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Jose Roberto Ramirez says he was just the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time.
An inmate at the Orange County Men’s Jail who is currently awaiting sentencing for attempted robbery, Ramirez has a shaved head, stubbly goatee and arms covered with elaborate prison tattoos. He has spent almost all of the past two decades in state prison for a string of car thefts and drug charges beginning in 1985, when the then-20-year-old Ramirez and some fellow Santanita gang members stole baseball legend Reggie Jackson’s Porsche from outside a Newport Beach restaurant.
Ramirez ultimately wound up in Corcoran State Prison’s infamous Secure Housing Unit, where some of California’s most hardcore gang members are kept in solitary confinement. There, in 2004, he renounced his membership in the Mexican Mafia. “I got tired of that lifestyle, following orders and doing all that crazy stuff,” he explains during a recent interview at the jail, speaking into a telephone receiver on the other side of a thick plate of glass. “I wanted to make a change in myself.”
He walked out of Corcoran a free man on Aug. 8, 2008, determined to get a job and turn his life around. His path back to jail began about six weeks later. On Sept. 23, he received a telephone call from a woman he knew named Mary Dempsey, a methamphetamine addict who needed a ride. “Come pick me up,” she begged. “I’ll give you gas money.”
Ramirez drove his motor scooter to the intersection of Tustin Avenue and Collins Street in Orange, looking for Dempsey. He spotted her marching out of a Bank of America branch, followed by two women who were pointing at her and yelling.
“Let’s go!” Dempsey screamed.
“I’m not going anywhere!” Ramirez says he answered.
At that moment, an Orange police officer arrested both Ramirez and Dempsey. She admitted trying to rob the bank, but she claimed it was Ramirez’s idea.
“They ran my record,” Ramirez says. “I was sitting in the back of the cop car, and I fainted and don’t remember anything else. When I woke up, I was here at the jail.”
Because of his vulnerable status as a prison-gang dropout, Ramirez has been kept in total separation from other inmates since arriving at the jail 16 months ago. After being charged with conspiracy to commit armed robbery, he learned he could go back to prison for 23 years if convicted. His public defender advised him to take a deal. He refused and tried to get a new lawyer. When the court refused his request, Ramirez decided to represent himself, becoming what is known as a pro per defendant.
That’s how Ramirez met Joseph Szeles, a licensed private investigator who works for Orange County Superior Court’s Alternate Defense Services, which provides investigative help to pro pers. In late June 2009, Szeles visited Ramirez at the jail and showed him two pieces of paper.
“Do you want the good news or the bad news?” Ramirez recalls Szeles asking him. “The good news is that the DA’s analysis of the note is inconclusive as to whether the handwriting on the robbery note belongs to you or your co-defendant. The bad news is I did my own authentication, and it looks like the handwriting is yours.”
Ramirez looked at the two sheets of paper. Both were signed and stamped by Russell Bradford, a San Pedro-based document examiner, and dated the same day: June 22, 2009. One of the documents purported to analyze four letters written by Dempsey, including one she sent to Ramirez that cleared him in the attempted robbery. Bradford concluded that Dempsey had written that letter. The other document compared those four letters, as well as a sample of Ramirez’s handwriting, with a note announcing the robbery that Dempsey had carried with her into the bank.
“From my examination and comparison of the above documents, it is my opinion that the document listed in item 1 [the robbery note] was not printed by the person that filled out the documents listed in items 2, 3, 4 and 5 in the name ‘Mary Dempsey,’” Bradford wrote. “It is also my opinion that it is more probable than not that the document listed in item 1 was printed out by the same person who filled out the documents listed in item 6 in the name ‘Jose R. Ramirez.’”
When Szeles showed him the two documents, Ramirez was aghast. Szeles seemed to be taunting him with two competing analyses of the same evidence, one clearing him of the crime and the other suggesting his guilt.
What Szeles wanted from Ramirez was his help in dealing with other inmates who were unhappy with his services and who were complaining to another private investigator, C.J. Ford Jr. “Has C.J. Ford visited you?” Szeles asked.
Ramirez feigned ignorance. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.