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Innocent Man in Rape Helps Get 5 Guilty Ones

Times Staff Writer

Five Santa Fe Springs men have pleaded guilty to the 1981 gang rape of a woman at Huntington Beach State Park after an undercover investigation in which a man wrongly sent to prison for the crime helped gather evidence against the other men while he was free awaiting a new trial.

The five men each pleaded guilty to one count of rape and one count of oral copulation in a plea arrangement the district attorney’s office agreed to in order to spare the victim the agony of testifying at their trial.

One of the men entered his plea Monday, and the other four pleaded guilty on Thursday. Each faces a sentence of 18 years. The five who pleaded guilty are David Cadena, 22; Gregory Franco, 26; Anthony Ramirez, 26; Arthur Esquivel, 20, and Thomas Gomez, 24.

“For four years they have been laughing and bragging about getting away with this,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. Jeoffrey L. Robinson. “It was all very amusing to them.”

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On Thursday, Robinson made public for the first time that David Navarro, 25, had wrongly been convicted of raping the woman--and that it was through his battle to prove his innocence that investigators gathered evidence against the other five.

“We told him that if he was really innocent, he would help us convict who really did it,” Robinson said.

Last year, Navarro’s conviction was reversed by the 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana after it determined that an eyewitness identification of Navarro was weak and that there was not enough adequate corroborating evidence to convict him.

He was subsequently freed from jail to await a new trial. At that time, Navarro agreed to wear a wiretap on his body when he returned to visit his old Santa Fe Springs neighborhood. During one visit, the five men who eventually pleaded guilty to the crime--all members of a Santa Fe Springs gang--told Navarro what happened the night of the rape and who had actually participated, Robinson said.

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According to court records, eight members of the gang were partying on the beach on Aug. 15, 1981, when they spotted the young couple, identified only as Evelyn and Robert, who were building a campfire. Seven of the eight men approached the couple, beat the man unconscious, then repeatedly raped the woman. The eighth member of the gang wandered off and fell asleep near a lifeguard station.

That eighth man turned out to be Navarro.

After the gang rape, the victims managed to flag down a police officer. When information on the incident was put out on the police radio, Navarro was discovered asleep on the beach and taken into custody for the couple to identify. The couple said Navarro looked like one of the gang members.

Had Seen Him

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“Actually, that was true,” Robinson said. “The couple had passed the gang a short time earlier and recognized Navarro.”

At his trial, Navarro claimed that he was innocent but was convicted after perjuring himself about what he was doing the night of the rape. He was sentenced to 19 years, of which four years was for a parole violation.

While prosecutors knew that several other men were involved in the attack, there was not enough evidence to bring anyone else to trial.

The chain of events that helped investigators crack the case began when Navarro’s conviction was reversed and he hired a new lawyer to help him with his upcoming trial.

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“Navarro’s new lawyer was Alex Forgette, who is very highly respected by our office,” Robinson said. “He came to me and said he was really convinced his guy was innocent, and that there was something really funny about this case.”

Forgette wasn’t the only one who was puzzled. Robinson, who got the case because he was with the sexual assault unit, said he could not understand why Navarro would simply be asleep on the beach 20 minutes after the crime.

Subsequently, the district attorney’s office made its unique offer to Navarro to let him prove his innocence and put the guilty men in jail.

District attorney investigators Mario Perez and Robert Burton, head of the sexual assault investigation unit, began working on the case. They spent numerous hours waiting undercover, Robinson said, while Navarro talked with his old friends in Sante Fe Springs.

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“Basically, Mr. Navarro just told them (his friends) he was worried about being prosecuted again, and he wondered what really happened,” Robinson said. “They told him everything, and we learned from them that he really had been asleep during the whole incident.”

The new investigation led to grand jury indictments against six men on Dec. 14, 1985.

A sixth man indicted, Ralph Perez Jr., was allowed to plead guilty to being an accessory. Robinson said new information eventually revealed that Perez had not actually participated in raping the woman and assaulting her boyfriend. Perez also provided information to investigators that was damaging to the other men, the prosecutor said.

A seventh man believed to have been involved in the crime, Gustavo Aguirre, 21, reportedly has fled to Mexico.

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Surprisingly, Navarro is not bitter about being wrongly convicted, Robinson said.

“By associating with the others, he had indeed violated his parole,” Robinson said. “He figures the time he served evened out for that. And he knows that his own perjury was what convicted him.”

Forgette, of Anaheim, said the outcome has been very satisfying to him as a defense attorney.

“This is what it’s all about,” he said. “You get hundreds of cases in your career, but it’s not often you get a chance to participate in correcting an injustice like this one.”

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The five men would never have been indicted without help from a new state law, officials added. In 1984, the state Legislature passed a sexual assault bill extending the statute of limitations on such cases from four years to six. Without the law, the five men would have been free from prosecution.

Despite the trauma of the crime, the woman who was raped is heartened that the guilty have been convicted, Robinson said.

“When we first started talking to her, she was very down on the system,” he said. “Now she says her faith is restored.”


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