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A Tale of Two Snitches

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It was the worst of times for Francisco Vicente. Caught red-handed for a robbery spree in 1993, the Humboldt Park heroin addict was facing 20 years to life. But Vicente's fortunes improved with help from an unexpected source -- Det. Reynaldo Guevara.

The grizzled cop from Area 5 on Chicago's Northwest Side knocked Vicente around before offering him a deal, according to court records. Guevara promised to convince Cook County prosecutors to recommend the mandatory minimum: six years total for three armed robberies, with time off for good behavior. Vicente also would receive cash, conjugal visits with his wife and relocation expenses.

In return, Vicente simply had to swear that a couple of neighborhood youths, Armando Serrano and Jose Montanez, confessed an unsolved murder to him. While the confession never happened, Vicente wasn't worried about perjury charges as a prosecution witness. He took the deal.

But Det. Guevara and prosecutor Matthew Coghlan knew they needed more than one snitch's testimony to convict Serrano and Montanez for the puzzling murder of Rodrigo Vargas as he left for work on Feb. 5, 1993. After all, the case had no official confession, no incriminating physical evidence and no eyewitnesses.

No problem for Guevara. Planning ahead, he had already enlisted the help of another Humboldt Park criminal, Timothy Rankins.

Rankins says he was standing in front of his apartment the night of June 10, 1993 when Guevara pulled up in an unmarked police car. He arrested Rankins for his part in a mugging and brought him to Area 5 for questioning.

After handcuffing Rankins to a chair, Guevara shoved a five-page handwritten statement in his face and ordered him to sign it, according to Rankins' sworn testimony last year. The handwritten statement presumptuously declared that Rankins had been an eyewitness to Vargas' murder -- and Serrano and Montanez were the killers.

When Rankins complained that he hadn't witnessed anything of the sort and didn't even know Serrano and Montanez, Guevara allegedly kicked the chair, propelling Rankins backward to the floor with a loud thud. Stubbornly, he still refused to cooperate. At that point, Guevara put a phone directory on Rankins' head and pounded the book with an over-sized flashlight, Rankins claims. (The same method, which triggers throbbing headaches without noticeable bruising, was used by Comdr. Jon Burge and his "midnight crew" to torture suspects on the South Side.)

Afraid for his life, Rankins "signed the statement so I could stop being abused," he swore. He also agreed to repeat the statement before a grand jury. Prosecutors now had the eyewitness they needed to convict Serrano and Montanez. Addition by subtraction: One less unsolved homicide, two fewer troublemakers on the streets.

The perks of Snitchdom soon followed for Rankins. He was sent to the State's Attorney's witness quarters, where he enjoyed home-cooked meals, a lounge with a TV, gifts of clothing and more freedom to move about than at the County Jail. Among the residents was fellow snitch Francisco Vicente.

But Rankins began having misgivings about implicating Serrano and Montanez. When Vicente wanted to go over their testimony so they could keep their stories straight, Rankins snapped. "I'm not going to get on the stand and testify against an innocent person," Rankins recalled saying. Then he grabbed a broomstick and struck the persistent Vicente on the side of his head. Whack! The authorities intervened, and Rankins was shipped to the County Jail to serve the remainder of his short sentence for the mugging.

As the Serrano-Montanez trials approached, Det. Guevara turned up the heat on Rankins to testify. But Rankins' snitching days were over. Now free, he headed to Puerto Rico, determined never to encounter Guevara again.

Looking for more witnesses, Guevara found one in Wilda Vargas, the widow of the murder victim. As I reported recently, Guevara convinced Vargas that the actual perps were in custody by showing her a bullet hole in one of their cars -- and falsely claiming that crime scene ballistics proved the vehicle was used in the murder of her husband. That persuaded the widow to testify that a dust-up at a gas station the day before the crime had led Serrano and Montanez to rob and kill her husband.

The widow's motive evidence and Vicente's testimony about the supposed confession were enough to convince a Cook County judge to find the men guilty. He sentenced them to 55 years.

For two decades, Serrano and Montanez have professed their innocence. Surprisingly, their fight for freedom has been bolstered by their former accusers. In 2004, Francisco Vicente repudiated his trial testimony and described in graphic detail why he became a snitch, an account he has consistently told to lawyers for the past nine years. In 2006, Wilda Vargas signed an affidavit recanting the motive evidence and was ready to testify for the defense at an innocence hearing on May 15 before being turned away by prosecutors and the judge. And, Timothy Rankins' sworn testimony has been admitted into evidence at the hearing, which will resume June 17 when defense attorney Jennifer Bonjean calls Det. Guevara to the stand.

Does this case reflect broader problems with the snitch system? The numbers are troubling. Of the 1,050 cases of officially acknowledged wrongful convictions since 1989, 52 percent were the result of perjury or false accusations, many by jailhouse snitches. In another national study, snitch testimony was found to be the leading cause of wrongful convictions in death penalty cases. And, in Cook County, Det. Guevara is alleged to have similarly recruited snitches and witnesses to lie in at least 40 cases. In one, a Humboldt Park man was awarded $21 million in a civil rights suit against the city for Guevara's misconduct.

Yet it remains the best of times for the detective, who enjoys retirement on his police pension -- and the worst for the men he seemingly framed. How much longer will the public tolerate this Dickensian tale of injustice?