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Arizona Murder Probes Put Wrong Men Behind Bars : Crime: Experts say the interrogation techniques used show how the innocent can be pushed into confessions.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just after midnight on Aug. 10, 1991, six Buddhist monks, two young initiates and an elderly nun were made to kneel on their temple floor, and one by one were shot dead for $2,600 and some cameras.

After a frustrating month of investigation, then-Maricopa County Sheriff Tom Agnos made four arrests based on a tip from a patient in a Tucson mental hospital. Three men and the tipster were rounded up and separately interrogated virtually nonstop for up to 20 hours. Finally, they all confessed to the murders.

However, they recanted after obtaining lawyers. There was no physical evidence linking them to the crime, but based on the signed confessions, they remained in jail.

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A month later, using similar interrogation techniques, deputies obtained another confession to murder in a separate case. George Peterson, 45, a drifter with a history of mental problems, said he killed a woman at a campground northwest of Phoenix.

As it turned out, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department had extracted five false confessions to murder in the two cases.

In November, 1991, a .22-caliber rifle used in the massacre at the Wat Promkunaram temple was traced to two Phoenix-area youths.

One of the youths confessed to the temple crime and months later also confessed to involvement in the campground murder. The 9-millimeter handgun used to kill the woman at the campground was found in the home of his girlfriend.

Faced with having to release five murder suspects after months in jail, as well as a civil lawsuit claiming false arrests and defamation, Maricopa County Atty. Richard Romely ordered a review of all convictions based on confessions taken by sheriff’s detectives during the past four years.

“The length of the interrogations in these cases and some of the tactics used were questionable,” he said.

“I called for the review to ensure that we don’t have anybody else in jail with questionable confessions, and to restore public confidence that this will be fixed and not happen again.”

Romely’s action has not satisfied legal scholars and defense attorneys who are demanding reforms in the way confessions are taken and used in the state that spawned the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1966 Miranda decision, which mandates that suspects be advised of their rights before questioning begins.

Court documents and confession transcripts in both murder cases, they say, show that investigators squeezed false admissions out of five innocent men by exaggerating evidence, badgering them with leading questions and threatening the death sentence.

“The problem of false confessions is nationwide,” said Richard Offshe, a professor of sociology at UC Berkeley and an expert in police interrogation tactics. “But only Arizona does them in the tradition of the Grand Canyon--spectacularly.”

The so-called Tucson Four--Leo Bruce, Mark Nunez, Dante Parker and tipster Mychael McGraw--were cleared of murder charges in late 1991 when Alessandro Garcia, now 17, told investigators that he and Johnathan Doody, now 18, acted alone in killing the Buddhists during a botched robbery at the temple.

In a startling turn on Jan. 7 of this year, Garcia, in negotiating a plea agreement to avoid the death penalty, also admitted involvement in the Oct. 18, 1991, murder of Alice Cameron at the campground. Garcia’s statements exonerated Peterson, who among other traits has an obsessive desire to please others, according to his public defender, Kimberly O’Conner.

Peterson, who was in the campground when Cameron was shot twice in the back for $1 and change, changed his story during 20 hours of interrogation from saying he saw a Latino male assault Cameron to claiming that he accidentally shot the woman, O’Conner said.

Early on in the interrogation of Peterson, detectives “reminded George of his right to have a lawyer. He said: ‘I wish I could afford one.’ Then they went on with questioning,” O’Conner said. Before long, “George was crying, disoriented and confused. . . . They had to take breaks for him to compose himself and come back to reality,” she said.

Eventually “they had George believing that he may have killed this woman . . . then they got him to say he might have had sex with the body, which made him suicidal,” O’Conner said. “He then spent 14 months in jail.”

In the temple murders case, investigators drove the original suspects about 110 miles from Tucson to the sheriff’s headquarters in Phoenix.

There they repeatedly offered the suspects soft drinks, cigarettes, hamburgers and pizza, and frequently asked if they needed to stretch their legs or use the restroom. Although repeatedly reminded of their right to do so, none of the men invoked their right to remain silent or request an attorney.

So why did these four men confess to a mass murder they did not commit?

“They were convinced that they were being railroaded or that a horrible mistake was being made,” said Offshe, who has reviewed the cases on behalf of the plaintiffs’ attorneys in the civil lawsuit. “After that, they were told they could get less than the maximum penalty but (that) they had to act quickly to save their lives.

“It’s a horrible Kafkaesque mistake in which (police say) there are witnesses and friends who say you did it,” Offshe said. “People become so desperate to get out of this situation they will fasten on to anything to get out of it and worry about the consequences later.”

The interrogation of former suspect Leo Bruce, 30, who lives in a mobile home park south of Tucson, is a case in point.

Bruce said the first thing that flashed through his mind when officers arrived at his doorstep with guns drawn near midnight on Sept. 11, 1991, was: “Dang, I thought I paid that speeding ticket.”

It was not until he arrived at the sheriff’s office that detectives Dave Munley and Donald Griffiths and FBI agent Robert Casey bluntly explained that other suspects had already confessed to the temple slayings and fingered him as the triggerman.

Confession transcripts say Bruce sat defiantly in an interrogation room chair for hours with fists clenched and arms folded across his chest insisting: “I wasn’t there.”

“Leo, you know, this is not like the movies, all right?” Casey told Bruce.

“You’re here in a room,” Casey went on. “You want a Coke or a cup of coffee? You need to use the bathroom? We’re gonna come out of here and get it taken care of for you. We aren’t down here jumping around screaming and everything else. But Leo, this is a bad situation. All right? I can tell by the look in your eyes, OK, that you’ve got it locked up in here.”

Replied Bruce: “I ain’t got nothing locked up. I ain’t got nothing locked up. I wasn’t there.”

But about five hours into the interview, Bruce began to complain of fatigue, and his demeanor and story changed dramatically.

“You shot those people, didn’t you?” Griffiths asked.

“Yes,” Bruce replied softly with tears streaming down his face. “All of them.”

However, 12 hours after telling investigators that he shot the temple victims with his own .22-caliber rifle, Bruce tried to recant, saying he only confessed because of the pressure authorities put on him.

In an interview at his home, Bruce said he waived his right to have an attorney present because “I didn’t do anything and didn’t think I needed one.”

He also said he fabricated his confession from photographs of the victims, sketches of the massacre scene and charts of suspects’ names he was allowed to see at the sheriff’s headquarters.

“They were feeding me information and I repeated it,” Bruce said. “I knew in my head I was lying, but it kept the pressure off. They were a lot nicer after that.”

After recanting their confessions. Parker, Nunez and McGraw said they also vehemently denied involvement until the pressure became overwhelming and they cracked.

At one point, detectives scolded Nunez, a 19-year-old student at Pima Junior College at the time, for being uncooperative because his cohorts had already confessed to the crime. A jury would go easier on him, detectives suggested, if he would help them out early in the investigation.

“I would if I could--don’t you think I would get myself out of it so I could go home?” Nunez said. “I want to go home so bad it hurts. It’s . . . it’s . . . scared, I don’t want to be here no more.”

Nunez also eventually broke down and told them what they wanted to hear. After implicating himself and others in the killings, Nunez asked: “Will I go home tomorrow?”

Also arrested in connection with the temple murders was Victor Zarate, a 30-year-old employee at the Tucson Greyhound Racetrack. He did not confess to anything, but he came close.

Zarate said investigators insisted that witnesses had tagged him as the shooter. Ratcheting up the pressure on his conscience, they held up a photograph of one of the victims saying: “How did it feel to shoot the old lady?”

“It was like a dream,” Zarate recalled in the living room of his parents modest home on the south side of Tucson. “The more I told them the truth, the more they didn’t believe me.”

Zarate was cleared of first-degree murder charges and released three days after he was arrested when investigators turned up videotapes showing him on the job at the racetrack on the night the temple murders took place.

Now, he has joined Bruce, Nunez and McGraw in a $48-million civil lawsuit against Maricopa County, accusing officials of violations of their civil rights and malicious prosecution.

“They dragged me through the mud and played Russian roulette with my life,” Zarate said. “I’ll never be the same.”

Newly elected Maricopa County Sheriff Joseph Arpaio blamed the wrong arrests on pressure that Agnos and his top brass put on deputies to quickly solve the worst mass murder in Arizona history.

“I have to apologize for what happened because it is a serious situation--you don’t put innocent people in jail,” Arpaio said. “You don’t take the word of a nut in a murder confession, knock doors down or take suspects from Tucson to Phoenix.”

“That’s a lot of crap!” responded Agnos, who said he still believes the arrests were justified and the confessions worthy of murder charges. “What we’ve got here are classic cases of people protecting their political asses.”

“If someone wants to blame me, fine,” said Agnos, who lost a bid for reelection in November, 1992, because of publicity generated by his handling of the temple murders case. “But county attorneys found those confessions to be perfectly OK and felt they could go to trial and get convictions.”

Garcia’s attorney, Luis Calvo, said the only reason Garcia was allowed to negotiate a plea agreement was because his confession seemed to match evidence found at the crime scene. That, he said, “gave prosecutors a way to clear up uncertainties in the case and extricate themselves from the mess they created from a very sloppy investigation.”

As part of his plea agreement, Garcia agreed to testify against Doody, who Garcia claims shot each of the temple victims twice in the back of the head with the .22-caliber rifle. Doody, who has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder charges, is scheduled to go to trial on May 17.

As he claimed in the temple case, Garcia said he did not shoot Cameron. Instead, he blamed that murder on his 15-year-old girlfriend, Michelle Leslie Hoover of Litchfield Park, Ariz., who has been charged with first-degree murder in juvenile court.

Doody’s attorney, Peter Balkaln, said there is reason to believe that Garcia is lying.

“Garcia pleaded guilty to 10 counts of first-degree murder--charges carrying a minimum sentence of 240 years in prison--for one benefit: He will not be put to death,” Balkaln said. “I don’t doubt that Garcia would have implicated Mickey Mouse if it would have gotten him off the death penalty.”

Calvo wouldn’t argue that point, asking: “What will we do if Doody gets convicted and is put to death and five years from now Garcia says: ‘I would have said anything to escape the death penalty and I lied’?”

One thing seems clear, according to Paul Bender, a law professor at the Arizona State University School of Law.

“Some say we don’t need Miranda rights because innocent people won’t confess to something they didn’t do. Well, these cases show you there really is a problem,” Bender said. “They show there are ways of getting innocent people to confess to things they didn’t do even under minor psychological pressure.

“If you really want to protect people’s rights, you make sure they have access to a lawyer promptly,” he added, “because a lot of people don’t know what their rights are.”


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