Detective Grilled About Reyes' Confession

TIMES STAFF WRITER

During a daylong cross-examination, Santa Barbara County prosecutors on Monday challenged an Oxnard police detective who concluded they convicted the wrong man for a 1997 homicide.

Det. Dennis McMaster was questioned about a secretly taped jailhouse confession in which an Oxnard gang member, Gerardo Reyes, 28, admits pulling the trigger in a January 1997 shooting in downtown Santa Barbara.

However, a jury found not Reyes but his 26-year-old cousin, Efren Cruz, guilty in the slaying of Michael Torres, 23, of Santa Barbara, and the attempted murder of James Miranda, 21, of Santa Ynez.

Cruz was sentenced to 41 years to life in prison. He later told a prison inmate that he was innocent and identified his cousin, Reyes, as the shooter.

That inmate, a former Oxnard police informant, contacted McMaster with the information and an investigation was launched by Oxnard police and the Ventura County district attorney's office, which stepped in at the request of Santa Barbara prosecutors.

Last summer, Ventura County authorities wired the informant and obtained a confession from Reyes while he was jailed in Ventura on an unrelated case. Ventura County prosecutors sent the recording to their counterparts in Santa Barbara, concluding in a letter that Reyes was in fact the killer--not Cruz.

Defense lawyers are now using the tape recording and other evidence in an attempt to overturn Cruz's conviction. But Santa Barbara prosecutors are not backing down.

On Monday, Santa Barbara County Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Hilary Dozer questioned McMaster about his "reliable informant" and suggested the former Oxnard gang member had actually provided less than accurate information in the past.

Dozer challenged McMaster about his interpretation of statements obtained during the wire operation with Reyes, telling Superior Court Judge Frank Ochoa it was his office's position that the informant had coerced a false confession.

"He is putting pressure on Gerardo Reyes, he is stressing him," Dozer said during Monday's hearing.

But McMaster said the informant was simply trying to get Reyes in a position where he would talk openly about the shooting.

"That is what the whole operation was about," the detective said.

Looking tired and exasperated after hours on the witness stand, McMaster stood by his conclusion that Reyes was the likely gunman. He pointed to detailed statements Reyes made about the shooting--details, he said, only a participant in the crime would have known.

"These are things a person is not concerned about unless they are involved in a homicide," McMaster testified. "That is a credible confession in my opinion."

At times, the exchange between Dozer and McMaster dissolved into tense, argumentative remarks.

Late in the day, Dozer suggested that McMaster was accusing the Santa Barbara Police Department of doing a "shoddy job" of investigating the shooting, which occurred in a city parking garage near State Street.

McMaster responded tersely: "That is not my testimony."

McMaster has previously testified that Reyes has a long criminal history, including past involvement in Oxnard gang shootings. Reyes is currently serving a 12-year prison sentence in an unrelated assault case. He has subsequently denied any role in the Santa Barbara homicide.

Called to the witness stand last week, Reyes refused to testify, even after prosecutors granted him immunity.

Outside the courtroom Monday, Cruz's mother and aunt sat on a wooden bench wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the words: "Free Efren." Because each could be potential witnesses, they are barred from entering the courtroom.

"It's not fair," said Adela Reyes, Cruz's mother.

Inside the courtroom, her brother--Gerardo's father, and other relatives, listened to testimony. She said the case has sharply divided the family.

Testimony is scheduled to resume in Santa Barbara County Superior Court this morning.

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