SANTA FE, N.M. — A judge Thursday tossed out an alleged confession by a man charged in a grisly 2010 slaying, saying he had “serious questions” about the legitimacy of an officer’s testimony in which he said the defendant admitted the killing.
State District Judge Michael Vigil stopped short of other remedies proposed by the defense, such as calling for a mistrial.
Vigil granted a defense motion to suppress Rio Arriba County sheriff’s Sgt. Abraham Baca’s description of a conversation in which defendant Toby Gonzales was said to have confessed.
And the judge clearly was unhappy with Baca – formerly an officer with the State Police and once that agency’s lead agent in the Gonzales case – who testified during Thursday’s motion hearing that Gonzales initiated a conversation at the Tierra Amarilla District Courthouse earlier this month.
It was during that talk that Gonzales admitted to killing Steven Duran last year, Baca said on the stand.
But other deputies who were also with Gonzales that day said they didn’t hear him confess to anything. The judge also blasted Baca for waiting a week to tell other authorities about the alleged confession and for misleading an investigator for the defense.
“That is incredible to me,” Vigil said.
Gonzales, 23, of El Guique, is on trial for the February 2010 slaying of 26-year-old Steven Duran of Chamita. Prosecutors say Gonzales and another man, Rudy Salazar, hogtied Duran in the back of his own pickup and brutally beat him to death before dousing him with gasoline and lighting his body on fire in a remote arroyo in Rio Arriba County.
The violence occurred after an argument during a night of drinking and drugging by the group.
Gonzales’ attorney, Tom Clark, filed the motion to suppress Baca’s report of the purported confession Wednesday, on the first day of trial. Thursday’s proceedings took place without the jury present at the District Courthouse in Santa Fe.
Clark’s motion dealt with a conversation that took place at jury selection in Tierra Amarilla on Dec. 6. As Gonzales was being led out of the courtroom after the selection process ended, he struck up a conversation with Baca, whom he recognized as the former State Police case agent.
Baca was terminated by State Police after he was charged with DWI last year and was later hired by the Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Office, the same agency that arrested him for the DWI.
Baca testified that he and Gonzales spoke for a few minutes while deputies waited for jurors to leave the area to take him back to jail. During that conversation, he and Gonzales talked about whether Gonzales had been offered any plea deals, polygraph tests and other matters, Baca said. He testified that Gonzales voluntarily told him that “when we killed Steven (Duran), I was drinking and snorting cocaine.”
Baca said he wrote down some “highlighted” words from the conversation, but did not tell other officers or prosecutors about the alleged confession for days.
“I got sidetracked during the week,” Baca said.
It wasn’t until the next week that Baca first told a State Police officer about the conversation – but only after he had met with defense attorney Clark’s investigator and failed to share information about his talk with Gonzales.
Baca ended up submitting a supplemental report to the District Attorney’s Office that included the confession. The report wasn’t received by the defense counsel until Tuesday night, on the eve of the trial, according to Clark.
Clark blasted Baca on cross-examination, questioning his training as an officer and whether he’d retained the notes that he took after his conversation with Gonzales. Baca said he “disposed” of those notes.
“That didn’t seem like such a good idea now, does it?” Clark asked Baca, who replied, “No.”
Deputies Isaac Martinez and Marvin Armijo testified that they never heard anything about a confession Dec. 6. Martinez said he went outside for a few minutes during the conversation. But Armijo testified that he was in the presence of Baca and Gonzales the entire time. After their testimony, the judge said he had “serious questions about if this conversation ever took place.”
“Even if it did,” Vigil said he has “serious concerns” that a veteran officer would “feel it is OK to engage, on the eve of a murder trial, on issues of polygraph exams and plea agreements.”
“I can’t believe that Sgt. Baca thought that was OK,” the judge said.
Clark said in court that this was an example of an “officer manufacturing a murder confession” and asked that the judge toss out all of Baca’s testimony, even from when he was the case agent.
The judge denied that portion of Clark’s motion. Clark said he would file a motion to suppress all testimony from Baca as being unreliable, which the judge said he was “not inclined” to grant.
Rio Arriba County Sheriff Tommy Rodella was at the courthouse Thursday. When asked whether he was planning on taking any disciplinary action against Baca, Rodella said he would “take the time to look at the transcripts and we’ll go from there.” The sheriff said he has not personally spoken with Baca about what transpired.
Gonzales faces charges of second-degree murder, kidnapping, conspiracy to commit kidnapping and tampering with evidence.
Salazar, 33, of Alcalde, has already taken a plea deal for his role in the case and will be sentenced at a later date. He was called to testify against Gonzales on Monday, but refused to do so. Clark said Gonzales won’t be testifying, either.
Trial testimony will resume in Tierra Amarilla on Monday.