Roused from his sleep by a crash outside and a knock at the door, Freddie Collazo made his way to the front stoop to discover a vaguely familiar man who reported that he had just hit Collazo’s blue Ford station wagon.
Taking the bait, Collazo ventured outside his Texas mobile home to survey the damage. The car indeed had been hit, but that was the least of Collazo’s problems on this morning almost one year ago.
Quickly, the supposedly distressed driver at the door was flanked by an angry pair of fellow Los Angeles businessmen turned amateur sleuths. The three, who had been casing the El Paso mobile home park for days, confronted Collazo and demanded to know where their former business associate had stashed more than $100,000 in cash that disappeared months before from the Bell check-cashing store that he then managed.
Then, witnesses and police reports say, the three men grabbed Collazo, pushed him into the back seat of their rented car and drove him 30 miles into the Texas desert to grill him about the stolen money.
And so began a 40-hour, cross-country journey which, prosecutors charge, included violence, demands for ransom and death threats against Collazo, and which ended only when the men reached Southern California and turned their target over to the Bell Police Department.
But soon afterward, the men discovered that they themselves were being charged with kidnaping, while Collazo was set free and later given immunity to testify against them.
Federal prosecutors paint the accused men as out-of-control vigilantes with a posse mentality who became frustrated with the inability of police to catch Collazo, and who took the law into their own hands. The defendants, facing life imprisonment, claim they are law-abiding citizens who made a legitimate citizen’s arrest to try bring a thief to justice.
A deadlocked federal jury in Santa Ana couldn’t decide who wore the black hat in this adventure, recently returning a split verdict in the case. On Monday, federal prosecutors will tell the U.S. District Court in Santa Ana whether they plan to try the case again or throw it out.
The U.S. attorney’s office refused to discuss the case, but attorneys for the defendants predict that the government will retry the case, given the tenacity with which prosecutors have pursued a conviction so far.
It’s a tactic that won’t work, maintains Richard Chier of Los Angeles, one of the four defense attorneys.
“What you have here is basically an imperfect citizen’s arrest that somehow turned into a felony kidnaping trial,” he said.
Ronald Phares, one of the four close friends tried for kidnaping and conspiracy, insisted last week: “None of us felt we were committing any crimes. We thought we were kind of like heroes, bringing this crook back to justice, but all of a sudden we’ve got police warrants against us. Needless to say, we were a bit surprised that the bad guy was cut loose and we were in jail.”
This story begins in May of 1987 at the Any Kind of Check Cashing store on Atlantic Boulevard in Bell, a franchise of the U.S. Check Exchange. Freddie Collazo managed the store. One morning, Collazo was missing, and so was a huge shipment of cash fresh off a Brink’s truck.
According to court documents and testimony, Collazo took the cash--somewhere between $100,000 and $150,000-- put it in a Mexican bank, and began a new life in Texas with his girlfriend.
Collazo, 31, now reportedly back in the Los Angeles area, was unavailable for comment. But at the kidnaping trial, Collazo readily admitted stealing the money, according to those present. And FBI agent Douglas Kane, who investigated his abduction and took a sworn deposition from Collazo, said in a court statement: “Collazo admitted he had been an employee of the store . . . and in fact he had taken $110,000 from the safe.”
No Charge Made
Nonetheless, no one was ever charged with the theft, officials said. Bell Police Detective Dennis Glau said his department sought a warrant for Collazo’s arrest based on its initial investigation, but that move was rejected by the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office.
“At that point, there was insufficient evidence” to prosecute Collazo, said John Kildebeck, chief deputy in the district attorney’s office. “Just because money is missing and a man’s missing doesn’t mean he took it. Everyone was saying he did it, but we couldn’t prove it.”
Defendant Phares and his buddies at the U.S. Check Exchange didn’t need proof; they insist that they knew Collazo had done it.
Phares said he and Chris Brooks, David Rau and Charles Peacock, four close friends at the company who often played racquetball, went boating and socialized together, became “very frustrated” by police inaction on the case, even though the financial loss wasn’t theirs.
“Let’s face it. If a guy rips you off for $150,000 and then all of the other bad guys in the world discover you can get away with it, that’s not good for business,” said Phares, a district manger for U.S. Check Exchange in Los Angeles.
And so Phares, Brooks, Rau and Peacock began looking into the case on their own. They sought out friends and relatives of Collazo. They hired a private detective to track him down, “to bring the guy back to justice and do the job that the local police should have done,” Phares contended.
And they succeeded where police had fallen short, tracking Collazo to El Paso. In early October, Phares and Brooks--Collazo’s immediate supervisor at the check-cashing service--went to Texas. “Our intent was only to identify Mr. Collazo, to determine that he did in fact live in El Paso,” Phares insisted in an interview last week.
Then, however, Phares and his colleagues learned that the private detective they had hired was too busy to come and make a citizen’s arrest of Collazo, Phares said. At that point, they feared they would have to grab Collazo themselves or lose him, he said.
Phares left Texas to return to Los Angeles, but Rau and Peacock joined Brooks around Oct. 8 to maintain a surveillance of the area, according to their indictment and Phares’ own account.
The sleuths had a phone number for Collazo and the name of a trailer park, but no specific address. So they kept dialing the number from a portable car phone while driving inside the park and listening to see when the ringing got louder, but apparently without success.
Finally, they paid a trailer park worker several hundred dollars in cash to help them find Collazo, and they had their man. On Oct. 9, they moved in for the confrontation.
Once Rau had lured Collazo outside with the report of a car accident, Brooks and Peacock grabbed him, according to the indictment and eyewitness testimony to police.
Collazo and the woman he has since married, Angelica Pedroza, claimed to investigators that the captors stuck a gun in Collazo’s ribs as they shoved him in the car. The defendants deny this in court papers, offering eyewitness accounts from neighbors who spoke with police.
What happened for the next 40 hours is also much in dispute.
Collazo, assailed by defense attorneys at the kidnaping trial as a “liar” and a “thief,” told investigators that his captors beat, punched and threatened him repeatedly as they made their trek to California. Collazo claimed his captors often bound his hands behind his back, kept a pillowcase over his head and tied a belt around his neck. An FBI agent who examined Collazo said he saw scratches and bruises that appeared to support the claim.
And Collazo, in a sworn deposition, alleged that Peacock said at one point: “This is a waste of time. Let’s just waste him,” as he placed a revolver to Collazo’s head.
Lawyers for the defendants deny virtually all these charges, saying the men had no gun and used only what force was necessary to keep Collazo in custody until he could be turned over to police.
But Brooks, in a sworn statement that defense attorneys later sought to suppress, admitted to investigators that he hit Collazo and demanded $150,000 in ransom from his girlfriend.
Tells of Phone Call
Pedroza, the girlfriend, claimed to police and the FBI that one phone caller told her shortly after Collazo’s capture: “We know where you live, we will kill you if you don’t get us the money.” Pedroza said she told the caller she could come up with $75,000 immediately, but apparently no money ever changed hands. Phares said he and the other defendants always planned to return to U.S. Check Exchange whatever money they retrieved from Collazo. But their main objective, he said, was “to bring the guy back to justice and see him serve time.”
Prosecutors dismiss any justification for the actions of Phares and company. “Their conduct was flagrantly illegal,” Assistant U.S. Atty. Carolyn Kubota told the court in one filing.
She discounted the defendants’ assertion that they believed there was a warrant out for Collazo’s arrest--there wasn’t--and that Bell police encouraged their manhunt, which police deny. And even if that were true, Kubota asserted, the defendants could not justify keeping Collazo captive for more than two days and taking him all the way to California, rather than turning him in to El Paso police.
And Mitchell Egers, an attorney for Collazo, citing his client’s claims of mistreatment, said last week: “When you make a civil arrest, you don’t torture and torment a man.”
Nonetheless, attorneys for the defendants, calling the case a miscarriage of justice, say they are confident their clients will eventually be vindicated.
“This case is all about betrayal,” contended attorney Robert N. Harris. “Freddie Collazo betrayed a trust by stealing the money. Bell police betrayed a trust by saying, ‘Bring the guy in and we’ll bust him.’
“These are not criminals, these are not vigilantes,” Harris continued. “These are four people with no criminal intent, trying to fix a situation, who wind up with a federal kidnaping indictment, while a thief gets immunity from the government and uses the money he stole to buy a new car. . . . " Collazo also is paying lawyers to file a civil suit against his abductors, Harris said.
“If that’s not ironic, I don’t know what is.”