Then-Sunnyside Police Sgt. Jim Rivard’s investigation into the November 1995 shooting death of Jose Arreola led to the arrest and conviction of Evaristo Salas, who was 15 at the time.
Defense attorney Laura Shaver is seeking a new trial, saying a mishandled investigation led to Salas being wrongfully convicted.
On Monday, Superior Court Judge David Elofson denied Shaver’s motion to have Rivard questioned under oath in Yakima County Superior Court.
“Allegations have to be very specific and substantive,” he said.
Elofson also denied Shaver’s motion for a subpoena forcing Rivard and the only eyewitness in the case — Ofelia Cortez (formerly Gonzalez) — to be questioned at a hearing seeking a new trial.
Salas was tried as an adult and sentenced to nearly 33 years in prison in December 1996, two days after his 16th birthday. A motive for the killing was never fully established, and the gun involved was never found. Salas and Arreola had gang ties, but they weren’t rivals. To this day, Salas maintains he is innocent.
At issue is how Salas became a suspect and what evidence was presented at trial. Rivard’s informant, Bill Bruhn, said he heard Salas bragging about killing Arreola. Cortez said she saw the boy who shot the father of her infant child as he sat in her pickup that foggy night. She picked Salas out in a photo lineup.
Shaver argues that Rivard paid Bruhn to testify against Salas and at one point recommended Cortez be charged with rendering criminal assistance for removing the pickup from evidence before it was processed by investigators.
Receipts showing that Rivard had paid Bruhn were never provided to attorney George Trejo when he defended Salas 25 years ago.
Police reports saying Cortez lied about how she obtained the truck from evidence and an incident report seeking charges also were not provided to Trejo at trial, Shaver said.
Shaver also takes issue with a handwritten note believed to be authored by Rivard suggesting Cortez undergo hypnosis if it would help her identify the shooter that also wasn’t provided at trial.
Trejo has submitted a declaration of his own supporting Shaver’s efforts in seeking a new trial.
Deputy Prosecutor Bret Roberts, who is representing the state in the matter, said Trejo didn’t work hard enough to obtain information that was available at the time of trial and called his declaration self-serving.
Shaver cites new accounts from witnesses.
Arreola’s mother recently said Cortez underwent hypnosis the day she identified Salas. Such testimonies are inadmissible in Washington state courts because hypnosis allows for false memories to be introduced.
Bruhn has since recanted his testimony against Salas, saying Rivard coached him on what to say.
Shaver also argues that Rivard had Bruhn arrested and forced to testify.
Judge weighs in
Elofson weighed whether the information Shaver presented was new and warranted questioning Rivard.
He pointed to Trejo’s declaration concerning receipts for payment to Bruhn. Trejo acknowledged that although he requested the receipts, he didn’t follow up. Elofson concluded that although the receipts weren’t presented at trial, the fact that Bruhn was a paid informant wasn’t and the receipts didn’t constitute new information.
Elofson addressed Bruhn’s arrest, noting that judges, not investigators, issue such warrants to force a witness to testify.
Elofson also reviewed the issue of the truck being removed without police approval. The truck was being kept at Denny Morrow Towing under a police hold. The towing company released it to Cortez when she told them police said it was OK.
Cortez had it cleaned and sold it.
Elofson said nothing in the record showed Rivard had anything to do with the truck’s premature removal from evidence.
Bruhn’s recantation also doesn’t warrant Rivard being questioned, Elofson said.
“It’s Mr. Bruhn’s recantation, not Rivard’s,” Elofson said.
As far as any hypnosis, Elofson said there is no record of it occurring.
A hearing is set for 1:30 p.m. Oct. 27 to determine whether there is enough evidence to grant Salas a new trial.
Interest in Salas’ conviction was renewed when it was featured in the documentary “Wrong Man” released on the STARZ television network in 2018. It was featured this year in another documentary series, “Reasonable Doubt,” on the Investigation Discovery television network.