A Star Witness Says Prosecutors Knew He Was Lying When He Helped Frame Five Men For Murder

Francisco Vicente swore that one person after another just happened to confess to him that they had committed murder. Could the prosecutors who put him on the stand really have believed it all?

Francisco Vicente knows how unbelievable his story sounds: that Chicago Police beat him until he agreed to help them frame five men for murder. And that prosecutors put him on the stand to tell his lies — then rewarded him with access to good meals, new clothes, and conjugal visits.

Vicente, wiry with close-cropped hair, said the statements he made 25 years ago were lies but that now — for real — he’s telling the truth.

“I didn’t know nothing about these fucking crimes,” Vicente said, publicly speaking out for the first time and recanting those statements in an exclusive interview with BuzzFeed News. He has since given much of the same story under oath in a deposition to lawyers representing some of the men he helped convict.

Judges and juries bought his lies, sending five innocent men to prison for decades for murders they didn’t commit, shattering families, betraying crime victims, and leaving the real killers on the street.

The detectives who Vicente said beat him are Reynaldo Guevara and his longtime partner Ernest Halvorsen, both retired. A BuzzFeed News investigation revealed in 2017 that more than 50 people have accused Guevara of framing them; many say he beat them into confessing. At least 19, including those against whom Vicente testified, have now been exonerated. As other cases make their way through the appeals process and civil federal lawsuits pile up, the city of Chicago is struggling to contain the growing scandal.

But Vicente’s story expands the scope of alleged misconduct further, to the prosecutors. Four of the men Vicente testified against are expected soon to go back to court — this time to seek millions in damages from the city, the county, and the prosecutors who they say knew Vicente was lying, and put him on the stand anyway. And at a moment when civil rights advocates are increasingly expanding their focus from police misconduct to the other key forces in the justice system, Vicente’s account throws into stark relief the key role of prosecutors in a system that has been revealed to routinely convict the innocent.

“It’s hard to understate the magnitude” of that accusation, said Russell Ainsworth, an attorney for two of the men convicted by Vicente’s testimony. “Vicente has not only implicated the corrupt police officers but prosecutors who knew exactly what was going on. It’s important because prosecutors are the ones we trust to prevent injustice, and here Vicente explains how they perverted the process and led to the convictions of innocent men.”

The prosecutors in question, Matthew Coghlan and John Dillon, say Vicente — who has a history of drug abuse and a rap sheet of robberies — is lying, yet again. They say they’ve done nothing wrong.

BuzzFeed News reviewed hundreds of pages of documents, transcripts, and police reports related to the three cases. They reveal glaring discrepancies in Vicente’s evidence that would have been nearly impossible for police and prosecutors to overlook. And yet, time and again, they put him on the stand and told juries to believe him.

The First Murder

Vicente had been a fixture in Humboldt Park — a violent neighborhood with a predominantly Latino, working-class population — since he was a boy. When he was 5, his father and eight other relatives died in a house fire. After that, he hustled for quarters while his mother sold food on street corners.

By age 12 he found more profitable work, which he began by sneaking a black garbage bag full of marijuana out the window of a friend’s father’s home. He gave his mother a share of the profits from the drug sales, then went to a store and bought himself a ninja suit with the rest.

A few years later, he hooked up with a gang called the Imperial Gangsters and started selling harder drugs. The customers were harder, too. Vicente got shot in the belly.

It was in the hospital that he found pain medication. He remembers lying there in agony, and then discovering he could make it go away by giving himself another dose.

One night, Vicente recalls, a janitor came into his room and told him he was going to be OK, before setting down his broom and brushing back Vicente’s hair. The name embroidered on his uniform read: “Jose.”

After his discharge from the hospital, Vicente said his drug habit was worse, his desperation deeper. Police wanted him for pulling a knife and stealing some jewelry. They found him, on May 14, 1993, hiding under a car.

Vicente was arrested, booked, and taken to Chicago PD’s Area 5 station house, where cops had a reputation for beating suspects and witnesses, and where some officers would later be indicted for running a drug ring. But shortly after his arrival, he said, he was escorted up to a conference room. A man with light brown hair and a narrow build walked in and introduced himself as Detective Ernest Halvorsen.

Vicente recognized the next detective who entered the room: Reynaldo Guevara, the cop dozens of people around Humboldt Park referred to as a hookup artist — the guy who’d pin you for a crime you didn’t commit.

The detectives offered Vicente some food and asked what he knew about the murder of a 15-year-old boy outside a high school just moments after the day’s final bell rang.

If Vicente would testify that he heard Bouto confess to the murder, the detectives would put in a good word with prosecutors.

He said they kept telling him that the murderer was Robert Bouto, a 17-year-old who was being held just a few cells down from Vicente in the 7 block.

According to the Bouto case file, earlier in the day, the officers had been told there wasn’t enough evidence to charge him with a crime. Bouto’s girlfriend and her friend had provided an alibi, which the officers were told to investigate. But there is no evidence they did so. Instead, Vicente said, they made him an offer:

If Vicente would testify that he heard Bouto confess to the murder, the detectives would put in a good word for Vicente with prosecutors.

Vicente said he told the officers no way. He hadn’t heard Bouto confess. Plus, snitches get stitches. But every time Vicente rejected their offer, he said, they returned with another variation.

Until one time the door opened, and Guevara entered alone.

Vicente said Guevara kicked him twice in the legs and hit the back of his head.

Then Guevara punched Vicente in the stomach, where he had been shot years earlier.

“I was going to piss and shit all over myself,” Vicente told BuzzFeed News. “I didn’t know what was happening.”

Eventually, Halvorsen came back in the room. For a few minutes he played the good cop, but then he too got physical. Vicente said he held out for a few hours but in the end he caved. He agreed to lie about Bouto.

The officers called a newish assistant state’s attorney named Kevin Hughes to write down Vicente’s story.

Before state’s attorneys formally charge suspects with a crime, they are supposed to scrutinize the evidence that police officers collect to make sure it is strong and was obtained lawfully.

But Vicente said that instead of interviewing him directly, Hughes let the two detectives dictate the story.

According to Hughes’ written account of that interview, Vicente told him that Bouto had claimed he was in for murder. Vicente asked him if he was guilty, and Bouto told him, “Yeah, I shot a Spanish Cobra and I was with my lady when it happened.”

No one seemed to mind that Vicente’s story was ridiculous. Bouto’s cell was 27 feet from Vicente’s. To make himself heard across that distance, Bouto would have had to yell. Why would he yell a confession of murder — to a stranger — in the presence of all the other the people in lockup and the guards pacing the cellblock?

Hughes, who is still a prosecutor in the state’s attorney’s office, did not return respond to multiple calls from BuzzFeed News. The state’s attorney’s office said it does not comment on pending litigation.

Once Hughes had Vicente’s statement in writing on the high school murder, he said detectives sent him back to his cell.

“I went back and tried to forget about it,” he said.

But that wasn’t about to happen.

The Second Murder

A few weeks later, Vicente, now at the Cook County Jail awaiting a court date on his armed robbery charges, heard his name called out again. Police brought him to the 13th floor of the Leighton Criminal Courthouse building, where prosecutors worked.

Guevara and Halvorsen were waiting for him, he said, with stories about another murder.

Vicente said they showed him pictures of a Mexican man murdered four months earlier. In the photos, his bloodied corpse lay inside a van, a scarf still wrapped around his neck and his lunch bag wedged underneath him. And then they named three men they said were good for the crime. Vicente had grown up with one of the guys, Jorge Pacheco. He’d gotten in a fight with the second, Armando Serrano, a few months earlier. And the third name he recognized right away. Jose. Jose Montanez. The janitor from the hospital who’d stopped his chores to offer Vicente encouragement after he’d been shot.

Vicente said the detectives wanted him to say those three men were the killers.

Vicente said he told the officers he wasn’t doing it. He said the detectives tweaked the story a few times, but he still refused. And that’s when the beatings resumed.

“Who would believe this shit?” Vicente said he kept thinking.

Eventually Vicente agreed to say he was standing on a street corner on a cold February morning when the three men the cops had named drove up and began arguing about how they’d “fucked up” a robbery and killed someone. Then, the story went, Vicente overheard their conversation and asked what they were talking about. One of the men somehow managed to squeeze the gun into one of the car’s small air vents. They invited Vicente to go with them as they pawned some gold they’d stolen.

“Who would believe this shit?” Vicente said he kept thinking. No one would stand on a freezing street corner, confessing murder to someone they either didn’t know well or had recently fought with. But in came two assistant state’s attorneys — Matthew Coghlan, tall and well-built, and John Dillon, shorter with light hair.

Vicente said that while he was being beaten, he was shouting loud enough that anyone outside the room would have been able to hear. But even if the attorneys didn’t hear his cries, he said, it should have been obvious that he was terrified of Guevara and Halvorsen. Regardless, he said the attorneys asked him leading questionsDidn’t you say? and Didn’t you tell us…? — took down a statement, and sent him back down to his cell.

In response to questions from BuzzFeed News, an attorney for Coghlan wrote in an email, “Matthew Coghlan denies any wrongdoing in the State’s prosecution of Armando Serrano and Jose Montanez and intends to vigorously defend himself against any allegations to the contrary.”

The state’s attorney’s office is providing Dillon’s legal counsel, but said the office couldn’t comment because of pending litigation.

BuzzFeed News also obtained a deposition from civil rights suits filed by two of the wrongfully convicted men, in which Dillon called Vicente’s story about coercion “a bold-faced lie.” Dillon suggested in the deposition that Vicente could have been making it up in retaliation for Dillon declining to intervene on Vicente’s behalf when he was arrested, again, in a 1997 robbery case. (Vicente denied involvement in that robbery, for which he was convicted, claiming authorities locked him up to keep him from talking.)

Dillon said in his deposition that when Vicente gave his statement in the van murder, only Halvorsen was present. The signed statement from that date doesn’t mention Guevara. When asked about Dillon’s testimony and the police report contradicting his allegations, Vicente said, “That’s bullcrap.”

The Third Murder

In the third case for which the detectives summoned him, to talk about a woman who had been shot while sitting in a car, Vicente said, “I had ‘dead man’ on my forehead.” It could only be a matter of time until word got out that he was helping to put guys in prison.

In the first two weeks after the woman's death, the case went cold — no leads, no suspects — until Guevara announced he had gotten a tip from a confidential informant telling him that the shooter was Geraldo Iglesias. Two witnesses picked out Iglesias's picture as the shooter, despite the fact that he did not match the description they originally gave police of the shooter’s appearance.

Out-of-the-blue tips from unnamed sources that unlock tough cases appear with striking frequency in Guevara’s casework. And more than a dozen people have accused Guevara of forcing them to make identifications they either weren’t sure of or knew to be wrong.

That tale didn’t match police reports from the scene. But police and prosecutors ran with it anyway.

Vicente says that there in the room, Halvorsen and Guevara told him to say Iglesias had confessed to him.

The story Vicente says they gave him was that he and Iglesias, who had been members of the same gang, were sitting in a holding pen awaiting transport to court. Iglesias mentioned the woman in the car.

A bunch of Iglesias’s homies were standing on the street, the story continued, and one of them handed him a gun. “I shot that bitch in the head,” he supposedly told Vicente.

Vicente said he felt like there was no way out. He said he gave in and repeated what he said the cops told him to say.

That tale didn’t match police reports from the scene. Witnesses described a shooter who was light-skinned and not tall, whereas Iglesias was 5’11” with a café-con-leche complexion. And those witness reports said the shooter acted alone, not with a bunch of associates. But police and prosecutors ran with Vicente’s statement anyway.

It was his third statement in a third murder case in two months.

The Aftermath

The state’s attorney’s office moved Vicente to what they called the Q — the witness quarters in the basement.

Life was very different there.

“They've got steaks. If I wanted to eat chicken parmesan today, all I have to do is say I want chicken parmesan,” he said. When he panicked at the thought of having to go to court and begged not to have to testify, he said, prosecutors found other inducements, too.

“I was playing with her sexually, they heard that shit. They knew what I was doing.”

“I could call Coghlan and tell him that I wanted a jumpsuit and to put in the paperwork,” he said. “I want the baddest Nike suits out there. I want them purple and green. And they would bring me what I want.”

Other times, he said, they’d bring one of his girlfriends to the conference room, and leave the two of them alone there.

When one of the women he had been involved with came to visit, he said, “I was playing with her sexually, they heard that shit. They knew what I was doing.”

And then there was the ultimate inducement: a chance to get out of prison sooner. For four robberies, three of them armed, Vicente was facing a possible total of 97 years. Coghlan and Dillon worked out a deal whereby in exchange for his testimony, Vicente would serve just nine.

“They wanted these guys bad,” Vicente said.

In October 1994, nearly a year and a half after Vicente’s arrest, Coghlan stood in front of a judge and called for his witness to take the stand in the first murder case to go to trial, the one involving the murder in the van. The fates of Pacheco and Serrano and Montanez, the janitor who had once offered Vicente a kind word in the hospital, were hanging on his testimony.

Vicente repeated the story from his original witness statement, the one he would later claim detectives had fed to him, about standing on the street corner when a car carrying the three defendants pulled up.

Except Vicente changed some of the details. Instead of the men just hiding the gun in an air vent in the car, he said they tossed it outside. Then he added some details that were not part of anyone’s script — something about a friend he could identify only as Rick. He also flipped the getaway drivers. In his first statement he named Montanez but by trial, it was Pacheco who was behind the wheel.

He now claims that he added those details as a red flag for the defense team, to make it easier for them to discredit his testimony. In the court transcript, however, when the attorney tries to do that, Vicente laughs at him. Whatever Vicente’s real motivation might have been, when he was done, Vicente said, Coghlan followed him out.

“You fucked up,” he remembered Coghlan saying. “You. Fucked. Up. You’re a piece of shit who doesn’t deserve this deal.”

Despite these inconsistencies, the judge declared Montanez, Pacheco, and Serrano guilty. Pacheco’s conviction was overturned three months later when a judge ruled that Vicente’s statements didn’t sufficiently tie him to the crime. But Montanez and Serrano were sentenced to 55 years.

The prosecutor told the court that the notion of Guevara fabricating a case was “ridiculous.”

Eight weeks later, Vicente was called as a witness in the case of the woman shot while sitting in a car. He took the stand and said what he claims police told him to say: that Iglesias confessed to killing “that bitch.”

Iglesias’s attorney argued to the court that Guevara was “a gangbanger” and “a liar” who orchestrated the case against his client and used Vicente to do it.

The prosecutor, David Studenroth, told the court that the notion of Guevara fabricating a case was “ridiculous.” He added, “This is not a movie, ladies and gentlemen, this is real life.”

Studenroth did not respond to multiple requests for comment from BuzzFeed News.

His cochair, Pradeep Singh, said it wasn’t unusual for witnesses in gang crimes to have information on multiple cases. If he had any indication that witnesses were lying, he said, “We would not have put them on.”

Despite the discrepancies in the case, Iglesias’s jury took little time to deliberate. He was sentenced to 35 years in prison.

Dillon, the prosecutor, opted not to call Vicente to testify in the third and final trial — the shooting outside the high school that the cops said Bouto did.

Another man who was in the jail cell next to Vicente and Bouto had previously claimed that he, too, overheard Bouto’s confession. But that witness, Edwin Maldonado, had since recanted his testimony, claiming that Vicente pressured him to lie as means to “get us off” of the robbery charges each were facing. He swore that an assistant state’s attorney fed him his statement, which he simply parroted back to the lawyer. Maldonado would later amend these claims and allege that Guevara coerced his statement.

Given Maldonado’s recantation, Dillon said in his deposition that he didn’t want to muddy his case by calling Vicente to the stand.

Other witnesses, however, testified that they had seen Bouto pull the trigger. One of those witnesses would later claim he named Bouto as the killer because if he didn’t, Guevara “was going to make my life miserable. I was scared of the man.”

Bouto had an alibi. A handful of witnesses described the killer as having a ponytail, which Bouto did not.

Despite these discrepancies, Bouto was convicted. A judge sentenced him to 45 years.

The Recantation

Eight weeks after Bouto’s conviction, Dillon stood before another judge and asked him to sentence Vicente to nine years in prison in recognition of his testimony in the three murder cases.

As Vicente served his sentence, which turned out to be only three years, he said he was haunted, tossing and turning at night, wondering what had happened to the men whose lives he helped ruin.

“And those guys probably tossed and turned every night thinking of what the fuck was I doing,” he said.

Then in 2004, while Vicente was back in prison on the 1997 robbery conviction, he was contacted by a group of journalism students at Northwestern University who investigated wrongful convictions. They’d noticed the improbabilities in his statements, the unlikelihood that he could have testified to three different murder confessions in just six weeks — and all in cases that just happened to be investigated by the same two detectives.

Would he speak with them?

“I knew in my head that someday somebody was gonna realize this shit.” 

“I knew in my head that someday somebody was gonna realize this shit,” he said.

So he talked to the students. He told them that the police and the prosecutors had made him lie. He even agreed to sign an affidavit recanting his testimony.

“I was sleeping a little better,” he said

He thought that the students would publish his statements, and his lies would be revealed and justice restored. But that didn’t happen. And then the students’ professor, David Protess, whose investigative journalism class had played a role in freeing 12 prisoners, came under attack.

Anita Alvarez, the state’s attorney at the time, subpoenaed the classes’ interview notes and other records, saying she was concerned about the students’ methods. Critics claimed she was taking revenge. Subsequent news reports made much of the fact that in an email, one of Protess’s team said a female student’s visit was arranged as a “treat” for Vicente.

The Chicago Tribune wrote a story about the students’ investigation, and mentioned that Vicente was asking for unspecified “considerations.” He thought it made him sound like a hustler rather than a man trying to clear his conscience. “I just balled up again.”

Vicente gave up on redemption. For the next three years, he tried evading anyone who wanted to talk about the Guevara cases. He tried living off the grid, switching apartments, jobs, and friends. But in 2013, Serrano and Montanez went to court to get their convictions overturned, and subpoenaed him to testify.

He said he had arrived at court ready to recant, but moments before he was called to testify, a public defender pulled him aside and warned him that doing so would open him up to perjury charges, and maybe prison time.

By now settled with a new girlfriend and a baby at home, Vicente invoked his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent. He said nothing. Until now.

There are plenty of reasons to doubt Vicente and his story — even beyond his obvious record of lying and breaking the law.

Two former inmates said it was Vicente’s idea to make up the confessions. They said he told them he cut a deal for himself by offering up his false testimony in exchange for a shorter sentence in his robbery cases.

Vicente shook off those allegations. “Are those 50-plus other people who say Guevara beat them, are they all lying too?” he asked. “No one knows what I went through.”

Yet for all the reasons to doubt his story, there are good reasons to question the conduct of the prosecutors, too.

Could the prosecutors have believed that Bouto would confess murder to a perfect stranger, separated by a distance that would have required him to yell across a room filled with guards and monitored by intercom systems? And what about the affidavit from a fellow witness who claimed before trial that the pair had made up their statements?

Did the prosecutors really believe that Montanez and Serrano, too, confessed murder to Vicente — despite not knowing him well, in front of a bustling school with plenty of other witnesses around?

And did the prosecutors not care about the multiple discrepancies in Vicente’s account of the third murder, and the fact that his statement directly conflicted with the testimony of several other eyewitnesses?

In his deposition, Dillon said he didn’t read Vicente’s statements in the two other cases and didn’t find it odd that one man had collected so many confessions from people in multiple gangs in such a short period of time. Whether Vicente’s statements were reliable in the other cases, he testified, “wasn’t a concern of mine.”

In June 2016, the Illinois appellate court reviewed Montanez’s and Serrano’s conviction, complete with Vicente’s testimony, and declared “profoundly alarming acts of misconduct” in both the investigation and prosecution of their case. Both men were exonerated.

Vicente said he heard the news while watching Telemundo.

“I broke down in tears,” he said.

Vicente said he’s beaten his drug habit and straightened out his life. Yet, he said, he still lives in fear of the investigators in their suits or the reporters with their notebooks who knock on his door. Forms that require his Social Security number or home address, he tries to leave blank. Friends asking about his past? Run. Girlfriends asking too many questions? Run faster.

Yet the steady stream of news about Guevara’s misconduct and a surge of exonerations led Vicente to think that perhaps now, at last, people just might believe him.

Because with more than 50 people claiming Guevara framed them? Not even Vicente could make that up. ●

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