You know the saying, after 25 years, what’s eight more hours? The 25-years between April 1993 and October 2018 felt shorter than the time it took the jury to deliberate in the third trial against Daniel Villegas on Friday.
In the end, Villegas walked out of the courthouse a completely free man for the first time in his adult life.
It’s been exactly 9,309 days since a nightmare began for the families of three El Paso teenagers. On April 10, 1993, Armando Lazo and Robert England were gunned down as they walked along a dark street in Northeast El Paso after drinking a few bottles of malt liquor and enjoying an evening with friends.
Eleven days later, 16-year-old Daniel Villegas would be behind bars, charged with their murders.
The clock really began ticking for Daniel Villegas days earlier after the admittedly boisterous teen bragged to his cousin, David Rangel, that he was the triggerman. Daniel, who has long denied that he was ever in a gang, still closely associated with people in the Varrio Northeast or ‘VNE’ gang. He told his cousin that he shot the boys with a shotgun as they walked with their two friends north along Electric Street.
Rangel would later say that he thought his cousin was joking, as he was often known to do. Nonetheless, he signed a statement with the El Paso Police Department that implicated his cousin in the drive-by shooting deaths of the boys.
While two families buried their children, Daniel had to face the consequences associated with his joking confession to his cousin. Daniel was dragged into the El Paso Police Department Headquarters as a young, troubled teenager to be questioned for hours without his mother present.
The Crimes Against Persons Detective in charge of the case, Alfonso Marquez was on a mission. El Paso was in the midst of a disastrous gang turf war that resulted in a record-high 56 murders in 1993, a number that still stands as the deadliest year in El Paso history.
Marquez had a lot to prove and a lot of pressure to solve a murder case that resulted in the deaths of two teenage boys.
Marquez drilled Daniel without respite, eventually coaxing a confession out of the teen. That confession would end up being the key piece of evidence in the trial against him.
In 1994, the case went to trial. The jury became hopelessly deadlocked 11-1 in favor of convicting Daniel. By 1995, Daniel was a young father and was facing his second trial. This time, a young and hungry prosecutor by the name of Jaime Esparza wanted to make sure everything went in the right way for the state.
In the meantime, Daniel’s attorney had been handed the case just 60 days before trial and told he was not allowed to request any continuances.
Daniel was found guilty of capital murder by the second jury and sentenced to life in prison. He would never see his daughter grow up or see the outside of the concrete walls that he would call home in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice system. During this time, Daniel maintained his innocence to all who knew him.
Luckily for Daniel, a man walked into a bank.
That man was John Mimbela, a successful local contractor in El Paso. During his stops to his bank, Mimbela became friendly with the bank teller who, as luck would have it, was Daniel’s nieces’ mother. She told him about Daniel’s story and as Mimbela got to know her, he told her he’d look into it. Mimbela is a man of his word, and started a journey that would alter his life forever.
During Mimbela’s quest to find answers in Daniel’s case, he had a private investigator speak with witnesses in the crime, re-examine evidence and ultimately with the help of dogged defense attorney Joe Spencer, was able to prove to District Judge Sam Medrano that Daniel’s confession to Det. Al Marquez was coerced.
In January 2014 Daniel was released from prison after serving more than 18-years behind bars. He was free, but not quite.
By now, the once hungry prosecutor, Jaime Esparza was the District Attorney. Esparza was unwilling to lose. He felt so strongly that Daniel was responsible for the deaths of Lazo and England that he pursued the case for a third time.
“People just said let it go, I’d like to think if their son or their daughter was killed – even if 25 years has passed – that’s just not something you can let go of,” Assistant James Montoya told the El Paso Herald Post Friday afternoon.
Once again, Esparza enlisted the help of the El Paso Police Department to shake some trees, revisit some old friends of Daniel’s and get new information that would help bolster his case now that he could no longer use Daniel’s taped confession. He found the evidence he thought he needed when detectives found Oscar Gomez, one of Daniel’s old friends and neighbors.
Gomez had run into trouble with some traffic tickets. He’d been picked up on warrants when he was carted down to the EPPD Headquarters to answer some questions about his old friend Daniel. During his time at the station, Gomez made a taped statement to police that Daniel also told him in 1995 that he’d committed the drive-by shooting.
The supposed admission by Daniel came just weeks before he was sentenced to life in prison. “Oh, that’s [expletive] up,” Gomez told officers he’d said to Daniel after the supposed confession.
During testimony this week, Gomez strongly denied that Daniel ever made the admission to him. Under oath, Gomez claimed that police were threatening him with jail time for his traffic warrants if he didn’t make a taped confession about Daniel’s 1995 statement to him.
Villegas’ defense team which was led by Joe Spencer and Felix Valenzuela argued that much of the case relied on hearsay. They argued that a braggadocio teen who was vying for street cred made a joke and it cost him 18-years of his life. They argued that it was a corrupt El Paso Police Department investigation that led to Daniel’s wrongful charge.
The jury was essentially asked to believe that the police who were sworn to serve and protect them could possibly be guilty of coercing witnesses and fabricating lies to help close a case.
After more than eight hours of painful deliberation for the dozens of Villegas’ strongest supporters gathered in the courthouse on Friday, the jury agreed to just that.
Daniel was overcome with emotion and fell to the table in front of him, held up by his team of defense attorneys. His family screamed. Supporters from Proclaim Justice, and Jason Baldwin, one of the West Memphis Three, cried and cheered in the courtroom. Daniel’s wife Amanda sobbed uncontrollably as she held tightly to their 3-year-old who wore a shirt with the words ‘Free My Daddy’ written in red across the back.
Bailiffs attempted to calm the court before Judge Sam Medrano could continue with his instructions to the jury and release them from the courtroom. Reporters, none of whom were around to report on the first trial, sat silent as the emotion in the room became palpable.
Prosecutors maintain the verdict is not a lack of guilt, but a lack of sufficient evidence to prove their case.
When asked if they considered this the final chapter in the attempt to find out who killed the two teens, Montoya said, “we are convinced Daniel Villegas was the person who killed Mando Lazo and Bobby England. We would not have gone forward if we thought otherwise and I still believe this now.”
Villegas says he’ll work to free other innocent people from prison. He says he also hopes to prove another person was ultimately responsible for Lazo and England’s death. The sentiment was shared by his cousin David Rangel.
“I don’t see Mr. Esparza doing anything,” Rangel said. “There are two boys who need justice, who deserve justice. It’s not fair to our family and it’s not fair to theirs that their family is still having to suffer through this just as much as we have.”
On Saturday, October 6, 2018, Daniel Villegas will wake up as a free man for the first time in his adult life – father of three, husband, son, brother.
He will wake up for the first time knowing he will never again have to claim his innocence, because he has earned his innocence.
The Villegas case and others will be featured on upcoming episodes of Testify, a true crime podcast co-hosted by Andra Litton and Charlie Moreno, produced in partnership with the El Paso Herald-Post. The first episodes will be released the week of October 22.