Chicago Police Detective Reynaldo Guevara is accused of framing at least 51 people for murder. When a group of mothers, aunts and sisters found that no officials — not the state’s attorney’s office, not the mayor’s office — wanted to take up their cause, the women went in search of justice themselves. Next week a man convicted in one of Guevara’s most dubious cases will be in court for what could be his last chance at freedom. Will prosecutors continue fighting to keep Roberto Almodovar behind bars?
DECEMBER 23, 2013
The retired detective sits slightly hunched, his eyes darting between the attorneys who the city of Chicago sent to defend him on one side of the table and the lawyers suing him on the other.
The law office conference room is sparse, with nothing on the walls, and cold. The detective’s black windbreaker fights the chill. His once thick sable hair is thin and gray. A fine gold chain around his neck is the only visible relic of what he once was: the strutting, bejeweled, loudmouth detective every gangbanger on Chicago’s Northwest Side knew could Fuck. Him. Up. For life.
His voice, once bellowing, registers a few decibels lower as he states his name for the record.
“Reynaldo Guevara. G-U-E-V-A-R-A.”
The opposing attorney wastes little time with pleasantries.
“Mr. Guevara, isn’t it true that you intentionally framed Jacques Rivera for a murder that he did not commit?”
Guevara barely raises his eyes as he answers: “On the advice of my attorney, I assert my Fifth Amendment rights.”
Over the next eight hours and 32 minutes, lawyers for the civil rights firm Loevy & Loevy tick through the names of the dozens of people who have accused the detective of beating them into confessions, manipulating witnesses into selecting the innocent from lineups, or just plain lying in order to frame them for murders they didn’t commit.
As the deposition trudges through its sixth hour, the attorney asks questions about Roberto Almodovar, a 19-year-old who’d swapped his gang affiliation for fatherhood. He’d been logging 17-hour days cleaning toilets at a factory and taking GED courses when, in 1994, Guevara booked him on a double homicide.
“Isn’t it true that you framed Roberto Almodovar?”
Guevara’s face remains unchanged as he repeats his refrain. “On the advice of my attorney, I assert my Fifth Amendment rights.”
Mary Almodovar and her sisters, Gladys and Iris, settled into the sofa in an unfamiliar house, surrounded by unfamiliar faces, nervously sipping coffee. They were working up the courage to speak of a shame they hadn’t shared with even their closest friends.
It had been four years, Mary began, since Guevara took the stand and helped send Roberto Almodovar — the nephew she and her sisters had helped raise — to prison for life, for a double murder that she along with a litany of other witnesses, neighbors, coworkers and stacks of documents could prove he did not commit. The agony she’d felt when the jury forewoman read aloud the verdict — guilty — hadn’t subsided. Roberto heard it in her voice each time he called from prison, which is why he encouraged Mary and her sisters to attend a support group he’d heard about on his cellblock, for the families of convicted killers.
Francisca Rodriguez hosted the gathering in her home in Humboldt Park, a working-class, predominantly Puerto Rican section of Chicago. She told of her son Angel’s conviction for the 1996 murder of a storekeeper on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Francisca remembered that day well because Angel was with her at the time of the murder, buying fixings for their holiday meal. The testimony of a single eyewitness, a young teenage store clerk, was the prosecution’s only evidence. One of the officers in his case was the same man who arrested Mary’s nephew: Guevara.
Another mother, Neida Serrano, bags beneath her doe eyes, recounted the moment in June 1993 when Guevara burst into her home, screaming that her son Armando had killed a man. The murder of the factory worker had taken place four months earlier, on an ordinary weekday no one in her family could recall, leaving Armando without an alibi. The judge relied on the testimony of one witness, a heroin addict and convicted robber, to sentence her son to 55 years in prison.
As the evening grew late, Mary and her sisters headed to their car, not sure if they felt more comforted by the camaraderie or unnerved by the coincidence: How could one officer be linked to all their cases?
Here’s the easy story of Guevara: It’s the tale of one allegedly rogue cop accused by at least 51 people of framing them for murders from the 1980s through the early 2000s in the rough-and-tumble Humboldt Park section of Chicago. His alleged misdeeds led 48 men and one woman to be sentenced to a total of more than 2,300 years in prison. Three were acquitted. Five received life sentences. Three were sentenced to death but spared when in 2003 Gov. George Ryan, disturbed by a rash of wrongful convictions, commuted all death sentences to life or less. Two men died behind bars, including Daniel Peña, an illiterate man who testified Guevara beat him into signing a confession he couldn’t read.
These numbers could place Guevara’s alleged misconduct among the most egregious policing betrayals in modern history, alongside the Rampart scandal in Los Angeles in the 1990s, when more than 100 convictions were tossed based on police corruption; the crack-era sentences of the 1970s and ‘80s in Brooklyn, when dozens of defendants accused Detective Louis Scarcella of manufacturing evidence against them; and, closer to home, in Chicago, where during the ‘70s and ‘80s former Commander Jon Burge led a team of detectives to beat — and even electrocute — more than 100 men, most of them black, on the city’s South Side into confessions.
But the scope of Guevara’s alleged misdeeds tells only part of the story. Chicago’s police brass, its prosecutors, its judges, police oversight commissions, and even federal authorities had ample warnings about Guevara, numerous chances to make amends for the injustices he stands accused of committing and to stop him from perpetrating more. They didn’t.
When the Rampart scandal surfaced, the LAPD submitted to a federal consent decree and enacted a long series of reforms. In Brooklyn, the district attorney revamped the office’s Conviction Integrity Unit, boosting its budget and manpower to review the Scarcella cases.
Yet in Chicago, which has been called the “false conviction capital” of the United States, the police department stood behind Guevara, promoting him and sending him off to retirement. So did prosecutors, who built cases around the people he said were eyewitnesses despite unlikely scenarios in their accounts.
So did judges, who turned a deaf ear to people who swore in open court that Guevara had beaten them or coerced their confessions or testimony. So did high-ranking city, county, and federal officials, who for decades ignored mounting claims of misconduct, choosing instead to defend the honor of the law enforcement establishment.
In 2013, faced with a number of exonerations of Guevara defendants and the possibility of numerous civil lawsuits seeking large payouts, the city ordered an independent review of Guevara cases, and, in 2015, determined that four imprisoned men were more than likely innocent. Anita Alvarez, the state attorney for Cook County, whose office had the power to release the men from prison, initially declined to act on those findings. After Alvarez was ousted from office last March, her replacement, Kim Foxx, via a spokesperson, told BuzzFeed News it had launched its own review of Guevara’s cases. She declined to answer questions, instead issuing a statement that said because the review is ongoing, “it would be inappropriate for the office to provide any comments at this time.” Last month, she announced plans to revamp her office’s conviction integrity unit, a team of lawyers which is charged with reviewing questionable convictions.
In this environment, the work of uncovering Guevara’s misconduct has fallen to women such as Mary and her sisters, part of a group of mostly working-class mothers, aunts, and sisters, many with limited education, English, and familiarity with the law. They are armed with nothing more than dining room tables full of transcripts, police reports, and Post-it Notes marking the cracks in the cases against their loved ones. Together they have identified patterns running through Guevara’s cases: the glut of child eyewitnesses, at least one who was roused from bed at night to view a lineup. The witnesses on the second floors of nearby buildings who all happened to be looking out their windows at just the right time to see a crime. The witnesses who say they were beaten. The confessions that people say were coerced. The anonymous phone calls to police that miraculously broke open previously unsolved cases. The men who couldn’t read but wrote detailed statements.
Again and again, the women presented their findings at police board meetings and via formal complaints to the Chicago Police Department. Yet, in a city infamous for both police corruption and a political machine that enabled it, the women were largely ignored. This past January, much of what the women discovered years or even decades ago about how the police department buries such claims came to light in an unsparing US Department of Justice investigation of the city’s police force. The report, which did not address the Guevara cases specifically, found that the department was “broadly ineffective” at detecting police misconduct and routinely ignored complaints.
Guevara and his attorney repeatedly declined to answer questions from BuzzFeed News. Contacted at his modest brick home on Chicago’s South Side earlier this year, Guevara said, “No, thank you,” when asked to address the allegations. He also declined to accept a detailed written list of questions about his conduct and shut the door, decorated with a Christian inscription. The list of questions was subsequently sent to Guevara’s home and to his attorney, who also did not respond to numerous requests for comment. In 2009, the Chicago Tribune quoted Guevara’s attorney, James Sotos, alleging a gang conspiracy against the detective. “We strongly believe there is an orchestrated effort by gang members that witnesses were told to recant,” Sotos said.
The Chicago Police Department referred all questions about the detective to the city’s Department of Law, which released a statement saying the city’s 2013–2015 review of Guevara cases had found “no widespread pattern of wrongdoing” despite the four likely innocent people who had been sent to prison.
Officials added that the department has “zero tolerance for police misconduct” and that in recent years it has instituted “a series of internal initiatives and reforms to ensure past incidents of police misconduct are not repeated and that those who do commit misconduct are held fully accountable.”
Mary and the other women achieved some victories. Spreadsheets they built and gave to defense attorneys helped free Juan Johnson, who later won a record $21 million judgment against the city of Chicago because of Guevara’s misconduct in his case.
So far, six men Guevara had helped put behind bars have seen their convictions overturned, and 12 others have served their time and been released. But at least 29 men who say Guevara framed them remain in prison.
Some of these people may be guilty of the crimes for which they were convicted. But strong evidence suggests that some of them are innocent, and the protections that were supposed to guarantee them fair treatment were trampled upon.
Alderman Roberto Maldonado, who represents Humboldt Park on the Chicago City Council, had not heard of the Guevara cases. When BuzzFeed News outlined its findings for the official, he called the city’s response to the allegations “grossly irresponsible.”
Meanwhile, Guevara, 73, who retired in 2005, collects a full pension from the city, which last year paid him $75,650. The true killers, in some cases, have escaped justice. And the rot at the heart of the system still festers — to this day. All this points to a much more sweeping and disturbing narrative: This is the story not merely of one allegedly rogue cop, but of a massive breakdown of almost every safeguard in Chicago’s criminal justice system.