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Convicted Man Exonerated in Rape : He Secretly Recorded Friends Describing Night of Crime

Times Staff Writer

For David Navarro, the nightmare began five years ago when he was awakened by police after falling asleep on the sand at Huntington Beach State Park.

He was accused of taking part in a gang rape. And although he was innocent, he was convicted and served 3 1/2 years before being freed on a legal appeal.

Orange County authorities challenged him to prove his innocence by helping find the actual rapists. Navarro, 25, of Santa Fe Springs, agreed to the challenge. He subsequently located five suspects and obtained incriminating statements, which were monitored by law officers through a wiretap hidden on Navarro’s body.

That undercover effort led this week to the conviction of the five men, all of whom are from Santa Fe Springs.

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In Orange County Superior Court, the five men each pleaded guilty this week to one count of rape and one count of oral copulation. The district attorney’s office agreed to the plea arrangement in order to spare the rape victim having to testify at their trial.

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.”

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

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“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.

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

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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, four years of which were for a parole violation.


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