Unsolved cases pile up in Puerto Rico

October 29, 2011 - 3:25 AM
Puerto Rico Unsolved Cases

In this picture taken Oct. 21, 2011, a forensic investigator examines the body of a men killed by unidentified gunmen at a crime scene in Carolina, Puerto Rico. A recent U.S. Department of Justice report found that police in Puerto Rico are arresting suspects for only 43 percent of the island's homicides, making it the only U.S. jurisdiction where fewer than half of all homicides lead to an arrest. (AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo)

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — The 8-year-old boy was found in his bed bleeding from a fatal blow to the head. His house in a gated coastal community showed no apparent signs of forced entry. In fact, at least five people were home when the boy was injured.

Some 20 months later, there have been no arrests in a case that police have classified as a homicide. The boy's mother and maternal grandmother tearfully allege that police mishandled evidence, didn't secure the crime scene or properly question suspects.

While the case has become a media sensation in this U.S. territory, it's only one in a growing number of unsolved murders over the past two decades. At the same time, the island is on track to set a record number of killings this year with a homicide rate more than four times the national average.

All that has sparked public outrage over what many perceive as police ineffectiveness in the face of soaring crime, and much of the anger in Puerto Rico has focused on the unexplained killing of the boy, Lorenzo Gonzalez. He has been the subject of candlelight vigils, Facebook support pages and a local gossip show that features the case almost daily.

Yvette Gonzalez, grandmother of the slain boy, said police appear simply incapable of solving the case.

"It is very disheartening, because as time goes by, we realize that the authorities don't have the means nor the skills to do an in-depth investigation," she said.

Carlos Sanchez, a lawyer for Ahmed Ali Gonzalez, the boy's father, said homicides plague the island.

"It is certainly something alarming what we're seeing here in Puerto Rico," Sanchez said.

A recent U.S. Department of Justice report found that police are arresting suspects for only 43 percent of the island's homicides, making it the only U.S. jurisdiction where fewer than half of all homicides lead to an arrest. The island's rate of homicide arrests has plummeted since hitting 60 percent in the late '80s and early '90s.

The U.S. national average is 66 percent, according to the federal report on the island's police force, which accuses authorities of illegal killings, corruption and widespread civil rights violations.

Gov. Luis Fortuno and other officials have said the island is addressing many of the 130 recommendations in the federal report, such as offering additional police training and buying recorders and digital cameras to speed up investigations. But the body count of unsolved homicides continues to grow.

Open cases from recent months include that of Maurice J. Spagnoletti, a 57-year-old executive from New Jersey who had been working for Puerto Rico's second-largest bank for less than six months. He was shot several times in June as he sat in traffic on one of the busiest roads in San Juan, the island's capital.

Police initially offered several theories about the shooting and consulted with the FBI, but no arrests have been made.

Other unsolved homicides in the public eye include that of a mortgage broker who was a former president of a real estate industry association and was shot to death in her SUV. Two well-known volleyball players were also killed in their car outside a bar in early September.

While details remain unclear about the more high-profile cases, most of the island's killings involve gangs fighting over control of drug distribution in the island's public housing projects or are related to international drug trafficking.

Secretary of State Kenneth McClintock, the island's equivalent to a lieutenant governor, said that helps explain why Puerto Rico's homicide rate hit 22.5 killings per 100,000 people in 2009, higher than any U.S. state and nearly double that of Louisiana, according to the federal report.

With more than 936 people reported killed so far this year, Puerto Rico is on track to break its annual homicide record of 995 murders in 1995.

McClintock said law enforcement budget cuts have resulted in less police expertise and resources to solve cases. For example, smaller staffs mean cadets spend less time at academies while under pressure to quickly hit the streets.

The island's police department has also struggled to buy materials because of budget cuts, while a drop in federal funds and U.S. agents also has been blamed for an increase in crime, McClintock said. Officials are moving more money to public safety budgets to bolster security.

"We have been assigning additional resources so that more and better evidence can be collected," he said.

The low arrest rate starts a vicious cycle, as witnesses hesitate to speak to police because they're too fearful of retribution on a relatively small island where police seem incapable of solving crimes.

"A big problem is the distrust that people have in the system," said Dora Nevarez-Muniz, a criminologist and law professor at the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico. "A lot of times the witness doesn't want to speak."

Puerto Rico has been turning to outside help such as Robert Warshaw, a former police chief and associate director of the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy who's consulting the island.

Fortuno also has appointed a retired National Guard general, Emilio Diaz Colon, to replace the island's police chief, who resigned in July over rising crime. Colon declined to comment through a spokeswoman. Other high-ranking officials contacted referred all questions to Colon.

Shortly after the Justice Department report came out, the governor announced a joint task force would prosecute some violent crimes as federal cases, which would bring in added resources and expertise.

The same day of the announcement, Ana Cacho, mother of Lorenzo Gonzalez, urged the new task force to investigate her son's murder. So far, police consider her a lead suspect, and authorities have barred her from seeing or communicating with her two daughters.

Her father, Carlos Cacho, recently handed Fortuno an envelope with information about the case. Fortuno declined to comment further except to say he forwarded the contents to Justice Secretary Guillermo Somoza, who has reiterated that the investigation is ongoing.

Somoza said this week that a male family friend who was at the home with Cacho the day the boy died is considered a suspect. The man's attorney has denied his client was there.

Despite the new announcement, the boy's maternal grandmother doubts the case will be solved.

Yvette Gonzalez accused investigators of withholding evidence and of missing signs that a stranger broke into the house.

"Aside from the terrible loss of a boy who was so loved, you have the disappointment in a system like the one we have seen," the grandmother said. "You lose faith."