Judge rules accused Richland baby killer's statements can be admitted

Kristin M. Kraemer, Tri-City HeraldMarch 24, 2014 

A Richland man claims he admitted raping and killing his girlfriend's baby daughter out of fear he'd be further abused by a Southern California police officer.

Jose Luis Aguilar said his "diabetes was skyrocketing" during the police interview more than nine months ago, and he believed he'd face round two of the beating if he didn't say what investigators wanted to hear.

But Judge Vic VanderSchoor wasn't buying it Monday.

After listening to Aguilar testify for 50 minutes, VanderSchoor ruled statements the murder suspect made to both Barstow and Richland police last June can be used in his trial.

The judge said he didn't find the allegations credible that Barstow Sgt. Adam G. Cortinas abused Aguilar in a holding cell after arresting him on a Greyhound bus.

Aguilar, 36, is accused of killing 9-month-old Serenity Jade Reedy. He is charged in Benton County Superior Court with second-degree murder and first-degree rape of a child. His trial is set for May 5.

The murder charge includes the aggravating circumstances that the baby was too young to defend herself and that the crime had a destructive impact on additional people.

Cortinas, who was in contact with Richland Detective Dean Murstig, sent a text message 24 hours after the arrest saying, "We were successful last night with interview. He copped out to (the rape) and advised that he 'accidentally' dropped her and she hit her head. He advised she was still breathing when he put (her) in the crib. And then he checked her later and she was cold and not moving and he 'panicked' and ran."

Defense attorney Shelley Ajax tried to show that her client's statements were not "free and voluntary" because of his medical condition and the pressure he felt to tell a story, even if it wasn't the truth.

"At this point my diabetes ... my hands are starting to go numb, my face is starting to go numb, I'm feeling it already. I thought I'd better tell something they want to hear because I was afraid," Aguilar said of the interview. "At first I wasn't taking responsibility. And then towards the end I said, well fine, and I told them."

Prosecutor Andy Miller countered that if Aguilar really was so scared of the officers, how was he able to get through the first part of the police interview by denying that he'd sexually assaulted the baby when he knew Cortinas wanted to hear something else.

"Well sir, there's a thing called pride, and I was letting pride get ahold of me until I realized what the situation was. And then I let fear get back into me again," Aguilar testified. "That's when I said these guys are going to keep going and going."

Serenity was found dead in her crib the morning of June 7. Aguilar had been living with her mother, Jennifer Reedy, for about a month.

Richland police reportedly tracked Aguilar to California using the GPS in his cellphone. Officials believe he was fleeing to Mexico.

Aguilar -- who made the decision to testify Monday at the evidence hearing -- said he took a car he'd purchased with Reedy and drove it from Richland to Baker City, Ore.

That's where he was when a Richland detective reached Aguilar on his cellphone and informed him about Serenity's suspicious death. Aguilar told the detective he was in Biggs Junction, Ore., and that he would return to the Tri-Cities, though he had no intention of doing that, he admitted.

Instead, he hopped a bus to Las Vegas and transferred to another bus, which had a scheduled stop in Barstow shortly before 7 p.m. June 8. Aguilar was in a back seat when police surrounded the bus. Another passenger passed a ball cap to Aguilar so he could hide a tattoo on his head. The officer who boarded the bus made Aguilar remove the hat and immediately identified him as a man wanted in Washington state.

Aguilar has Type 2 diabetes and takes insulin every morning and night, he said. He hadn't eaten since the Baker City bus stop, was experiencing high blood pressure and problems focusing without his insulin, and wasn't offered food in Barstow until after 6 a.m. June 9 once he was medically cleared at a hospital, he added.

Miller questioned how Aguilar took the time to grab all of Reedy's cash before leaving the Richland house, but not his medication. Aguilar claimed the money was on a table by the front door, so it didn't require him to go out of his way as he left.

Both Cortinas and Barstow Cpl. Daniel Arthur said Aguilar appeared coherent and alert and not under the influence of drugs, alcohol or medication at the time of his arrest. When Aguilar was interviewed five hours later -- after the officers had talked to Richland detectives and received arrest and search warrants -- he did not seem confused and gave answers appropriate to the questions asked.

Aguilar waived his rights and agreed to speak with the officers. After the interview he was allowed to write two letters, one to Reedy and another to the court, Aguilar said.

Aguilar testified that he really wanted an attorney, but he was terrified from his earlier contact with Cortinas so he chose to talk.

Aguilar -- a convicted sex offender who acknowledged having experience with officers and the judicial system -- had been sitting in the Barstow station's holding cell when the window was covered by a piece of paper, he said. Then Cortinas came in to check on him, closed the door "and he started getting rough with me," he testified.

Aguilar alleged Cortinas hit his body, kicked his legs and pushed him around the room for 15 to 30 minutes while calling him a "sick bastard and other words like that."

Ajax asked Cortinas about the paper, wondering if he was worried someone might recognize Aguilar even though he was from another state.

Cortinas replied that in California custody facilities and prisons, people accused of crimes against a child are highly likely to be assaulted. His primary concern was keeping Aguilar segregated to one cell and protecting him by blocking the window so others passing by couldn't look in.

Murstig said he spoke with Cortinas that night via text message, email and fax. He wanted to make sure California police secured all the evidence and had the proper documents to keep Aguilar in custody until he could fly to Barstow with Richland Detective Roy Shepherd.

Aguilar later invoked his rights after speaking to a lawyer, so Murstig and Shepherd only went to San Bernardino County to pick up the suspect, with no plans to further interview him.

They were at the Ontario, Calif., airport awaiting a commercial flight when Aguilar said he wanted to speak to "Jenny" Reedy about the case and it "being an accident."

Murstig said he told Aguilar they couldn't talk to him about the case, so Aguilar then made the unusual move of again waiving his rights and giving a lengthy statement to the Richland detectives. Aguilar did the same at the Portland airport, but soon changed his mind again and decided to only talk to his attorney, Murstig said.

The detective said Aguilar's statements were basically the same when talking about the baby's head injury, but different from what he told Barstow police about the sexual assault.

Richland officers met the commercial plane at the Tri-Cities Airport and drove Aguilar to the police station, before booking him in to the Benton County. A few officers testified that Aguilar told them thanks for being nice and not beating him up.

-- Kristin M. Kraemer: 582-1531; kkraemer@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @KristinMKraemer

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