One mother tries to 'set the record straight' about her boys
BY MICHAEL MARTZ AND JIM NOLAN
TIMES-DISPATCH STAFF WRITERS
Wednesday, May 11, 2005
the charges against Cisco Olavarria were dismissed by a Richmond judge,
three months after his lawyer had presented detailed evidence showing
that he could not have been present at Harris' slaying and did not
match the description of the driver of the getaway car.
"Nothing ever came of it," said his mother, Annette Olavarria. "They just wanted to lock him up."
The tale of two brothers -- one killed by four police bullets and the other wrongly accused of involvement in a murder -- has raised new questions about the conduct of Richmond police and left a South Richmond family feeling twice victimized by the people who are paid to protect them.
Last week, a Richmond judge forwarded the special grand jury's report on Santanna Olavarria's death to the U.S. Department of Justice for investigation and prosecution. The judge also ordered the report to be given to the Richmond Police Department for an internal review of how the two offi- cers' weapons and ammunition were handled as evidence by the department after the shooting.
According to the judge's order, the grand jury recommended that the department take disciplinary action if its review were to "disclose tampering or other dishonesty by any member of that department" in handling the evidence in Santanna Olavarria's killing.
The Olavarria family did not receive a copy of the two-volume report on Santanna's death. They plan to ask the court for the document, which they believe will show that their son did nothing to warrant his death at the hands of police.
"I want to set the record straight about both of my boys," Annette Olavarria said in an interview with The Times-Dispatch at her home in South Richmond.
Mrs. Olavarria said the police's public naming of Cisco as a murder suspect was "retaliation" for the state police investigation and an attempt to influence the special grand jury. "This was the type of message they were trying to send to the grand jury."
The police say that isn't so.
"This case was worked like it had no relation to the police shooting," said Lt. John Venuti, head of the violent-crimes unit for the Richmond Police Department. "To even allege the conspiracy of that level involving the entire department is ridiculous."
Venuti said that police named Cisco Olavarria as a suspect in the case based on information provided by an eyewitness. He said he did not know why the previous police administration made the decision to publicize the search for the suspects in the Harris slaying, nor did he know why no decision was made to inform the public of Cisco's arrest and his eventual exoneration.
But the detective was clear on how his investigators approached the case.
Santanna Olavarria's shooting "had no impact or influence on anything we did," he said. "We worked this case like his brother wasn't a police shooting victim."
"I think we acted in good faith. The steps and actions we took were above and beyond. We did what we needed to do with any eyewitness identification. If the person is innocent, we exonerate them, and that's what we did in this situation."
Kevin M. Schork, Olavarria's lawyer, questions why it took police so long.
The day after Richmond police named Cisco as a suspect, Schork said, he gave police time sheets and a list of 20 witnesses to prove that he had arrived at work in Florida 15 minutes before Harris was killed in Richmond. Olavarria's supervisor in Florida told police in a telephone conference call that he was there at work, not in Richmond, that evening.
After that meeting, "I don't see how any rational thinking, objective person could think that he did it," Schork said.
Within a week, Schork also offered police photographs that showed Olavarria had no tattoos and, therefore, did not match the description of the suspect in Harris' murder. He produced a videotape that he said showed Olavarria arriving for work in Florida the night of the killing.
Still, police forced Olavarria to return to Richmond the next month, jailed him for one night on an obstruction charge that never was explained or prosecuted, and then quietly backed away as the murder charges were dismissed "with prejudice" at the request of the Richmond commonwealth's attorney's office earlier this year, meaning the charges can't ever be brought against him again.
Venuti said the reason for the delay was simple: "We needed time to do our job."
After Schork presented his evidence of Cisco's whereabouts, the case detectives weren't "100 percent convinced" that Cisco had been in Florida, Venuti said.
When Cisco came to Richmond, police saw that he did not have the tattoo on his neck described by the eyewitness. "I think at that point we were pretty much convinced that it wasn't him," Venuti said.
Venuti said detectives traveled to Florida on Jan. 4 to check out Cisco's story. They called the next day and "said he had a rock-solid alibi. Then we were 100 percent convinced."
By that point a preliminary hearing was set for a month later. It was agreed that because Cisco was not incarcerated and out on minimal bond, that the case would simply be disposed of at the preliminary hearing on Feb. 4.
For the Olavarria family, the ordeal was crushing.
Cisco, who has no criminal record, went into an emotional nose dive when Santanna was killed on May 29, 2004, his family said. They sent him to be with family in Florida.
When police visited the family's home one night last October to talk to Cisco, Annette Olavarria said she told them that he was not in Virginia. She said they would not say why they wanted to talk to him. She soon found out.
The next morning, she said, a friend called and read her a newspaper account that identified Cisco as a suspect in the slaying of a 14-year-old boy. "I'd like to have lost my mind," Annette Olavarria said. "I said, 'My God, how much more are we going to have to put up with?'"
"They turned our world upside down and ruined my family's reputation," she said.
The family mistrusted Richmond police so intensely that they appealed for help to the Virginia State Police, which was investigating Santanna's killing. Annette Olavarria said a state police agent accompanied Cisco and his family to Richmond police headquarters when he returned from Florida in mid-November to face the charges.
On Nov. 17, Richmond police served Cisco with two murder charges. Police also produced an arrest warrant that it had processed the previous May, five days before Santanna's death, charging Cisco with obstructing law enforcement earlier that month. Police never explained the charge, which was dismissed two weeks later because the city declined to prosecute it.
However, the charge allowed Richmond police to hold Cisco in the city lockup overnight. His parents posted bond the next morning. He returned to Florida but came back to Richmond twice more, on Nov. 29, when the obstruction charge was dismissed, and on Feb. 4, his 20th birthday, when a juvenile-court judge threw out the murder charges.
Cisco's appearance is likely to be his last in Richmond.
"He doesn't want ever to come to this place again," his mother said.
Contact Michael Martz at (804) 649-6964 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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