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John Mimbela, left, is on a quest to prove the innocence of Daniel Villegas, who was convicted of murder in 1995 in the deaths of two teenage boys. He has hired private investigator Freddie Bonilla to help him in his efforts.

EL PASO -- Did a scared teenage boy confess to a double murder he did not commit 17 years ago?

Daniel Villegas has been locked away in a Texas prison since being convicted of capital murder in the shooting of teenagers Armando "Mando" Lazo and Bobby England.

Police and prosecutors said Villegas, 16 at the time of the killings, was a member of a street gang that shot at four teens, fatally striking two on April 10, 1993.

Villegas, now 33, maintains that he is innocent, the victim of a detective who elicited a false confession during an unrelenting interrogation.

El Paso building contractor John Mimbela Sr. and other supporters of Villegas are seeking a new hearing following a two-year inquiry by a private investigator and a lawyer hired by Mimbela. Villegas' supporters point out that the confession he gave detectives differed from what witnesses said.

Teens supposedly with Villegas at the time of the shooting also gave statements to detectives implicating him, but they testified in court that they had lied.

The two teens who survived the shooting are now grown men. Last year, they signed affidavits saying Villegas' confession did not match what happened.

Late last year, lawyer Charles Louis Roberts filed a writ saying Villegas had ineffective counsel during his retrial in 1995, leading to his conviction and life sentence.

His first trial in 1994 with lawyer Jaime Olivas ended in a hung jury and a mistrial. The jury voted 11-1 for conviction.

Roberts said Villegas' lawyer in the retrial, John D. Gates, failed to call 18 witnesses from the first trial who would have offered evidence of an alibi for Villegas.

Gates stated in an affidavit he had a different strategy, and he felt the witnesses would have been hurtful.

The chances the state will take a look at the writ are smaller than slim, but Villegas' supporters have hope.

"We are asking and begging to just review the information. Review it, read it," said Mimbela, a family friend of Villegas. "All we are asking for is a fair hearing."

About two and a half years ago, Mimbela found Villegas' family crying when he visited their home because Villegas' legal appeals were exhausted. He was skeptical when Villegas' parents told him their son was innocent.

"I said 'Let me look at the documents,' " Mimbela said. "The more I looked at it, I thought, man, this is crazy."

Mimbela said witness statements did not match. Physical evidence was nonexistent. The only real proof was a confession from a teenager who claimed he was coerced.

Mimbela said he was told there's only a 5 percent chance that the state will even look at the new documents.

"My philosophy is that we are here to help each other," he said. "And here is somebody who was dealt an injustice. And his family can't afford to have a good lawyer. I feel for the kid, I certainly do, because I feel for his innocence."

Mimbela is offering a $50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the killer.

In letters Villegas wrote from prison provided to the El Paso Times, he described being at the brink of losing hope in a hellish existence, praying for a sign from God. Then his cause was taken up by Mimbela.

"Do you realize how discouraging it is to know you are innocent of a crime, yet have no one believe you cause of a coerced confession?" Villegas wrote in a letter. "The very first thing they say is 'If you didn't do it, why did you confess to it? I wouldn't ever confess to nothing I didn't do.'

"At which you're lost for words. Cause no matter how you try to explain it to them, they do not believe that the police would ever coerce you into a statement. I mean in their mind it's unAmerican. What happened to me and others is suppose to happen in some Third World or a Communist country, not in the good ole land of liberty."

District Attorney Jaime Esparza was the prosecutor in both trials. He said jurors decided for themselves about the veracity of the statements made to police.

"How the confession was obtained was fully examined," Esparza said. "This is not a new complaint that the confession was obtained through coercion. Obviously, the jury believed it wasn't, as well as the judge."

Esparza said he was aware of the writ and his office has cooperated. But, he said, the right decision was made in prosecuting Villegas.

"It is my belief that he received a fair trial. The evidence we presented to the jury was proper and the jury's verdict was correct," Esparza said.

Private investigator Freddie Bonilla said a review of testimony, evidence and re-interviews of witnesses exposed a flawed homicide investigation.

"There is no doubt in my mind that the kid didn't do it," said Bonilla, a retired El Paso police homicide detective and a former captain of detectives in the Sheriff's Office with more than 40 years experience.

The beginnings

In the early 1990s, El Paso was awash in street-gang violence. Fifty-six homicides occurred in 1993 -- about four times the number committed in recent years.

Armando "Mando" Lazo, Bobby England, Juan Carlos Medina and Jesse Hernandez were buddies from the Andress High School area. England was the oldest at 18. The others were 17.

On Good Friday 1993, the group of friends went to a get-together at a girl's house. The night turned late. Their ride had left with some of the girls, so they decided to walk home.

Hernandez, now a 34-year-old diesel mechanic, has read Villegas' confession and said it does not match what happened.

Hernandez said he and his friends were walking east on Trans Mountain Road because it had more traffic than Fairbanks Drive, which was a shorter route.

Fairbanks Drive cut a path near the homes of members of the Los Midnight Locos gang. These boys weren't gang members, but they didn't want any problems.

"I told them let's not head to Fairbanks. That is bad territory. That is LML," Hernandez said.

As they walked, Hernandez said, a car headed west toward the Patriot Freeway passed them, slowed down and drove off when they approached it. The car had tinted windows, and they couldn't see who was inside.

Villegas' confession stated he was with four members of the Varrio Northeast gang (VNE) in the "white mid-size car" headed east -- Hernandez said the car was westbound -- on Trans Mountain when he recognized "Mando," who was with three other men.

According to the confession, the car was driven by a gang member nicknamed "Popeye," and "Droopy" was in the passenger seat. Villegas was in the back seat with his friends Marco Gonzalez and Rodney Williams.

"First of all, the cars are totally different cars," Hernandez said. "The car I described was a (Chevrolet) Caprice, a '70s Caprice red or maroon (in color) with a white top."

About 12:15 a.m., the teens walked north onto Electric (now named Girl Scout Way). Lazo and England began wrestling on vacant land on one side of the street.

"As soon as I started walking off I saw the car eastbound on Trans Mountain and it turned and crossed" onto Electric, Hernandez said. "I had a bad feeling right then and there. Oh ... these guys came back."

The car stopped and gunshots rang out. Hernandez and Medina ran for safety near a nearby video store before returning after police arrived.

England died near a ditch. Lazo went to a nearby home and knocked on a door before collapsing. He died at a hospital.

Villegas' confession stated that he fired the gun trying to scare the teens, then chased Mando Lazo to "finish him off."

Nancy and George Gorham, the residents of the house where Lazo ran for help, stated in an affidavit they heard only one set of five or six gunshots.

Villegas said he actually was with Gonzalez and Williams at the Village Green Apartments near Irvin High School. They were watching the movie "White Men Can't Jump" on videocassette until about 12:30 a.m.

Medina, the other survivor, is now a 35-year-old truck driver. He said the new questions regarding the murder of his friends have him confused.

"To me, este, justice was served and I just left it like that," Medina said. "I figured my friend was resting and they caught whoever did it.

"He took the rap for it for whoever it was ... but that is not going to get my friend out of the grave, that was my thought," Medina said. "It's hard to have feelings for him (Villegas), but I'm only human, too. I'm willing to give him that chance to prove himself ... if everything stays the same, that's OK, too."

The interrogation

Villegas was a drug user, a slow learner who had trouble in school and he had a habit of boasting about things he had not done. His mouth may have turned him into a suspect.

Police documents stated Villegas bragged to his gullible cousin, David Rangel, that he committed the murders by blasting the teens with a shotgun. Word eventually got to investigators. They took a statement from Rangel pointing at Villegas. It did not mention the type of weapon.

Bonilla said the victims were shot with a .22 caliber weapon.

Villegas claims a homicide detective named Al Marquez pressured him to confess by hitting him in the back of the head, yelling at close range so he could feel the spit flying out of the detective's mouth and telling him he would be raped in jail and get the electric chair if he didn't confess.

Gonzalez and Williams initially were accused of capital murder but the charges were dropped. They allegedly gave similar statements pointing to Villegas. In the end, only Villegas was charged.

During the first trial, Gonzalez testified that what he told police was false.

"They forced the statements out of me," Gonzalez said in court.

Hernandez, one of the survivors, said Detective Marquez caused him nightmares by initially trying to get him to admit that he had killed his friends because he was holding a ring and beeper belonging to England.

"I would go and I would dream I killed my friend over a stupid beeper and a ring because that's what he said," Hernandez said. "I remember putting my head on a table and crying. I just kept gripping my fingers and crying. I can just imagine what they did to Daniel."

Hernandez's mother scolded police that she would not let her son talk to investigators if Marquez ever spoke to him again.

Marquez, who is no longer with the Police Department, could not be reached for comment. During Villegas' trial, he said no confession was coerced.

The Innocence Project, which helps the wrongfully convicted, said false confessions are a flaw of the judicial system. It stated that innocent defendants made incriminating statements, confessions or pleaded guilty in about 25 percent of cases in which defendants were later exonerated by DNA.

The project stated confessions by juveniles are often unreliable, and adults also can give false confessions because of a variety of factors, including exhaustion or the belief they will be able to prove their innocence later.

Bonilla, the private investigator, said detectives did not obtain corroboration to the confession and statements. The firearm was never recovered. The car was never found.

Bonilla also said that "Popeye," supposedly the driver of the car in the shooting, was actually in jail at the time.

"We are not trying to sling mud at the Police Department," Bonilla said. "But this is an injustice."

Bonilla's investigation points toward members of the LML gang who may have had a grudge against one of the victims.

The two survivors said they don't know who was behind the killings. They didn't know Villegas or have problems with the VNE gang.

Gates, the defense lawyer in the second trial, stated in an affidavit filed in February he did what he thought what was best and kept Villegas informed.

"Frankly it was 15 years ago," Gates said when contacted last week. "I don't have specific recollection of the details."

Hernandez said that if Villegas didn't do it, then who killed his friends?

Hernandez said memories of that night haunt him.

"I get teary-eyed. Mando had a baby sister. When we left that night, she said, 'Mando be careful. I love you.' I still hear that. He never saw his mother and little sister again."

Daniel Borunda may be reached at dborunda@elpasotimes.com; 546-6102.