Debbie Salas vividly recalls the morning police showed up at her Sunnyside home looking for her 15-year-old brother, Evaristo Junior Salas.
“I remember we got a knock on the door and my dad had already left for work,” she said.
So she woke her brother.
“And they took him,” she said. “I had a worried feeling. I called my dad.”
Her dad, Ruben Alvarado, went to the Sunnyside Police Department, where he was told his son had been arrested on suspicion of murder.
“At that time we were in shock because we never expected anything like that,” Alvarado said. “I didn’t know what to do.”
Salas, who was involved with gangs, was accused of shooting 24-year-old Jose Arreola — also involved in gangs — twice in the head while he sat in his parked pickup on a foggy evening in November 1995.
Salas denied shooting Arreola, saying he didn’t even know him. In addition, a 7-Eleven clerk said Salas was at the store at the time the shooting occurred.
But it was testimony from two people — Arreola’s girlfriend and a police informant — that identified Salas as the shooter and resulted in a jury convicting him of first-degree murder in Yakima County Superior Court, where he was tried as an adult and sentenced to 33 years in prison.
A clear motive was never established in the case. The gun involved was never recovered, and Salas, now 37, still says he was wrongfully convicted.
Now, after two decades of desperately writing letters to lawyers and legal groups in search of finding someone willing to review his case, Salas has found some hope in award-winning filmmaker Joe Berlinger — known for his documentaries on wrongful convictions — and an Everett defense attorney — Laura Shaver — willing to review his case pro-bono.
After reading a letter from Salas, Berlinger launched a probe into his case questioning the integrity of the investigation. The filmmaker’s findings are highlighted in the documentary “Wrong Man” released earlier this month on the STARZ television network. In the documentary, investigators discovered that key evidence was possibly lost and an informant said he lied during the trial.
“My personal belief is Salas is innocent,” Berlinger said in a recent telephone interview. “This was a flimsy case. If I was in the prosecutor’s office ... I’d take a hard look at this and demand a new trial for this guy.”
But despite Berlinger’s position, it’s not yet clear if there are legal grounds to challenge Salas’ conviction and potentially seek a retrial. Shaver, the attorney willing to evaluate Salas’ case, was not available to comment for this story.
Yakima County Prosecuting Attorney Joe Brusic disagrees with Berlinger, saying the documentary is biased and that his office stands by Salas’ conviction.
“When I watched it, that’s what I felt,” Brusic said on Friday. “He received a fair trial and he was found guilty by a jury. He got his day in court and we stand behind the jury’s decision.”
On Nov. 15, 1995, Arreola had just pulled into the parking lot of his apartment on Saul Road in Sunnyside when someone walked up and fired two shots into his head through the driver’s side window of the Mazda pickup he was driving. His girlfriend, who was holding their infant son, had just gotten out of the mini-truck.
A day later, Arreola died of his wounds at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, where he was transferred from a local hospital.
Four days after the shooting, according to information obtained by investigators in the documentary, Arreola’s girlfriend convinced a tow company to give her the truck, which it had been holding for police. She subsequently had it cleaned and the door window replaced.
A friend of Arreola’s told investigators in the documentary that he cleaned the truck, and tossed out bone chips, possibly pieces of Arreola’s skull, he found inside.
The owner of the impound yard recalled in the documentary that Arreola’s girlfriend was insistent about getting the truck and he only released it to her because she said police said it was OK. He also didn’t believe it was illegal to do so.
Former Sunnyside police officer Jose Trevino, who was in charge of the crime scene and gathering and processing evidence in the case, told documentary investigators that reports indicate the truck was released before he was able to gather evidence. He also agreed with investigators that there appeared to be no record of who OK’d the truck’s release.
“In these types of cases, the only person authorized to release that truck is the lead detective or the prosecutor,” Trevino told an investigator in the documentary. Trevino declined to comment about the documentary or the case for this story.
A police report described Arreola’s girlfriend as a suspect and sought charges against her for obstructing police, evidence tampering and rendering criminal assistance in a homicide, according to the documentary. She was never charged.
Two jurors interviewed in the documentary said the information about the truck was not presented at trial, and that their decision in the case might have been different if it had been.
When interviewed by the Yakima Herald-Republic, Ken Ramm, who prosecuted Salas in 1996, said information about Arreola’s girlfriend being a suspect at one time did make it into the trial but he didn’t recall any details about the truck being removed from evidence.
Salas’ attorney, George Trejo, said he also remembers information about the girlfriend possibly being a suspect because of her gang ties, but nothing about the truck.
“That’s bizarre,” he said during an interview with the Herald-Republic. “Had I been provided with that, definitely I would have presented it.”
Arreola’s girlfriend told police the shooter was a boy about 15 years old who was with a younger boy about 7.
Initially police thought Arreola’s death was retribution for a gang killing he was a suspect in a year earlier.
Six months after the shooting, police named Salas as a suspect and arrested him.
Sunnyside police detective Jim Rivard, lead detective in the case, told investigators in the documentary that a confidential informant and Arreola’s girlfriend identified Salas as the shooter after seeing his photo. Multiple efforts to reach Rivard for this story were unsuccessful.
In the documentary, Rivard said the informant told him about a young man who claimed to have killed Arreola, but the informant didn’t know the young man’s name.
Then, one day when Salas was at the police station being questioned by a sheriff’s deputy in an unrelated incident, Rivard, for reasons he couldn’t explain, took three snapshots of Salas with a Polaroid instant camera, according to the documentary. Afterward, Rivard returned to his office where the same informant was waiting and tossed the photos on his desk. That’s when the informant saw them and identified Salas as the same young man who claimed to be the shooter. Rivard showed Arreola’s girlfriend the photos and she was certain he was her boyfriend’s killer, the documentary states.
Their testimony at trial put Salas in prison.
“In my mind they told the truth that day in court because this informant had no reason to lie and I just had to believe what he told me,” Rivard said in the documentary.
But the informant — who was identified by the name “Bill” in the documentary — told a different story, saying he went to the police station one day to pick up payment for information he provided on a different case. That’s when Rivard pointed out Salas and said he was going to get him, the informant told documentary investigators. The informant also said Rivard instructed him to hang out and party with Salas to find out about the killing. The informant said he did that, but Salas knew nothing. At that point, the informant claims, Rivard coached him on what to say in court about Salas being the shooter.
In the documentary, Rivard disputed that accusation and said he did not influence the informant’s testimony.
“If ‘Bill’ lied, then I guess ‘Bill’ is going to have to answer to the court and everybody else for lying,” Rivard told one of the documentary’s investigators.
But the documentary also revealed the informant agreed to a polygraph test; the results concluded he was honest about everything he told documentary investigators.
“The kid is innocent and I’ve lived with it every day for 20-plus years,” the informant said.
Brusic doesn’t believe the informant is telling the truth. Rivard always has been a credible officer, he said.
“I worked with Detective Rivard numerous times in the ’90s and he was a very competent officer at that time,” Brusic said.
A glimmer of hope
Salas, in an email to the Herald-Republic, said Rivard — who headed the city’s gang unit — frequently questioned him and he felt harassed by the officer.
He said Rivard wouldn’t tell him why he took photographs of him the day he was at the Sunnyside police station, which wasn’t long before he was accused of killing Arreola. Salas was convicted of the murder two days after his 16th birthday.
Ever since, his father has not bought birthday cakes for Salas’ five siblings. His birthday is a week apart from Debbie’s, though she is three years older.
“I didn’t want to leave him out,” Alvarado said with tears in his eyes. “I didn’t want to leave Junior out.”
Salas remains at Airway Heights Corrections Center near Spokane. He has yet to see the documentary, but learned from family that it strongly supports his plea of innocence.
“I feel very hopeful, very grateful,” he wrote in an email. “I feel a peace that finally, after 22 years, home seems reachable; that my eyes will once again see my beautiful town of Sunnyside, where all my dreams were first born.”
Alvarado said he’s grateful for the investigation that Berlinger had launched, but says there’s still a long road ahead for his son.
“He’s over there waiting and waiting — it’s still hard for him,” Alvarado said. “And it’s going to take time. I know it’s going to take time. We’re going to have to give him a lot of support.”