I . . . Shot My Son

Everyone Agrees that Shantae Molina killed her baby. The only question is: Was it murder?

On Molina's sixth day in jail, her family mortgaged its Laguna Niguel home to pay the $25,000 nonrefundable fee on the $250,000 bail.

Not much has changed in the case during the past 20 months—except that the prosecution now allegedly admits that there was never any definitive evidence of a contact wound.

On May 28, 1999, Lampel says Orange County Deputy District Attorney Robin Park, the prosecutor in the Molina case, made what he characterized as a "bombshell" of an admission. According to Lampel, Park told him, "It turns out there wasn't exactly a contact wound. The shot was from two to three feet away."

If Lampel's account is accurate, both the defense and, apparently, now the prosecution agree on the location of the gun when it was fired—a distance that mirrors Molina's story. Park declined to answer any questions about the case, saying only that she wants to "make sure that the defendant has a completely fair trial."

Though a key piece of evidence prompting the arrest and murder charge has been thoroughly debunked, the prosecution of Molina nevertheless continues. On July 17, she will stand trial at the main courthouse in Santa Ana on first-degree murder charges. If convicted, she could spend 35 years to life in prison.

Although he wore shorts, sneakers and an old white T-shirt when he entered a Laguna Beach coffeehouse on a recent afternoon, Jack Holder was obviously no sightseeing tourist. He carried himself in a way that screamed cop. Dark sunglasses rested on his bright-red forehead. His first name is tattooed in script on his meaty left forearm. Several nearby coffee sippers glanced at him but quickly looked away, seemingly intimidated.

Holder is a retired Los Angeles Police Department homicide detective. During his 27 years of service, he reluctantly guessed, he worked on "500, 700, maybe more" homicides. He was instrumental in solving the infamous Hillside Strangler case that dominated national headlines in the late 1970s. He left the force a decade ago and now spends his free time working as a private detective. In January 1999, Holder reviewed the case against the woman and joined the defense team.

"I bleed blue," he said of his allegiance to law enforcement. "But I just don't understand how this murder case got filed. I would have thought that somebody along the line would have said, 'Wow, wait a minute. We have no case here.'"

Holder's stubby, battle-scarred fingers tore off the plastic lid to his blended-mocha drink. He tossed aside the straw, took a final swig and shook his head.

"This was an accidental death. It was a horrible thing, but it was an accident. [Molina] never even let her boy miss an appointment with his pediatrician. She had no record of ever abusing the boy, and every part of her story checked out," he said. "I don't necessarily want this known, but I believe her so much that I would have taken this case for free."

If Holder is right, petty ego is a significant factor in the prosecution of Shantae Molina. He believes Guest became annoyed when Lampel was hired and then "set out to show everyone who was boss." Tapes of the detective's interviews in the case suggest Holder has a point. A clearly angered Guest drilled several witnesses for information not merely on Molina but also on her attorney, insinuating that Lampel had coached witnesses to alter their stories about Molina's post-shooting statements. (In those tapes, everyone associated with the case—more than a dozen people—adamantly denies the accusation.)

Ironically, the tapes reveal that it was the police who almost desperately tried to get Molina's friends and family members to change their stories. At one point, just after the baby had died, Guest and a partner lied to Molina's father, claiming falsely that his daughter had refused to give a statement to police and that they had information that he was hiding the truth about what had happened. A police videotape also shows Guest badgering Molina after reading her the Miranda warning that specifically states suspects have a constitutional right to have an attorney present during questioning. When she asked for a lawyer, he chided her, "You're an adult; you're 20 years old." She repeated her request four consecutive times before the detective backed off.

Even more alarming to Holder, the sheriff's investigation was in his view shoddy—if not downright incompetent. Guest dismissed the mysterious footprints found near Molina's bedroom wall on the afternoon of the shooting, saying oddly that he did not believe it to be a "criminally placed footprint." The term caused Holder to chuckle. "I'd love to know how to tell the difference between a criminally placed footprint and one that is not," he said.

Holder pointed to other holes in the prosecution's case: on the day of the shooting, less than 10 minutes before Molina heard what she thought was a prowler, a burglar alarm was triggered at a residence not more than 20 homes away. Detectives—perhaps locked into their view that Molina had fabricated a story about hearing noises—apparently failed to explore the possibility of a connection. Then, in filing for a warrant to arrest Molina, Guest attached as evidence the initial Sheriff's Department report of the shooting. There's just one problem: Holder said the report supports Molina's version of events. "Guest never really spelled out his case for murder to get the warrant," he said.

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