In episode 4 we discuss the case of Juan Rivera who was tried and convicted on 3 separate occasions for the rape and murder of an 11 year old girl. If you enjoy this episode please visit our website bowtofate.com to stay up to date with current events and episodes
Hello and thanks for listening to Bow to Fate- a podcast focusing on true crime with an emphasis on the flaws in our justice system. Today we are going to be talking about Juan Rivera who was tried and convicted on three separate occasions for the rape and murder of an 11 year old girl named Holly Staker. This is going to be a two part episode so be sure to tune in for our next installment to finish the story off.
On August 17th, 1992 Holly Staker was babysitting for a neighbor. She was watching two year old Taylor and five year old Blake Engelbrecht, just down the street. When a neighbor spotted Blake running around alone outside he scooped him up and took him to where Holly’s mother worked. Together they left her work and headed for the Engelbrecht home after they were not able to reach Holly by phone.
When they arrived they found the back door of the home broken in. They found 2 year old, Taylor sitting quietly on a bed. Both children were safe, however the babysitter was not.
A sixth grader who was a student council member and a cheerleader. She had an identical twin sister, and together they used to change places to fool their friends.. She loved her family, friends, and cooking. None of these things mattered now, while searching they found Holly’s body on the bedroom floor with her clothes torn off she had been raped, strangled and stabbed upwards of 27 times.
NEWS CLIP OF A SCARED COUNTY
Lake County, Illinois had formed a Major Crimes Task Force just a year earlier and the pressure was now on to prove their worth. They spent more than 7,000 hours chasing information, questioning people, and identifying suspects. However more than two months in they had no reliable leads in the murder, and things were beginning to look bleak.
Enter onto the scene everyone’s favorite protagonist in our podcasts, the jailhouse snitch.
Our informant this time is named, Edward Martin, he was with Juan Rivera in the Lake County Jail. Ed was awaiting sentencing after being convicted of criminal sexual assault of his step daughter.
Hoping for some assistance with his recent conviction, Ed, told investigators that he knew someone who he believed had information regarding the murder. With 10 weeks and no arrests, Waukegan Police jumped at the information. Ed provided the name of nineteen year old Juan Rivera, a former special education student who was had moved to Waukegan a year earlier. Although he found a few jobs, Rivera was mostly a street kid who enjoyed smoking marijuana and parties.
They brought Rivera in on October 26th. Detectives questioned him for 4 days, while he repeatedly denied any knowledge of the crime. At the end of the fourth day, around midnight, Rivera broke, when asked if he had raped and killed Holly, Rivera nodded his head.
Let’s here the experts explain this case here is a clip from the Center on Wrongful convictions describing the case
The confession is troublesome, but a jury doesn’t get to see how it was obtained. Juries consistently choose to believe the police, in this country police are infallible. When faced with a choice between a citizen and an officer we will always choose the officers accounting of how scenarios went down. Even with undeniable proof that they are lying. Take a recent case in the media, the killing of Walter Scott. We have video evidence of a Michael Slager, a police officer, shot Scott in the back multiple times as he fled in the opposite direction unarmed. A jury is deadlocked and a mistrial is eminent. Even with undeniable video evidence that this officer murdered an unarmed man fleeing in the opposite direction, this jury chose to believe the officer feared for his life and were unable to bring a conviction. So in that case we had video evidence, in this one we have a 19 year old kid who says they bullied him into a confession and provided him with information of crime. Rivera never stood a chance.
The police claimed that Rivera provided them with pieces of the crime they did not previously know, which was a lie. Most of the facts given during the confession were widely reported in the paper and in television reports. I am not saying that the confession wasn’t bone chilling because it was. It is scary and sounds pretty believable. He describes meeting Holly outside the building while she was babysitting. She invited him upstairs because she was lonely and he even says that he played with the kids because quote he really likes kids. Soon he was in the bedroom naked and trying to have sex with Holly, but was unable to get an erection, when she started to make fun of him. She supposedly grabbed his crotch and insulted the size of his penis, at which point he went to the kitchen and got a knife. Holly tried to fight him off, but he overcame her and started stabbing. The confession states, “If she would have stopped yelling and fighting me, I would have stopped cutting her, and she would not have gotten hurt anymore” The confession then goes on to describe how he pushed her onto the bed and had sex with her bleeding body. Afterwards he cleans the blood off his hands in the kitchen and on the way out of the house by way of the back door he says he grabbed a mop and bashed in the back door to make it look like a robbery, he then wiped it with a towel to remove the fingerprints. Once outside, Rivera broke the knife in two and tossed it into the backyard before running home. This ghastly, three page confession became the key and really only piece of evidence against Rivera in three separate murder trials.
Before we go any further, I want to talk a little bit about how this confession came to be and in order to do that I need to delve a bit deeper into the key players in this case.
Let’s begin with Lake County’s State Attorney, Michael Waller. At the time of the interrogation of Rivera, Waller was involved in a heated election with voting starting in mere days. The people were frightened as we heard in the news clip earlier. The police had been investigating this case for months with no leads and they appeared to be fighting a losing battle. Residents refused to let their children play outside, there was a call for the police to close this case and close it quickly or Waller would be out of a job. Waller had stepped into the job two years earlier when a colleague retired early and he was placed as the interim State Attorney, his wife Jane was a Circuit Court Judge. He was known as a man to get things done and he instituted a practice of win and win at all costs.
Waller appointed Michael Mermel as his Assistant State Attorney. Mermel is known for fighting efforts by convicts trying to clear their names, even with undeniable evidence of their innocence. Mermel once told reporters, “The taxpayers don’t pay us for intellectual curiosity. They pay us to get convictions.”
In 1992, the political climate in Lake County was surprisingly one sided. It included some of the wealthiest suburbs in Chicago but Waukegan was not one of those suburbs. Waukegan had fallen on hard times after several major manufacturing companies closed down leaving their buildings vacant and without factory jobs the people were no longer able to keep up their homes and lifestyles. It was not long before it appeared to be a city in disarray. Compared to neighboring areas Waukegan was seen as an eyesore and one that most wanted to forget.
The wealthy class, essentially took over the justice system within the county. Over two thirds of the appointed judges were former Lake County prosecutors, even the sheriff was a former prosecutor. With so many of the key players within the system with ties to the prosecutor’s office it became an us vs them situation with a very narrow minded view of what justice was.
Sergeant Charles Fagan was in charge of leading the interrogation of Rivera that resulted in the first confession. On October 27th they brought Rivera to Lake County and began an intensive interrogation that would lead to that confession and a psychological break from Rivera.
So how did it happen, how do you get someone to confess to something they didn’t do. There is a lot of questions and studies into how and why someone will finally break down, but the short answer is that most people do not have the mental strength to withstand a barrage of accusations and questions. We believe that if we confess the interrogation will stop and eventually the truth will come out, I mean we didn’t do it right, so there is no way we can be convicted of a crime we didn’t commit. Unfortunately, our justice system doesn’t work that way.
Rivera was subjected to a form of interrogation known as the Reid technique, it is widely used by law-enforcement agencies in the states to obtain a confession. Supporters praise it as useful in extracting information from unwilling suspects while critics say it is the primary cause of false confessions especially in children.
The process is performed in three-phases, fact analysis, followed by behavior analysis, then then when appropriate the Reid Nine Steps of Interrogation.
You begin telling the suspect a story rather than asking them questions, letting them know there is no doubt as to their guilt. The interrogator gives the suspect the details of the crime asking them loaded questions like “did you plan this out or did it just happen” You gradually make the suspect more and more comfortable with confessing.
I am going to read you the nine listed steps of interrogation just so you can really get an idea of how this could easily elicit a false confession especially from a suspect such as Rivera that was in an incredibly stressful situation and suffering from sleep deprivation. If you want to read these I have provided a link on our page bowtofate.com under current events.
The Reid Technique’s nine steps of interrogation are:
- Direct confrontation. Advise the suspect that the evidence has led the police to the individual as a suspect. Offer the person an early opportunity to explain why the offense took place.
- Try to shift the blame away from the suspect to some other person or set of circumstances that prompted the suspect to commit the crime. That is, develop themes containing reasons that will psychologically justify or excuse the crime. Themes may be developed or changed to find one to which the accused is most responsive.
- Try to discourage the suspect from denying his or her guilt.
- At this point, the accused will often give a reason why he or she did not or could not commit the crime. Try to use this to move towards the confession.
- Reinforce sincerity to ensure that the suspect is receptive.
- The suspect will become quieter and listen. Move the theme discussion towards offering alternatives. If the suspect cries at this point, infer guilt.
- Pose the “alternative question”, giving two choices for what happened; one more socially acceptable than the other. The suspect is expected to choose the easier option but whichever alternative the suspect chooses, guilt is admitted. There is always a third option which is to maintain that they did not commit the crime, however the suspect will rarely choose this option.
- Lead the suspect to repeat the admission of guilt in front of witnesses and develop corroborating information to establish the validity of the confession.
- Document the suspect’s admission or confession and have him or her prepare a recorded statement (audio, video or written it doesn’t matter you have your confession).
In the case of Juan Rivera he was taken to a local law firm on three separate occasion and given polygraph tests. The examiner was instructed to be cordial to Rivera letting him know that the truth would all be revealed soon, and then without knowing the actual results of the test, the examiner was instructed to tell Rivera he was lying.
On a 19 year old kid who never finished high school this technique resulted in the first signed confession, the one that was so factually inaccurate that it couldn’t be used.
Fagan obtained the signed confession at approximately 3am on the morning of October 30th, shortly thereafter Rivera began banging his head against a wall in his cell. He was unresponsive and staring straight ahead. He was then moved to a padded cell and handcuffed at the wrists and ankles. When a nurse when to check on him he was speaking incoherently and she later testified “Rivera was not in touch with the reality of what was going on around him”
Around 5 am that morning Fagan called Holly’s mother and told her that they had caught the killer. At 9am the morning of the 30th investigators gathered in State’s Attorney Waller’s office where he began reading the confession. After reading it through, Waller admitted that the statements made in the confession did not line up with the facts of the crime. He decided that a fresh set of detectives needed to perform another interview to clear up all the discrepancies.
Enter into our story, Lou Tessmann. Tessmann was a skilled and respected interrogator. He had a 96 percent success rate of obtaining a confession. Most notably, he obtained a confession from a young woman after a newborn baby was found dead in an alley. The woman, after meeting with Tessmann signed a statement saying that she gave birth to the baby alone, and could not deal with having another child after having six prior to that. She stated that she then placed it in a bag leaving it for death, the charges had to be dropped after an examination revealed she was not in fact the mother of the child and in fact did not have any children at all.
Play Chicago False Confession Capital
Waukegan is a suburb of Chicago for all of you that didn’t know. Are you beginning to see why they obtained that title.
In the hour prior to the interrogation performed by Tessmann, Rivera was shackled at the wrists and feet and was beating his head against the glass window, however Tessmann stated he was comfortable and very relaxed. He told the jury during multiple trials that he was not aware of the first confession even though other officers testified he gave them copies before he walked into the interrogation room. He also obtained the key statement that many refer to as the proverbial smoking gun. Rivera told him that he used the mop to break in the back door. Tessmann testified that investigators were not aware of this prior to the confession, but the polygraph examiner stated that Tessmann told him about it prior to the confession.
Within a few hours Tessmann had a brand new confession from Rivera that cleared up all the previous inconsistencies and was more in line with the evidence the police had. This was the confession that would be used to convict Rivera in three trials even though physical evidence proved his innocence.
Tessmann then typed up the confession and had Rivera sign it. It contains several typos that were corrected by Rivera before signing. It is my belief this was done to legitimize the statement and more than likely done at the prompting of police because I find it hard to believe that a special education student that had not finished high school would be concerned about typos at a time like this.
Let’s hear how Jeffrey Urganden one of Juan’s attorney’s describes the confession.
If the judge would have allowed the jurors to hear the full extent to how the confession was obtained, I would hope that this would have changed the outcome of the trials, unfortunately that did not happen.
I wanted you to have the opportunity to hear Juan describe his interrogation in his own words,
So, how did Juan Rivera get here, we mentioned earlier about his cellmate, Edward Martin, who would become our first jailhouse informant. He never told police that Rivera confessed to the murder only that he had facts about the case. Martin did not pull this information out of thin air though. Rivera confirmed that he did actually tell Martin that he went to a party on the day Holly died and he saw a man leave the party and come back acting strangely. The truth came out years later, Rivera said that in reality a friend of his actually attended the party and told him the story. When he was in jail he took her out and put himself in. I can’t think of a good reason he would do this aside from the fact that he was 19 and wanted to appear like a big man in the cell block. Putting myself in his place, I can see how it would happen especially since there was no way he could possibly know how this was going to play out.
To be fair, Juan Rivera, had every reason to believe that he could not be convicted of the crime because he had an absolutely airtight alibi, or so be thought. A few months prior Rivera had been arrested for stealing a car stereo and as a result he was placed on electronic home monitoring. He had violated his monitoring on several occasions, all of which were documented in the Lake County monitoring logs, for violating his home confinement, he was placed in the cell with Edward Martin and was able to relay his friend’s story of the party and the man acting strangely on the day of Holly’s death. When police reviewed his location on the date of the murder, it showed him at home all day. This created a very big problem for the prosecutor’s office in Lake County. They had a man in jail because the electronic monitor showed that he was not at home when he was supposed to be, who subsequently confessed to murdering a young girl, on a date when his monitor showed him at home.
Prosecutors Waller and Mermel found a unique way to address the problem however. They claimed that the brand new monitoring system purchased just a year before at a big cost to taxpayers, was faulty and often did not report correctly. That is right, they bashed their own system, that they both fought vigorously to obtain. They said that Rivera was able to slip the monitor off his ankle and leave it in his home and he had done so on multiple occasions. They didn’t try to explain how or why Rivera would have slipped the monitor off to murder Holly, but not on the multiple other occasions Rivera’s monitor went off for being out of bounds. Rivera was in the jail cell for violating the same system in instances both before and after Holly’s murder. It made absolutely no sense whatsoever. The argument that their brand spanking new monitoring system was broken, even with no proof that it was, effectively killed the new piece of the technology, and led to the county taxpayers having to doll out more cash for another system even though there was nothing wrong with the one they had.
Juan describes his frustration of being guilty at first sight in this upcoming clip
Juan said it perfectly it’s like saying a color is blue when everyone else can clearly see it’s green. However that is exactly what Waller and Mermel intended to do at court. They had to break down their own monitoring system in order to convict Rivera with a confession that was clearly coerced.
The fact that these arguments were even able to be made in a courtroom was an atrocity, an atrocity that can be attributed to Judge Christopher Starck. Judge Starck allowed some of the most ridiculous arguments to be made by the prosecution. Not to mention the fact that he chose to ignore one of the most blatant instances of police corruption and indisputable proof of a police frame up job that I have ever seen.
Prior to the trial, Prosecutors were touting the most solid piece of evidence they had against Juan Rivera. They had taken a pair of shoes from Rivera’s residence and claimed that he wore the shoes in commission of the crime. The shoes had been sent to a lab and tested for blood, on them they found Holly Staker’s blood. During pre-trial hearing, the prosecution mentioned the shoes on multiple occasions and it appeared that they were going to be the cornerstone of the prosecution’s case against Rivera, until Rivera’s court appointed attorneys began investigating.
They found out the the shoes a pair of Voit Tennis Shoes had been purchased after the murder by Rivera’s mother. They further proved that the shoes were not available for sale anywhere in the continental US until after the murder. They went to the Walmart that Rivera’s mother said she bought the shoes and found the original cash register receipt of the purchase that further proved there was no way Rivera could have worn those shoes on the day of the murder. When the defense presented their evidence to the Judge Starck and Prosecutors Waller and Mermel. The transcript has Judge Starck saying, “Apparently these shoes have nothing at all to do with this crime” That’s it, nothing more. No one questioned how the hell the blood got there in the first place, if his attorney’s would not have looked into them, they would have gone into the trial as the most damning piece of evidence presented against Rivera. The blood was obviously planted on the shoes but no one ever mentioned them again. They just let it slide.
Rivera’s attorney then requested from the court funds for an expert witness on false confessions. Judge Starck held a hearing to determine if the funds for the witness would be warranted. He paraded the experts before the court and had them provide their accounts of why hearing their testimony would be beneficial for the jury. Each did their due diligence recounting several cases where false confessions convicted innocent men and each explaining how and why they happen. After several days Judge Starck ruled. He denied the defense’s request for funds to pay the witnesses and further ruled that they would not be allowed to argue that the confession was erroneously elicited from Rivera. He essentially cut the defenses hands off and then instructed them to juggle.
While awaiting the trial to begin and after withdrawing the tennis shoes, their only piece of physical evidence. The prosecution began looking for help to shore up their case against Rivera. They managed to come up with two additional jailhouse informants.
Frank McDonald was awaiting trial and often read discovery materials to other inmates who had difficulty understanding the terminology. Frank said that he read the material to Rivera and at the end he accused the defendant of committing the murder, at which point he said that Rivera had broken down and confessed to him. McDonald came forward and I say that with a bit of sarcasm after he attempted to sell Rivera’s discovery material to a reporter from the Chicago Tribune, no charges were filed.
David Crespo was also in jail with Juan Rivera, the two became very close after attending several Spanish Bible study classes together. According to Crespo after one of these classes Rivera admitted to killing Holly Staker. Crespo only came forward after leaving jail. See Rivera and Crespo were very close, when Crespo was released he had nowhere to go so Juan asked his family to take Crespo in and help him get back on his feet. The Rivera family opened their doors and welcomed him. They later found out Crespo was using drugs and possibly selling them out of their home, they asked him to leave and an argument broke out, The result being Crespo going to police and telling them about Rivera’s confession.
I know I sound like a broken record on these shows, but I really hate jailhouse informants. It is absolutely ridiculous that we continue to give credibility to these people.
On November 1, 1993 the first trial began. The prosecution had no physical evidence against Juan Rivera, despite the apartment being full of blood and fingerprints, none of which matched Rivera. They had what they believed to be the murder weapon, a kitchen knife found in the back yard, prints on the knife were not a match to Rivera. They had fingerprints in Holly’s blood in the home, none of those matched Rivera. There was absolutely no physical evidence that tied Rivera to the crime scene. Assistant State Attorney Michael Mermel made his case against Rivera based solely on the confession and the testimony of the jailhouse informants. Rivera’s defense team attempted show the jury that nothing in the home tied Rivera to the crime. There was proof everywhere that someone aside from the family that lived there and Holly had been in the house, but that person was not Juan Rivera, but without a suspect to point to they were just making suppositions, and the confession was powerful. Detectives took the stand one after another, and despite the defense’s attempts to show they were lying and telling half truths, the crime was too gruesome and raw. No one could understand how a person would confess to a crime they did not commit. The trial lasted less than two weeks. On November 19th the jury returned a guilty verdict against Juan Rivera for the murder of Holly Staker.
Here is Mermel at a news conference shortly after the verdict
The prosecution pushed for the death penalty, thankfully the jury declined or this would have been a very different story, a month later Judge Christopher Starck sentenced Rivera to life in prison.
Rivera’s attorneys immediately filed an appeal of the conviction, it took three years for the Illinois Appellate Court to overturn the conviction on the basis of the cumulative effects of what they deemed prosecutorial errors made at trial. Lake County Prosecutors affirmed their right to try the case again. The court remanded the case for a new trial.
Juan Rivera entered the courtroom again on September 16, 1998, six years after the crime. Again the prosecution had no physical evidence. Two of the three jailhouse informants had passed away however they had Judge Starck on the prosecution’s side. Starck agreed to allow their testimony be read to the jury. Despite the fact that testimony given by jailhouse informants was notoriously unreliable and often changed with the wind. Allowing the testimony to be read to the jury also meant that they could not be cross examined by the defense. The testimony was read to the jury by police detectives, which automatically give it more credence than the testimony of convicted felons.
The prosecution’s case was once again based on the signed confession. They did have a surprise eyewitness though. Taylor Engelbrecht just two years old at the time of the murder, was now a young woman. Despite being only two on the day Holly died, she told the jury she remembered going to the store with Holly to buy a pizza. The now 8 year old said she recalled cooking the pizza and eating it. Her older brother was outside playing, when Taylor said the man who stabbed Holly came in through the back door and Holly did not let him in. Taylor told the jury the man stabbed her in the stomach three times. She went on to tell them that they were in the kitchen and the man dragged Holly to the bedroom where he put Holly on one of the beds, this perpetrator then came back out and picked Taylor up and put her on the same bed, raping Holly and murdering her in front of Taylor. After she finished her testimony the trial ended for the day.
When court resumed the next morning, the State advised the court that after testifying Taylor identified Juan Rivera as the person who stabbed Holly. The state requested that they be allowed to recall Taylor for her identification. Of course, the defense objected, after a short hearing Starck authorized the defense to spend $5000 for an expert witness to testify regarding the recalled memory of Taylor and allowed the prosecution to call her back to the stand. Taylor then took the stand again and identified Juan Rivera as the man who killed Holly.
Just prior to the parties’ closing arguments, defense counsel informed the trial court that neither of the two expert witnesses that they had wanted to testify regarding the recalled memory of Taylor Engelbrecht was available. Earlier in the trial, the trial court had suggested that defense counsel subpoena the experts. The trial court reasoned that it would be preferable to subpoena one expert and force him to reschedule two or three patients rather than detain the jurors an extra four or five days. Defense counsel explained that they did not want to subpoena the experts because they feared the experts would become hostile if faced with that type of proceeding. Defense counsel requested a continuance to secure the testimony of one of the experts. The trial court responded that it stood ready to issue a subpoena and a body attachment but it would not continue the case. The case was sent to the jury without them hearing any testimony about how a two year old’s memory might not exactly be accurate.
During this trial the defense was allowed to present their expert witnesses regarding false confessions, being that the last conviction was overturned due to them not being allowed to present it then.
The defense also addressed the supposed murder weapon found in the back yard. The medical examiner had said that the injuries on Holly’s body most likely were caused by a serrated knife, the knife touted by the prosecution was a smooth kitchen knife.
It made little difference, though. After hearing the heart wrenching testimony of the then two year old Taylor and the original confession, the jury was sent to deliberations with heavy hearts. After four days of deliberations the jury once again returned a guilty verdict for Juan Rivera for the murder of 11 year old Holly Staker.
On December 10, 1998 court was once again in session for the sentencing of Juan Rivera. Rivera’s attorney filed a post-trial motion for a new trial, because after the trial Taylor had recanted her testimony admitting that she did not remember the events of August 17, 1992 nor did she know if Juan Rivera had actually killed Holly. Judge Christopher Starck denied the motion and ordered the sentencing to continue.
That day he sentenced Juan Rivera to a period of natural life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for an exceptionally brutal and heinous act of murdering Holly Staker.
I cannot blame an eight year old girl for getting caught up in the moment, she would have had absolutely no way to understand the gravity of what she was doing on that witness stand. Taylor’s recounting of the crime was about as reliable as the first confession that detectives pulled from Rivera. Her account of what happened that night directly conflicted with what the prosecution claimed to be their strongest evidence against Rivera, the signed confession, however prosecutors allowed her to take the stand, more than likely to take advantage of the shock value of have a young girl testify in such an awful case.
I do, however, blame the prosecutors office. It was the responsibility of both Waller and Mermel to screen their witnesses and assure the testimony they were compelling was both true and accurate. It is my belief that faced with a new trial they went out in search of additional witnesses to assure that the case remained in the win column. Time after time they have shown a willingness to bend the confines of the law to assure the results sway in their favor.
Play Center on Wrongful Convictions Clip on wrongful convictions
It’s hard to hear that you can essentially be quote railroaded because someone gets on a track and can’t get off but that is essentially what happened here.
On December 12, 2001 the Rivera case reached the Illinois Appellate Court for the second time. This time the court confirmed the conviction, effectively squashing any hope Rivera had to be freed for a crime he continued to deny committing.
I want to play you a clip of Juan describing his time in prison so you can get an idea of how he was feeling during this time
I cannot even pretend to understand what he was going through. Locked up for a crime he knew he didn’t commit, yet everyone around you assumed you did.
Have no fear though, a third trial is on the horizon for Juan Rivera and many more twists and turns are coming up, but that is all the time we have for this episode. We will pick up where we left off in our next episode so stay tuned.
I appreciate you taking the time to listen to us today, we are going to continue to bring you quality episodes on a regular basis. If you haven’t visited our website you can find us at bowtofate,com. Don’t forget to like us on Facebook or send a tweet to @Bowtofatepod and if you get a chance please subscribe to our podcast to stay up to date with current episodes. Feel free to send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org with your suggestions for upcoming episodes or call and leave a voicemail at 725-222-FATE, you may just end up on the podcast. Till next time, stay safe and keep listening.