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In this assault case, the puzzle pieces don't fit

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In his single-bunk cell in the Ventura County Jail, on a concrete slab desk, Louis Gonzalez III found himself compulsively writing letters to his 5-year-old son. They were a chronicle of their truncated time together. Telling him how they'd cheered for the Yankees. How his favorite toy had been a mechanical garbage truck. How he'd been a picky eater from the start, but crazy for Cheerios. He never mailed them.

He imagined his son in the cell with him, pushing around his Hot Wheels. In the silence and the isolation, his dream life had acquired surprising vividness. He could almost hear the little plastic wheels on the concrete.

He had a recurring fantasy. He saw himself in prison, 10 or 15 years from now, his conviction long since sealed, his appeals denied. His son, grown into a young man, would be his salvation, would take it upon himself to look into the case. He'd show up and say, "Mom admitted that she lied."

Growing doubts

Doubts had been gnawing at Simi Valley Police Det. David Del Marto. In elaborate detail, Tracy West had told him that Gonzalez, her ex-boyfriend, had ambushed and sexually tortured her in her home between 12:30 and 12:45 p.m. on Feb. 1, 2008.

To test that claim, Del Marto climbed into his car. He wanted to time the route between Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, where Gonzalez had arrived about noon that day from Las Vegas, and West's house in Simi Valley. Gonzalez was in California to pick up their son — a 5-year-old he and West had been fighting over interminably — for a regular weekend visit.

Del Marto had picked a Friday just after noon for his experiment, to replicate the conditions Gonzalez would have faced. He pushed his car to 80 mph. His partner held a stopwatch.

Even if Gonzalez had raced up the freeway, the detective discovered, he could not have arrived at West's house earlier than 12:42 p.m. And witnesses confirmed he was at the Montessori School, a mile away, right around then.

Del Marto called West. Was she sure about the time?

West, by the detective's account, replied that she had been guessing. She couldn't be sure.

Del Marto wondered: Did Gonzalez commit the attack after he left the school, and before he was seen at a nearby bank? Or perhaps after he left the bank, and before he was seen buying a bagel?

The detective concluded that each scenario would have given Gonzalez a narrow window of opportunity at West's house:

Six minutes.

Was that enough time for the attack she had described?

Enough time for Gonzalez to find her in her garage, knock her out, drag her up the stairs, put gloves on his hands and mittens on hers, and slip on protective overalls so that his suit would remain immaculate?

Enough time to strip her, tie her up, burn her with matches, sexually assault her with a coat hanger and attempt to suffocate her with a plastic bag?

Enough time to dispose of all this evidence, along with a duffel bag she said he had carried?

Why did no one, before or after, notice that Gonzalez was nervous or out of breath?

The disarray at the house on Penngrove Street seemed to reflect the struggle West described: clumps of her hair, scissors discarded on the carpet, a spindle yanked out of the banister.

But Del Marto could find nothing to place Gonzalez there. No fingerprints, no DNA, no hair, no clothes fibers.

He remembered how West looked that day, bruised and traumatized. But the medical records seemed at odds with the sexual assault she described: They showed no internal tears or bleeding.

Maybe, Del Marto thought, the gloves, mittens and overalls didn't exist. Maybe they were props in a story.

He withheld judgment until he could see the footage captured by the security cameras at McCarran Airport in Las Vegas.

Getting it required weeks of calls to the Transportation Security Administration. Finally, on March 11, 2008 — 39 days after Gonzalez's arrest — Del Marto and his partner were led to a private room in the bowels of Los Angeles International Airport and handed a disk.

Del Marto slid it into his laptop. He watched bodies shuffle through the security line in Vegas, taking off shoes, placing luggage on the conveyor belt. The detective trained his eyes on the screen for one thing in particular: the duffel bag West said was in Gonzalez's possession.

Of all the people who said they saw Gonzalez that day, West was the only one who remembered it. She said she'd heard him zipping and unzipping it during the attack. The airline said he hadn't checked bags when he flew to California. Had he carried the duffel bag onboard?

If he could find an image of that, Del Marto thought, it just might prove the case against him.

Three cameras captured Gonzalez walking through the metal detector wearing a black suit, gray shirt and patterned tie. On each angle, Del Marto froze the frame and leaned forward. Each time, he saw the same thing. Gonzalez's hands were empty.

Del Marto turned to his partner. "I don't know how he could have done this," he said.

Reluctant to testify

The preliminary hearing in State vs. Gonzalez, to determine whether he should face trial, was weeks away, and Del Marto was expected to testify on West's behalf so she wouldn't have to. The detective did something rare in his 23-year career. He called the prosecutor to say that he was uncomfortable testifying in his own case.

Ventura County prosecutors were not deterred by this, nor by the absence of corroborating evidence. They intended to put West on the stand to tell her story. There, she would face a defense team that had lined up 10 alibi witnesses and was preparing to portray her as a pathological liar.

On April 21, 2008, the day before the hearing was to begin, prosecutors learned that West was in the hospital. They had obtained a note in what appeared to be West's handwriting.

"The DA asking me to relive my horror of Louis Gonzalez attack is more than I can bear. For them it is a case. For me it is my life shattered," read the note. "I died of Rx overdose — suicide."

Later, in family court, West would say she did not remember writing the note and blamed the hospitalization on drugs her psychiatrist prescribed.

At 5:26 p.m. on April 22, prosecutor Andrea Tischler sent defense attorneys a brief email: With West unavailable to testify, they were dropping the case. For now.

Jay Leiderman, one of Gonzalez's defense attorneys, hurried to the jail. To save a few minutes, he met his client through Plexiglas rather than face-to-face. Gonzalez was accustomed to odd-hours visits from the lawyer, but this time Leiderman's tie was loose, and he was smiling.

"You're going home tomorrow," he said.

Gonzalez's father, a retiree who had been watching his house outside Las Vegas and picking up his mail, was there to greet him when he walked out the next day. So was Gonzalez's mother, his brother, his sister and his aunts, sweeping him up in a crush of family. After 83 days in a solitary cell, things felt wrong. All these people in one place, all this open air, made him dizzy.

He had his freedom. Now he wanted a French dip. Then he wanted to get as far away from Ventura County as possible and start figuring out how to reclaim everything else he'd lost: his son, his job, his name.

Telling the story

The job turned out to be the easiest. The Bank of Las Vegas valued his abilities, and three weeks after his release he put on one of the double-vented suits he'd had retailored to fit a frame that had shed 10 pounds in lockup.

He pushed open the bank door and crossed the lobby toward his office, bracing himself for the questions, the strained expressions.

Lou, hey, welcome back… So….

He got used to telling the story. He left out the worst details. It was all about the custody case, he said. She wanted me gone.

No one came out and said anything directly, but he sensed people were wary. Some clients avoided him. The woman he was dating before his arrest never called again. He felt a lingering mistrust. As if people figured some of it must be true — that he hired a crack legal team and bought his way out of trouble. He knew certain things reinforced this perception: His accuser was walking free, after all, and retained custody of his son.

How come your ex isn't in jail? people kept asking.

He didn't have a good answer.

Soon after his return to work, he was sitting at a Cheesecake Factory in Vegas with two loan brokers and an underwriter. The lunch meeting passed in a blur of acute anxiety. His mind was on a restraining order West had filed in California, restating her claim that he attacked her and asking the court to keep him away from their son. He thought about how prosecutors might, at any moment, choose to refile charges. How tenuous freedom felt.

He was sure everyone at the table could sense his panic, that he was blowing it, fidgeting, speaking too quickly. Mercifully, the check came.

Don't worry, Lou, the underwriter told him afterward. You were fine.

Seeing his son

Getting to see his son proved tougher. He missed his 6th birthday. A custody judge withheld visitation, concerned Gonzalez might still face criminal charges. Another complication was West's restraining order, which hung over him for months after his release, until she withdrew it just as his legal team was preparing to attack it in court.

A judge awarded him $55,000 for legal fees he incurred fighting it, though West's subsequent declaration of bankruptcy made it doubtful he'd ever recover the money.

He was finally allowed to see his son — eight months after his arrest. It was a brief visit at the office of a family reunification specialist.

Soon after, on his day off, Del Marto gave a deposition to the family law attorney Gonzalez had enlisted to fight for full custody. All of the physical evidence had been processed, the detective said, and none of it implicated Gonzalez.

"Based on my investigation, I see no reason why he should not be able to see his son."

The hardest task

Winning back his name was hardest of all. Removing every trace of the taint would be impossible. Stories persist on the Internet. Once, a date told him she had Googled him, and he had to explain.

Leiderman, one of his defense lawyers, thought it was not enough that the government dropped charges. He wanted the criminal justice system to recognize Gonzalez's innocence affirmatively.

There is such a thing as a declaration of factual innocence, he explained to Gonzalez. A judge can grant it. It is exceedingly rare — so rare that many cops and lawyers go a career without seeing one. It means not just that prosecutors couldn't make a case against you, but that you didn't do the crime.

The case remained on the docket of Ventura County Superior Court Judge Patricia Murphy, who had earlier ordered Gonzalez held without bail. Leiderman petitioned the judge, trying not to get his client's hopes up. He laid out the case, pointing out the holes in West's story and the numerous alibi witnesses.

Prosecutors did not want Gonzalez declared innocent. They knew a jury wouldn't convict him but said they couldn't be positive of his innocence. James Ellison, Ventura County's chief assistant district attorney, later explained their reasoning: The attack West described was "improbable, but it wasn't physically impossible."

In January 2009, nearly a year after Gonzalez's arrest, Leiderman called him excitedly: The judge had sided with them. Gonzalez was soon holding a certified copy of the judge's order declaring him factually innocent.

He drove to the bank and put it in a safe-deposit box. He figured he would need it if he wanted to continue in banking, where the blot on his record would otherwise scare off future employers. It would help in his fight to win custody of his son. But it hardly made him whole. It made it even more illogical, in his view, that West was free.

Arguing for her arrest

Asked why West hadn't been charged with filing a false police report, Ellison, the Ventura County prosecutor, gave this explanation: "We could not say with 100% certainty that Tracy West was lying."

To Gonzalez's attorneys, who have argued vehemently for West's arrest, the state's decision not to charge her criminally violates the most basic moral arithmetic.

Leiderman said he thinks the district attorney's office is embarrassed and wants the case to disappear. "No one wanted to believe a woman would make something like this up," he said.

Gonzalez sued West for malicious prosecution, and her insurance carrier settled the case on confidential terms. He did not sue Del Marto or his department. He doesn't blame the detective.

Del Marto can't say for sure what happened in that upstairs bedroom. He ruled out the possibility that West's husband, Tim Geiges, inflicted the wounds on her; his cellphone records proved he was elsewhere as she lay tied up.

Now and then, he found himself thinking of something he discovered on West's computer. It was a link to a sexual-bondage website that West had recently visited, Del Marto said. When he asked about it, she replied that a friend had sent it as a joke, the detective said.

The site featured men and women in elaborate restraints, and a depiction of a double-loop slipknot with a little eyelet on one end. To Del Marto, it resembled the knotted cord a nurse had removed from West's bruised neck on Feb. 1, 2008.

The detective tried to imagine West hating her son's father enough to injure herself in such a methodical way. Tying the cord around her own neck, cutting off clumps of her hair, battering her own face, burning her own skin … and the other things. His mind strained at the effort.

He'd seen people give themselves a scratch or bruise, to impersonate victims, but nothing like this. "My God," he said, "to this extent?"

Del Marto said prosecutors asked him whether a case could be made against her. His reply: not without her confession. He prepared to confront her with the inconsistencies in her story. He planned to give her a lie-detector test. He couldn't force her to cooperate, however.

"She stopped answering my phone calls," he said.

His supervisor praised his detective work, but Del Marto found the outcome unsatisfying. No one punished was a bad way to leave it.

When the department received the expungement order from the court, the record keepers dutifully deleted Gonzalez's name from the computers. They gathered up the evidence Del Marto had amassed in Case No. 08-04893 — the warrants, the interview reports, the forensic results, the painstaking timelines — and began shredding.

Was it all made up?

As the custody battle staggered on, hearing by hearing, Las Vegas family court Judge Bill Henderson wrestled aloud with the implications of the criminal case. He didn't believe Gonzalez attacked West. But must he conclude, he asked, that she made it all up? Perhaps someone else attacked her?

No, testified John Paglini, the court-appointed psychologist who had interviewed West four times: Either Gonzalez attacked her, or she lied.

"She could have said, 'On Feb. 1st I was attacked by somebody, I don't know who it was,' but she picked this guy out, and she was very definite," Paglini told the court. "It couldn't be somebody else. She said, 'I heard his voice, I saw his face.'"

Asked about the events of that day during a deposition, West invoked her 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination.

When she failed to show up for a hearing in the summer of 2009, Gonzalez was granted temporary custody of their son, but the case continued.

West's voice was soft, at times barely above a whisper, when she took the stand last June. Her straight, dark hair fell to her shoulders. She held her hands demurely in her lap, a still presence with an air of vulnerability.

She deserved her son, she said. She talked about how close he was to his little sister, how they belonged together in California, and her voice broke.

Her lawyer asked her about Feb. 1, 2008. This time she did not plead the Fifth. Instead, she steadfastly insisted Gonzalez attacked her.

"Did you do it to yourself?"

"Absolutely not."

"Did you have somebody do it to you on purpose?"

"Absolutely not."

In her closing argument, Gonzalez's custody attorney, Denise Placencio, said West had been trying to divide father and son for years — attempting to change the boy's surname, moving him from Nevada to California, offering Gonzalez money to relinquish parental rights.

"The last resort was to frame Mr. Gonzalez and put him in jail," she said.

The judge concluded that West's insistence on Gonzalez's guilt "with no rational basis" was an attempt to remove the boy from his father's life.

"She continues to maintain that he's guilty of this heinous crime, and he's not," the judge said. "The court finds if mom is allowed to maintain primary physical custody, she's more likely to continue with this." She appeared to be a good mother otherwise, he said, and it was with "a heavy heart" that he awarded custody to the father.

The judge was not, however, prepared to accept the psychologist's either-or view of the case — that if Gonzalez didn't do it, she made it up. What West believed about Feb. 1, 2008, "remains unclear," and the possibility that she suffered a "delusion" had not been ruled out, the judge said.

West would stay in her son's life. She moved back to Nevada.

A lot of what-ifs

On Fridays and Sundays, Gonzalez and West exchange custody at a McDonald's or Starbucks. If possible, he waits in the car and sends his mother in to do it.

Sometimes Gonzalez wonders how much worse things might have gone.

What if he had grabbed breakfast in Las Vegas before boarding his flight? He wouldn't have needed that bagel in Simi Valley, so he wouldn't have gone to the bank for cash, and wouldn't have been caught on security cameras.

His alibi evaporates and he's in prison for life.

At the end of the day his mind automatically replays his movements, hour by hour, because it was his ability to do that that saved him. After his release he developed the habit of meticulously documenting his whereabouts, eliminating time gaps that might leave him vulnerable.

If he's in an airport or a 7-Eleven, he makes sure the surveillance cameras get a good look at his face. Anytime he can swipe his credit card and sign his name, even to buy a pack of gum, he does it. He fills his wallet with receipts and the world with a conspicuous trail.

He feels most vulnerable when he is asleep, when, for six or eight hours a night, no cameras are watching, no witnesses are marking his presence, and no one but Louis Gonzalez III can say with certainty where he is.

christopher.goffard@latimes.com

Part 1: A man accused of unspeakable acts.

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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