Inmate Refuses to Testify in Slaying

TIMES STAFF WRITER

An Oxnard man allegedly caught on tape confessing to a deadly 1997 shooting in Santa Barbara refused to testify in court Wednesday despite having been granted immunity by prosecutors.

Gerardo Reyes, whose cousin Efren Cruz was convicted of the slaying four years ago, was held in contempt of court by Judge Frank Ochoa and will be brought back to testify at a later hearing.

Reyes' refusal to speak came during the third day of a hearing in Santa Barbara to decide whether Cruz's conviction should be overturned, based on audiotapes that suggest Reyes is the actual killer.

A jury found Cruz guilty of murder in the slaying of Michael Torres, 23, and of the attempted murder of James Lee Miranda, 21, in a parking garage near State Street in downtown Santa Barbara. Cruz, the father of a 7-year-old daughter, has already served more than four years of a sentence of 41 years to life.

But after Reyes' alleged confession last summer, Ventura County prosecutors began an effort to free Cruz, sparking a dispute between the adjacent counties.

At Wednesday's hearing, Cruz's defense lawyers played the full two-hour tape, a sometimes muddy recording of a conversation in jail between Reyes and a wired informant who volunteered for the job after allegedly hearing Reyes' previous boasts about the shooting. In addition, Oxnard Police Det. Dennis McMaster took the stand to describe the occasionally unintelligible recording.

Reyes, he said, admitted shooting Torres in the back of the head and threatening to kill another witness on the drive back to Oxnard after the shooting. Later in jail, Reyes allegedly attempted to have his cousin Cruz killed by a member of a prison gang, reportedly because he thought Cruz might tell all in jail and make Reyes a target of attack in prison.

Reyes is serving a 12-year sentence for an unrelated assault.

In recent interviews with Santa Barbara police, Reyes has recanted his confession and denied playing any role in the shooting.

Santa Barbara Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Hilary Dozer has argued that the secretly recorded admission amounts to nothing more than posturing in pursuit of jailhouse respect. He has also suggested that Reyes knew the informant was wired, and that his talk was all a scheme to get Cruz out of prison.

On the stand, however, McMaster scoffed at those explanations.

"Gang members do not get respect for bragging about crimes they did not commit," he said. "They look like punks."

He added that Reyes wouldn't have implicated his wife as the getaway driver if he had known he was being taped.

In addition, Ochoa settled a legal dispute between the district attorney's offices of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

On Tuesday, Dozer served a subpoena demanding that Ventura County turn over all documents regarding its investigation into the Cruz case, including some information the Ventura County district attorney's office believed was privileged. The judge spent Wednesday morning going through the items line by line, ultimately deciding that many of them were exempt under the law because they were interoffice notes, and amounted to attorney-client privilege.

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