evidentiary hearing on their claim of actual innocence.

In May 2023, Governor J.B. Pritzker commuted Soto’s sentence to parole eligible. On December 6, 2023, Soto was represented at his institutional parole hearing by Myerscough-Mueller. However, the Prisoner Review Board never had the chance to vote on Soto’s parole.

Instead, on December 14, 2023, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office agreed that the charges against Soto and Ayala should vacated and the charges were dismissed. By that time, Soto was represented by Blagg, Myerscough-Mueller, Karl Leonard, and Loevy. Ayala was represented by Jennifer Bonjean and Ashley Cohen of the Bonjean Law Group.

The two men had spent 41 years, two months, and 15 days in custody from the date of their conviction and 42 years and two months in custody from the date of their arrests. They were the longest wrongfully incarcerated people in Illinois history.

In November 2023, a month before he was freed, Soto, 62, had earned a bachelor’s degree in Northwestern University’s prison education program. He said he hoped to go to law school and become a lawyer.

After his release, Soto said he felt “elated” but also full of “righteous anger…It should not have taken 42 years for this to happen.”

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 12/21/2023
Last Updated: 12/21/2023
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Attempted Murder, Conspiracy
Reported Crime Date:1981
Sentence:Life without parole
Age at the date of reported crime:20
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No