By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
Detectives made a point of telling prosecutor Bernstein that Leon seemed truthful. "I was called by the police and told about the arrest of Mr. Leon and the statements that he had made and the fact that at that time ... the police put some credibility on what he had said," Bernstein said at his deposition.
Detectives immediately summoned Lola to the homicide bureau. "Upon arrival Celia Lola was confronted with Luis Leon's allegation," Detective Blanco stated in his report, "at which time she immediately informed the detectives that she had been raped."
A detective from the sexual-battery unit was brought in to interview her. According to a summary of Lola's description of the rape, after beating Pacheco unconscious, "the subject [Leon] then told the victim [Lola] to get into the car and drive to his house, so that öwe can take care of business.' [Lola] told the subject öI have to get Frankie to the hospital.' [Leon] tells the victim öFrankie will be all right, he's just sleeping.' [Leon] gives the victim directions to this residence and they leave the homicide scene. Upon arrival at the subject's residence, [Lola] tells the subject that Frankie doesn't look good. [Leon] tells the victim öHe'll be all right, come on in the house so we can get this over with.'"
Inside the apartment, Lola said, Leon ordered her to strip naked. She protested, telling him: "öNo, I have to take care of Frankie.' [Leon] tells the victim öI told you to take off your clothes. Frankie will be all right, he's just sleeping.'" Lola did as she was commanded. After the rape, Leon went to the bathroom. "At this point the victim gets dressed, opens the window, and jumps out," the interview summary states. Leon, she said, came running outside. "You shouldn't have done that," he told her. Lola "then asked [Leon] if she can leave now and take care of Frankie. The subject tells the victim öYeah, you can go. It's been taken care of.'"
At the end of the interview, Lola declined to press charges. "I didn't want to have to go and see this man again," she tells New Times resolutely, gazing at the floor.
Officers returned to Leon and asked if he would take a polygraph. He refused. Records don't indicate if police also asked Lola to take a polygraph. Her lawyer says he would have no objections. "She would not decline one," Neil Taylor says.
When prosecutor Bernstein was told about this new information, it changed everything for him. His main witness had lost all credibility as far as he was concerned. "This case had to be nolle prossed [dropped] because of serious credibility problems which developed during the course of the investigation," Bernstein wrote in his close-out memo. He noted that the wounds Pacheco suffered from the beating were not life-threatening, but they became so after he was shoved into the car and not taken directly to the hospital. The prosecutor cited the fact that Lola broke her ankle jumping out a window and not from being pushed down at the crime scene, as she told police. He noted that she told him she had "prostituted herself for crack," which contradicted her assertion that she did not tell police she was raped because she was "embarrassed." He wrote that the detectives who questioned Leon "felt that he was being credible and they had serious doubts about the credibility of Ms. Lola." (Attempts to reach Leon at his grandmother's apartment were unsuccessful.)
Four days after police arrested Luis Leon, Bernstein dropped all charges against him. Even the Homestead arrest for fleeing police, a felony case handled by another prosecutor, was eventually dropped.
The physical evidence in the case had not changed, but the investigators' feelings about Lola did. Which raises a question: How thoroughly did authorities wrestle with those feelings? After all, a potential murderer and sexual predator was set free.
Bernstein, in a phone interview with New Times, says he struggled plenty with this investigation. "This is one of the saddest murder cases I have ever handled," he says. "Every problem we could have had, we seemed to have in this -- from the cause of death to the fact that we had to immunize someone. Every single decision we made in this case, everything seemed to go wrong. I feel terrible for the family."
The detectives and Bernstein were clearly angry with Lola for omitting the rape from her statement and altering the rest of her story to cover for the omission. Her betrayal was absolute in their eyes, making everything she said suspect. They had trouble believing that a rape victim would not report this crime to police or not want to press charges. And if police didn't believe she was raped, they were most likely repelled by the idea she had sex with Leon after Pacheco was beaten. They certainly couldn't comprehend why she would drive to a friend's house first and not go straight to the hospital, or better yet, call 911, with a dying Pacheco in the back seat.