DALLAS — A police detective is accused of improperly influencing a mentally challenged suspect into pointing the finger at another suspect as the alleged gunman in the June 14 murder of a Dallas sandwich shop employee, WFAA has learned.
Sources say homicide Detective Elena Perez has been removed from this case and is now restricted from receiving new cases.
The two men — Christopher Miller and Anderson Jones — were released from jail earlier this week after having been arrested on charges of capital murder, an offense punishable by the death penalty.
According to Perez's arrest warrant affidavit, Miller confessed to being involved in the killing of Leonardo Ortega. According to the detective's account, Miller stated that Jones shot and killed Ortega, and had picked Jones out of a photo lineup.
But police sources tell News 8 that Miller — who is mentally challenged — didn't actually pick Jones out of a lineup. They say the lineup team did a lineup with Miller and he wasn't able to identify Jones. After the lineup team left the room, they say Detective Perez showed Miller a photo of Jones. When he said Jones was the shooter based on showing him that photo, Perez got a judge to sign a warrant based on that flawed identification.
Jones' attorney, Brad Lollar, said his client never should have been arrested in the first place. Lollar said Jones had a solid alibi, which police failed to verify before arresting him based solely on Miller's word.
"Mr. Jones is a person with no prior violent history at all," Lollar said. "He's 37 years old. Now he's been branded as a capital murderer and as a robber, and he's neither of those."
The circumstances of this case are particularly troubling, given that police lineups have been blamed for many wrongful convictions nationwide and in Dallas County over the years.
After News 8 requested comment, the department posted an update to its original statement on the case that said "detectives found inconsistencies in Mr. Miller's statements and determined his explanation to be unreliable."
"An administrative investigation has been initiated to determine if the case detective followed procedures relating to the Dallas Police Department's policies," the statement added.
Perez did not respond to a request for comment.
Ortega, 28, was shot and killed shortly before 11 p.m. on June 14 as he and another employee were in the process of closing the Subway store at Wynnewood Shopping Center on Illinois Street in Oak Cliff.
According to police records, two robbers entered the store with their face and head covered while a third robber stood outside as the lookout. One suspect pointed a gun in the face of Ortega and the other employee, demanding money. The second suspect took cash from the register.
A struggle ensued and Ortega was fatally shot during that confrontation.
For weeks, police had little to go on. Friends and family posted fliers all over the area, appealing for help to find Ortega's killers.
Then — on July 20 — a tip came into Crime Stoppers about Christopher Miller being a possible suspect. Miller, who is mentally challenged, was interviewed by Perez.
He and Jones were taken into custody on August 2.
The Dallas Police Department then announced a break in Ortega's killing on its DPD Beat blog, reporting they'd arrested Miller and Jones on capital murder charges. Bail was set at $1 million for each suspect.
Earlier this week, police quietly allowed Miller and Jones to be released from the Dallas County jail.
Edwin King, Miller's attorney, confirmed that this client is mentally challenged.
"It doesn't take 30 minutes to sit down and start talking to him and realize that he doesn't the intellectual ability that an average person does," King said.
Lollar said police interviewed Jones for 10 hours, adding that he was cooperative with detectives.
"The only not cooperation was that he didn't confess to it," Lollar said. "Anderson Jones lost 14 days of his life. He was in jail on a million dollar bond, and a million dollar bond is set by the magistrates in our system who trust the police to be bringing in the right people."
Sources tell News 8 that problems came to light as Perez was preparing the case to be filed with the Dallas County District Attorney's office.
"The police department jumped the gun on making these arrests," Lollar said. "What they should have done is corroborate — or try to corroborate — the incriminatory information they were getting from Christopher Miller. I understand police are under pressure to solve these crimes, but I think the more important pressure is to do it correctly instead of quickly."
Toby Shook, a former high-ranking Dallas County prosecutor, said police might have been able to get a judge to sign a warrant based on the statement of an alleged accomplice. But he added: "You can't convict someone on that. Obviously, there's a problem if they dropped it."
For Ortega's friends, it's all been heartbreaking. His friends called him Leo – short for Leonardo. They say he was a kindhearted person who would have never harmed anyone.
"Leo didn't deserve to go out that way," said Cynthia Rocha, his best friend.
Rocha said there was a sigh of relief when police made an arrest; now they don't know what to think.
Friends and family wonder if Ortega's killers will ever be caught.
"We can't bring him back, but we just want justice," Rocha said. "He deserves it."