Police & Law Enforcement

Jaime Esparza And The Pizzaman Murder – Part 1 Of A 3 Part Special Report

Author’s note: This is the first of a three-part series looking into how Jaime Esparza handled capital murder cases and why it may have led to a political whisper campaign against the current district attorney.

On October 5, 1996, Benton Carlyle Smith (65), an El Paso Domino’s Pizza deliveryman, was shot and killed while he sat in his car after delivering pizza. Because Smith still had the pizza money on him, it appeared the robbery was not a motive in his killing. Investigators could not explain why he was killed. On October 17, 1996, one man and a teenager were arrested and charged with murdering Smith. They were Juan Villalobos, who was 20 at the time of his arrest and Mathew Medrano, who was 17 years old. [1] Both were indicted on capital murder charges on February 27, 1996 for Smith’s murder. [2]

In Texas, capital murder is one of the most serious crimes and can carry with it the death penalty. When prosecuting a capital murder case, the prosecutor must seek the death penalty. It is the jury that decides whether life in prison or the death penalty is applied to the defendant upon conviction. The jury must agree that “special circumstances” occurred during the crime to apply the death penalty. Because of the high-profile nature of capital murder cases, it can be argued that the quality of the prosecutor’s office determines the outcome of a capital murder case.

On the eve of the start of the murder trial, Jaime Esparza, the district attorney was being criticized for “botching” the prosecution of the two accused killers. As expected, one of the defense attorneys criticized Esparza’s prosecution of the case arguing that the case was “questionable”. However, the son of the victim was also criticizing Esparza for mishandling the case. According to Fred Smith, the son of the victim, Esparza will allow the “driver to go free” because Esparza is prosecuting someone that was not present at the murder. [3]

According to the victim’s son, he has been “investigating on his own” and interviewing witnesses. He told the El Paso Times that he interviewed a witness who says she saw Medrano, the 17-year-old, but not Juan Villalobos. Smith told the newspaper that because Esparza was insisting on prosecuting Villalobos that by the time the case against Medrano made it to court, the witness “may be too afraid to testify”. The witness was a 14-year-old girl. [3]

On August 27, 1997, the second trial of Juan Villalobos began. [4] The first trial of Villalobos had been dismissed in November 1996 because the “prosecution had not shown probable cause.” The second trial was dismissed the day after it started after the witness could not link Villalobos to the murder. This is what the son of the victim had predicted would happen. The teenage witness told the jury that “she never said that Villalobos” was the killer and that “she never said she had seen him the night” of the murder. [5] Although Esparza insisted that Villalobos was the getaway driver, the teenage witness insisted she never saw Villalobos as Smith was killed, although she testified that she saw Medrano. Villalobos could not be tried again for the murder because of double jeopardy.

The trial of the second defendant, Mathew Medrano, the teenager, was delayed in late October 1997, after the judge on the case ruled that the key-witness’s testimony that pointed to Medrano as the killer could not be used because police “hypnotized” the witness before she picked out Medrano from photographs. The judge ruled that “hypnosis is by its nature a process of suggestions,” and because of it the jury would be unable “to distinguish between the witness’s [sic] true memories and pseudomemories [sic].” [6] As a result of the judge’s ruling, the case stalled.

The victim’s son told the El Paso Times in 2002 that he was “not 100 percent convinced that Villalobos and Medrano were involved” in his father’s murder. [7]

According to court records, the case against Mathew Medrano was dismissed on March 9, 2004 without going to trial. It appears that Jaime Esparza botched the case of the pizzaman murder by insisting on pursuing charges on a suspect, Villalobos, that the only witness testified was not there and by using a “hypnotized” witness to link the other suspect to the murder. Readers should consider that ultimately it is the prosecutor that takes the evidence gathered by the police and prosecutes the case. Part of the job of a prosecutor is to both ensure that the suspect likely committed the crime based on the evidence the police present and that other suspects likely did not exist because the police investigated all aspects of the crime to include identifying the plausible motive for the crime. In this case, Jaime Esparza relied on a witness that contradicted his prosecution of one suspect and a witness that was “hypnotized” to produce the evidence needed to convict. It appears that neither the police nor Esparza could explain the motive for the murder considering that the pizza money was still on the victim when the police found him.

Jaime Esparza was elected El Paso’s District Attorney in 1993. [8] His last day was on December 31, 2020. Who killed Benton Carlyle Smith remains unknown because the two individuals that Jaime Esparza decided to prosecute for the murder were connected to the murder by unreliable witnesses. The case of one of the defendant’s was dismissed after a judge ruled that the witness did not testify that the defendant was at the scene, much less could have been involved in the murder, even though Esparza insisted that the witness had said so. Esparza never tried the second case because he could not establish that the witness he offered to prove that Medrano was the killer was hypnotized by police before she could connect Medrano to the murder.

The son of the victim had said before the trial even started that he did not believe that Jaime Esparza could successfully prosecute his father’s killer. The victim’s son said that “the victims are the ones that lose because the system does not work.” [3]

At the time of the pizza delivery murder, Jaime Esparza was also trying and successfully convicted another teenager of murder. His name is Daniel Villegas. Seventeen years after Villegas was jailed on murder charges, “El Paso judge Sam Medrano (see note 1 below) ruled in 2012 that Villegas had been coerced into a false confession.” Unusual for a case like this, the judge declared “Villegas factually innocent.” [9]

There were many problems with the Villegas case, in addition to the coerced confession. The “only real piece of evidence against” Villegas was the confession. There were also inconsistencies in the evidence Esparza offered to convict Villegas. [9]

It took Esparza two attempts to convict Villegas. During the first trial, the defense attorney was able to show the jury that the key detective in the case had been accused of perjuring himself on the stand twice before the Villegas case, according to “a former prosecutor who testified that he had twice presented perjury charges against” the detective to a grand jury. The first trial resulted in a hung jury. The jury in the second trial found Villegas guilty and he was sentenced to life in prison. [9]

On January 14, 2014 Villegas was released on bond pending his new trial that Jaime Esparza insisted on subjecting him to. On October 5, 2018, Villegas was found not guilty in his third trial. James Montoya, who tried the case with Denise Butterworth for Esparza’s office told the El Paso Times after the not guilty verdict that Esparza still believed that Villegas was guilty and “because there is no one else to investigate,” that “there are no other suspects.” Villegas served 18 years in prison for the crime the jury acquitted him of. [10]

An important element of American jurisprudence is establishing a pattern through evidence that lays a roadmap of why a crime may have been committed. To establish a pattern, juries are shown historical activities that may suggest a motive for the actions of individuals.

During Esparza’s first three years as the district attorney, he put one teenager in jail for a crime that he was “factually innocent” of and botched another case so bad that no one knows who killed the pizzaman. Today, in both cases – Villegas and Smith – no one can say who killed the victims because of Esparza’s mishandling of the prosecutions. There are other cases that Esparza’s office mishandled over the years.

James Montoya and how Jaime Esparza and his team of prosecutors handled capital murder cases are important to understanding not only the Daniel Villegas case but how the action of one his prosecutors led to a Brady letter in another capital case that alleged serious prosecutorial conduct in Esparza’s office. The target of the Brady letter was Denise Butterworth. We will look at that case later in the week. However, before we go to that case, in our next article, we will look at a case in which Esparza was investigated by a grand jury on charges of stealing money from the El Paso Democratic Party. The grand jury investigation was one of two known criminal investigations into Esparza while he was in office.

Montoya was supposed to succeed Esparza as the district attorney. However, Montoya lost to Yvonne Rosales in 2020. Rosales took office on January 1, 2021 and almost immediately became the target of a political whisper campaign against her, led in part, by Montoya via a Facebook video he posted.

Note 1: There is no indication that judge Medrano and Mathew Medrano are related other than they share a similar last name.

Footnotes:

  1. Mathew Aguilar, “Police arrest 2 in man’s death,” El Paso Times, October 18, 1996.
  2. Betsy McArthur, “Murder indictments,” El Paso Times, February 28, 1997.
  3. Laura Smitherman, “Critics denounce district attorney in shooting case,” El Paso Times, August 26, 1997.
  4. Laura Smitherman, “Arguments begin today in murder case,” El Paso Times, August 27, 1997.
  5. Melissa Martinez, “Delivery man slaying case dismissed,” El Paso Times, August 28, 1997.
  6. Laura Smitherman, “Witness delays trial in slaying of delivery man,” El Paso Times, October 22, 1997.
  7. Louie Gilot, “Court ruling may restart stalled cases,” February 7, 2002.
  8. Aaron Martinez and Trish Long, “Here’s a look at ups and downs of El Paso County District Attorney Jaime Esparza’s career,” El Paso Times, July 10, 2019.
  9. Nate Blakeslee, “How to Get a Teenager to Admit to a Murder He Didn’t Commit,” Texas Monthly, January 7, 2014.
  10. Aaron Martinez, “Daniel Villegas found not guilty in his third trial for capital murder,” El Paso Times, October 5, 2018.

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