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Family, friends rally in hopes of a new trial for Evaristo Salas in 1995 Sunnyside murder

By Phil Ferolito Yakima Herald-Republic

Family and friends – about two dozen in all – gathered Friday in front of the Yakima County Courthouse in support of a man who has spent nearly 25 years in prison for a murder he says he didn’t commit.

They waved signs saying “Free Evaristo Salas Jr” and “Justice for Evaristo Salas Jr.” Two people held a large banner featuring Salas’ picture and conveying the same message. They all wore T-shirts calling for Salas to be freed from prison.

Passing motorists often honked.

The rally was in support of efforts seeking a new trial for Salas, who says he’s innocent.

Everett-based attorney Laura Shaver believes him. She questions the integrity of the investigation and trial that led to his conviction.

Salas’ sister, Debbie Salas, said family planned the rally around a court hearing initially scheduled for Friday, but it was postponed.

“I know a lot of people know about it, but I want a lot more people to know about it,” she said of the effort. “It’s going to go somewhere. I know it is – I just have a feeling.”

Salas was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to nearly 33 years in prison for the Nov. 14, 1995, shooting death of Jose Arreola, also known as Bugs.

Both had gang ties, but there was no beef between them, Salas told police.

Salas, 15 at the time, was tried as an adult and sentenced just days after his 16th birthday.

Shaver says Salas didn’t receive a fair trial because crucial evidence that would have proven his innocence wasn’t presented.

The investigation

Retired Sunnyside Police Sgt. Jim Rivard was the lead investigator on the case. Police reports outline how Salas became a suspect six months after Arreola’s death.

Rivard said an informant claimed he overheard a kid bragging about shooting Arreola. Later, Rivard photographed Salas with a Polaroid camera when he was questioned at the police department on another matter. Rivard said he returned to his office where the informant happened to be and identified Salas from the photo he just took, according to police reports.

Arreola’s girlfriend, Ofelia Gonzalez – the only eyewitness to the shooting – identified Salas as the shooter from a photo lineup at the department, police reports said.

Although police recommended charges of rendering criminal assistance against Gonzalez, that and other information was kept from the defense attorney, Shaver said.

“Had this evidence been disclosed to Mr. Salas’ trial attorney, it would have overwhelmingly proved his innocence,” Shaver said. “Now, 25 years into a 33-year prison sentence, Mr. Salas is seeking to obtain critical information about this undisclosed evidence from the one person at its core – Jim Rivard.”

Shaver has filed motions in Yakima County Superior Court seeking a new trial and to question Rivard under oath.

Rivard has declined to comment on the matter.

Prosecutor Joe Brusic, who stands behind Salas’ conviction, asked the Washington State Patrol to look into the issues raised by Shaver when she filed the motion seeking a new trail.

Brusic worked as a deputy prosecutor in the juvenile division when Salas’ case was moved from Juvenile Court to Superior Court.

Deputy Prosecutor Bret Roberts is representing the state in the current matter.

Shaver’s motion contains more than 2,000 pages of trial transcripts, notes, police reports, crime scene photos and witness information.

Last month, Superior Court Judge David Elofson told Shaver he needed more time to review the mountain of material and asked her to narrow her motions into more digestible chunks.

A followup hearing scheduled for Friday afternoon was postponed because attorneys needed more time to prepare, Shaver said.

Missing information

Shaver says the following information wasn’t presented in the trial:

•The pickup truck Arreola was sitting in when he was shot was removed from evidence by Gonzalez before investigators could process it, police reports show.

•Charges of rendering criminal assistance were recommended against Gonzalez.

•There were handwritten notes, one believed authored by Rivard, saying Gonzalez would be willing to undergo hypnosis if it would help her identify the shooter.

Defense attorney George Trejo said he was not provided any of that information when he represented Salas more than 24 years ago.

He’s submitted a supporting brief to Shaver’s motions.

Defense attorneys are granted right of discovery, meaning they are allowed to review all evidence held by prosecutors in a case to provide a fair and adequate defense.

Shaver said she reviewed the discovery file Trejo received and the information about the truck’s unauthorized removal from evidence and recommended charges against Gonzalez were omitted.

That information was discovered in a subsequent records request filed with the Sunnyside police department, she said.

In a recent interview conducted by the state patrol, Rivard told Washington State Patrol investigators he sent everything to then-prosecutor Jeff Sullivan, according to the report.

“We filed that document with the prosecutor’s office. They got those reports – we had nothing. I mean, you know if there was a piece of scratch paper in that file, it would’ve been sent to the prosecutor,” Rivard said in the report.

Looming questions

Arreola’s mother said she accompanied Gonzalez when she identified Salas and said she underwent hypnosis, Shaver said.

Shaver said Arreola’s family was upset to learn of any denial about Gonzalez undergoing hypnosis – they said it was discussed by the family, Shaver said.

Shaver found a handwritten note believed authored by Rivard saying Gonzalez would agree to hypnosis if it would help.

Rivard told state patrol investigators that hypnosis was not used because it was against department policy.

Testimony by someone who’s been hypnotized is not admissible in court because hypnosis allows for suggestion and false memories, Shaver said.

Gonzalez told state patrol investigators she couldn’t recall if she underwent hypnosis.

“I remember him asking me, but I don’t remember if I told him yes or no,” she said in the state patrol’s report.

Shaver also has questions about photos she obtained of Rivard with the pickup.

Polaroid photos show the pickup in what appears to be a residential yard with dated notes below them that appear to describe the dimensions of the truck and trajectory of the shooting. The handwritten notes were dated Nov. 29, 1995.

The truck was impounded on a police hold Nov. 14, 1995, and it was removed without authorization four days later, according to police reports and towing company receipts.

Another photo shows Rivard standing next to the pickup with a measuring stick while it was parked in the same yard.

Interest in Salas’ conviction was renewed when it was featured in the documentary “Wrong Man” released on the STARZ television network in the summer of 2018.

Filmmaker Joe Berlinger formed an investigative team to probe Salas’ conviction.

Now Salas’ conviction will be featured in another documentary series – “Reasonable Doubt” – that airs Tuesday on Investigation Discovery television network.

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