Monday, April 14, 2008

911 call could be key to defense in Escobedo trial, attorney says


Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Saturday, April 12, 2008

WEST PALM BEACH — Evil met innocence deep in the night at the edge of Florida's Turnpike.

Two boys, just 3 and 4, executed along with their mother and father. The family Escobedo left along the road's shoulder in Port St. Lucie, sprayed with more than 20 bullets fired at close-range.

The murders in October 2006 prompted a sweeping state and federal investigation that tracked back to one of the largest cocaine rings along the East Coast, investigators have said. The investigation was so meticulous that not one, but four fingerprint examiners were called in to verify prints on a turnpike toll card.

Those prints are linked to two men federal prosecutors are seeking to execute for their alleged role in the killings. Daniel Troya and Ricardo Sanchez Jr. could face lethal injection if convicted after their trial, which is set for January 2009.

Now comes a recording of a purported 911 call from the execution scene recorded at 3:10:59 a.m. The call, if authenticated, could cast doubt on prosecutors' theory that Troya and Sanchez Jr. were the gunmen. Twinned with other evidence, the call suggests the men were 50 miles away from the scene nine minutes before shots were fired.

It's a recording the men's defense attorneys say federal investigators were aware of and possibly played for a co-defendant to pressure him. A recording, they say, that prosecutors are withholding from them.

"It's absolutely shocking to me," said attorney Donnie Murrell, who defends Sanchez. "They don't get to define what is evidence."

Murrell is asking a federal judge to force prosecutors to turn over the recording and related records.

A response from Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Carlton, a lead prosecutor in the death penalty case, is due by the end of this week.

Private eye Pat McKenna of West Palm Beach says he unearthed the call at the Florida Highway Patrol earlier this year after he pored over records and tried to track down details for Sanchez's defense.

McKenna is the investigator who discovered the bombshell tapes in the O.J. Simpson case of a detective's racial epithets and identified a key defense witness for William Kennedy Smith.

"After you look through phone records till blood's coming out of your eyeballs, you just want to try something different," McKenna said. "I was sitting there one day ... and it hit me that there's nothing in there from FHP."

One call to another within the agency led McKenna to what he calls "pure forensic gold."

The call recording is maybe 10 or 15 seconds long, he says, played for him by an FHP captain. McKenna says he heard a woman on it, wailing "Oh, oh, oh." Then gunshots - boom, boom, boom. "Then I don't hear the wailing anymore," McKenna said.

McKenna says the FHP captain, Ibrahim Egeli, told him federal agents enhanced the sound on the call so that the cries of children can be heard.

And how does this help accused killer Sanchez?

"According to four government fingerprint examiners, Ricardo Sanchez handed in a toll ticket ... at 3:02 a.m. According to the FHP 911 tape, the murder happened nine minutes later, 50 miles north," Murrell wrote in his request that prosecutors turn over the call.

McKenna said Egeli expressed concern to him about pressure from federal DEA agents and sheriff's investigators about the timing of the call. McKenna says Egeli told him that he had doublechecked FHP's system and concluded the time of the call was accurate.

Egeli declined to comment, saying he could not discuss the case at all.

McKenna now anticipates a fight with prosecutors. He expects they will call a witness "to make Capt. Egeli to look bad, mistaken or both, and he's neither."

In federal court, prosecutors are renowned for their freedom to keep evidence close to the vest, revealing as little as rules allow - then rolling it out on defendants at trial.

Witnesses and witness statements do not have to be provided to defendants prior to trial, said attorney Mark Johnson of Stuart, a former federal prosecutor for 15 years.

"In my mind that accounts for what defense lawyers view as being such an ambush," Johnson said.

Johnson said he was surprised, though, that the alleged emergency call in the Turnpike execution had not been already revealed to the defense. Johnson said that in the Department of Justice training he received, the lecturer usually advised: "'If you think it might hurt your case, you should be giving it to the defense.'"

"But that doesn't always happen," Johnson said.

Exactly who the call came from is a key fact to first understand, Johnson said.

McKenna says that Egeli seemed "confounded" about where the call came from and who made it as there was no information captured in the FHP system.

The 911 coordinator for St. Lucie County, Carolyn Dill-Collier, says emergency calls received from cell phones there often do not show the number of the person calling, just the location of the signal tower. Dill-Collier said this happens when a cell phone caller is using an older model cell phone or certain carriers. Newer model cell phones will show the number of the caller, she said.

So finding where the call to FHP came from that morning may be no easy task.

And it could be yet another mystery from the murders deep in the night.

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