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updated: 1/8/2012 6:26 PM

Investigator defends police conduct

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By Lou Tessmann
This is a letter to the Daily Herald from Lou Tessmann, one of the lead investigators in the Holly Staker murder investigation, defen

The purpose of this writing isn't to persuade anyone of Juan Rivera's guilt. It is rather to address the rush to demonize Police Officers and Prosecutors in the Rivera case. It seems that some of the press which trumpets "innocent until proven guilty" has no problem ignoring that concept when referring to Police or Prosecutors. The public needs to know that the men and women who worked on this case are/were all dedicated public servants whose only motive was to find, arrest, and prosecute the killer of Holly Staker. To suggest that any of these people would knowingly pursue the conviction of an innocent person is irresponsible and frankly, ignorant.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was one of the interviewers of Juan Rivera and, while I don't remember every detail, I remember much that has been distorted, underreported or not been disclosed in the news media reports of this case.

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The implication that the Police and Prosecutors "zeroed in on" Rivera is completely off base and a lie. The Lake County Major Crime Task Force had investigated several suspects before we became aware of Rivera and our thorough investigation excluded each of those suspects. If this was a group of people who only wanted to make an arrest simply to clear another murder, we had ample opportunity to do so before we ever heard about Juan Rivera. Likewise the suggestion that we felt pressure to make an arrest and therefore "rushed to judgment" or took the easy way out and arrested and charged Rivera would be laughable if good people's reputations weren't being dragged through the mud. These were people with many years of experience in law enforcement who dealt with pressure every day of their lives. Many of the Police Officers involved in this investigation were military veterans, some who experienced combat. The "pressure" to solve this case pales in comparison to the pressure they have dealt with before and since. These were not the kind of people who would frame an innocent person just to relieve this so-called pressure!

Juan Rivera wasn't even on the radar of the Task Force until he started bragging to a fellow jail inmate that he knew who killed Holly Staker. When the Task Force went to prison where Rivera was being held on unrelated crimes to talk with him, we viewed him as a potential witness. The problem is that Rivera lied to the investigators. He told us he had been at a party on the night of the murder and that a person left the party and returned out of breath and sweating heavily. The timing of this person's absence from the party would have fit into the time frame when the murder occurred. After hearing this story from Rivera the officers, in hopes of identifying this person, interviewed the people who purportedly hosted and attended the party. We learned that no party took place. Obviously, this raised a red flag to the investigators, as it would any reasonable person. Subsequently, Rivera was brought back to Lake County and reinterviewed. Initially, Rivera told the same story about a party, but when confronted with the officers' knowledge that no party took place, Rivera simply told more lies. EVERY story Rivera told us was checked out and each one proved to be a lie. Any investigator worth a dime would have become suspicious by this time.

If Rivera was home at the time of the murder (he was on home detention at the time with an ankle monitor) why didn't he just say that to the investigators? If, as his people have subsequently claimed, he made up the story of the party just to make himself seem important, why didn't he just tell that to the investigators? No, Rivera just continued to lie and get caught in the lies. It is well established law in Illinois and throughout this country that false exculpatory statements are relevant and admissible to show a defendant's consciousness of guilt.

Not once during the interviews by the Task Force did Juan Rivera say "I was home when Holly Staker was murdered." Keep in mind that not only did Rivera tell the Task Force that he had removed his ankle monitor, he admitted to routinely doing so to his champions in the news media. In addition, the monitoring system in use in Lake County at that time was notoriously unreliable.

Most of the news media have referred to Rivera being subjected to two days (or in some stories 48 hours) of interrogation before he confessed. This reporting is grossly misleading. Rivera was interviewed (or interrogated, if you prefer) for about 7.5 hours over a two-day period. The assertion that he was interrogated for two days is just flat out inaccurate.

Much of the news media not only has slanted its reporting in favor of Rivera, it has conveniently ignored other evidence that corroborated his confession. For example, they never mention that Rivera told the Police that he had been introduced to Holly by his sister while at the Waukegan Public Library. We were unaware of this fact until Rivera told us. Subsequently, Rivera's sister testified before the Lake County grand jury that she had indeed introduced Rivera to Holly at the library. Of course, when she learned how important this testimony would be she recanted, but the trial juries heard this evidence, as well as her recantation. Nor do you see any reference to the fact that one of the children for whom Holly was baby-sitting identified Rivera during the second trial as the "man who hurt Holly" or that this child gave a description to the DEFENSE investigator which matched Rivera.

The news media also ignores the fact that before the first Rivera trial the defense DNA expert contaminated the DNA sample. That contamination would not have affected subsequent DNA testing but it certainly calls the infallibility of DNA testing into question.

Of course critics and the news media is now feasting on the decision of the Second District Appellate Court which holds that no rational trier of fact could find Rivera guilty. In so ruling, it essentially tells the jurors who deliberated over many hours and the trial judge who presided over the trial (AND WHO, APPLYING THE SAME STANDARD AS THE APPELLATE COURT, DENIED MOTIONS FOR DIRECTED VERDICTS OF NOT GUILTY AND FOR ACQUITTAL NOT WITHSTANDING THE JURY'S VERDICT) that they were too stupid to get it right. Keep in mind, there is no criticism from the appellate court that evidence was withheld from the jury. The jury heard everything that was in the record for the appellate court. It has been noted by others that appellate courts aren't heard from last because they get it right, they are only right because they are heard last. I assume that the appellate court was not influenced by press reports about the case, even though the opinion appears to have adopted the mis-characterization of the interrogation of Rivera as having lasted two days rather than 7.5 hours of questioning over a two-day period.

It is interesting to note that while the appellate court concludes that police "fed" information to Rivera during the interview, they only cite one fact which may have been "fed" to him. Among the facts which Rivera gave us that we didn't know was that he used a mop handle to break in the back door of the apartment. AFTER learning this from the defendant we reviewed photographs of the scene and located a blue mop handle and discovered that there was a blue paint transfer on this same door.

To recite every fact that supports the decision to arrest, charge, prosecute and convict Juan Rivera would require many more pages. Suffice it to say that no newspaper story can recite every fact which is presented to a jury during a trial. Each of the trials of Juan Rivera lasted more than a week while the stories reporting the case take less than 5 minutes to read. It is impossible to present here every fact which was presented to those jurors. Remember, 36 jurors have heard all of the evidence and 3 times they have unanimously found Juan Rivera guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. These jurors were aware of each statement made by Rivera and of all of the circumstances surrounding the giving of those statements. They were aware of all of the DNA and other evidence and they were properly instructed on the law they were to apply in the case. Juan Rivera was represented by very capable attorneys in each trial, including some of the most celebrated defense attorneys in the Chicago area. Some of which are current college professors. Are we supposed to believe that the Assistant State's Attorneys for Lake County were able to pull the wool over the eyes of these 3 juries despite the best efforts of extremely talented and well prepared defense counsels?

I respect the opinions of those who, being aware of all the facts, conclude that there is reasonable doubt of the guilt of Juan Rivera. I do not and cannot respect those who, based upon incomplete and frequently biased reporting, condemn and castigate "better men and women than they." These people can't allow the possibility that the Police and Prosecutors acted honorably but are subject to human error. According to these people, if the Police and Prosecutors aren't right then they are evil and corrupt.

Rivera will have one more "judgment" day and he knows what direction that will take him? Oh and by the way, after that decision is made, there isn't any appeal process.

I want to thank a very good friend, who assisted in this letter.

Lou Tessmann CFI

Retired Deputy Chief of Police -- Waukegan, Illinois

Former Commander -- Lake County Major Crime Task Force

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