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Abraham Villalobos

Other Los Angeles CIU Exonerations
At 2:50 a.m. on September 2, 2000, 16-year-old Michael Roybal was shot in an apartment in Downey, California, a suburb of Los Angeles.

The unit, on the second-floor of the Mono Kai Apartments, was rented by Dalila Mejia and her daughter, Mona Mejia, who were both home. Mona’s boyfriend was in a back bedroom. Roybal and Roberta Benavides were on the sofa in the living room.

Benavides told officers with the Downey Police Department that two men came to the front door. Roybal looked through the peephole, then went to the bathroom, where Mona was taking a shower, and told her that a man nicknamed “Hoodlum” was there. He returned to the front door, opened it a crack, told the men that Mona was in the shower, and was quickly shot twice in the chest. Dalila called 911. Roybal died a short while later at a local hospital.

Benavides described the two men as Hispanic, 16 to 18 years old, with shaved heads and no facial hair. She said one wore a light blue jersey with white numbers; the other, who wore a blue flannel shirt, had been the shooter.

Guillermina Gomez, who lived in the apartment below, told police that she heard two gunshots, then saw two Hispanic men run down the stairs and get into a blue or black compact Nissan and speed off. Gomez said she would be able to identify the car if she saw it again, but she would not be able to identify the suspects.

Mona Mejia told the police that “Hoodlum” was 18-year-old Ronald Velasquez Jr. She said he had called her several times that night, asking her to go to a party at a motel, but she had told Velasquez she wanted to stay in. She said Velasquez told her he was still coming over to the apartment. In addition, Mejia said a man named Sergio "Silent" Torres had also called her that night about the same party.

Mejia said that she didn’t know why anybody would want to kill Roybal. He wasn’t in a gang but was in a tagging crew called Chillin’ Like Villains (CLV). Tagging crews are similar to gangs, but their members tend to be focused on painting graffiti.

Mejia told police that Torres called her several times after the shooting. She said she told Torres, “Hoodlum came. Was that bullet for me?” According to Mejia’s theory, Velasquez had intended to harm her, based on a belief that Mejia was acting as a spy for a gang called Compton Varrio Tortilla Flats (CVTF), which had a fierce rivalry with two other gangs, Brown Nation and Dog Patch. Velasquez was a member of Brown Nation. Mejia did not see the shooting, but she told police that Torres, a Dog Patch member, might have been with Velasquez. She said Torres had “long hair.”

The police interviewed Benavides at the Downey Police Department at 4:30 a.m. and then at 12:40 p.m. In that first interview at the station, Benavides said she had seen the men walk up the stairs to the apartment. She said she saw Velasquez raise his hand through the door and fire two or three times at Roybal. She said Roybal knew Velasquez, who used to be in CLV. Benavides also said she had seen the second man before but couldn’t remember where.

In her second interview at the police station, Benavides said that Velasquez was on the left side of the door, farthest from the couch. The other man stood on the right side. Benavides said she had “thought about it real hard” and believed she had seen this man at a local restaurant, where he asked her boyfriend about joining Brown Nation. She also said she might have been mistaken when she said the shooter wore flannel and the other man wore a blue jersey. The police showed her a photo array that included Velasquez’s photo. Initially, she could not make an identification. She took a second look, then identified Velasquez as the person she saw shoot Roybal at least twice.

Later on September 2, Mona Mejia gave a second statement to police, where she provided additional information on the young men who called her prior to the shooting. She said that right before the shooting, she spoke to Torres, Velasquez, and Cesar Castanon. They were all together, Mejia said, and they told her they were coming over. “I said no. I had my daughter. I didn’t think anything of it.”

The police went to an address associated with Castanon and saw a blue Nissan parked in the alley behind the house. The car was registered to Castanon’s father. There was apparently no follow-up.

The police had been surveilling Velasquez’s house since about 11 a.m. on September 2, and they watched him walk with a friend to a doughnut shop. Velasquez wore a light blue jersey, and the police said he simulated holding a gun in his hand and gesturing like he was shooting. The police arrested him at 1:30 p.m. They tested his hands and the jersey for gunshot residue. A single particle was said to be found on his hands, and six particles were reported on the jersey.

In a brief interview with the police, Velasquez said he went to a motel party with friends and some girls. He said he spent the night there. He denied being involved in a murder and then asked for a lawyer.

Benavides paged a detective two days after Velasquez was arrested and said that after talking with her boyfriend she had a clearer memory of the second suspect. His name was Abraham, but he used the nickname, “Serio,” and he was a member of the Brown Nation gang. She also told the detective that some of the information she had previously provided was inaccurate, primarily because the incident had been very emotional. Now, she said that Velasquez was closer to the sofa, on the right side of the door, and that he held the gun in his left hand. (Velasquez was right-handed).

In an interview on September 6, Benavides again told a detective that Abraham was the second man at the door. She also added that Abraham, like Velasquez, had left CLV for Brown Nation. Separately, a confidential informant called the Downey Police Department on September 6 and said they had information about the murder. The informant said they knew Abraham and showed the police where he lived. Using information from the California Department of Motor Vehicles, police created a photo array that included 21-year-old Abraham Villalobos.

Benavides viewed the array on September 15, 2000, and identified Villalobos. She said he was wearing “blue and white flannel” and that she was sure of her identification because of Villalobos’s bulging eyes.

Police executed a search warrant on Villalobos’s house on September 28 and seized two plaid shirts from the bedroom Villalobos shared with his brother. Villalobos was arrested. There is no indication from available records that the shirts were tested for gunshot residue.

In a statement to police, Villalobos said he had nothing to do with the murder. He said he was at a party at the Vagabond Motel for most of the night and his friend, Billy Gonzalez, could vouch for his whereabouts.

On the same day as the arrest, the police executed a search warrant at Torres’s house, taking a blue-and-white Pendleton shirt into evidence. A few weeks later, on October 17, Torres agreed to be interviewed by the police. He said he was at his uncle Jaime’s house on the night of September 1 and morning of September 2. He said he hadn’t met up with Velasquez or Castanon.

Torres said he didn’t know Mona Mejia very well but had called her that night because he wanted to have sex with her. He first said he called her only once. After the police showed him the phone records, Torres said he had called back but spoke to another woman who answered. When asked if he called Mejia after the shooting, Torres said he didn’t know anything about the shooting and said he learned about it from his uncle. The police did not follow up with the uncle.

After Villalobos’s arrest, Gomez gave a second statement to police. Now, she said she had been awake, not asleep, prior to the shooting and heard people walking to the apartment upstairs. She said she heard a knock on the door, and a man say, “It’s Hoodlum.” She said she could also hear Roybal talking to the men after he opened the door.

The joint trial of Villalobos and Velasquez in Los Angeles County Superior Court began on October 12, 2001. Villalobos’s attorney, Nancy Mazza, moved for a third-party culpability defense, claiming there was sufficient evidence that Torres, not Villalobos, was the person with Velasquez. Judge Phillip Hickok denied the motion. He said Mazza needed more evidence of Torres’s involvement. Mazza said Torres was clearly connected based on his telephone calls and the shirt seized at his house. Judge Hickok said the contents of those conversations were hearsay and that Mazza could only elicit testimony that Torres called Mejia, not about what they discussed. (Torres had been shot to death in a gang-related shooting on October 12, 2001.)

Benavides testified that Velasquez fired twice at Roybal after he opened the door. She said he was wearing a blue jersey. She also identified Villalobos as the man wearing a blue flannel shirt who stood next to Velasquez. She said she had a clear view from the sofa.

Benavides testified that she recognized the men “immediately” as they walked up the stairs. In her testimony, contrary to her statements, she said that she had seen Villalobos several times before the shooting and talked to him briefly. One of those sightings was at the apartment complex where Benavides’s mother lived. Benavides testified that Velasquez and Villalobos had helped her mother back to her apartment after her wheelchair broke. “They were mostly always together,” she said.

Gomez testified that she saw two Hispanic men run past her apartment after the shooting. She identified Velasquez as one of those men, wearing a light blue jersey, and said that she had seen him a few months earlier when he came by her apartment looking for her son. Gomez also testified that she had told the police on the night of the shooting that Velasquez was one of the suspects. A police officer testified that she didn’t.

Mona Mejia testified about the events on the night of the shooting, including the numerous phone calls she received from Velasquez, Castanon, and Torres, asking her to come to a party. When asked who called her after the shooting, Mejia said, “Silent,” referring to Torres. Because of Judge Hickok’s ruling, Mejia was not allowed to testify about what Torres said.

Mejia said Velasquez and her brother were friends, and he would come over and drink and play cards with her family. Mejia also described the complicated relationships between the area gangs. Torres was in Dog Patch. Castanon was in East Side Longos, and Velasquez was in Brown Nation but used to be in CLV. She said that Brown Nation and Dog Patch got along but were in a rivalry with Tortilla Flats, whose graffiti could be found on her apartment complex.

The state introduced the gunshot residue evidence from Velasquez’s hands and jersey.

Detective David Carver, with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office, and Detective Dwayne Cooper of the Downey Police Department testified as gang experts. Carver said he had interviewed a gang member named Ramon Reyes after Reyes was arrested for a murder, and Reyes told him that Dog Patch and Brown Nation had “cliqued up,” (No charges were ever filed in that murder case.) Carver said these two gangs had formed an alliance, sharing resources and territory against their common enemy, CVTF. Carver said that Brown Nation’s members were foot soldiers for Dog Patch.

Cooper testified that Mejia’s boyfriend and cousin were members of CVTF, and that the apartment building was controlled by the gang. It would have been considered rival territory for members of other gangs.

Cooper testified that based upon Mejia’s belief that she was the intended target and the invitations she received to attend the party, Roybal’s shooting was meant to serve as a warning to Mejia. He said Dog Patch and Brown Nation members thought she had been the source of information that led to an earlier drive-by shooting.

Cooper testified that before the shooting, he had not spoken with any members of Brown Nation. At the time of the trial, Cooper testified that he had no personal knowledge of any crimes Brown Nation committed.

Neither Velasquez nor Villalobos testified. Billy Martinez testified that he and Villalobos were at a party on the night of the shooting, from about 11 p.m. to 3:15 a.m. He also said that Velasquez was at the party.

Edgardo Munoz testified for Velasquez. He said he had been in Brown Nation since 1988 and knew all its 25-30 members. He did not know either Velasquez or Villalobos. He also said that Brown Nation was not a clique of Dog Patch. The two gangs did not commit crimes together, and a Brown Nation member would not take orders from Dog Patch.

The jury convicted Velasquez of first-degree murder and Villalobos of second-degree murder on October 23, 2001. Velasquez received a sentence of 50 years to life in prison. Villalobos was sentenced to 15 years to life.

Both men appealed. Their convictions were affirmed by the California Court of Appeal on August 21, 2003. Later, they filed petitions for writs of habeas corpus that were denied.

Although Velasquez had told police that he wasn’t at the apartment, his state and federal habeas petitions altered that account. He now said he was standing beside Torres at the apartment door when Torres—unexpectedly and for no apparent reason—shot and killed Roybal.

In 2005, Velasquez’s family hired Dana Orent, a private investigator who had retired from the police force in Pasadena. For the next 18 years, Orent would pursue the case. He became convinced of Velasquez’s innocence and largely worked pro bono.

In 2005, Orent interviewed Castanon and Brian Olguin, who Velasquez now said were with him during the incident. Both said that they did not know Torres was going to shoot anybody; they had just gone in Castanon’s car to the apartment to pick up Mejia.

After the shooting, the men said, Velasquez screamed at Torres, asking why he shot Roybal. Torres bragged about the shooting, using a derogatory term to refer to the Tortilla Flats gang. Velasquez said that Roybal wasn’t a gang member. According to Olguin, Velasquez said, “Why … did you do that? Everybody knows me here.” Then Torres fired a round into the floorboard of the car, which stopped the conversation. Olguin said he thought Torres fired the weapon in the car to leave gunshot residue on everybody in the vehicle. Castanon and Olguin both said Villalobos wasn’t with them during the incident.

Mona Mejia told Orent that she, Benavides, and Gomez had talked about the shooting in an effort to determine who was there and what they wore. Mejia said that Benavides told her that she didn’t see the faces of the men when they were at the door because of where she was sitting. She saw a hand in the door holding a gun, and the shooter’s arm had a long-sleeved Pendleton shirt. Mejia said that it was only after Benavides talked to Gomez that she said Velasquez was the shooter.

Dalila Mejia told Orent in 2006 that Torres called her shortly after the shooting and threatened her if she talked to the police. She said she continued to get threatening calls from Torres. Dalila said she told the police that Torres called the house numerous times. The police records don’t mention any threats.

Gomez told Orent in 2008 that Benavides had said after the shooting that she didn’t see who fired the gun because she was on the sofa and only saw a hand in the doorway. Gomez also said that Benavides could not have seen the men walk up the stairs because the stairs the men used were not the ones closest to the apartment.

Orent also spoke with Reyes, the gang member whom Carver had interviewed prior to Carver’s trial testimony. Reyes said he never told Carver that Brown Nation and Dog Patch were aligned. He said Brown Nation did not have a “beef” with Compton Varrio.

In 2005, Orent had located Guadalupe Garcia, who lived about a block away from the Mona Kai apartments and was one of Torres’s uncles. Garcia initially told Orent not to waste his time. Orent followed up with a letter, telling Garcia that he needed to do the right thing. Six years later, Garcia called Orent and said that he knew Torres was involved with a murder. Garcia said he remembered when the police questioned Torres about the shooting, and the two men were surprised when Torres was released. Orent asked Garcia to come forward. Garcia said he would think about it.

Six years later, in 2017, Garcia gave a statement to Orent. He said that years ago, he had watched Torres destroy and then dispose of a gun. He knew something was wrong and asked around. He heard about the shooting, then confronted his nephew. Garcia said Torres admitted shooting Roybal because he thought he was “some fool” from Tortilla Flats.

Villalobos was released on parole on September 18, 2015, and deported to Mexico. At two parole hearings, in 2012 and 2015, he had maintained his innocence. At the 2012 hearing, Velasquez had submitted a declaration supporting Villalobos. Velasquez said Roybal was his friend and Villalobos had nothing to do with the shooting. “Abraham Villalobos was not with us at the door, nor was he in the car with Cesar Castanon and Brian Olguin,” Velasquez said. Castanon was killed in a robbery in 2015.

In 2015, Orent interviewed another man who was at the motel with Villalobos on the night of the murder. The man said that Villalobos and Roybal were friends, so it made no sense that he would have been involved in the shooting. The man regretted not coming forward sooner, but said he was afraid of retaliation by Torres.

On May 11, 2021, Velasquez submitted a claim for conviction review to the Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office. Based on Orent’s investigative work and a review of statements and trial transcripts, the claim said the state’s theory of the crime made no sense and the gang motive was false.

The CIU re-investigated the case, interviewing many of the people Orent had interviewed and re-examining other records. On March 4, 2024, the district attorney’s office filed a joint petition with attorneys for Villalobos and Velasquez that asked the court to vacate the men’s convictions and declare them factually innocent. Velasquez was represented by John Hanusz, and Villalobos was represented by Loyola Law School’s Project for the Innocent.

Much of the public filing in the petition is redacted, but the re-investigation built on Orent’s work and bolstered these witness statements with closer scrutiny of the physical and forensic evidence.

For example, the petition said that Benavides was sitting on the sofa on the far side of the apartment. She would not have been able to see directly into the doorway, and Roybal likely blocked her view of the suspects when he opened the door.

In addition, the CIU looked more closely at the cellphone records. Torres called Mona Meija’s number six times immediately after the shooting. Neither Castanon nor Velasquez called her after the shooting. “The pattern, times and content of the calls made after the shooting is strong circumstantial evidence of Torres’s guilt,” the petition said. It also noted that these records were not in Mazza’s motion to present evidence of third-party culpability.

The state’s theory, as presented through testimony by Mejia and its gang experts, was that Mejia was the intended target. But an investigator assigned to the CIU who had substantial experience investigating gang-related crimes said this testimony was “faulty and unreliable.”

The investigator interviewed people who were either with Dog Patch or Brown Nation. They all denied an alliance or collaboration between the two gangs. During the initial investigation, the police didn’t know all the occupants of the car. Velasquez, Torres, Olguin, and Castanon were each in different gangs. “When gang members commit a shooting, they typically do not include people who are not members of their own gang,” the petition said. “Moreover, Velasquez and Torres had only met twice before and did not know each other well. Hence, in [the investigator’s] expert opinion, it is unlikely that they would commit an inter-gang murder together.”

The petition also noted the strong similarity in the appearances of Velasquez and Torres. “Both have dark bushier eyebrows, rounder faces, prominent nose bridges, similarly shaped nose tips, similarly shaped lips, and similarly shaped eyes,” the petition said. “They were also the same height and close in weight. A witness could easily mistake one for the other if they only had a brief glance at the suspect.”

On March 6, 2024, Judge William Ryan of Los Angeles County Superior Court vacated the convictions and declared Velasquez and Villalobos factually innocent. Velasquez was released the same day.

Villalobos was still in Mexico at the time of writing, but his family members were present for the exoneration.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Velasquez said, “When you have been where I have been, it’s always a 50-50 shot, but I held to my faith.”

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 3/27/2024
Last Updated: 3/27/2024
County:Los Angeles
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2000
Sentence:15 to Life
Age at the date of reported crime:21
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No