In the case of Shaun Wilkins and Roy Buchner v. De Reyes, Jacoby and Fenner, a federal jury addressed the issue of the scope of police interrogations, and how far an interrogation can go before it becomes coercive. The civil case against the investigating officers went to trial in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico in October of 2010, almost 15 years after the murders took place.
On April 14, 1996, Ben Anaya, Sr. found four badly decomposed bodies in a remote cabin he owned near the village of Torreon, in the Manzano Mountains outside of Albuquerque, N.M. One was that of his son, Ben Anaya, Jr., age 17. Another adult was Ben’s girlfriend, Cassandra Sedillo, age 23. The other two bodies were those of Sedillo’s two boys, ages 3 and 4. Investigators would later find out that both the adults had been shot, while the boys were left locked in the cabin with no way to escape. The children ultimately died of starvation and dehydration. The murders became known as the Torreon Cabin Homicides.
An initial investigation was conducted by the county sheriff’s office, but they quickly turned it over to the New Mexico State Police due to lack of resources. Capt. Michael Fenner and Agent Frank Jacoby were assigned. They recognized gang involvement and requested assistance from the Albuquerque Police Department Gang Unit. Officer Juan de Reyes was assigned to the investigative team. Within days, the intense investigation focused on two members of the 18th Street Gang: Shaun Wilkins and Roy Buchner.
Capt. Fenner and Officer de Reyes conducted the majority of the interviews and interrogations, questioning gang members, their families and anyone who might have knowledge of what happened at the cabin. They made traffic stops of known gang members and used gang databases to identify associates. There was very little physical evidence due to the amount of time that had passed between the murders and the discovery of the bodies.
With the assistance of investigative polygraphs, a story began to emerge. Sometime in December of 1995, Ben, Sedillo and her two boys went out to the cabin to hide out from gang members who were involved in a dispute with Ben. Shawn Popeleski (“Popcorn”) went with them. Popeleski had been ranked out of the gang because the other gang members thought he was a “snitch,” but Ben had remained friends with him. Ben had been in a high position in the gang, a position coveted by Wilkins. They all partied for some time, using cocaine and other drugs, as well as drinking.
The three visitors—Wilkins, Buchner, and another gang member, Lawrence Nieto—left the cabin, presumably heading back to the city, and Ben and Sedillo went to bed. However, the three gang members returned to the cabin on foot. While Nieto held Popeleski on the ground at gunpoint, Wilkins and Buchner went back into the cabin and shot the two adults.
As they left, they locked the door from the outside with a deadbolt. Popeleski ran off into the woods. The other three left carrying Ben’s guns and drugs. Popeleski later made his way back into the city in Ben’s Jeep, which was later found abandoned in Pecos, Texas. Popeleski later claimed, “I thought everyone in the cabin was dead” to excuse the fact that he never made a call for someone to find the children.
After several years of legal wrangling in the criminal law arena and trips to the Court of Appeals, Nieto and Popeleski were convicted as accomplices to the murders. Nieto was called to testify in Buchner’s trial and recanted his statements that Wilkins and Buchner were the killers, and testified that Officer de Reyes and Agent Jacoby pressured him into giving that testimony “by harassing me and stuff.” Wilkins’ and Buchner’s juries were unable to reach a verdict.
Prosecutors filed a nolle prosequi, indicating that there was “insufficient evidence”—an error that would have serious implications years later in the civil suit. Because one of the elements of a malicious prosecution claim is the termination of the underlying action in favor of the plaintiff, the court held that the phrase “insufficient evidence” constituted termination in favor, where a hung jury wouldn’t have.
In 2002, Wilkins and Buchner filed a lawsuit for civil rights violations and malicious prosecution against the officers, alleging that their interrogation techniques were so aggressive as to have coerced Popeleski and Nieto into giving false testimony implicating them in the murders. A key issue in the suit was an allegation that Officer de Reyes carried a vendetta against Wilkins because of a drive-by shooting that had occurred at Officer de Reyes’ home, for which de Reyes suspected Wilkins. The plaintiffs alleged that all of the officers “knew they were contriving false charges against innocent men.” By the time the case came up for trial, all of the officers had retired, but each of them spent countless hours in preparation for their testimony.
The plaintiffs alleged that the officers contrived a story of how the murders occurred and then, through the use of leading questions, planted their version of events in the minds of Popeleski and Nieto until they told the story the officers wanted to hear. They alleged that it was Officer de Reyes and Capt. Fenner who brought their names into the investigation, and that they coerced information that was false. They claimed that the interrogations were held while the suspects were in custody and that requests for an attorney were denied.
The case against the officers at trial focused on what interrogation methods are acceptable, and when officers cross the line into a civil rights violation. All of the interrogations were videotaped. Jurors viewed hours of the tapes, and both sides made arguments about the propriety of the interrogation methods.
Nieto was still in state custody at the time of the trial: When called to testify, he pleaded the Fifth Amendment and gave no useful testimony. Popeleski had been paroled, but disappeared shortly after his release and did not testify. Wilkins and Buchner testified as to how they had been framed for the murders, and claimed damages for the emotional distress of pretrial incarceration at the Penitentiary of New Mexico as pretrial detainees.
The prosecuting attorney, Madeline Melka, testified that she had overseen all of the interrogations and found them completely appropriate. She confirmed that no threats or promises had been issued to the suspects. She also approved the arrest warrants Capt. Jacoby drafted and had them approved by a magistrate.
Plaintiffs argued that the intimidating demeanor of the officers, as well as the length of the interrogation sessions, and how and where they were conducted, violated their civil rights and terrified Nieto and Popeleski into giving false information. They also alleged that the officers presented fabricated testimony to official bodies.
Attorneys for the officers noted that the suspects were hardened gang members, leading lives of crime, who’d been questioned by police many times in the past. The law enforcement defendants further pointed out that, in each instance, the suspects had come in voluntarily and were free to leave at all times; that none of the sessions lasted more than a couple of hours; and they all took place in a State Police office. At no time were there physical threats or deprivation of food, water or bathroom privileges. Moreover, the statements ultimately elicited were corroborated by investigative polygraphs of Nieto, Popeleski and Wilkins.
The jury found unanimously in favor of the police defendants. One woman commented that “this wasn’t anything I don’t do to my kids when they won’t give me a straight story.” The case clearly illustrates that an aggressive law enforcement interrogation does not have to cross the line to be successful. Unfortunately, it took many years for these officers to be vindicated.
NOTE: Accusations of police misconduct are frequently an element of a vigorous criminal defense. Professional conduct will prevail, but a videotaped or audiotaped record is often key in proving police actions were proper. Documentation must be thorough and done with the knowledge that review of actions often comes years after the report is written.