We read a lot about false allegations made in the course of custody battles. Parents often get so caught up in the fight that they become willing to do anything to win. We’ve seen it time and again.
It’s the story of Louis Gonzalez III who spent almost three months in solitary confinement faced with five criminal charges including rape courtesy of his former girlfriend, Tracy West. Gonzalez was denied bail due to the horrific nature of the crimes West described to police detective David Del Marto.
She said Gonzalez ambushed her in the garage, dragged her to an upstairs bedroom, hogtied her with her clothes, singed her with matches and assaulted her vaginally and anally with a wooden coat hanger. Then, she said, he forced a plastic bag over her head and held it tight, and she feigned unconsciousness until he left.
“He told me he was gonna kill me,” she said. “He told me that. Seven or eight different times.”
When they had met in 2000, Gonzalez was a successful real estate banker in Las Vegas. Though he didn’t even have a high school diploma, he was starting to make it in that dog-eat-dog world. He was always impeccably – and expensively – dressed. High-end suits, starched shirts and top-of-the-line watches were the order of the day for him – every day.
West was attracted and they began dating. The affair didn’t last long. It had been over for weeks when she called him and let him listen to the sound of his son’s heart beating within her.
After that, they got back together briefly, but that descended into arguing and mutual complaints of violence. They broke up again and, when their son was born, the inevitable custody duel ensued, with the inevitable result – West got primary custody and Gonzalez visitation every other weekend.
But even that seemed too much for West who, Gonzalez claimed made his contact with the boy increasingly hard.
Gonzalez’s custody attorney, Denise Placencio, said West tried relentlessly to curtail his time with his son, accusing Gonzalez of domestic abuse and claiming the boy suffered “separation anxiety” when he was away from his mother.
Eventually, she moved to Los Angeles. That meant that she had to put the child on a plane every two weeks to visit his dad, a ritual that West claimed traumatized the boy. But Gonzalez never saw evidence of trauma. He just saw a little boy who was glad to see him and distressed when he had to leave.
Then in January of 2008, he called West and said he wanted to come to Los Angeles and check out the Montessori school in which she’d enrolled their son. West wanted details. What date? Exactly when would he arrive? Was he driving or flying?
Gonzalez flew to Los Angeles on February 1st, rented a car with a child safety seat and drove out to Simi Valley to the school. An administrator showed him around and told him to come back in an hour when the boy would be released for the day.
So Gonzalez went to a nearby deli and ordered a sandwich. But the deli didn’t take credit cards, so he walked to a bank to get cash and then back to the restaurant where he ate his sandwich. All of that filled the hour he had to wait, so he returned to the school to pick up his son.
There, before the entire school including his son, police descended on Gonzalez and, without even telling him the charges against him, handcuffed him and took him to jail. Gonzalez remembers the many little faces pressed against the windows of the classrooms, watching.
Once in jail, Gonzalez was denied bail and week after week wore on. Detective Del Marto had talked to West and investigated the house where the supposed crime had occurred. He figured he had a man bent on revenge for his loss of custody; he figured this man was extremely careful and well prepared in the execution of his criminal plan.
According to West, Gonzalez had surprised her in the garage of her house between 12:30 and 12:45 that afternoon. He had forced her inside, upstairs and into the bedroom. There he bound her, tortured her, raped her and, in an unusual twist, placed mittens on her hands to avoid her leaving scratches on him. He also wore overalls over his suit to preclude any evidence appearing there, or so she said.
Gonzalez denied doing anything but attempting to pick his son up for his regular visitation weekend.
At first no one – not Del Marto, not his own attorney, not her investigator – thought Gonzalez was anything but guilty as charged. They all believed West because she was still tied to the bed when her husband got home from work. She had burn marks on her abdomen and finger. She had ligature marks on her neck; her face was bruised and puffy from the beating she said Gonzalez had administered.
So when Leigh-Anne Salinas, the private investigator his attorney often employed, started looking into the matter, she didn’t think she’d find much. Still, Gonzalez insisted he had an alibi for every minute between his arrival at LAX to the time he returned to the school to pick up his son.
And sure enough, he did. Salinas retraced his steps and everywhere Gonzalez said he’d gone was a person who remembered the nattily dressed young man. Several places – the airport, the bank – had security cameras. At others, he’d used a credit card, so each transaction had a date and time.
Salinas pieced it all together and found that every minute of Gonzalez’s time was accounted for from the time he stepped off the plane to the time the police snapped the cuffs on him. His lawyer Debra White, was representing an innocent man.
Convincing the police was not such an easy matter, but to his credit, Del Marto followed the evidence where it led. He, like Salinas, excluded every possibility of guilt on the basis of the evidence he uncovered.
Then there was the problem of physical evidence; there was none. Not a hair, not a fiber, not a fingerprint, no DNA appeared at the “crime” scene to place Gonzalez there. Del Marto called the prosecutor’s office and told them, for the first time in his career, that he wasn’t comfortable with the accused’s guilt.
As far as prosecutors were concerned, Del Marto’s opinion didn’t pose much of a problem. They had planned to put on their evidence at a preliminary hearing through him, but they could always use West. But,
On April 21, 2008, the day before the hearing was to begin, prosecutors learned that West was in the hospital. They had obtained a note in what appeared to be West’s handwriting.
“The DA asking me to relive my horror of Louis Gonzalez attack is more than I can bear. For them it is a case. For me it is my life shattered,” read the note. “I died of Rx overdose — suicide.”
But she didn’t die. Later she would claim she didn’t remember writing the note and that the incident had stemmed from drugs her psychiatrist had prescribed.
With no police testimony, none from the accuser and no physical evidence of his presence at the scene, Ventura County didn’t have a case against Gonzalez, so they let him go. But at the time, “jeopardy hadn’t attached” so they could refile against him at any time. Gonzalez was a free man – free to live under an enormous black cloud of multiple charges of violent felonies.
To be continued.
Thanks to John for the heads-up.