Possible release of convicted deputy killer, Mexican Mafia shot caller sparks fear

ByJosh Haskell and Lisa Bartley KABC logo
Tuesday, December 5, 2023
Possible release of convicted LA deputy killer caller sparks fear
L.A. District Attorney George Gascón told Eyewitness News he will do everything in his power to keep Jesse Gonzalez in prison for the rest of his life, but that his office had an ethical duty to turn over evidence that casts doubt on a jailhouse confession back in 1979.

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- A convicted killer who was sentenced to death in 1981 for the killing of a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy has found an unexpected ally in his decades-long quest to overturn his murder conviction.

L.A. District Attorney George Gascón told Eyewitness News he will do everything in his power to keep Jesse Gonzalez in prison for the rest of his life, but that his office had an ethical duty to turn over evidence that casts doubt on a jailhouse confession back in 1979.

Critics of Gascón - including the daughters of murdered Deputy Jack Williams - fear the conviction will be overturned and Gonzalez could be set free.

Looking back

It all unfolded on May 29, 1979 when LASD deputies and officers from Baldwin Park and El Monte executed a search warrant on a home in La Puente as part of a drug investigation.

"They demanded entry ... Bobby Esquivel kicked the door, his momentum carried him in, and he looked up and he saw Jesse Gonzalez with a shotgun, and he hollered "Gun!" recalled retired LASD Homicide Detective Rey Verdugo who investigated the case.

Deputy Williams was the second man through the broken-down door during the drug raid.

"Jesse Gonzalez fired his shotgun, and he killed Jack Williams," Verdugo told Eyewitness News.

"I have no doubt in my mind that he planned to kill a cop," he said. "He learned that the cops were going to be coming to raid his house. He was watering the lawn, suddenly he saw the cop cars coming around the corner ... ran inside ... he knew they were coming, and he wanted to get ready. He said he was going to take one out."

Gonzalez was was found guilty of 1st degree murder with the special circumstance of killing a peace officer. He was also convicted of felony assault on Williams' partner Esquivel. Gonzalez was sentenced to death by a separate penalty phase jury in 1981, but only after the first penalty phase jury hung.

"You could say it's an execution, you could say it's an assassination, you could say it's an ambush. He was protecting his narcotics and his trade," said former L.A. County District Attorney Steve Cooley. "He apparently knew the officers were coming. He was also a gang member and hated law enforcement."

Gonzalez has never denied killing Williams, but claims he believed the officers, who were were plain clothed but wearing badges, were members of a rival gang coming to kill him.

The death penalty hinged on the jury finding that Gonzalez intended to kill a police officer. At the time, the Los Angeles DA's office pointed to what Gonzalez told Detective Verdugo hours after the killing -- that "suddenly, he saw the cops coming." Gonzalez quickly changed his story and said, no he didn't actually say that.

Months later, jailhouse informant William Acker contacted LASD detectives to say Gonzalez had confessed to him days after Acker happened to be placed in a jail cell right next to Gonzalez. Acker told detectives that Gonzalez admitted he knew they were police and that he wanted to "bag a cop."

"This is not a case where the defense is claiming that, you know, he's an innocent person, that he wasn't the right guy," explained Kathy Cady, a victims' rights attorney and a retired L.A. County Deputy District Attorney. "Everyone acknowledges that he is in fact the one who shot and killed Jack Williams. The whole issue has been whether or not he knew that Jack Williams was a law enforcement officer."

"They want justice"

Cady and Cooley are representing Williams' two daughters.

"They want justice for their dad," said Cady. "Every day, they think, 'What would my life be like if he were here? What would my life be like if he wasn't murdered when I was 11, when I was 12.' They were little."

Williams' daughters fear that Gonzalez could be set free if a judge finds that the DA's office failed to turn over material evidence about that jailhouse informant back in the early '80s. The trial jury knew Acker was in custody, that he was a convicted killer, and that he hoped he'd be transferred to an out-of-state prison in exchange for his testimony.

But the defense says the DA's office hid additional evidence that painted Acker out to be even less credible.

Gascón agrees evidence was withheld from the defense, perhaps not intentionally, but that it constitutes a Brady violation.

"There were six different psychological reports indicating that he was a pathological liar, that he was manipulative, and that he would fake things in order to try to get whatever he wanted," Gascón told Eyewitness News.

Gascón says the original prosecutors had an ethical duty to turn over that information, and because they didn't, his office believes Gonzalez should have never been sentenced to death.

Gascón told ABC7 that his office does not want Gonzalez to be set free.

"Mr. Gonzalez is a murderer ... Mr. Gonzalez murdered Deputy Williams," he said. "Mr. Gonzalez deserves to stay in prison the rest of his life, but there is a principle involved in ensuring that we, as the government, we as police, as prosecutors, follow the rules. We are not seeking his release. We will fight to make sure that he stays in prison. We will fight, but we will play by the rules."

Mark Overland, Gonzalez's defense attorney, said his client deserves to be set free and that the jailhouse confession was fabricated. He also claims Acker would've said anything to save his own skin.

"He was somebody who was a psychopath and he was capable of any kind of brutality in order to achieve what he wanted," said Overland, who adds that Gonzalez is now 76, requires the use of a wheelchair, and poses no danger to society.

"You're talking about an individual who has spent the best years of his life in prison," said Overland. "Probably 40 years on Death Row. His life was taken from him."

But Eyewitness News has evidence that Gonzalez is a validated member of the Mexican mafia. A handwritten note used as evidence in a 2020 murder trial shows that Gonzalez was on a list of Mexican Mafia members getting money from a mafia "secretary" at the direction of another high-ranking member of the Mexican Mafia, also on Death Row.

An expert on the Mexican Mafia testified at two trials that that money came from extortion and drug sales.

"Yes, he's a Mexican Mafia member with the moniker "Bird" from La Puente, and he's also on Death Row," LASD Deputy Devon Self testified in 2020 and again in 2022.

Gonzalez is also referred to in a February 2023 jailhouse phone call between two La Puente gang members inside Men's Central Jail in downtown L.A. In audio obtained by ABC7, the two men discuss splitting profits from drugs being smuggled into the jail.

"Candy bars" is used as a coded term for heroin.

"You know the three candy bars, right? With one of them, we split between all the elders that are here, right here in uh... for the house... you get what I'm ... Yeah. Yeah."

The call continues: "The extra one that we have, which I was going to say we should look out for 'Pops' and 'Bird,' if you want to do something out of that for homeboy, you could give him half."

"Not only is he a cop killer, he's a documented member of the Mexican Mafia shot caller," said Cooley. "This is not a good combination: killer of a cop and Mexican Mafia shot caller back in society."

Gascón says Cooley is "politicizing" this case, and has spread disinformation "to sort of cover up his own misconduct."

Gascón vowed that his office will defend the conviction and retry Gonzalez if necessary, but without asking for the death penalty.

But he admits that no one can predict what the judge will do.

And that, according to Cady, is the problem.

"If the judge grants the habeas claim, then the conviction will be overturned," she said.

Cady says the DA's office has never notified the victims that they would retry the case if necessary. Cady says the daughters were asked by Gascón's "inner circle" to agree to resentence Gonzalez to 15 years to life back in 2021, a sentence that would have made him immediately eligible for parole. The daughters did not agree.

"[The DA's office] already essentially said there was a Brady violation, but they have not said one way or the other whether or not there's enough evidence to sustain the conviction," said Cady. "And I think the reason they haven't done that is they want the judge to take the fall."

The LASD issued this following statement to Eyewitness News:

"While we respect the judicial process the Department is determined to seek justice for the family of Sheriff's Deputy Jack Williams, who was tragically murdered in the line of duty while serving a search warrant in 1979. The Sheriff has urged the District Attorney's office to uphold and defend the conviction of Prisoner Jesse Gonzales. A change of his death sentence to LWOP could lead to his release from prison. Releasing him would be an injustice to Deputy Williams' family and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and would place a violent criminal on the streets to potentially further victimize members of our communities. We strongly believe based on the evidence the conviction of Jesse Gonzales for the heinous murder of Deputy Williams was fair and that the sentencing should be upheld."

The judge's ruling on this case is expected on Tuesday, Dec. 5.