John Mimbela, the President of Mimbela Contractors, gives an exclusive interview to QuePasoElPaso to tell us about his quest for justice.
The purpose of his quest is to raise people's awareness about teenagers who are wrongfully convicted in court and sentenced to life in prison. He is trying to get a new hearing for Daniel Villegas, who is currently serving his life sentence in Texan prison after being coerced into confession of killing two teenagers. The message that John Mimbela wants to pass on to other people is that this can happen to any child. As studies show, 44% of teenagers under wrong conviction gave false confession after an intimidating or unfair interrogation.
To learn more about Quest for Justice, visit official website and read our interview below.
QuePasoElPaso: John, were you born in El Paso?
John: Yes, I was born and raised here.
QuePasoElPaso: Where did you study?
John: I have high school education. I finished Irvin High School in North East.
QuePasoElPaso: How did you get involved a contractors' business?
John: My dad used to be a small contractor. He had a two-three men operation. So I inherited his business. Now we have about 200 employees.
QuePasoElPaso: What other businesses are you involved with?
John: We also have an investment company, Mimbela Investments. We buy homes or apartments. Right now with all the troops coming in the area, we prepare homes for rent.
QuePasoElPaso: I heard that you are good friends with Antonio Escalante. Why do you support boxing?
John: Antonio Escalante came to me a couple of years ago. At this level it is very difficult for boxers to make any money, so they need the support of business people. They get paid probably 10-20 thousand dollars a fight, and they have fights once or twice a year. But they don't even get half of what they earn because they have trainers and managers to pay to. So they are lucky to make 20 thousand dollars a year.
Antonio came to me for financial support to be able to make it to the next level because that's where he'll start making the good money. So I try to help him.
QuePasoElPaso: Tell me about your Quest for Justice project.
John: It's about a kid who I found out about when I remarried 5 years ago. Daniel Villegas is my wife's ex-brother-in-law. I've got three daughters that I adopted from my new wife. He is their uncle. When I'd go to visit their grandparents with the girls, I would hear about their son in prison and that he is innocent. Well, of course the first thought was: “Every parent thinks that their son is innocent”.
I didn't pay too much attention until one day about 3 years ago. I went to their house and found them all crying. They told me that their son would never come out of prison. I asked them why. They said that they never had any money to get help or get a good lawyer.
They received a letter in which they were told that nothing could be done for their son's case because there was no DNA evidence. In fact in his case there was no physical evidence at all. The weapon and the car involved in the shooting were never found. No life witnesses either.
I looked at the facts closer and realized that maybe he is innocent. So I told them to give me all the paperwork and I would deal with it.
QuePasoElPaso: Tell me about Daniel's trial.
John: Actually Daniel had 2 trials. The first one was a hung jury. He was acquitted but he was also ordered to stand trial again. His first lawyer, whom the family paid 10 thousand dollars, was pretty average, I would say. But the lawyer during the second trial was court appointed because the family couldn't collect the money to hire one. This lawyer didn't do his job well. There were 18 witnesses that he did not bother to call. Daniel had an alibi - he was babysitting with his two best friends when the crime happened. But the lawyer did not bother to use this information.
Basically Daniel was forced into a confession. There were other teens, who said that the same detective, Alfonso Marquez, who got Daniel to admit to something he didn't do, did it to them. None of this was presented to the jury by the lawyer. When I started looking at the papers, I thought that there was a possibility that Daniel was innocent.
QuePasoElPaso: What did you do when you came to that conclusion?
John: I hired the private investigator, Freddie Bonilla. He is an ex homicide detective. He was in the force for about 30 years. We went to look for all the witnesses.
Here is how it happened. Four kids were walking, when a car stopped and someone shot them from the car. Two of the kids got hit and died. Two other kids survived and ran away. So the private investigator and I decided that they were the two witnesses who could tell us what happened. After a few months of searching around we found them.
The first thing I asked the first kid we found was: “Do you think that Daniel committed the crime?” And the guy said: “I don't know. I just figured that the police did their job and found that out. I had not known Daniel or ever heard about him.” So I asked him: “Do you know that the weapon was never found? Or the car you, guys, described was never found. And there were no eye witnesses.” So he was surprised and asked: “How did he get convicted then?” And I told him that he got coerced into a false confession.
Daniel was interrogated for 6 hours. They threatened him. They told him that if he did not confess he was going to get a death penalty – the electric chair. After 6 hours he saw no other way out, because they told him he was not going to leave the room until he confessed. But at the same time they told him that if he confessed, nothing was going to happen to him because he was a juvenile. They would let him go and parents would pick him up. So he confessed because he didn't see any other way out.
After I told all that to the kids, I asked them if they had ever seen Daniel's confession. They didn't. So I showed them. And the first thing they said was that it wasn't the car that they described. In his confession Daniel said that it was a white midsize 4-door car. But the car that the teenagers described to the police was a big, 2-door Monte Carlo type and it was maroon.
Daniel also stated that he was going from Transmountain towards Dyer when he first saw them. But the boys said that the car was coming from the opposite side, towards the Transmountain drive. So it didn't make sense either. There were many things in the confession that didn't coincide with what the eye-witnesses were saying.
QuePasoElPaso: What would Daniel's motive be according to the court?
John: They said that it was a gang-related shooting. Daniel had a tattoo which meant that he was part of a gang. And Daniel never concealed that. He didn't hang around with the gang. But kids at that age just want to belong to some group. So he was a gang member. However, the two kids who survived and two victims were not gang members and weren't related to the gang. This theory that police had about the gang-related shooting does not really work.
QuePasoElPaso: What was the incentive for police to suspect Daniel in this crime?
John: There were a lot of kids back at the time who'd claim they did a crime to brag about it and look like big shots. Daniel had a cousin, who he'd often play such jokes with. A few days after the shooting, the cousin called him and asked if Daniel heard about the kids that got shot. And Daniel said: “Guess who did it? I did it. I blew them away with a shotgun”. The kids started laughing, but apparently the cousin told somebody else. So someone called police and told them it was Daniel.
But I found out that the kids weren't shot with a shotgun. It was a 22, which is a small gun.
QuePasoElPaso: Could you tell us how it happened in more detail?
John: Four teenagers were leaving a party. They could walk down Fairbanks to get home. But instead of that they took an alternative route down Transmountain to avoid the LML gang.
QuePasoElPaso: Why did they want to avoid it?
John: Armando, one of the kids that got shot, was a really good fighter. He had some problems with the gang members. Daniel, however, wasn't related to that gang at all.
They were half way to the place where the shooting happened when they saw a car approach. They thought that it was their friends. The car stopped and they started walking towards it. And then the car took off. The kids continued walking down Electric Ave and saw the car come up again. The car was parked across the street and the lights were turned off. The kids started walking towards it again because they still thought that their friends were in the car. And that's when they saw the window go down and someone began shooting from the car. They all started running but two kids got shot. One of them made it to the front door of the house where the car parked and started knocking on the door. But later he died on the way to the hospital. Two other kids ran away.
By the way, in Daniel's confession it says that after he shot the guys he went to chaise the kid that knocked on the door and started shooting at him. The autopsy shows that there were no wounds in the back. We also talked to the neighbors and inspected the house for bullet marks, and we didn't find any proof of that.
In addition to that, two kids, who according to the confession were in the front seats of the car, when Daniel supposedly did the shooting, could not be there. One of them was at the detention house, and the other one was under a house arrest at that time. All of this was verified by the police afterwords, days or months before the trial.
QuePasoElPaso: What did the private investigator think about this case?
John: Freddie Bonilla told me that Daniel's confession was never corroborated. It didn't not match with what the witnesses said. The weapon and the car were never found. But once they got Daniel to confess 11 days after the shooting they stopped the whole investigation.
QuePasoElPaso: Were the two kids that survived also interrogated?
John: The irony is that these kids were almost the first ones that the police went after. One of the boys said that the same detective that made Daniel take the blame also accused him in this crime when he first started interrogating him. It's because the kids were kind of horse-playing just before the shooting happened. So one boy who got shot gave his ring and beeper to his friend to hold it. So since the friend had those things with him after the shooting, the police told him he had a motive and he killed his friend. They put a lot of pressure on him. And for a while he wanted to get out of there so much, that he was ready to say: “Yes, I did it”.
So he knows that it could have been him in jail now. And he says that till this day he has nightmares that he shot his friends. That's how traumatized this detective left him. These kids now support Daniel. They want to find out the truth.
QuePasoElPaso: Do families of deceased children support your quest for justice?
John: As far as we know Robert England was raised by his grandparents, and they both passed away. The other kid, Armando Lazo, happened to be a close friend with one of the surviving kids, Juan. Juan tried talking to Armando's mom, but she got very angry because she thought that were trying to get a killer out of prison. She didn't talk to Juan for a while. But after she saw our first article about this case, she is now more open about it.
QuePasoElPaso: Who do you blame for Daniel's conviction?
John: Well, first of all it's the detectives, Alfonso Marquez in particular, who should have corroborated Daniel's confession. Like my private detective said: “If Daniel did it, he would have known where the gun was, who the gun belonged to, who the car belonged to, who was driving that car, and what happened to that car”. The only thing the detectives cared about was that Daniel confessed, but they didn't want anyone to know how they got that confession out of him. Kids at that age are very vulnerable. You can trick and manipulate them into anything. Not to mention the fact that they can get other kids say that their friend did something wrong. And that's exactly what happened in Daniel's case.
QuePasoElPaso: Do you know anything about Alfonso Marquez now?
John: Many people complained about him. I know that he is no longer working as a detective, he is not a credible witness, and they don't use him to testify any more. As a matter of fact after the first story on Daniel that we released, we got some anonymous calls saying that it was exactly how the detective operated. It's a shame that people won't admit mistakes they make.
QuePasoElPaso: Is it really true that many teenagers can give false confession under a lot of pressure?
John: Yes. We back it all up with facts. It is not like we want to get Daniel out of the jail just because we like him or something. We have communicated to different groups and they say that 44% of wrongfully convicted teenagers actually gave a false confession. And that could be your child! 25% of people who have been cleared with DNA evidence also gave false confessions.
QuePasoElPaso: Why after all the collected evidence and witnesses is Daniel still in prison? And what steps are you taking to get him out of there?
John: They are telling us that this does not prove that he didn't commit the crime, even if it didn't happen the way it is described in the confession.
Now what we are trying to do is to show that if the defense lawyer did what he had to do, there would be a different outcome. I don't blame the jury for their decision, especially with the information that they were given. But the lawyer had to do his job right.
What we are getting into now is called a Writ of Habeas Corpus. That is the last chance for a person in prison to say that he is being confined unfairly. You see, our constitutional right grants us a fair trial. A fair trial means that you should have a competent lawyer. Unfortunately Daniel didn't have one. That's what we are after: getting him a new hearing.
I hired a new lawyer, Charles Roberts, to file a Writ of Habeas Corpus to show that Daniel's lawyer was not competent and didn't give the proper representation. We want a new hearing so we can bring up all new evidence. We filed it in December, and there is really no time limit. I don't know how long it will take. It took me almost two years to gather all the information, so it is a slow process.
However, we have made a lot of progress. One organization that deals with cases of wrongful conviction has agreed to look at Daniel's situation. They receive 4000 cases, but right now they are looking only at 15 of them, including Daniel's case. I think those are really good odds for us.
After the first publication I got a call from the mayor who thanked me for bringing the awareness to people. We received a letter from our congressman, Silvestre Reyes, who also supports us.
QuePasoElPaso: I found on your website that you offer a reward of $50,000.00 for any information that will lead to conviction of the real killer. Has anyone ever tried to contact you with such information?
John: Yes, several people called us. Right after the first story aired, we got a call from California from a girl who dated one of the kids who got killed. She told me that Daniel did not do it and she know who did it. She gave me the name. It wouldn't be correct to mention it here though.
We also suspect that person and he was the first suspect that police had. The person was a member of the LML gang. The girl said that her boyfriend, Armando, never even mentioned Daniel. She did say that Armando had beat up that guy from the LML gang, who later was looking for revenge.
Now we need someone else who was in the car to confirm this. And that's what I am trying to do – to appeal to this person who knows the truth to come forward. We do offer a reward, but mainly it should be done for the kid who does not deserve to be in jail. Daniel left a little girl behind. He never got to see his little baby grow up.
QuePasoElPaso: What is your goal in this quest, besides releasing Daniel?
John: We are trying to start an organization for the wrongfully convicted youths. We want to bring the awareness in people that this kind of thing can happen to anyone, even to their child. At the age of 16, which is when Daniel was convicted, you cannot sign a contract, but you can sign your life away. First of all the interrogation should be videotaped. Secondly, he should not have been there by himself at this age. He should have been accompanied by a lawyer or his parents.
Kids can be easily manipulated into saying anything. If your child gets picked up by police, go with him. Don't let him go by himself.
QuePasoElPaso: What advice would you give to a teenager in Daniel's situation? Imagine that a young person is interrogated, scared, and on the verge of confessing into something he didn't do.
John: Know your rights. Know that you don't have to say anything. Know that they will threaten you, but it is not as bad as in the countries where they actually do what they threaten you with. For example, in Mexico they don't even deny that they beat suspects up.
We probably do have the best system in the world. It's just a shame that they'd rather keep someone innocent locked up for the rest of their life than admit that a mistake was made.
QuePasoElPaso: You did see Daniel personally. What can you tell us about his personality?
John: Yes, I visited Daniel about 15 times. He is a very loving and forgiving person after everything that happened to him. He tells me that the thing that bothered him most was that for a long time no body believed him. Everybody would say: “I would never confess to something I didn't do”. But as I said studies show that it's not true. As Chris Ochoa, another victim of wrong conviction, explained: after a while you don't know what's up or what's down, and you are just so confused. So Daniel's biggest challenge was that no body believed him. Sometimes he'd even doubt that his parents believed him. And knowing that they didn't have any money he saw himself locked up for the rest of his life.
But he did tell me that one day he was praying and asking God to show him a sign that he would not spend the rest of his life in prison. He was so desperate, he'd rather kill himself. And he said that a few days later he received my letter in which I told him that I was going to help him with his case.