Sunday, 19 July 1998

Murder case tests plea bargain ruling

Damien Jasso, 19, struck a plea deal that will keep him out of jail. In exchange, he has agreed to testify against two men he hired to avenge a drug rip-off.

Court's finding could affect alleged killer's Tucson trial

By Jon Burstein

The Arizona Daily Star

The Tucson police detective's letter offered the fugitive running from a first-degree murder warrant ``an extraordinary deal.''

If the murder suspect testified about a pair of slayings set into motion when he hired two men to avenge a drug rip-off, he wouldn't spend a day behind bars, the detective wrote.

``What I am offering you right now has never been offered to anybody before,'' wrote Detective Kevin Hall to fugitive Damien Jasso. ``It is an opportunity for you to get your life back.''

Now attorneys for a man charged in the killings, Jesus Leonardo Sanchez, want to stop Jasso from testifying. Citing a recent federal Appeals Court ruling in a Kansas case, they say the deal Jasso was offered is an illegal bribe. The July 1 ruling outlawed authorities from promising leniency to witnesses in criminal trials, saying that it amounts to illegally buying testimony.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals - encompassing Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas, Utah, Oklahoma and Wyoming - has suspended its ruling pending an appeal.

But Sanchez's attorneys argue that the logic in the appellate court's ruling is so compelling it should be used to block Jasso and two of the state's other key witnesses from testifying.

``They are giving (Jasso) so much that his testimony is inherently unreliable,'' said Joseph St. Louis, one of Sanchez's attorneys.

Sanchez, a k a Carlos Santa Cruz, gained notoriety last year after police arrested him in five slayings - some they say were motivated by money and others by anger. The other three killings are unconnected with the two involving Jasso.

If Sanchez is found guilty of all the charges, he would be one of the most prolific killers in recent Tucson history. He faces the death penalty on all the charges.

Authorities now say that Jasso, 19, hired Sanchez and another man, Cecil Rodriguez, in July 1997 to intimidate a man who robbed his house.

But Sanchez and Rodriguez mistakenly killed a man who had nothing to do with the robbery, Detective Hall said. Sanchez and Rodriguez, a k a Maniaco, became dissatisfied with how much they were paid by Jasso and went looking for him. When they couldn't find him, they killed the uncle of one of Jasso's friends, Hall said.

The authorities' current version of what happened, though, varies from the account they provided to a grand jury last year.

Hall previously testified that Jasso agreed to pay $1,500 to Sanchez and Rodriguez if they killed the suspected robber.

St. Louis said the state's three key witnesses all got unbelievably good deals to testify.

``I don't understand how you offer probation to someone you believe had someone killed,'' St. Louis said.

The deal is offered

Hall said the Feb. 19 letter was the first he has ever written to a criminal suspect offering a deal. He gave the letter to Jasso's family.

``I only did it because I knew it would get to him because I knew he had been in contact with relatives,'' Hall said. ``That was after several attempts to try to get him to call me.''

An attorney representing Jasso had contacted authorities shortly after Sanchez's arrest, but Jasso apparently lost contact with the attorney, Hall said.

``Jasso didn't want to be in the same jail as Sanchez because he thought Sanchez would kill him,'' Hall said.

In addition to promising that Jasso would spend no time behind bars, Hall offered to have authorities relocate Jasso and his family.

``What will we expect from you for all of this?'' Hall wrote. ``You must turn yourself in to me by March 1, 1998. You must cooperate fully with the investigation. . . . You must testify at the upcoming criminal trials of the codefendents in a truthful and honest manner.''

If Jasso didn't turn himself in by March 1, ``there will be no deal,'' Hall wrote.

``You will be arrested, indicted and convicted of first-degree murder,'' Hall wrote.

Jasso didn't turn himself in. Tucson police arrested him May 23 after a tip led officers to stop his car as he cruised on South Sixth Avenue. He was taken to Pima County Jail and held in lieu of $1 million bond.

Nonetheless, Jasso still got a probation deal. On June 17, he pleaded guilty to a count of solicitation of aggravated assault. As part of the plea agreement, he will be put on probation and have to testify against Sanchez and Sanchez's alleged partner, Rodriguez.

Jasso is scheduled to be sentenced July 29. He was released from jail when he reached the plea agreement.

Hall said he had no control over what happened to the charges after Jasso's arrest.

``I arrested him for first-degree murder and the county attorney decided what to do after that,'' Hall said.

Deputy County Attorney Rick Unklesbay declined to discuss the Sanchez case.

The prosecutor did say it was unusual for Hall to write a letter to Jasso, but police believed Jasso wasn't responsible for the killings.

Hall's letter said the County Attorney's Office authorized the promises made to Jasso.

Jasso's criminal court file has been sealed and is unavailable to the media.

St. Louis said Hall offered so much in the letter to Jasso that the suspect had everything to gain by incriminating Sanchez in the two murders.

``According to (the letter), the state will pay for him to move to Maui, Hawaii, if he wants,'' St. Louis said.

St. Louis argued that the offers to Jasso violate the federal bribery statute - the same law that the recent federal appeals court ruling cites as prohibiting prosecutors from promising leniency to witnesses.

`` `Inherently unreliable' is an understated description of the value of testimony from someone who was looking at a possible death sentence, but is now promised probation and money in exchange for testimony,'' St. Louis wrote in a July 8 court motion.

Jill Thorpe, Jasso's attorney, said her client isn't selling himself, but wants to testify against Sanchez, who he regards as a ``violent, crazy person.''

Robbery led to killings

The killings began after a July 7, 1997, drug rip-off, Hall testified last year before a Pima County grand jury.

Raul Lopez, a k a Inglewood, ``jacked,'' or robbed, Jasso's home, pistol-whipping people inside and taking cocaine and personal items, according to Hall's testimony.

Jasso recognized Lopez and through a friend, Eugenio ``Nino'' Norzagaray, met with Sanchez and Rodriguez on July 9, 1997, to discuss what to do about Lopez, Hall testified. Thorpe said that up until this meeting, Jasso had never met Sanchez.

Several different accounts of what happened at that meeting have been offered.

Thorpe said Jasso thought he was hiring Sanchez and Rodriguez only ``to rough up the people who had roughed him up.''

Hall said this week that police have learned that Jasso asked the two men to either beat up or kidnap Lopez. That is opposed to his grand jury testimony in which he said Jasso wanted Lopez dead.

After Jasso met with Sanchez and Rodriguez, the three went in search of Lopez, Thorpe said. They got information that Lopez lived in a house on the 1200 block of East Drexel Road, she said.

Sanchez and Rodriguez drove in one car to the house, while Jasso followed in another one, Thorpe said.

But it turned out that Lopez didn't live at that house, Hall testified.

Ronald Lee Lopez, 21, no relation to Raul Lopez, was outside the house fixing his car when Sanchez and Rodriguez pulled up, Hall testified.

``There was no conversation,'' Hall testified. ``There was no, `Hey, are you Inglewood? What's your name?' They simply got out of the car and shot.''

Ronald Lee Lopez died after he was shot six times, police said.

Thorpe said Jasso got upset when he heard the shots, recognizing that Sanchez and Rodriguez had gone beyond the agreement.

Sanchez and Rodriguez later met with Jasso and Norzagaray and demanded more money because they killed someone, Thorpe said. That's when Jasso became afraid of the two men, she said.

That same night Raul Lopez was shot to death in his apartment on the 100 block of West Valencia Road. But Sanchez and Rodriguez haven't been charged in that slaying.

``Sanchez, Rodriguez and Jasso haven't been eliminated (as suspects), but the focus has switched away from them as suspects,'' Hall said.

Raul Lopez reportedly had a lot of enemies, defense attorney St. Louis said.

The days following Ronald Lee Lopez's slaying, Jasso and his friend Norzagaray avoided Sanchez and Rodriguez, Thorpe said.

Sanchez and Rodriguez went to the house of Norzagaray's uncle, Richard Norzagaray, on July 12, thinking that the uncle might know where Jasso and Eugenio Norzagaray were, Hall said.

The two men took Richard Norzagaray, 35, from his home, authorities said. Richard Norzagaray was never seen alive again.

His body was found in a burning car near West 38th Street and Interstate 10. He had been shot three times before the vehicle was torched.

Tucson police arrested Sanchez two days later after he and another man, George Aldama, were caught in the middle of a violent home invasion.

Rodriguez hasn't been apprehended by authorities.

Jasso fled Tucson, Thorpe said. ``He was scared to death of (Sanchez and Rodriguez),'' Thorpe said.

Aug. 11 trial set

Authorities now have lined up Jasso, Eugenio Norzagaray and Aldama to testify against Sanchez at his Aug. 11 trial in the slayings of Ronald Lee Lopez and Richard Norzagaray, St. Louis said.

Sanchez's defense will be simple: He had nothing to do with the deaths, St. Louis said.

And each of the three key state witnesses are using Sanchez as a way to avoid prison time, St. Louis said.

Aldama pleaded guilty in October to an armed-robbery count. As part of his plea agreement, Aldama will receive probation if he testifies against Sanchez at each of his murder trials.

Eugenio Norzagaray, who admits he acted as the middle man between Jasso and Sanchez, won't face prosecution in Ronald Lee Lopez's death as long as he testifies against Sanchez, court records indicate.

St. Louis said Eugenio Norzagaray also has changed his story about when and how he first met Sanchez.

In addition, St. Louis said a couple of aspects of the state's case don't make sense.

``If you're trying to send a message to Damien, why do you kill Nino's uncle?'' St. Louis asked.

In a statement to police, Jasso also has said he was friendly with Rodriguez, even buying him clothing, St. Louis said.

St. Louis said that without the testimony of Eugenio Norzagaray and Jasso, the state's case would be demolished.

The question of whether prosecutors' promises constitute bribery could be heard before the end of the month by Judge Gilbert Veliz of Pima County Superior Court.

While authorities have declined to talk about the evidence against Sanchez, court records indicate that shell casings found outside Ronald Lee Lopez's house match the gun Sanchez was carrying in the July 14, 1997, home invasion.

In addition, Richard Norzagaray's family members are set to testify that they last saw him with Rodriguez and Sanchez. St. Louis also is seeking to suppress those identifications, arguing they were tainted by media reports of Sanchez's arrest.

After Sanchez's five-week trial in the deaths of Richard Norzagaray and Ronald Lee Lopez, he faces three more first-degree murder charges.

Sanchez has been charged in a September 1996 shooting that left two brothers - Ramon Leon Hernandez, 43, and Cesar Leon Hernandez, 45 - dead outside their southside home.

He also is accused of gunning down 19-year-old Shawn Trujillo in May 1997 in front of a westside convenience store.

If found guilty on all counts, Sanchez would be only the third person in Pima County within the past 25 years to be convicted of five or more first-degree murders.