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APS employee’s mistake left innocent teen jailed for murder

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Albuquerque Police Department officers investigate the July 10 slaying of Calvin Kelly at the Retreat Apartment Homes located at Candelaria and Jane Place NE. A 17-year-old Albuquerque High student was mistakenly charged with murder in the case. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — When a detective asked for help identifying a murder suspect from a Facebook photo, an Albuquerque Public Schools employee obliged.

But that employee picked the wrong girl.

The case of mistaken identity left an Albuquerque High student in jail for a week — charged with a murder she played no part in.

Making matters worse for 17-year-old Gisell Estrada, the criminal complaint was sealed, which Estrada’s defense attorney says left him blind to the allegations against her. Police had said Estrada and her friends set up the robbery of a 21-year-old man in July that ended with his death in a Northeast Albuquerque apartment complex parking lot.

Meanwhile prosecutors filed a motion to detain her until trial.

“The community is not safe if she is not detained,” the motion states. “There are no conditions of release this court can impose which will prevent her from planning another robbery or prevent someone else from dying.”

Michael Patrick, a 2nd Judicial District Attorney spokesman, said they have to follow the lead of the police investigation and were “under the impression” they had the right person.

“The defense did raise the issue of identity but it was not proven until a day after her release,” he said.

But that’s of little comfort for Estrada, described as a shy student who would often eat lunch in her teacher’s office.

“This child was terrified,” said Craig Acorn, Estrada’s defense attorney.

“She’s being accused of the most serious crime you can be accused of. She has no idea what they’re talking about, and she’s about to be arrested and incarcerated for the first time in her life.”

Monica Armenta, an APS spokeswoman, said the case was APD’s and wouldn’t discuss the matter further.

No choice but to book her

Acorn said the sealed complaint and a detective’s unwillingness to share case details —victims, witnesses and even dates — left them no choice but to advise Estrada to not make a statement to police.

“We didn’t know what this case was even about. … We had no information whatsoever,” Acorn said. “We knew nothing at the time we turned her in.”

But APD spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said her refusal to speak left the detective with no choice but to book her.

“This could’ve been avoided had she been able to give a statement,” he said.

On Nov. 8 Estrada was booked into the juvenile detention center on an open count of murder, armed robbery and conspiracy charges in the July 10 slaying of Calvin Kelly. She was released six days later and the charges were dismissed.

Now police say they have found the right girl.

Detectives arrested Alexis Pina, 17, on Monday at Cesar Chavez Charter School.

Pina, Jassiah Montoya, 15, Adam Cazares, 31, and Cazares’ girlfriend Cynthia Salgado are charged in Kelly’s slaying.

Victim lured

Prosecutors say Pina was the “mastermind” of the robbery and lured Kelly, who she knew through Facebook, under the guise of needing a ride.

Police say the four tried to rob Kelly outside a Northeast Albuquerque apartment complex and, when he tried to run, Cazares shot him in the back with a high-caliber rifle.

Officers found Kelly face down in the parking lot of The Retreat at Candelaria, near Morris, around 6 a.m. He was already dead.

According to an arrest warrant affidavit filed in Metropolitan Court, Salgado told a detective a girl she and Cazares knew as “Lexi” proposed the robbery after seeing Kelly with a lot of cash on Facebook. At the time of the interview, Salgado had not been charged. A warrant has since been issued for her arrest.

The detective found the Facebook profile for “Lexi,” later identified as Pina, and gave her profile photos to an APS resource officer in the hopes of identifying her.

Police say another APS employee told the resource officer that Estrada was the girl in the photos and detectives drafted a warrant for her arrest.

“It should be noted that Gisell Estrada and Alexis Pina look extremely similar in date of births, facial features and body type among others,” homicide detective Jessie Carter wrote in the arrest affidavit for Pina after the mistaken identity had been discovered.

‘You have the wrong Lexi’

When Estrada found out there was a warrant for her arrest she went to the Law Offices of The Public Defender and attorney Todd Farkas and Acorn took on her case.

According to the affidavit, Farkas contacted police to say Estrada would be turning herself in but he stressed, multiple times, that she was not the girl they were looking for. The detective told Farkas to give him any information to clear Estrada’s name because he “did not want to put the wrong person in jail.”

However, Farkas told police Estrada would not give a statement and she was booked into the juvenile detention center.

Acorn said they were prepared to prove Estrada’s innocence during her initial hearing — even bringing a teacher along to testify on her behalf — but prosecutors filed for preventive detention and, therefore, the judge couldn’t hear the case.

Montoya, meanwhile, was arrested on Nov. 13. As police were leading him into a holding cell, Montoya told a detective, “You have the wrong Lexi, I just spoke to her yesterday.”

After Montoya echoed the claims made by defense attorneys, police say Estrada was released on her own recognizance. A further search of Montoya’s phone led detectives to Pina.

Acorn said Estrada just wants to forget about the “horrific” ordeal.

“It is terrifying to be locked up like that, accused of murder, the psychological effect of that can’t be overestimated,” Acorn said.

 

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