He Won't Let Killers Get Away With Murder

Times Staff Writer

If you're a gang member who committed a murder in Santa Ana several years ago, don't think you might have gotten away with it just because you haven't been arrested.

In the last four years, Santa Ana Police Det. Steve Lodge has been spending most of his time solving gang murders where the investigators have come to a dead end.

Lodge has revisited 31 of these cold cases, in which the crimes occurred five to 11 years ago. Fifteen people have been convicted in seven of these cases, and suspects in five cases await trial. Seven cases have been cleared because the suspect was discovered to have been murdered or the district attorney's office determined the killing was self-defense.

The best-known case was that of Geronimo Burgos, a pastor at an Alabama church when he was arrested in February 2001. Burgos was sentenced to probation for helping in a 1993 drive-by shooting and then deported to Mexico for being in the country illegally.

Since then, Lodge alleges, he has found evidence implicating Burgos in another murder, and there is a warrant for his arrest.

"Families [of victims] need closure," Lodge said. "That's what I'm trying to give these people."

These murders come from a time when Santa Ana was awash in gang killings: 47 slayings in 1993, 40 in '94 and 46 in '95. More than one person was killed in some of those incidents.

Following national trends and increased efforts by Santa Ana police, the cycle of gang violence began to abate in 1996, hitting a low of five in 2000. The number of gang killings jumped to 14 in 2002, but so far this year there have been only six such slayings.

In those wild years, Santa Ana had so many gang killings the Police Department didn't have enough investigators to keep up with them, Lodge said. The department made arrests in only a third of the cases.

As the murder rate began to slow five years ago, Lodge joined the gang unit and was assigned to cold cases. There is no statute of limitations for murder.

"I think people are getting more comfortable they did it and nothing happened to them," Lodge said. "A lot of people still are under the impression we stop looking, and that's not the case."

Lodge, 45, has been a Santa Ana cop for nearly half his life, and he has no desire to move up the ranks and off the streets. "We don't have a lot of career detectives in this department, guys who have no desire to promote," he said. "I'm one of the few."

Capt. Pete Jensen, head of investigations for the department, said the original investigators don't look at Lodge as second-guessing them or doubting their abilities. He has the luxury of time, something that didn't exist in the mid-'90s when detectives were running from one murder to the next.

Some of Lodge's biggest breaks come from witnesses who originally were afraid to talk and have since moved out of gang-ridden neighborhoods. And now an ex-girlfriend may want to exact revenge.

In the Burgos case, a witness said that in the gangbanging days, Burgos had bragged about his involvement in the drive-by shooting, according to Lodge. The witness agreed to testify.

"One thing we know about gang crime is they love to talk," Jensen said. "Maybe not initially, but some time down the road there will be some bragging, and sometimes that works back to a witness and back to us."

New crime-solving technology -- such as advances in ballistics, forensics and DNA testing -- can be put to use.

Lodge begins looking into a case if someone passes on a tip or the original detective tells him of leads or witnesses to explore.

First he takes out the black binder that makes up the case file and reads it a couple of times so he doesn't miss anything.

Next he usually re-interviews witnesses. He's often the last person they want to see. "It's not like they're knocking down my door to talk to me."

He also talks to suspects. About one-fourth of them are in prison, and, of the remainder, about half remain in gangs.

"When a little time goes by they relax a bit more," Lodge said. "I go out to the house and have a chat with them."

In four cases, suspects confessed.

Lodge said he interviewed Frank Hernandez. For the first hour, Hernandez denied involvement in the murder. "As I was about to take him to jail, he said he was a born-again Christian and couldn't lie to me any more, and he laid it out."

Hernandez was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.

Sometimes suspects have matured and turned their lives around. But Lodge said he doesn't feel too bad about putting them in prison. "These guys are not committing petty crimes," he said. "These guys committed murders. This isn't something you can ever justify."

In a more recent case, Rudy Carrillo and Jose Gomez were convicted of shooting a boy in front of a Santa Ana convenience store in 1995.

Both had left the gang life and had jobs and families when they were arrested last year.

"They think we've forgotten about them," Lodge said. "We haven't."

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