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Could this be happening? A man's nightmare made real

Abusive BehaviorCrimeJustice SystemSexual AssaultDisasters and AccidentsAir Transportation DisastersAssault

First of two parts

He kept thinking that there had been a mistake, that he'd be out in no time. That the system, set into motion by some misunderstanding or act of malice, would soon correct itself.

That was before the detective informed him of the charges, and before the article in the Ventura County Star. "Man held after woman found raped and tortured," read the headline, and there was his name, along with a quote from a police officer: "In 19 years of police work, this has to go down as one of the most brutal attacks I have ever seen."

The sky was beautiful that afternoon. Louis Gonzalez III remembered it felt like spring.

He was standing on the sidewalk outside the Simi Valley Montessori School, having just flown in from Las Vegas, hoping to get a look at his 5-year-old son's new kindergarten. Standing there, waiting for the door to open so he could scoop the boy up in his arms and fly him to Nevada for the weekend.

The first officer arrived on a motorcycle and headed straight for him. He did not explain the charges as he snapped on the handcuffs. As Gonzalez stood there stunned, he noticed little faces pressed against the schoolhouse glass, watching, and asked if he could be moved just a bit so his son didn't have to see.

Soon he'd surrendered all the items that tethered him reassuringly to the rational, workaday world. The BlackBerry he used a hundred times a day. His Dolce & Gabbana watch. His credit cards and photos of his son. His leather shoes and his socks, his pressed shirt and jacket, his belt and slacks and underwear. Naked in a holding cell, he watched his things disappear into plastic bags. He stepped into a set of black-and-white-striped jail scrubs, the kind his son might wear on Halloween.

A month passed in his single-bunk cell, and then another, and he had nothing but time to reckon all he'd lost. His freedom. His son. His job. His reputation. He had to wonder how much he could endure.

The other inmates in the solitary wing of the Ventura County Jail didn't talk about their cases, because anyone might be a snitch, but his charges were well-known on the cellblock. More than once, they warned him about what awaited if he were convicted and sent to state prison. With a sex crime on his jacket, he knew, he would be a target forever.

"Like you're waiting for death," he said. "Dying would probably be better."

A frantic 911 call

Minutes before Gonzalez's arrest around 2 p.m. on Feb. 1, 2008, Tim Geiges placed a frantic 911 call. By the account he would give consistently in years to come, he'd just returned from work and found his wife, Tracy West, naked and bound in an upstairs bedroom of their Simi Valley home in the 1900 block of Penngrove Street.

The dispatcher tried to calm him. "Sir, somebody beat your wife up?"

"Somebody tied her up, and I just got home — oh my God…" He was whimpering. "I just untied her head just now. She's crying. I need somebody, please!"

He managed to say that his wife's attacker would be at the Montessori School, a mile away.

"Who is this person?"

"Louis. Louis Gonzalez the Third."

When paramedics arrived at the house, they found West on the bed leaning forward, crying, with purple duct tape tangled in her hair.

A malicious attack

Det. David Del Marto was on the other side of town, working leads on a robbery, when he heard the radio chatter about the attack. He has level blue eyes, a graying mustache and the faultless posture of the Army MP he once was.

He found West, 33, in the emergency room of Simi Valley Hospital and followed her across the street to Safe Harbor, a forensic facility where sexual assault victims are examined and interviewed. Her appearance suggested an attack of concentrated malice. Her face was swollen, her lip gashed, her hair torn out in chunks. A cord, found tied around her neck with a slipknot, had left an angry red line, and there were burns on her stomach and ring finger.

Later, Del Marto would remember how she looked away and pulled herself into a fetal position as she talked. It was the body language he'd seen in dozens of sexual assault cases.

West was unequivocal about who had attacked her. It was Gonzalez, she said. He was her ex-boyfriend, the father of her son.

Del Marto made his voice gentle. "I need to find out what happened and what to charge him with, OK? You know he's in custody, right? You don't have to worry anymore about him for now."

In a small, fragile voice that kept trailing off and lapsing into silence, West explained that she and Gonzalez, 30, had been fighting over custody since their son's birth. She and Geiges were raising the boy, along with their younger daughter.

She said Gonzalez ambushed her in the garage, dragged her to an upstairs bedroom, hogtied her with her clothes, singed her with matches and assaulted her vaginally and anally with a wooden coat hanger. Then, she said, he forced a plastic bag over her head and held it tight, and she feigned unconsciousness until he left.

"He told me he was gonna kill me," she said. "He told me that. Seven or eight different times."

"Did he have anything with him in his hands?"

"He had a bag. Like a little mini-duffel bag."

During the attack, she said, she awoke from a blackout to find Gonzalez had placed mittens on her hands — she recalled drawstrings at the wrists — while he wore plastic gloves.

Del Marto thought this pointed to an uncommon level of sophistication — to a man who took extraordinary pains to avoid leaving fingerprints or traces of his DNA under his victim's raking fingernails. In his report, the detective noted another detail she gave: Her attacker had worn beige-colored overalls, as if to shield his clothes from evidence.

After the interview, West left with her husband. Del Marto followed them to their home on Penngrove Street for another examination of the scene. It was a placid residential block in one of California's safest cities. He watched for some time as she refused to leave the car and go inside.

Del Marto thought West was lucky to be alive. A 23-year veteran, he knew custody cases bred a special sort of derangement, and he was confident he understood the outlines of what happened here: extreme rage mingled with extreme calculation.

No confession

A few hours after the arrest, Del Marto pulled the accused out of his cell. He was known as a low-key investigator who didn't raise his voice — "the epitome of the poker face," his supervisor called him — and this was his chance to clinch the case with a confession.

He studied Gonzalez. He saw no scratches on his face or hands, and thought: the mittens.

"What is the accusation?" Gonzalez asked.

"That you assaulted Tracy at her house."

"That I assaulted? At what time did this take place?"

Del Marto stopped him. He had to read him his Miranda rights, a delicate business he knew could end the interview fast. Gonzalez agreed to talk anyway.

Maybe he believes he's smarter than me, Del Marto thought. In the detective's eyes, the guy came off as a little arrogant, a little nonchalant, considering the situation. Gonzalez had an impressive title: senior vice president for business banking at the Bank of Las Vegas. He arranged commercial real estate loans. Del Marto thought: a salesman.

This is about a custody fight, Gonzalez said. "I always just assumed that she would lie and do things to get the edge in court. I don't know that she would go to this extent to get me in trouble. This is absurd. I mean, how can I possibly have done that?"

Gonzalez insisted he'd never been to West's house. Didn't even know the address.

"You work for a financial institution," Del Marto replied. "It's not hard to get a property profile on somebody."

The attack could have taken as little as 15 or 20 minutes, he said, and it was just two or three minutes from West's house to the school where he was arrested.

"It's perfectly feasible for it to have occurred," Del Marto said. "Perfectly feasible."

What about evidence at the house? Gonzalez asked.

Del Marto thought of the gloves. "Somebody probably watches 'CSI' quite a lot."

"Who, me?"

"You did things that reminded people of, 'Hey, they do that on CSI' to try to prevent us from collecting evidence."

"I didn't do this," Gonzalez said. "I know you think I did it, but I didn't do it."

"I don't have a reason not to think you did it," the detective replied. "Yeah, I think you did it. I do."

Del Marto ended the interview after 23 minutes. He sensed he would not get a confession. He would have to build the case with other evidence. A forensics team was dusting doorknobs and plucking carpet fibers from the house. They were combing the black suit Gonzalez was arrested in, and the inside of the rented Dodge Avenger he had parked outside a hair salon near the school.

Super-criminals are fictitious, Del Marto thought. Even very careful ones leave traces.

Surviving lockup

If Gonzalez was presumed innocent under the law, the Ventura County Jail did not expect other inmates to honor that distinction. He was held in a segregated unit and received his meals through a slot in the heavy metal door. He wore a red-striped wristband denoting a violent offense. An hour a day, the doors opened so he could shower and make phone calls.

Now and then he could hear people going crazy in their cells, kicking their doors, screaming on and on until they had to be removed. He thought of himself as mentally sturdy, a survivor, but knew how easily anyone could crack. So he crammed every waking hour with routine. He read out-of-date newspapers and John Grisham novels and the Bible. He made a paper chess set and stood at the crack in his cell door, calling out moves to opponents down the corridor.

He listened to other inmates dwelling on the food they missed. One guy would say, "TGI Fridays, calamari," the others would groan, and it went on like that for hours.

He learned a rule about surviving lockup: Never take a daytime nap, no matter how tired you are. Because you might not sleep that night, and you'd be left for hours in the dark of a cold cell with only your thoughts and your fear.

He found himself replaying his whole life — every house he'd lived in, every deal he'd made, every girlfriend, including West.

They'd met in a finance-class study group at the University of Nevada in summer 2001. He was a high-school dropout from the Bronx who had become a confident, career-minded student who wore pinstriped suits to class. She was smart, with brown hair and pretty hazel eyes, a vegetarian in flower dresses who spoke softly. He liked her air of West Coast bohemianism.

Their relationship was brief. They had been apart for months when, by his account, she called during a sonogram appointment. Suddenly he was listening to the heartbeat of their son.

In her fourth month of pregnancy, West met Gonzalez at a Denny's in Vegas. According to a police report, she said he became upset because she wouldn't go back to him. She said he slapped her and punched her stomach.

Gonzalez's version: They had gotten back together, and argued because she was seeing another man and lying about it. He admitted to breaking her windshield, but only after she "went nuts hitting him," the police report said. He was arrested on suspicion of misdemeanor domestic violence. The charge was dropped.

The family-court battle began before the boy's first birthday — an interminable gantlet of judges, mediators and psychiatrists as the two argued over custody and visitation.

Gonzalez's custody attorney, Denise Placencio, said West tried relentlessly to curtail his time with his son, accusing Gonzalez of domestic abuse and claiming the boy suffered "separation anxiety" when he was away from his mother. The campaign continued, Placencio said, after West married Geiges and moved to California with the boy.

The courts allowed Gonzalez two weekends a month with his son. He would pick him up from the Vegas airport on Friday, and they would have an intense couple of days together. They might go to the mall or the shark reef at Mandalay Bay. And then back to the airport on Sunday, a knife twisting in his stomach as he watched his 5-year-old loping down the jetway, a gangly little guy with reddish hair, glancing back uncertainly.

In January 2008, Gonzalez sent an email to West explaining that he wanted to see the boy's new Montessori School in Simi Valley. He would pick him up there on Feb. 1 and fly him back to Nevada for the weekend. He planned to take him to a Super Bowl Sunday barbecue.

West pressed for specifics. "What time are you planning on being here? Are you going to drive or fly?"

He would arrive by plane around noon, he wrote, and expected to get to the school around 2 p.m.

The email exchange soon descended into acrimony. All these trips to Vegas were taking a toll on their son, West wrote. "Having to tell him that he has to go despite his obvious distress, is not what I want. Having to sit with a crying child when he comes back because he doesn't want me to leave his side, is not what I want," she wrote. "I want a happy, healthy child. I have worked 24/7/365+ from the moment I knew of him, to do the best for him — not me."

Gonzalez answered that he hadn't seen these signs of distress — his son seemed happy to see him. "My focus right now is to make the best of what little time I have with him," he wrote to West. "I'm going to be 31 this year. A lot has changed since you last knew me." His whole life was his son, he wrote. "When he isn't with me the only thing I do is wait for him."

West replied by attacking him as a father, writing that he had "proven time and time again" that he did not put their son's needs above his own whims. "You are just not capable," she wrote. He had "mentally tortured" their son, she claimed, by telling him once that his plane would crash in bad weather.

If she believed he'd say that, Gonzalez replied, "then you need help."

It was hardly the nastiest exchange Gonzalez could remember. But he found himself replaying it in his cell, his thoughts racing. His hope of a quick release now seemed remote, considering the charges. If convicted of all counts — residential burglary, kidnapping, torture, attempted murder, anal and genital penetration with a foreign object — he faced five back-to-back life sentences.

"His goal was to degrade and humiliate her as much as humanly possible before killing her" and fleeing with their son, Assistant Dist. Atty. Andrea Tischler wrote in court papers arguing that Gonzalez should be held without bail. He committed "some of the most extreme possible crimes against another human being," Tischler contended, crimes "so heinous that they defy the imagination."

The judge ruled: No bail.

Verifying his whereabouts

Looking at Gonzalez through the Plexiglas for the first time, three days after his arrest, his lead defense attorney, Debra S. White, was struck by his eyes, which she described as "these dark eyes, these piercing eyes." He looked distraught and tired and angry.

This is about the boy, Gonzalez insisted. She wants me out of his life. Nail down my alibi and get me out, he said. He recited a detailed list, mentally compiled over hours in his cell, of everybody who might have seen him around the time West said the attack occurred.

White called her sister, Leigh-Anne Salinas, her investigator on big cases. White has the clothes and looks of a lawyer in a prime-time drama. Salinas wears jeans and a T-shirt on the job. Her speech is salty and she's at ease both in gang neighborhoods and white-collar offices.

Salinas related to Gonzalez's businesslike, hard-edged manner — it reminded her of herself — but didn't think a jury would like him much. She is pessimistic about human nature, and on first meeting Gonzalez suspected he might be guilty. She thought: "Wow, this guy really thought this out."

If there was any chance of proving his innocence, she knew she would have to move quickly, before memories faded.

Her task: verify Gonzalez's whereabouts in the hours preceding his arrest. West had accused Gonzalez of attacking her between 12:30 and 12:45 p.m. She knew the time, she told police, because she was about to leave to pick up her daughter early from school.

Salinas began retracing Gonzalez's movements, starting with his arrival at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank around noon that day. She walked into Enterprise Rent-A-Car on Hollywood Way, where employees remembered Gonzalez. He was the guy who needed a child's car seat and stepped outside for a cigarette as the paperwork was being drawn up. His receipt said 12:09 p.m.

Next, Gonzalez would have driven northwest to Simi Valley, a 28-mile trip. Salinas verified that Gonzalez was on his cellphone with another Nevada banker during the drive. They were discussing a loan, the other banker said, and Gonzalez was complaining about traffic as he approached his son's school. Phone records confirmed this call lasted from 12:43 to 12:48 p.m.

At the Montessori School at 1776 Erringer Road, Salinas' job proved tougher. School employees knew West — she volunteered regularly there — and Salinas sensed their reluctance to help the man accused of brutalizing her.

Salinas was polite and persistent. School workers remembered Gonzalez arriving between 12:45 and 12:50 p.m. He greeted his son and briefly toured the school. One lady joked that she felt underdressed alongside his suit and tie. They told him to return in about an hour to pick up his boy.

After leaving the school, Gonzalez said he walked to a bagel shop at an adjacent strip mall. Salinas retraced his steps and found herself inside John's Bagel Deli. The manager, Jung Soon Shin, recalled Gonzalez coming in around 1 p.m. to order a tuna sandwich on a sesame bagel.

When Shin explained that she didn't take credit cards, he patted his pockets — no cash — and promised to be back.

At the Wells Fargo a few blocks away, Salinas discovered, an assistant manager named Mercedes Saunders remembered Gonzalez coming in to make a withdrawal. They chatted, and she found him calm and pleasant. Surveillance cameras confirmed he was there from 1:14 to 1:38 p.m. They showed him waiting in line, resting his head on his palm, a bored-looking man in a dark suit.

Back at the bagel shop, Shin saw him return sometime before 2 p.m. with cash to buy his sandwich. She remembered him because he wasn't a regular, and because after he left she had to fish his reusable red sandwich basket out of the trash. And because he was so nicely dressed.

Salinas called her sister. West's story didn't hold up, she said.

"Wow," White said. "He actually may be innocent."

He needed proof

Del Marto, who had been talking to many of the same witnesses, was watching a case unravel against a man he believed guilty. Had Gonzalez cunningly timed the attack between periods he knew he would be seen in public?

Del Marto thought there was one thing that might solve the case: the duffel bag West said Gonzalez had been carrying. Had all the items Del Marto couldn't find — the mittens, the gloves, the overalls —been stuffed in there and discarded?

He'd looked in storm drains and sewers around West's house. He'd searched roofs, Dumpsters, freeway shoulders, anywhere Gonzalez might have tossed it. He'd even inquired at Simi Valley mailbox companies, in case Gonzalez had been calculating enough to mail it to himself. No sign of the bag.

The detective needed proof that it had existed, something more than West's word. He needed a photo or video footage. He made a phone call. He made another. He waited.

christopher.goffard@latimes.com

Part 2: An unexpected turn.

About this story

This story is based on interviews with Louis Gonzalez III, his lawyers, Simi Valley Police Det. David Del Marto, and James Ellison, Ventura County's chief assistant district attorney, among others. Times reporter Christopher Goffard also listened to an audio recording of Gonzalez's police interrogation and reviewed hundreds of pages of court records, including the criminal complaint against Gonzalez, the prosecution's motion to deny bail, witness depositions, and emails and other investigatory materials filed in court. Quotations attributed to Tracy West are from an audio recording of her interview with police and from her videotaped testimony in a custody case involving the son she had with Gonzalez. Calls to West's lawyers, seeking comment from her, were not returned. In court testimony, West said she has declined all interview requests.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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