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Valley Buddhist temple massacre has had lasting impact

by William Hermann - Aug. 14, 2011 12:00 AM

The Arizona Republic

The slaying 20 years ago of nine people at a West Valley Buddhist temple, while tragic in its own right, also changed the face of Arizona politics and still shines a light on the issue of police interrogation techniques.

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio may well owe his first election victory, in 1992, to then-Sheriff Tom Agnos' staff bungling the investigation into the Aug. 9, 1991, murders at the Wat Promkunaram Temple. Arpaio has become a key figure in Arizona politics, using his influence to get others elected and playing a key role in making illegal immigration a state and national issue.

The legacy of the murders also lives on in Arizona police agencies, where detectives interrogating suspects strive not to make the mistakes sheriff's investigators made 20 years ago.

Early on, detectives threatened, pressured and coerced four innocent men into false confessions, then used the same tactics with two other suspects. The result: A guilty man who confessed and went to prison may yet go free.

The monks who live, pray and teach at Wat Promkunaram, meanwhile, will hold a prayer service Aug. 27 for the six Buddhist monks, a nun and two acolytes who were brutally murdered at the temple in the community of Waddell on that night 20 years ago.

A frenzied scene

Russell Kimball, then-homicide chief for the Sheriff's Office, remembers the frenzy at the crime scene.

"It was like an armed camp out there - everybody who was anybody in law enforcement wanted a part of it," he said. "The media was everywhere; it couldn't have been a higher-profile case."

Investigators found nine victims lying face down and grouped together, their heads pointing inward like spokes in a wheel. Some had their hands clasped in prayer. The carpet was bloody from head wounds made by .22-caliber bullets and shotgun blasts to torsos, arms and legs.

Sheriff's detectives over six days did exhaustive crime-scene work, taking thousands of photographs and fingerprints and making scores of diagrams.

"We collected every shell casing, took down walls and took the carpet out," Kimball said. "We also set up a multiagency task force. We soon had 221 people from 21 agencies on the case, and all done under constant pressure."

Despite an exhaustive investigation, weeks went by without a solid lead. Then, one month after the killings came what seemed like the big break. Tucson mental-hospital patient Mike McGraw, 24, on Sept. 10, 1991, called sheriff's investigators. He said he knew who had done it and he named names.

Soon, Tucson police had picked up McGraw and several friends: Leo Bruce, then 28, Mark Nunez, 19, Dante Parker, 20, and Victor Zarate, 28. All were taken to Phoenix and grilled from 9 p.m. to dawn daily, from Sept. 11 to Sept. 13.

Kimball said the investigators pleaded, cajoled, threatened and lied.

"It was so frenetic, 'You do this and I do that,' and we used tag-team tactics," he said. "Worse, we had people who'd never done murder interrogations, or even major crimes, before working those guys."

Among the mistakes made by interrogators, Kimball said, was, "they fed information about the case to them, and a trained homicide investigator would not do that."

The suspects' resistance only added pressure.

"We hammered on those guys until we broke their will, it was as simple and bad as that," he said. "After a while they were willing to say anything."

The defendants buckle

Beaten down and exhausted, four of the defendants began to tell the detectives what they believed they wanted to hear, and because they'd been given information about the murders, they gave details that seemed damning.

"Obviously they talked - because of the pressure," Kimball said. "A suspect has been up for hours and everything starts breaking down. The suspect gets to a place where they just submit, say anything the detectives want, just to stop the pressure."

One man didn't break. Zarate maintained his innocence and was released.

Then-County Attorney Rick Romley charged McGraw, Bruce, Parker and Nunez with nine counts each of first-degree murder.

But once the "Tucson Four" had a few days to rest and think about what had happened to them, they recanted, saying they were coerced. But investigators were certain the crime was solved.

Then, on Oct. 23, they got a fateful phone call.

The Arizona Department of Public Safety crime lab had identified the murder weapon: a .22-caliber rifle that didn't belong to any of the Tucson men. It belonged to a boy named Rolando Caratachea Jr., then 16.

The rifle had been found Aug. 21 when Caratachea and his friend, Johnathan Doody, 17, were stopped by Luke Air Force Base police. Task-force investigators had learned about the stop, picked up the rifle on Sept. 10 and talked with Doody, who said that he and friend Alessandro Garcia, 16, had fired it several times together. All three young men lived in the West Valley.

But that line of investigation stopped, because Sept. 10 was the day Mike McGraw made his call from Tucson. The rifle sat in a detective's office for weeks before being tested.

A new theory

Once investigators learned it was one of the murder weapons, Caratachea, Doody and Garcia were picked up for questioning. They were put in adjoining interrogation rooms. Detectives went to work on them, sure they were part of a murder crew involving the Tucson men.

Valley lawyer and author Gary L. Stuart, who long has been absorbed by the case, said that when he began to write about it he planned to concentrate on how improper interrogation techniques can elicit false confessions.

"In my first two years of research that's what I focused on," he said. "Then I realized the story was at least as much about coercing true confessions as coercing false confessions."

Stuart points out in his 2010 book "Innocent Until Interrogated" that "when the detectives who had questioned the Tucson Four got their hands on Doody, Caratachea and Garcia, they used their old playbook."

Alessandro Garcia succumbed to interrogators, who told him he could escape execution if he gave them Doody. Garcia admitted being at the temple that night and said Doody shot the monks with the .22, while he blasted them with a shotgun.

The heat was turned up on Doody.

"Doody was subjected to intense interrogation by the same group of officers, using the same techniques that they had earlier successfully used to break down the Tucson Four," Stuart said.

"Doody was arrested at 9:30 p.m. on a Friday night, put in a holding cell until midnight and then they started the interrogation," Stuart said. "It went all night, and by 6 a.m. the next morning he is starting to be incoherent - you can hear it on the tape. He is crying and petrified, he has two adults playing the 'good cop, bad cop' routine. He was in there almost 13 hours."

Different suspect, same tactics

Kimball says now, "It was the same old thing."

"You have (the interrogating detective) begging Johnathan to tell you the truth, and you could feel him not wanting to surrender," Kimball said. "But he finally did surrender; was broken."

Doody admitted he'd gone to the temple that night with Garcia. He didn't admit to shooting anyone. Still, what he said was enough to eventually convict him - and to convince Romley that the Tucson Four case "was just all wrong."

"I had questions about the Tucson men even before Doody and Garcia's interrogations," Romley said. "I began to review the materials, and inconsistencies started popping up. It just didn't hold together. I talked to Tom Agnos and said I was dismissing the charges against the Tucson Four. It was a difficult conversation."

The Tucson Four were released Nov. 22, 1991. All but McGraw sued the county. In 1994, Leo Bruce and Mark Nunez got $1.1 million each. Dante Parker got $240,000.

Doody and Garcia were tried in 1993. Doody did not testify. His statement that he was at the temple the night of the killings, and Garcia's testimony that he and Doody carried out the killings, were enough to convict them of nine counts of first-degree murder.

On Feb. 11, 1994, Doody was sentenced to 281 years in prison. On July 15, 1994, Garcia got 271 years. For Garcia, who had readily confessed, appeals of the sentence seemed useless.

Not so for Doody.

The case had drawn national attention. Doody's treatment at the hands of interrogators brought Alan Dershowitz, a nationally known attorney, to his side.

In 1995, Dershowitz, working with lawyer Peter Balkan in Phoenix, argued to the Arizona Court of Appeals that Doody was wrongfully deprived of his father's presence during the interrogation. He also argued that the Miranda warning against self-incrimination was improperly administered and that Doody's confession was not voluntary.

There began the appeals that continue to this day, though now near resolution.

Legal challenges ongoing

In May, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Doody's confession, elicited over 12 hours of questioning, was illegally coerced. On Aug. 1, the Arizona Attorney General's Office petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse that decision. If the Supreme Court refuses, Doody must be retried or go free.

Stuart said Doody's confession never should have stood up in court.

"What the law requires is a standard of admissibility and evidence for a confession, and the test of admissibility is whether it was freely and voluntarily given by the defendant," Stuart said. "The standard is whether the defendant's will was overborne by the interrogator. Was he coerced into confessing?

"They coerced the Tucson Four, who were innocent, but in much the same way they coerced Doody, who is guilty," Stuart said. "It was coercion all the same, and that should make it inadmissible in court."

Stuart said the appellate ruling clarified "that the danger to society and constitutional mandates are every bit as important in true confessions as they are in false confessions."

If there is a broader legal legacy of the investigation, it is this: Detectives at Valley police agencies are now more mindful of their interrogation techniques.

Interestingly, the murders are not at all a searing topic at the temple where they all took place.

The day after the slayings, Buddhist monk Phrakru Widesbrommakun was called to Phoenix from a Los Angeles temple. He has been in Waddell ever since, now serving as abbot.

"I knew the people who were killed, and we still feel very sad here about it, of course," the monk said recently as he sat in the temple's dining hall. "But we do not have hatred about it. In that respect, we have forgotten what happened and cannot concern ourselves with it.

"We are about peace."

Read more:

One of the most infamous murder cases in Arizona history is going to get a courtroom replay.

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery was forced Tuesday to decide whether to retry or set Johnathan Doody free after the U.S. Supreme Court deemed his confession inadmissible. Doody was convicted in 1993 in the slaying of nine people at a West Valley Buddhist temple.

"We are preparing to retry the case," said Jerry Cobb, spokesman for the County Attorney's Office. "Our refiling of the case likely will be within the month. In the meantime, Mr. Doody will remain in an Arizona prison."

Cobb said he could not predict when a new trial would begin, but he did know that one vital aspect of the first trial won't play the same the second time. Doody's confession to having been on hand when the killings took place can't be used.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed with a recent 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that Doody's confession was inadmissible on the grounds that it was illegally coerced and that his Miranda warnings were inadequate.

Doody was convicted in the August 1991 killing of six monks, two novice monks and a nun at the Wat Promkunaram Temple. He was 17 at the time of the slayings. An accomplice, Alessandro Garcia, confessed to the killings, implicated and testified against Doody, and is serving a 271-year sentence.

But before Doody and Garcia were arrested, Maricopa County Sheriff's Office detectives arrested five other men involving the crime on the word of a mental patient. One of the men soon was set free, but the others were interrogated by detectives.

"We hammered on those guys until we broke their will. It was as simple and as bad as that," said Russell Kimball, one of the detectives at the time. "After awhile, they were willing to say anything."

The four later recanted their confessions, and when evidence was developed that strongly tied Garcia and Doody to the case, the four were set free. Three of the four later sued the county and won large settlements.

But the fact that four innocent men nearly went to trial in the case had what then-County Attorney Rick Romley recently called "a searing effect on me."

He called for new and strict interrogation policies in local law enforcement.

"We said we wanted all significant statements from suspects to be audio- and videotaped, and we used RICO (Racketeer Influenced, Corrupt Organizations Act) money to buy cameras and recording equipment," Romley said. "We told agencies that juries are no longer just accepting confessions without a lot of corroborating evidence. So, we required corroboration on top of a confession."

But changes made in the past 20 years don't help county prosecutors now preparing to retry Doody. Some experts think that, minus Doody's confession, prosecutors will have their work cut out for them.

"Retrying Doody without the confession presents a variety of unique challenges and is a much more difficult case than prosecutors had in 1993," said Gary L. Stuart, a Valley lawyer and author who wrote a book about the case.

"The jury discounted much of what Garcia said and relied mostly on Doody's confession," Stuart said. "Now, prosecutors will have to see what evidence they can develop that doesn't involve the confession. That makes for a very difficult calculus."

Cobb admitted that the case is not without significant challenges.

"We are retrying a mass murder that is 20 years old," he said. "That puts us into some uncharted territory."

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Read more:

Second Oral Arguments: November 3, 2010

Listen to recording for case: Milke v. Schriro, No. 07-99001

* Requires Windows Media Player

Case Name:
Milke v. Schriro
Case Number:
Case Panel:
Hearing Location:
San Francisco, CA
Hearing Date:

Direct Link to the 9th Circuit's website
First Oral Arguments: August 20, 2008
Listen to recording for case: Milke v. Schriro, No. 07-99001

* Requires Windows Media Player

Case Name:
Milke v. Schriro
Case Number:
Case Panel:
Hearing Location:
Pasadena, CA
Hearing Date:

Direct Link to the 9th Circuit's website