More than 20 years ago, Armando Serrano and Jose Montanez were sentenced to 55 years in prison in the killing of a Humboldt Park man.
There were no eyewitnesses or physical evidence linking them to the 1993 fatal shooting of Rodrigo Vargas. Serrano and Montanez have continued to proclaim their innocence since their 1994 convictions, which hinged on uncorroborated testimony from a jailhouse informant — an informant who has since recanted. The informant says a now-retired Chicago Police Department detective, Reynaldo Guevara — who has been accused of railroading murder suspects — forced him to falsely implicate Serrano and Montanez.
Now, the Serrano-Montanez convictions are among the “handful” of cases investigated by Guevara that the Cook County state’s attorney’s office is reviewing at the request of the Emanuel administration after a review by former U.S. Attorney Scott Lassar, according to court records.
The aim is to determine whether Serrano, Montanez and others investigated by Guevara were wrongfully convicted.
Two of Guevara’s murder cases have been overturned.
The former Area 5 detective also has been accused in other cases of coercing suspects and witnesses to get convictions.
The city of Chicago has spent nearly $20 million to investigate, defend and settle Guevara-related misconduct claims. The Emanuel administration brought in Lassar to investigate after two murder convictions were vacated — in part because of misconduct allegations involving Guevara.
It’s not clear why the Serrano-Montanez case was flagged. City officials have refused to say which cases Lassar reviewed and which they passed on to the state’s attorney’s office at his urging.
But the practice, employed by prosecutors in this case, of relying on uncorroborated testimony from an informant who stands to get a reduced prison sentence for testifying has come under fire nationally. About a dozen states have imposed limits on such testimony because of concerns about reliability.
The informant, Francisco Vicente, was facing armed robbery charges when he testified that Serrano and Montanez told him they killed Vargas, according to court records.
“That testimony was false in all respects . . . given as a result of threats, intimidation and abuse by Det. Reynaldo Guevara,” Vicente is quoted as saying in a 2004 affidavit obtained by Northwestern University journalism students looking into possible wrongful convictions.
Vicente received a nine-year sentence for multiple armed robbery counts. In Illinois, that’s a Class X felony, with each offense punishable by up to 30 years in prison.
City Hall hired Lassar and his law firm, Sidley Austin LLP, in 2013. Earlier this year, that investigation ended, and, at Lassar’s urging, city officials forwarded a “handful” of cases to the state’s attorney’s office for review, an Emanuel spokeswoman has said. City officials have refused to identify the cases, though, or release Lassar’s findings.
Among the other convictions Lassar recommended be reviewed was that of Roberto Almodovar, who has served 20 years in prison for a 1994 gang-related double-murder in Humboldt Park, the Better Government Association and the Chicago Sun-Times have reported. Almodovar says he was framed by Guevara.
Guevara was the lead detective in the Serrano and Montanez case. The lead prosecutor was Matthew Coghlan, now a Cook County judge handling criminal cases. Coghlan declined to comment.
Sally Daly, spokeswoman for State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, said, “We are still in the process of reviewing the materials, and we have no further comment at this time.”
Guevara, who retired in 2005 and until last year worked as a Chicago Park District security guard, would not comment.
In court depositions, he has refused to answer questions, citing his constitutional right against self-incrimination.
Vargas was shot the morning of Feb. 5, 1993, while warming up his van outside his home in Humboldt Park. Neighbors heard gunshots but didn’t see the shooter and were able to describe the getaway vehicle only as a brown sedan, possibly a Chevrolet, according to court records.
The killing went unsolved for four months, until Guevara took over the investigation. At the time, Vicente was in the Cook County Jail on armed robbery charges.
That’s where Guevara met with Vicente — who, after recanting, said in sworn testimony the detective told him Serrano, Montanez and a third man killed Vargas during a stickup. Vicente didn’t witness the shooting but said he agreed, after being threatened and physically abused by Guevara, to say the two men told him they shot Vargas.
“In exchange for my fabricated testimony, I was told by Guevara that my armed robbery cases would work out fine for me,” Vicente said in the affidavit.
Serrano, 42, and Montanez, 47, have spent 20 years in prison. The third man Vicente implicated was acquitted of the charges.
Besides apparently getting a break on his sentence, Vicente was kept in protected witness quarters while waiting to testify, receiving cigarettes, a radio and cash, records show.
Vicente couldn’t be reached for comment. At a 2013 hearing, he refused to answer questions about the Serrano-Montanez case.
This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Andrew Schroedter, who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.