Just like he’s done every morning and afternoon for the last year, Ike Iloputaife took his two exotic borzoi dogs for a 90-minute walk in his San Diego County neighborhood in the early morning hours of May 16.
Little did the 55-year-old Nigerian-born innkeeper know he was walking into one of the most frightening experiences of his adult life.
Seven hours after he and his 3-year-old dogs, Lars and Luvkiy, walked down Monte Vista Drive in Vista that day, a house on the street was burglarized by three young black men.
Six days later, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department issued a press release with surveillance photos of the three suspects as well as a grainy photo of a person of interest. It was a picture of Iloputaife, who is also black, walking his dogs through the neighborhood on the morning of the burglary.
A woman who lived around the corner from the burglarized home had snapped the photo of Iloputaife that morning when he walked past her house because, she told investigators, he was “a stranger” on her street. It was taken from behind at a significant distance. After the burglary, the woman — whose identity is unavailable — shared the photo with investigators.
Although the still-unidentified Iloputaife was billed in the press release as looking “similar to Suspect 2 in the burglary,” their only similarity is skin color. Suspect 2 is listed in the release as 20 to 35 years old, 6 feet to 6-feet-5 and weighing 260 pounds. Iloputaife is 5 feet, 9 inches, is in his mid-50s and weighs 195 pounds.
In a post to neighbors on the Nextdoor App on Friday afternoon, Iloputaife said it’s disturbing that he was photographed by someone and sucked unwittingly into a criminal investigation simply because he was walking his dogs on a street near the Sunrise Drive home he shares with his husband, Jim Watson.
“In this person’s head I became a person of interest because of my skin color,” Iloputaife wrote. “Asking to call the police on a black person in this highly charged political and cultural environment can be a danger for the black person.”
But the Vista station of the County Sheriff’s Department, which has since removed Iloputaife as a person of interest, said they took great care in deciding to release the photo to the press.
Lt. Jack Reynolds said the decision was based on the severity of the crime — several rifles, handguns and a safe were stolen — and the lack of leads in finding the suspects.
“With a crime where we have no leads other than surveillance footage, we’re going to look at all information that comes in as a potential lead,” Reynolds said. “Are they going out to do surveillance on potential targets, maybe sending someone out on foot?”
Reynolds said investigators hoped neighbors would recognize the dogs in the photo, not the dog-walker, and dozens of neighbors did. Some reached out to law enforcement and others posted on Nextdoor defending Iloputaife as a well-known presence in the neighborhood.
Watson said he’s disappointed that the Sheriff’s Department didn’t take more time to ask around the Alta Vista/Foothill neighborhood before posting the photo.
“They took this extreme action on such little information,” Watson said. “I believe in Neighborhood Watch and communities looking out for themselves. But they need to think seriously about what it’s like to … make someone a suspect with so little information.”
Justin Brooks, director of the California Innocence Project at California Western School of Law in San Diego, said bad IDs are the leading cause of wrongful convictions in America. And most of the exonerations he’s worked on over the last 20 years involve bad IDs by witnesses with a different racial background than the defendant.
“When you look at the studies, we are absolutely terrible at identifying humans who are not of our own race,” Brooks said.
Despite the flaws in the system, Brooks said the public and juries put great stock in witness testimony and photos on fliers.
“Sometimes we make mistakes and those kinds of mistakes can devastate people’s lives and leave their reputation in tatters,” Brooks said.
Iloputaife and Watson were on vacation in Yosemite when the press release appeared on local TV stations and the sdcrimestoppers.com website May 22. A neighbor gave the couple the news when they returned home May 25.
Friend and neighbor Laurie Gilbert said it’s been hard watching Iloputaife and Watson go through this experience over the last week.
“To suddenly feel unwelcome and afraid to go out and walk your dogs is awful,” said Gilbert. “There isn’t a bad bone in either of their bodies; they’re good, kind, loving people.”
Iloputaife came to the U.S. in 1981 to study aerospace engineering and was a competitive sprinter. He was living in Los Angeles volunteering for a national AIDS charity in 1994 when he met the Texas-born Watson, who was the foundation’s fundraiser at the time.
In 1995, they moved to Provence, France, where they owned and operated a bed and breakfast as well as other real estate in Europe. When Watson became ill two years ago, they decided to move back to California to be closer to family. They chose Vista because the hills reminded them of France and Italy and they found a home with a big yard where their dogs could run.
Watson said in all their years in France, they never experienced any prejudice over their mixed-race partnership or sexuality. But just a month after they moved to Vista in June 2017, Iloputaife said a man driving a truck past him in their neighborhood shouted slurs out the window.
Iloputaife, who has dual U.S. and French citizenship, said the experience over this last month has made him consider moving back to France.
“It does make me think,” he said. “I’m here because my spouse is here. If he weren’t here I would go back to France. There are racial and political issues in France, but they’re less acrid there.”
Over the last week, Iloputaife has spent hours meeting with detectives and calling, emailing and writing to local TV stations and news sites asking that his photo with the dogs be removed from stories about the suspects. His photo was still on sdcrimestoppers.com until noon Monday when a reporter called to ask about it. It was removed in the afternoon.
Iloputaife said he’s been frustrated that deputies won’t return his calls and why he has had to work so hard to clear his own reputation. People have suggested he file a lawsuit, but he’s not interested.
“I hate courts and have never sued anyone in my life. All I want from them is an apology saying, ‘We screwed up and we’re sorry,’” he said.
Bill Jacobs, a friend who often walks Lars and Luvkiy whenever Iloputaife travels to France on business, said he’s been impressed by how Iloputaife has handled the situation with calm and grace.
“He’s very disappointed, but his first response was to say, ‘Let’s defuse the situation,’” Jacobs said. “Nobody wants to be in that situation, white or black, but it’s much more dangerous being black.”
Kragen writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune