Search for the Truth: The Unsupported Prosecution of Juan Catalan

This is an incredible true crime story with lots of unexpected twists and turns. It’s also an infuriating and disheartening story involving otherwise innocent people that were treated unfairly and with complete disregard by police and prosecutors, the very people tasked with uncovering the truth, not simply prosecuting the most convenient suspect.

Much has been written about this case, but usually, only in bits and pieces. I wanted to bring all of the information together in one spot, from the original murder, the unethical police behavior that led to a young woman’s death, the overzealous prosecutor who disregarded the weakness of her case, and the wrongly charged suspect who, if not for a bit of good fortunate, would likely be sitting on death row right now.

Without further ado, here’s “Search for the Truth, the Unsupported Prosecution of Juan Catalan:”

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Jose Ledesma is a bad man.

In November 2002, nineteen-year-old Ledesma, along with two other men—all members of the Vineland Boyz street gang—opened fire on an SUV containing members of a rival gang. They fired seven shots into the vehicle, killing twenty-six-year-old Enrique Acosta.

Four nights later, Ledesma approached eighteen-year-old Christian Vargas, as Vargas waited for his girlfriend near her home in North Hollywood. Without warning or conversation, Ledesma shot Vargas, killing him with one shot.

Los Angeles police detectives from the North Hollywood Division quickly solved the first murder. There were several witnesses that pinned the murder on Ledesma and Mario Catalan. Ledesma was arrested in North Hollywood, while Catalan was apprehended near the Mexican border after his girlfriend told police of his involvement in the Acosta murder.

The Vargas murder was not as easy to solve. Police couldn’t find any witnesses to the murder, although they recovered a shell casing that, through ballistics testing, matched the same 9mm semiautomatic pistol used in the Acosta murder.

Detectives Pinner and Rodriguez from the North Hollywood division were assigned to the case. Ledesma was already in custody from the Acosta murder, but when questioned by Pinner and Rodriguez, denied being involved in the Vargas murder. So, police hit the street looking for witnesses.

They spoke to sixteen-year-old Martha Puebla, an on-again, off-again girlfriend of Ledesma. On the night of the murder, Puebla and her friend Maribel were at Puebla’s house waiting for Ledesma. Vargas was waiting outside. They heard a gunshot, and when they went outside, they found Vargas slumped over the wheel of his car, dead. There are conflicting stories about what Puebla told police. Her family says that Puebla told them that she had not seen the murder of Vargas. Police contend Puebla saw the murder but refused to cooperate with them. In either case, Puebla did not name Ledesma as the shooter.

Even so, Detectives Pinner and Rodriguez returned to Ledesma and told him that Puebla had implicated him in the murder. They even produced a “six pack,” a group of six photographs of potential suspects, including Ledesma. Someone had circled Ledesma’s photograph, and at the bottom had written, “Those is the guy that shot my friends boyfriend.” The photograph was signed “MP,” supposedly for Martha Puebla.

The detectives told Ledesma that Puebla had identified him and, if he wanted a lighter sentence, he should confess. Ledesma claimed he didn’t know Puebla and refused to confess. He was returned to his cell.

The next night, Ledesma called his friend, Javier Covarrubias, known as “Cokester,” from jail and put out a hit on Puebla. “I need her to disappear,” Ledesma said. “She is dropping dimes.” Because Ledesma called from jail, the conversation was recorded. Sadly, at the time, no one bothered listening to the call.

Cokester was not very prompt. Five months later, Puebla was still alive. She was called to testify at Ledesma and Catalan’s preliminary hearing. Puebla testified that she did not know why she was there. She didn’t know anything about the Vargas murder. Los Angeles County prosecutor Beth Silverman had called Puebla to attend the preliminary hearing. She fired questions at Puebla, but the answer was always the same. Did Puebla see anyone? Did anyone say anything? Did anyone yell anything? “No. No. No.”

Also in the courtroom that day was Mario Catalan’s brother, Juan. He had once been in the Vineland Boyz street gang with his brother and Ledesma. He’d even confessed to drug possession to spare his brother jail time. But that had all changed years earlier with the birth of Juan’s daughter. After her birth, Juan left the gang, went to work at his father’s auto repair shop, and was living life as a law-abiding citizen.

Eleven days after the hearing, Cokester finally got around to doing what he had been directed to do five months earlier. According to Puebla’s father, he was sitting at home when he heard gunshots, He rushed outside to find his daughter dead. No one else was in the area, but there was a cell phone belonging to Juan Ibanez laying next to her body.

Ibanez told police that he and a group of friends were visiting Puebla outside her house when a car circled the block and parked at the end of the street. Ibanez’s friends left when they saw the car, but Ibanez stayed with Puebla. A man got out of the car and walked toward them. When he got to Puebla, he stopped. She asked the guy if he knew her. “No,” he replied, then shot her twice.

Ibanez claimed he fled, and that the killer shot at him as he ran. Police showed Ibanez a “six pack” of photos, and Ibanez picked out two photos. One of the people he picked out was already in prison. The other had an airtight alibi. Ibanez then helped police develop an artist’s sketch.

LA Magazine writes what happened next:

“Three days later the ex-girlfriend of a Vineland member went to the station and told Detective Pinner that the gang was responsible for Martha’s murder. It should’ve been obvious: Martha, a Vineland associate who had dated Vineland members, had testified in a preliminary hearing of a Vineland member, and had been falsely identified by Pinner and Rodriguez as a witness against a Vineland member, had died at the hands of a Vineland Boy.

“Despite this, detectives made no progress. The recording of Ledesma ordering Martha’s murder still sat in Pinner’s desk.”

A few nights later, police stopped a man riding a bicycle after the man gave them a suspicious look. The police frisked him but did not find anything incriminating. LAPD Officer Guiral asked the man if he was willing to talk to them, and he agreed, provided they could talk inside the squad car. The police agreed.

The man, Francisco Saldivar, admitted to being a member of the Vineland Boyz, and the police asked him about Puebla’s murder. Saldivar told the police that the shooter’s name was “Juan,” he had a girlfriend named “Alma,” he drove a white Ford F150 pickup, had a brother named “Mario,” and had just returned from hiding out in Mexico.

Police ran with the new information. They quickly arrested Juan Catalan, the brother of Mario Catalan, for the murder of Martha Puebla. Juan’s wife’s name was “Alma,” but It didn’t seem to matter to police that he had never owned a white Ford F150 and had never been to Mexico. The artist’s sketch Juan Ibanez helped the police develop looked nothing like Juan Catalan. It didn’t matter.

Juan had no idea why he had been arrested. He was stopped at gunpoint outside his father’s auto shop, his wife and four-year-old daughter in the car with him.

At the jail, Detective Pinner questioned him and accused him of the murder of Martha Puebla. Juan denied knowing Puebla or having anything to do with the murder.

“That’s you,” Detective Pinner said, pointing at a copy of the drawing the sketch artist prepared. It looked nothing like Juan.

Juan again denied being involved. “Please, that’s not me. That’s not me.”

Pinner told Juan several witnesses had identified him. This was a lie.

Juan was panicking. “Can I take a lie detector test or something?”

“No,” Pinner said.

It was then Juan realized that the detectives didn’t really care if he had committed the murder or not. If they could pin it on him, they would.

LA Magazine picks up the story again:

“Juan spent three days in the Van Nuys jail before he could see a judge, who transferred him to Los Angeles County. The cell was built for fifty men and must’ve held twice that number. Tensions behind bars run along racial lines, and whites, Latinos, and blacks managed an uneasy coexistence. Each group was led by a “shot caller.”

As soon as Juan arrived a trustee—an inmate with freedom to move around the jail—approached the bars to talk to the Latino shot caller.

“Hey man, we’ve got somebody that’s no good in here.’

“County jail, crowded as it was with killers and rapists, seemed an unlikely spot for moral judgments, but even the worst criminals feel entitled to punish certain offenders. It clicked for Juan: Martha was sixteen. He would be treated as a child murderer.

“I’ll get you the name after dinner,’ said the trustee.

“The shot caller salivated at the prospect of hurting or killing the man responsible.

“Juan stared at his food over dinner and couldn’t eat. Walking back to the cell he saw deputies wrestling with the trustee, whose face was pinned to the wall.  A deputy had caught the trustee searching inmate files to find the child killer’s name. He was taken to solitary confinement without being able to share what he’d learned.”

After the incident at LA County Jail, Juan was transferred to Wayside Maximum Security Prison, one of several, unannounced, unexplained transfers. It was at Wayside that his attorney, Todd Melnik finally caught up with him.

Melnik is a bit of a trope. He is a former assistant district attorney who saw firsthand some of the things prosecutors do to get convictions, and decided he’d rather be a defense attorney. After meeting with Juan, Melnik hit the street, tracking down the friends who had been with Puebla prior to her murder. After talking to them, he realized that things weren’t exactly as Ibanez had made them out to be. He found out that Puebla had taken a phone call shortly before they left, and after pulling the phone records, realized that she was still on the phone while the shooter was on-scene.

More importantly, he learned from Juan’s wife that the day of Puebla’s murder, Juan had attended a Dodgers baseball game with his friend, a cousin, and the cousin’s daughter. They all confirmed the story.

Melnik pulled video from Dodger Stadium’s “Dodger Vision” camera that sweeps the stands looking for fans to highlight. He searched a ton of VHS tapes, and finally found a tape that had scanned the section where Juan’s group was sitting. Unfortunately, the images were blurry and didn’t prove Juan was at the game.

When Melnik delivered the bad news, Juan was despondent. He swore he was at the game at the time of the murder. He even remembered a film crew at the game that night. “I saw “Super” Dave Osborn in my section.”

“Super” Dave Osborn was a character on Super Dave, an old HBO show. The main character, an overly-optimistic stuntman inspired by Evil Knievel, who often gets gravely injured while doing his stunts, was played by comedian Bob Einstein. But Super Dave hadn’t aired since 1991. Who had Juan really seen?

The Dodgers directed Melnik to HBO, but not because of Super Dave. Instead, Melnik learned that Curb Your Enthusiasm had been filming the night of Puebla’s murder. Melnik was unfamiliar with the show. He called, and was told they could not release pre-production footage until the show aired the following February. It was only May and Melnik needed that footage.

“My client is facing the death penalty for something he didn’t do,” Melnik said.

“Let me talk to Larry David. Hold on.” the voice on the other end of the phone said. Melnik had no idea who Larry David was. When the person returned to the phone, he said, “Larry says we can show you the footage. When do you want to come?”

Again, LA Magazine:

“The next morning Todd and the Curb Your Enthusiasm crew sat in an editing room. The episode featured Larry picking up a prostitute, so that he could use the carpool lane on the way to Dodger Stadium. A crew member fed tapes into a machine, one after another, each 5-7 minutes long. No sign of Juan.

“Then Todd jumped out of his chair and ran to the screen. ‘That’s him, that’s him, roll it back.’ Larry David and Juan Catalan walked right passed one another in the aisle in full view of the camera. The room went nuts.

“I’ll be damned,’ said Larry, putting his hand on his chin. ‘Maybe I should make an episode about this.’ The time code on the tape indicated it was filmed between 8:58pm and 9:10pm. Martha’s killer drove down Lull Street, fifteen miles away, shortly after 10:00pm. Todd would need something more to get the judge to dismiss.”

Meanwhile, Juan was wasting away in jail. He witnessed one man get beaten until he was unconscious. Another time, he found himself in the middle of a riot between Latino and black inmates. “That place is for animals,” Juan said, referring to LA County jail. “It’s not for human beings.”

Without Juan there to help his father, he almost lost his auto repair business. Even so, his dad found a way to financially support Alma and the kids while Juan was wrongly imprisoned.

Juan was in jail in part because Detectives Pinner and Rodriguez claimed that Juan Ibanez had identified him in a “six pack” lineup. However, there was no documentation to prove that Ibanez had actually picked out Juan. The judge ordered the prosecution to re-do the lineup and videotape the whole thing.

Melnik wanted to stop the prosecution at the preliminary hearing stage. He had promised Juan’s daughter that he would have her dad home before Christmas. The preliminary hearing was held December 17. California has one of the lowest thresholds to move past the preliminary hearing in a murder case, only having to find that there is a “strong suspicion” that the defendant is guilty  Melnick also knew that the prosecutor, Beth Silverman, who’s nickname is “Sniper,” had never lost a murder case. It wasn’t going to be easy.

Melnik ran into Detective Pinner the day before Juan’s preliminary hearing, and the detective told him that Juan Ibanez would not be testifying at trial. That didn’t make sense to Melnik. Ibanez was the prosecution’s only eye witness. California law allowed the police to give hearsay testimony in such cases, but if Ibanez was available, his testimony would be much more credible.

The next day in court, Ibanez was the prosecution’s very first witness. Melnik was ready. He threw his coat over Juan, hiding his face,  and proceeded to question Ibanez about the appearance of the shooter. Ibanez, who had never seen Juan in person before, described him as dark skinned and stocky, and said he was slightly taller than Ibanez himself, who was 5’5”.

Melnik revealed Juan, who was light-skinned, thin, and approximately 6’1”. Melnik even borrowed a tape measure from the court reporter and measured Juan for the court. Even so, Ibanez identified Juan as Martha Puebla’s killer.

The court then viewed the video that the police had recorded of Ibanez picking Juan out of a “six pack” lineup. It was obvious that Ibanez was not at all confident in which photo to point to. He sat quietly for a long time not making a choice while looking over the photos. Indecipherable whispering is heard in the background before Ibanez finally points to the photo of Juan.

Next, Detective Pinner testified. He admitted that he had been given Juan’s alibi of being at a Dodger’s game at the time of the shooting, but he never really checked it out. He claimed to have spoken to people familiar with the Dodger’s schedule and learned that the game ended before the shooting took place, so Pinner didn’t think Juan had much of an alibi.

Next, Melnik questioned the Detective about the car the shooter was driving. It was variously described as a dark blue or black Honda, Toyota, or Chevy, with all five windows tinted. Juan was driving a Chevy Tahoe SUV, not a car, and none of the windows were tinted.

Pinner dismissed Melnik’s contention that the car didn’t match the description given by saying that Juan had once received a traffic ticket while driving a relative’s black Nissan Maxima. Melnik asked if the detective had looked into whether or not the Maxima was available to Juan the night of the murder or if the car had tinted windows. Pinner admitted he had not checked.

When asked about Juan’s motive for killing Puebla, Pinner testified that Juan’s motive was that Puebla had testified against Juan’s brother, Mario, at his murder trial. However, Martha hadn’t testified against Mario or anyone else. She was called to testify against Ledesma for the murder of Christian Vargas, in which Mario Catalan was not charged, but said she hadn’t seen Ledesma or anyone else shoot Vargas. Puebla was no threat to Mario, had not testified against him, and posed him no harm. Pinner even admitted that at no time, either during the investigation or in testimony in court, did Martha Puebla say Mario Catalan’s name. In fact, Mario Catalan’s attorney stood behind Mario in court and asked Puebla if she had ever seen Mario before. She said she hadn’t. Even so, Pinner and DA Silverman clung to the belief that the killing of Martha Puebla was motivated by revenge.

Normally, the defense does not offer evidence at this stage of the proceeding. The preliminary hearing is designed for the court to have an opportunity to examine the prosecution’s evidence to see if the case should proceed. However, there are exceptions, and Melnik thought Juan’s case was one of them. They had evidence of Juan being at the game. They had cell photo records that tended to exonerate him. They had witness who were at the game with Juan. Melnik wanted to present the evidence to the court so he could get Juan home before Christmas.

DA Silverman objected to the defense offering evidence to the court, claiming that she had not been provided with the evidence. However, California law is clear that the prosecution is not entitled to see the defense’s evidence at this stage of the proceedings. The court was reluctant to allow the evidence in at the preliminary hearing but agreed when Juan waived his right to an uninterrupted hearing. Juan agreed, and the preliminary hearing was continued until January 9. Juan wouldn’t be home for Christmas, but he would get a chance to offer evidence to exonerate himself without having to wait for a full hearing.

At the next hearing, Melnik presented the video evidence from Curb Your Enthusiasm, he offered cell phone records indicating that Juan’s cell phone had pinged off a cell tower located at the police academy at 10:11 pm indicating he was within a mile of the tower at the time of the murder. Juan’s friend, cousin, and cousin’s daughter all testified that Juan was with them the entire night, that he never left the game, and that they rode home together.

In Melnik’s summation, he said, “I think it’s unconscionable the district attorney’s office has proceeded on this case with the evidence that they have presented. This man would be facing the death penalty if he hadn’t, by the grace of God, gotten Dodger tickets from someone the day before and invited these people, and got caught on video from that HBO show. He’s a lucky man.

“He sits here before this court innocent of the charges that have been placed before him. They are very serious charges, and somebody is still walking around the San Fernando Valley that’s responsible.”

Silverman was defiant. In her closing argument she stressed how credible Juan Ibanez had been on the stand, and returned to her contention that Juan Catalan had killed Martha Puebla as revenge for testifying against Juan’s brother, Mario.

At the end of closing arguments, the judge didn’t hesitate to issue his ruling. “I do not have any suspicion that the defendant committed this crime, and this case is dismissed.”

Melnik embraced his client, but Juan’s troubles weren’t over yet. Following the trial, Silverman went on TV promising to continue the investigation and ultimately convict Juan.

For a few days, Juan was a free man, but he had to return to jail to serve time on the drug charge he had confessed to previously. Melnik tried to cut a deal with Silverman, contending that Juan had already spent six months in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. That should be enough. Silverman was unmoved. She said Juan would have to serve two more weeks, or risk going to court and facing the possibility of five years in prison. Juan returned to jail.

On his first day back in jail, Juan was placed in a cell with three members of a black street gang that was feuding with the Latinos in jail. He was certain this was done on purpose and that he was going to end up dead. For his own protection, he stayed awake day and night. When a jail trustee delivered some blankets to his cellmates, he knew he was in trouble. His experience told him that knives were often delivered in blankets.

That night, a guard checked on him and asked if everything was alright. Juan knew that if he said “no” and the guard ignored him, his cellmates would surely kill him. So, he said “yes,” but the guard wasn’t buying it. He took Juan out of the cell and put him in with a group of Latino inmates for the duration of his stay.

Once he was out of jail, Juan sued the City of Los Angeles for violating his civil rights. Melnik thought they had a strong case, especially if Ibanez testified that he was pressured to lie about Juan being Martha Puebla’s murderer. Melnik was anxious to depose Ibanez, but he couldn’t get the city to tell him where Ibanez was located. Finally, a court intervened, ordering the city to reveal Ibanez’s location. As it turned out, Ibanez was in a federal immigration holding facility. Melnik made arrangements to depose Ibanez at the federal facility, but the day before the scheduled deposition, Ibanez was mysteriously deported to Mexico.

At the trial, Officer Guiral could not explain why he thought Francisco Salvidar’s tip was so credible or why they acted so quickly on the information when so much of it didn’t point to Juan Catalan as a suspect.

Detective Rodriguez was asked if he found Juan Ibanez’s testimony credible. “He was the only witness we had,” Rodriguez confessed.

Detective Pinner’s testimony was most surprising. He testified that he had never been trained as a homicide detective, and admitted that he had lost count of how many public complaints had been filed against him. At one point he flew into a rage because Todd Melnik was tapping his coffee cup on the table. He continued to contend that Juan Catalan was Martha Puebla’s killer.

Beth Silverman remained defiant in her deposition. She maintained that the court released a guilty man when they released Juan Catalan, showing no remorse for her questionable prosecution of him.

Despite the testimony from Silverman and the three officers, the case wasn’t nearly as strong without the testimony of Juan Ibanez. Juan’s civil rights attorney, Gary Casselman, feared that they were about to lose the case. When the city offered Juan $80,000, he took it.

In 2017, Netflix debuted a documentary called Long Shot that highlighted the Juan Catalan case. Because of the Larry David/Curb You Enthusiasm connection, the documentary is more lighthearted than it otherwise would have been, avoiding some of the more controversial aspects of the case. The truth is that the police and prosecution dropped the ball at several points throughout the case. They had a single-minded purpose to prosecute and convict Juan Catalan, with no regard for the truth or the rights of any of the people involved.

Even so, the documentary is very good and worth watching. It really is an incredible story that Juan Catalan’s alibi was discovered because of a crazy HBO comedy. Had they not been at the ballpark the night of the murder, and if Juan hadn’t shown up on the pre-production tapes, he’d likely be sitting in jail today, serving time for the murder of Martha Puebla.

Here’s a trailer for the Netflix documentary, Long Shot:

 

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