The Case of the Dog That Couldn't Sniff Straight

Sloppy police work, callous prosecutors, indifferent judges doom dirt-poor Latino man

Police arrested Ochoa, and he underwent a high-pressure, two-hour interrogation by Detective Frank Nunes. Nunes tried to trick him repeatedly, but Ochoa adamantly proclaimed his innocence dozens of times. He even offered three times to take a polygraph test. After learning that the victims said the bandit had been on drugs, Ochoa volunteered to take a drug test. Nunes scoffed. He already had an airtight case, he said, and just wanted a confession. Ochoa asked why police were so certain.

"We have this amazing tool in police work called a bloodhound," Nunes said. "These dogs are 100 percent accurate . . . and the dog mapped a perfect track to your house without us saying a word."

"So you're gonna put me in jail because of a dog?" an incredulous Ochoa replied.

When confronted with fabricated evidence of his guilt, Ochoa, seen holding his little brother, dismissed it as "UFO stuff"
When confronted with fabricated evidence of his guilt, Ochoa, seen holding his little brother, dismissed it as "UFO stuff"

Nunes, who has recently been promoted to sergeant, then told Ochoa that his DNA and fingerprints eventually would be found in the stolen car and on the baseball cap and shirt the bandit left behind.

"I'm gonna be real mad [if DNA and fingerprints are found]," Ochoa told Nunes. "Because I know I was in no car and I know I didn't have no DNA in no car, and if I do, it's gonna be like some UFO kind of stuff, you know what I mean?"

"Ain't no UFOs in Buena Park, man," the detective replied.

Police and prosecutors have difficult jobs routinely dealing with society's sociopaths, but they also have an ethical obligation to either make a solid case against a suspect or keep searching for the guilty person. Law enforcement officers privately acknowledge the case has "huge issues." These problems include:

-- Orange County Sheriff's Department forensic scientist Danielle G. Wieland "eliminated" Ochoa as a possible source of any DNA or fingerprints found in the stolen car, on the baseball cap or shirt worn by the gloveless bandit, or on the gun he carried.

-- Strongly suggesting another man was the bandit, tests linked DNA found on the baseball cap and the gun to the same unknown individual.

-- A fingerprint found on the stolen car's gearshift knob did not match Ochoa or the victims, who said nobody else drove the vehicle.

-- Police led the victims to originally identify Ochoa after showing them two photos of individuals who had no physical characteristics in common with the bandit.

-- Officers compounded the error with a second contaminated identification after they'd already shown the victims a picture of Ochoa.

-- Police now downplay the significance of the victim's first description of a "half-Hispanic, half-white" bandit, which does not match Ochoa's facial features.

-- Although the victims said they saw no tattoos on the bandit, Gano nevertheless filed a report claiming that they'd told him about three black dot tattoos on the man's left hand. The officer may have consulted police gang intelligence files that mistakenly indicate that Ochoa has such a tattoo.

-- Police disregarded the statements of three relatives who insist they were eating and watching television with Ochoa at the time of the 12:30 a.m. crime, instead deducing that Ochoa must be guilty because a younger brother gave conflicting statements about Ochoa's whereabouts at 8 p.m.

The weakness of the case is only underscored by Harris' pivotal role in the arrest. Though police claim that Harris' bloodhound, Trace, ran directly to Ochoa's front door, the real story is far less incriminating. In truth, Trace twice ran by Ochoa's residence without noticing. According to a police report obtained by the Weekly, it wasn't until Harris pointed the dog back toward Ochoa's house that she allegedly ended her hunt there.

"This was the only door she showed any interest in all evening," Harris wrote. "It was later confirmed that the subject that lived at that location was involved."

There are three problems with Harris' claims:

-- His description of the dog's scent tracking run of about 50 yards to Ochoa's residence doesn't explain why police logs show it took Trace 63 minutes to find the house.

-- Oddly, the cops -- satisfied that the dog allegedly tracked a scent to Ochoa's front door -- let Harris and Trace leave without identifying Ochoa.

-- Harris claims his dog's identification was solid but failed to note a breach of FBI guidance regarding sniffer dogs: instead of keeping the stolen-car crime scene clean, police swarmed it. Those same officers later surrounded Ochoa's home -- and were followed by Trace. It's conceivable, in other words, that Trace had done nothing more than follow the scents of officers she had first picked up around the stolen car.

Four days after I notified the DA's office that I was investigating the Ochoa case and would write about it, Deputy District Attorney Christian Kim declined to comment. But after an Oct. 31 internal DA meeting, Kim's boss, Assistant DA Marc Rozenberg, announced in a telephone interview with the Weekly that the government had decided not to call Harris as a witness during the trial.

Rozenberg said he believes in the case and dismissed questions about the lack of Ochoa's DNA on the clothing and in the stolen car: "In my mind that's not conclusive evidence one way or the other." Regarding crime lab evidence that a person other than Ochoa and the victims touched the stolen car's gearshift knob: "That doesn't necessarily mean anything either."

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