LOCAL

Interrogation, then revenge

Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

On a cool spring night five years ago, 16-year-old Martha Puebla sat on the curb outside her Sun Valley home, talking to a friend, when a man walked up from behind.

"Who are you?" the man demanded of Puebla.

"I'm Martha," she responded. "You know me."

With that, the man pulled a 9-millimeter handgun from his sweat shirt pocket and started shooting. The fatal shot -- fired from so close that it left soot and burn marks on Puebla's cheek -- struck just below her left eye.

Alarmed by the gunfire, Puebla's mother rushed outside. "¡Dios mío! ¡Está muerta!" the neighbors heard her cry from down the block. "My God! She's dead!"

Police swarmed the area, roping it off with yellow tape. Plastic letters marking pieces of evidence dotted the street. Cameras flashed. And, of course, there was the body. Puebla lay sprawled on her back in the street, legs splayed, eyes still open, her white sweater drenched in blood.

Martin Pinner, a homicide detective with the Los Angeles Police Department, was home that night. But when a police supervisor learned the young girl's name, he called Pinner.

Pinner and his partner, Juan Rodriguez, had been to that same dreary corner of Lull Street and Case Avenue months before to investigate the murder of another teen. They had met Puebla then.

The detectives, who were assigned the case, worked through the night and into the next morning tracking down leads. It would be years before the pieces of the case would fully come together, but in those early hours there should have been an obvious question: In trying to solve one murder, had the detectives set into motion another?

The events leading to Martha Puebla's slaying began five months earlier outside her bedroom window.

Shortly before 2 a.m. on Nov. 27, 2002, a girlfriend of Puebla's pulled up outside her house. The teenage girl, whom The Times is not identifying for her safety at the request of a prosecutor, had come with another friend, Christian Vargas. He stayed in the car while the girl went to Puebla's ground-floor window and asked if she wanted to come hang out.

As the girls talked, gunshots suddenly filled the night air. The girl jumped through the window, cowering in Puebla's room. After a few minutes, she approached the car, where she found Vargas' body riddled with bullets. He begged the girl for help and then died, his head slumped against the steering wheel.

After early interviews, suspicion fell quickly on Jose Ledesma, a member of the Vineland Boyz -- a notorious, violent gang that controlled much of the drug sales on the streets of Sun Valley. That night detectives searched his family's home. Under his mattress, they found a loaded assault rifle and letters from other Vineland Boyz, many of them written from prison.

"Peps," as Ledesma was called in the gang, wasn't there. The detectives were told that he was hanging out with another Vineland Boyz member, Mario Catalan.

The next morning, after hearing that the police had been at his house, Ledesma crossed the border with Catalan and checked into a motel in Tijuana.

Two days later, Pinner and Rodriguez caught a break.

Mexican police, responding to a domestic abuse call from a passerby, found Ledesma, Catalan and Catalan's girlfriend drunk after a day at a seaside resort town. Catalan and his girlfriend had gotten into a fight. Questioned by Mexican authorities, the woman told them that Ledesma and Catalan were wanted in Los Angeles for murder.

By nightfall, the suspects had been hauled back to LAPD's North Hollywood station for booking. Pinner and Rodriguez brought Ledesma, 19, into an interview room and flipped on a tape recorder. Rodriguez read Ledesma his Miranda rights, and Pinner started grilling him. Ledesma, who didn't call a lawyer, showed no signs of cracking. He mocked and swore at Pinner, repeatedly denying any role in the killings.

"You got the wrong person, buddy," Ledesma said.

"OK. I don't agree with you, and I have the evidence to prove it," Pinner said. "I have multiple witnesses who are going to testify that you were the shooter."

Pinner told Ledesma he knew the gang member had been on his way to Martha Puebla's house to visit her the night Vargas was killed outside her house.

To drive home his point, Pinner laid down a "six-pack" -- an array of mug shots that detectives often show to witnesses or victims of crimes. On it, Ledesma's photo was circled, and the initials "M.P." were written below it. "Those is the guy that shot my friends boyfriend" was scrawled along the margin, followed by Puebla's signature.

"I don't even know a Martha," Ledesma lied.

Pinner kept trying, pressing Ledesma about Puebla and the information he said she had given up. At one point he asked Rodriguez for a photo of the girl to show Ledesma. Nothing worked. Ledesma insisted he did not know her.

"Well, she knows you," the detective said.

Even though the interrogation was going nowhere, the case against Ledesma was growing stronger. Other LAPD detectives searched the car Ledesma and Catalan had driven to Mexico. They recovered a handgun that would eventually be matched to Vargas' death and another killing that had happened the same week.

Pinner gave up trying to get Ledesma to confess and tried a different tack. He told Catalan that the gun had been found and, then, hoping that the two suspects would say something to incriminate themselves, put them in a holding cell together at the Van Nuys jail. A hidden microphone recorded what they said.

Catalan told Ledesma about the weapon immediately. Ledesma was growing agitated.

The next night, Ledesma reached for a pay phone outside his cell. "Cokester," he said into the receiver, calling his friend Javier Covarrubias by one of his gang monikers, "do you know the slut that lives there by . . . my house? Her name starts with an M . . . I need her to disappear. She is dropping dimes."

To the gang, Puebla was a snitch and needed to be dealt with.

"Uh huh, like that," Ledesma told Covarrubias, using a mix of Spanish and English. "But [keep a] low-pro[file]. . . . Stay on your toes, homie. And don't get caught."

Puebla was apparently aware that she had been labeled a snitch. She told a friend that she knew the Vineland Boyz were blaming her for helping police with the Vargas murder investigation.

As the detectives proceeded with their murder case against Ledesma, the gangster's friends schemed to do away with Puebla. Covarrubias persuaded other Vineland members to help. Some went to a firing range to test a gun they wanted to use, discarded it as unacceptable and found another.

Then, on that May night, Covarrubias and other gang members drove to Puebla's block. One of them got out of the car, walked up to the girl and killed her.

As Pinner and Rodriguez worked Puebla's murder scene, the truth was on the tape of Ledesma's jail-cell call.

But they hadn't listened to it.

The jail-cell recording, Pinner said in sworn testimony, was badly transcribed twice by an outside company used by the LAPD. Its contents remained unknown until January 2005, when during preparation for Ledesma's trial for Vargas' slaying -- more than two years after the recording was made -- Spanish-speaking LAPD officers listened to it and learned of the order to kill the girl, Pinner testified.

Puebla, in fact, hadn't dropped a dime. She had not told detectives much at all.

Far from helping the police, the reality was that Puebla had actually tried to protect Ledesma in the hours after the shooting. She allegedly threatened her girlfriend, telling her that if she cooperated with authorities Puebla would tell the Vineland Boyz where the girl's family lived.

Puebla's girlfriend had told detectives that as the gunshots went off, Puebla had yelled, "It's Peps!" But Puebla denied it, telling Pinner, Rodriguez and two other detectives that she had only speculated that Ledesma may have been the shooter.

When Pinner and Rodriguez stepped into the interrogation room with Ledesma, they had little real information to work with.

So they made up what they needed.

The photo six-pack was a complete fake. Rodriguez had doctored it, circling Ledesma's photo and forging Puebla's statement and signature.

The "ruse," as Pinner would later call it in court, was a legal move. Federal and state courts throughout the country have repeatedly upheld the right of police officers to lie to people they have in custody.

Interrogation rooms, experts say, are freewheeling places. Detectives lie frequently, typically telling a suspect that they have DNA evidence or video footage or witnesses. Sometimes they go the extra step of making up documents to bolster their lies. Detectives are not allowed to strike deals with suspects in exchange for a confession, and they are not allowed to threaten them with bodily harm.

At the same time, "you've got to use some common sense," said Dennis Kilcoyne, president of the California Homicide Investigators Assn. and a detective with the LAPD's Robbery-Homicide Division. "You're not going to be telling gang members 'Ms. Brown down the street saw you doing this,' because you put their lives in jeopardy."

When a police officer believes someone may be in danger because of their involvement in a case, Kilcoyne and others said, it is standard procedure to warn the person and offer them protection.

But Puebla's parents, who have recently filed a civil lawsuit against the detectives and the LAPD, said in an interview that no one from the LAPD ever warned their daughter that she might be in danger. And a detailed log the detectives kept of their investigation shows no indication that they had contact with Puebla or her parents after they used the girl to bait Ledesma during the interrogation.

A federal prosecutor involved in the case said he recalled seeing notes from a meeting at which officials from the L.A. County district attorney's office offered protection to Puebla. The prosecutor acknowledged that he did not attend the meeting, which occurred about five months after detectives had given Puebla's name to Ledesma.

Pinner, Rodriguez and the district attorney's office declined to comment for this article.

Eleven days before she was killed, Puebla testified at a preliminary hearing in Ledesma's murder trial. She was a reluctant and unhelpful witness, as she had been with Pinner and Rodriguez the morning of the shooting, telling the prosecutor that she had not seen the shooter. She said she had not seen much of anything at all.

Her testimony, however, either did nothing to placate Ledesma or he was unable to stop the killing he had ordered.

In 2004, federal investigators got involved in the investigation into Puebla's killing as part of a larger case against the Vineland Boyz. Last year, in a federal plea deal to avoid the death penalty, Ledesma, Covarrubias and the gang member thought to be the gunman admitted to taking part in killing Puebla. A fourth Vineland Boyz member who participated is thought to have fled to Mexico and is being sought, a federal prosecutor said.

With the arrival of federal authorities, Pinner and Rodriguez were phased out as the lead investigators. They soon were separated as partners. Rodriguez was transferred to an auto theft detail and is currently assigned to a vice unit. Pinner remains a homicide detective in North Hollywood.

Before federal prosecutors and the LAPD sorted out Puebla's murder, however, Pinner and Rodriguez had arrested an innocent man in connection with Puebla's slaying. Based on bad information from sources, the detectives pinned the slaying on Juan Catalan -- Mario Catalan's brother. Juan Catalan sat in jail for five months awaiting trial until his lawyer turned up video footage showing Catalan was at a Dodgers game at the time of the shooting. A judge threw out the case, and Catalan was awarded $320,000 in a wrongful-arrest suit.

The day the detectives arrested Juan Catalan, they thought they had the right man. They brought him into an interview room in the same North Hollywood station where they had grilled Ledesma nine months before. Once again they switched on a recorder. Catalan begged the detectives to believe him, that he had nothing to do with Puebla's death. He asked to take a lie-detector test.

But Pinner and Rodriguez weren't having any of it. Pinner told Catalan that people had seen him shoot the girl. He pushed three six-packs in front of him. His picture was circled. Witnesses had signed their names.

They were all fake. But Catalan, of course, didn't know that.

"You see," Rodriguez told Catalan, "the pictures don't lie."

joel.rubin@latimes.com

ari.bloomekatz@latimes.com

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