ACLU sues city in mistaken identity arrest of high school student - Albuquerque Journal

ACLU sues city in mistaken identity arrest of high school student

Gisell Estrada, 18, stands outside Albuquerque police headquarters on Thursday, a little over a year after she was wrongfully arrested in a homicide case by a detective. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Gisell Estrada is shy and soft-spoken.

The 18-year-old doesn’t like large groups and ate lunch, every day, with her teacher in a classroom at Albuquerque High.

She says she had never been in any sort of trouble.

But, on Nov. 8, 2019, Estrada was wrongfully arrested in the killing of Calvin Kelly, a 21-year-old shot to death during an alleged robbery attempt in a Northeast Albuquerque parking lot.

“It destroyed me, my parents, my family’s life, by just misidentifying me,” Estrada told the Journal on Thursday.

The arrest came at the behest of Albuquerque police Detective Jessie Carter and a botched identification by a school administrator based on a Facebook photo of the real suspect – 18-year-old Alexis Pina – and nothing else.

On Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico filed a lawsuit on Estrada’s behalf seeking unspecified monetary damages against the City of Albuquerque for the situation, calling it a “Kafkaesque nightmare born of the incompetence of those who have sworn to protect and serve her.”

The lawsuit alleges that Carter’s actions amounted to a false arrest and deprivation of state constitutional rights.

“The ordeal that APD put Gisell Estrada through was nothing short of horrific. The system failed her at every turn,” ACLU attorney Zoila Y. Alvarez Hernandez said in a statement. “Sloppy police work from an APD detective meant that Gisell … was torn from her family’s loving arms and placed behind bars for a week.”

Estrada spent seven days in jail where she said she was strip-searched several times and treated like a “guilty person.” It was the first nights she had ever spent away from home and she said she didn’t sleep and rarely ate until her release.

Titled “Me han pasado muchas cosas, que jamás olvidaré,” which translates to “I’ve had a lot of things happen to me that I’ll never forget,” Estrada glued pieces of an Albuquerque Journal article about her wrongful arrest to a shattered mirror in order “to show what the experience did to her life.”

“I really thought I was going to be there for the rest of my life,” Estrada said. “Because I know that these types of cases take forever to solve.”

The Albuquerque Police Department would not make interim Chief Harold Medina available for questions or comment.

“Sorry, no interviews,” APD spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said. “As soon as the city is served with the lawsuit, we will review the allegations and respond in court.”

Carter – who has been with the department since 2008 – joined the homicide unit three years ago and, according to Journal records, has been the lead detective on a number of other homicide cases involving teenagers in that time.

Gallegos later added, “The arrest was made based upon the information the detective had at the time and he worked with the district attorney’s office and Ms. Estrada’s attorney to dismiss (a) charge after he learned she was not the alleged offender.”

The alleged suspect, Pina, has since been arrested and is currently awaiting trial in the case along with Cynthia Salgado, 22, Adam Cazares, 32, and Jassiah Montoya, 16.

The 2nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the matter.

Facebook photos used

On July 10, 2019, officers found Kelly’s body face down in the parking lot of The Retreat at Candelaria apartments, near Morris, around 6 a.m. He had been shot in the back with a high-caliber rifle.

One of the suspects, Salgado, told Carter she and three others conspired to rob Kelly in a plan she said was masterminded by a teenage girl named “Lexi,” later identified as Pina, according to the lawsuit. Salgado told Carter that Pina was homeless and on drugs and described her as short and chunky with “one lazy eye.”

Carter took photos from Facebook profiles for Pina and, according to the lawsuit, although the profile said Pina went to Highland High School, he “erroneously” reached out to an Albuquerque High resource officer. A school administrator told the officer the picture matched Estrada, a student aide who worked in the office, and Carter filed charges against her.

In the criminal complaint, Carter did not mention any of those details and, according to the lawsuit, “misled the district attorney and court” by writing that Salgado identified Estrada when Carter did not show Estrada’s photo to Salgado to confirm he had the right person.

“Detective Carter knew that Ms. Salgado did not ‘positively identify’ (Estrada) as a person involved in Mr. Kelly’s murder,” according to the lawsuit. “If that single sentence was removed from the document, nothing else within would explain how (Estrada) was identified as the offender, who was known by a different name.”

A warrant was issued for Estrada’s arrest on Oct. 18 and a defense attorney contacted her by mail to see if she needed counsel. The lawsuit states that Estrada and her mother were “in disbelief” as the attorney asked for $60,000, “an impossible sum,” for defense.

“I had no idea what this was about, the charges were sealed so I didn’t know what I was accused of,” Estrada said.

Public Defender Todd Farkas stepped in to defend Estrada and told Carter multiple times that she was not the girl they were looking for, according to court records. 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.”

Law Offices of the Public Defender attorney Craig Acorn told the Journal at the time that the sealed complaint and Carter’s unwillingness to share case details led them to advise Estrada to not make a statement to police and Estrada decided to turn herself in.

“Her family was afraid that if she did not turn herself in, the police would come to her home and arrest her violently,” the lawsuit states. “That night at home, nobody could sleep. The whole family cried all night, wondering what was going to happen.”

Attorneys were prepared to prove Estrada’s innocence during an initial hearing but after prosecutors filed for preventive detention, the judge was no longer able to hear the case.

ACLU attorney Alvarez Hernandez called the motion to detain Estrada a “disservice” both to her and the community.

“Because the true criminal was still out there and they could still hurt people, this lack of thoroughness and investigation doesn’t just affect the person directly, it affects our entire community,” she said.

A spokesperson for the district attorney told the Journal at the time that they followed Carter’s lead in the investigation.

During her stay in jail, Estrada was “too nervous to eat” and spent her nights “awake in her bunk, wondering if she would be free again,” according to the lawsuit. Family visits were full of tears and the guards wouldn’t let her mother hold her hand.

Five days after Estrada was booked, another suspect in Kelly’s homicide, Montoya, told Carter “You have the wrong Lexi, I just spoke to her yesterday” as he was being led to his cell. The next day, Estrada was released on her own recognizance and Carter zeroed in on Pina.

A side-by-side comparison provided by the American Civil Liberties Union shows Gisell Estrada, right, and photos taken from Alexis Pina’s Facebook page on the left. (ACLU)

He wrote the two “look extremely similar in date of births, facial features and body type among others” in the arrest affidavit. The lawsuit states that, unlike Pina, Estrada was born with only one thumb – something Carter could have easily verified. Her cellphone also placed her at home at the time of the homicide.

After her release, Estrada said she struggled to catch up in school, her reputation was damaged and she is still undergoing counseling. Although she has since graduated and is embarking on a career in cosmetology, Estrada said she experiences flashbacks from the incident and gets nervous when she sees an officer driving behind her, afraid she will be arrested or targeted.

“It’s not really how I used to be, it changed me,” Estrada said. “…I feel like I have to remember everything, like I’m reliving everything.”

She added, “I just hope this doesn’t happen to anyone else, this is not something you should make a joke (of), this is something very serious and really hard to go through.”

Alvarez Hernandez said part of the lawsuit is to provide Estrada peace of mind.

“(It’s) to clear her name and build up her confidence, because every time she goes to a job interview, she’s self conscious as to whether they would want to hire her, whether they’re going to think that – despite the fact that it was dismissed – that she actually had something to do with the murder,” she said.

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