A Murder At La Casa Green: How An Ex-Cop Saved, Then Doomed, Two Wrongfully Convicted Men, Part 3

On the morning of July 4, 1993, a Connecticut bodega owner named Eugenio "Gene" DeLeon Vega was found murdered. Two men were tried and convicted, but that was just the beginning. Part 3 of a four-part look at a case that has baffled and frustrated for over 20 years.

Go back and read Part 1 and Part 2.

In the spring of 2010, two years before Jerry O’Donnell’s arrest for bribery and witness tampering, Ronald Taylor and George Gould stood victorious on the courthouse steps. After almost two decades in prison, they looked like men who suddenly had full lives ahead of them. But in Taylor’s case, appearances were misleading; just four months before his release, he’d been diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer.

While Taylor tried to get settled and find a place to live with his wife, Mary, he moved into O’Donnell’s spare bedroom. (O'Donnell said Mary couldn't put her husband up where she was living, while Mary said he just didn't want to return to New Haven.) At the time, the two men didn’t know each other well; they’d met while Taylor was in prison, but only talked about the case. “You go see someone in jail,” O’Donnell said, “you don’t become friends up there.” Suddenly, they were sharing a house.

Before long, though, the two men were close. O’Donnell had recently been diagnosed with an aggressive form of prostate cancer, and the pair would visit Yale–New Haven Hospital for treatment together. Taylor had never learned to drive, so O’Donnell taught him how. He took him to look at apartments, to apply for jobs, to watch high school football games. At home, it was baseball on the television. “He was a Yankee fan,” O’Donnell recalled. “I was a Red Sox fan. We always argued.”

Gould, meanwhile, moved into a third-floor apartment in Fair Haven, a few blocks from the photogenic banks of the Quinnipiac River, with a sharp, feisty woman named Cathy Smalls. They’d hit it off at a neighborhood barbecue at a time when Gould had plenty of suitors, Smalls said in an interview last year. At the time, the men had filed wrongful incarceration claims totaling $22.5 million. Everyone around the neighborhood thought Gould would get millions, like James Tillman, who served 18 years for a brutal rape in Hartford that he didn’t commit — and who was compensated with $5 million after his exoneration in 2006.

Smalls never thought Gould would stick around. But he did. “He held my hand, and he didn’t let my hand go,” she said. In Smalls' telling, theirs was a swooning, saccharine, made-for-Hollywood romance punctuated with barbecues, walks in the park, and visits to the beach, where she snapped photos of Gould looking wistfully out to sea. She would come home from work and he’d be in the driveway, waiting to open the gate. “I took him everywhere I could possibly take him,” she said, “because he enjoyed every bit of it. He missed out on so much.”

“He enjoyed every bit of it. He missed out on so much.”

But even during those first, often euphoric months following their release, Gould and Taylor were aware of the precarious state of their freedom: Their ankles had been outfitted with GPS tracking bracelets, a requirement of a pending appeal, which had been filed by the state and was on its way to the cavernous courtroom of Connecticut’s highest judicial authority, the Supreme Court.

Listed among the state’s grounds for appeal was this: Taylor and Gould hadn’t satisfied the legal standard to be set free. It wasn’t enough to show that Doreen Stiles had lied, and that the men should have never been convicted in the first place; they needed physical evidence, eyewitness testimony, or some other “clear and convincing” proof, as the prosecutors’ legal filing puts it, that Gould and Taylor didn’t kill Eugenio DeLeon Vega.

One day a few months after their release, the men were invited to talk about their experiences at a local high school, and were asked why they needed the bracelets. “Call the state’s attorney’s office,” their then-lawyer, Peter Tsimbidaros, replied, as a local reporter looked on. “They wanted to keep them in prison.”

The Supreme Court’s decision came on a hot summer day in 2011, five months after the opposing legal teams had argued before the eight justices, and more than a year after Gould and Taylor had been freed. Mary Taylor got the call at work and left early to tell her husband. When she got home, he was resting on the sofa, feeling lousy, as he often did that summer. “He said, ‘We won, right? This is over, right?’” she recalled. “I said, ‘Sweetheart, we lost.’”

It was a perplexing decision. The justices conceded that there was no “credible evidence” that Gould and Taylor killed DeLeon Vega, and that Carlos DeLeon could have been a “possible perpetrator” in the murder. But they also agreed with the prosecutors: No “affirmative” proof of the men’s innocence had ever been presented and thus, Gould and Taylor shouldn’t have been exonerated. The men were ordered back to prison, and their habeas petitions were sent back to the courthouse in Rockville, where they would have a new trial.

As Mary explained the decision to her husband, he put his head in her lap. “Please don’t make me go back there,” he told her. “I can’t.”

As it would turn out, he wouldn’t have to. As the summer wore on, his body deteriorated. He needed water constantly, and he walked with a cane. His weight had dropped from 225 to 135 pounds. He was dying. Gould was remanded to prison, but Taylor was allowed to stay home, where a hospital bed had been set up in the living room of the Cheshire, Connecticut, apartment he and Mary had moved into together.

On Oct. 25, 2011, Mary and O’Donnell spent the day watching Taylor travel in and out of consciousness. By then, he was on constant morphine, and at one point, he clutched the hand of their daughter, Amanda, who was also there, and locked eyes with her. “It was like that was the last thing he wanted to see,” Mary said. “He wouldn’t take his eyes off her face.” Then, he was gone.

Five months after Taylor’s death, in the spring of 2012, George Gould was back in the Rockville courthouse for a new trial. Again, his fate would be decided not by a jury, but a judge, and as the case got underway, a familiar roster of witnesses was called to testify: the bank manager and the paint store owner, the police officers and the forensic experts. Then, of course, there were the witnesses. Mary Boyd, the other woman to recant her original testimony, was there, and so was Pamela Youmans, who, according to O’Donnell, told him on tape that she’d witnessed the murder, then, in court, told the judge the opposite. Their testimony was the same as 2009: Boyd stuck by her recantation, while Youmans denounced O’Donnell’s recording, saying, “I swear on my soul for God to take the breath out of my kids, that’s not me.”

When Doreen Stiles arrived at the brick courthouse one morning in the summer of 2012, she was in a wheelchair, and she was with a lawyer. As she approached the front of the courtroom to be sworn in, the attorney followed. And when Gould’s lawyer, a short, plainspoken former prosecutor from Massachusetts named Joe Visone, began questioning Stiles, she told him, “Under the advice of my counsel, I wish to invoke my Fifth Amendment rights.” Visone had approximately 200 questions. He got no further than her age.

Stiles, it turned out, had again revised her account of the morning of DeLeon Vega’s killing, this time during a recorded interview with two New Haven detectives on July 6, 2011, more than a year after the exoneration. Neither cop had been involved in the original investigation, and as the interview began, one of them briefly described the circumstances, according to a 12-page transcript: The state’s attorney’s office wanted them to talk to her. Stiles said she was nervous, and as they talked she fumbled for a lighter. One of the detectives, Tony Reyes, told her not to worry. He wasn’t going to dissect the details of the murder case she’d been involved in all those years ago. He just had a couple of questions about the 2009 trial. “You changed your testimony,” Reyes asked. “Why?”

“I don’t know,” Stiles replied. “It was so confusing.”

She told Reyes how O’Donnell had visited her at the convalescent home in Manchester, how he’d pressed her on the details of what had happened in 1993, and how he didn’t believe she could have been there. “And he starts telling me that he was putting timelines together and this and that and from what other people have told him,” Stiles told Reyes. “He said, ‘If you don’t be honest with me,’ you know, ‘you’re going to get arrested.’” She couldn’t get rid of O’Donnell, she told the detective. He’d come to visit her once a week. He’d tell her what to say. “He came to see me, like, every Thursday,” she said. He “bought me a TV, bought me a stereo.” She stammered a bit.

“Here’s this guy buying me all this stuff,” she told Reyes. “I didn’t feel right. I felt guilty.”

Ten months later, O’Donnell was arrested. There was a grim irony to it: He saw himself as a crusader for justice, but the arrest warrant portrayed him as being just as corrupt as the cops implicated in the Taylor-Gould case. Like them, he was now accused of buying Stiles’ testimony. Only he didn’t do it with heroin; he’d done it — according to the warrant — with a television, some cash, and a pledge that she’d receive a cut of the massive wrongful conviction settlement that Gould and Taylor would surely get. On top of these gifts and promises was an additional charge of witness tampering: During a phone conversation a few days after Stiles’ interview with the New Haven detectives, O’Donnell, perhaps afraid of what else Stiles might reveal about his methods, tried to derail her new relationship with the authorities. The warrant doesn’t specify what he actually said, though it plainly states his illicit intent. “O’Donnell told her not to talk to the people from the State’s Attorney’s Office,” the warrant says. “She said he repeated this many times.”

O’Donnell, however, insisted that the arrest was nothing more than a vendetta. “The system is just out to get me,” he said. “You can’t free anyone.” As evidence, O’Donnell pointed to what he sees as the hypocrisy of the justice system: The state can build cases with paid informants; it can operate a witness protection program and pay for transportation, clothing, and other expenses. But if he buys someone a piece of pizza or an old TV, or if he aggressively keeps tabs on the most important witnesses in his case, he’s a criminal. “I played by their rules and they didn’t like it,” he said. (Or, as one lawyer familiar with the case put it, “He pissed in the punch bowl of the Connecticut criminal justice system.”) O’Donnell, however, was not charged with attempting to bribe Pamela Youmans, despite giving her $60 after she allegedly admitted to witnessing the murder of DeLeon Vega.

“The system is just out to get me. You can’t free anyone.”

Among those responsible, O’Donnell maintained, were his old boss, New Haven’s longtime state’s attorney, Michael Dearington, who led the office during the original Taylor-Gould prosecution, and Dearington’s colleague, Matthew Gedansky, a prosecutor in the courthouse where the men were exonerated. But to hear Gedansky and Dearington tell it, O’Donnell’s arrest had nothing to do with retribution. Gedansky didn’t respond to interview requests, but in court, he described O’Donnell as the most insidious kind of criminal. “Just like Lance Armstrong,” Gedansky said, O’Donnell “put his thumb on the scales of justice.” In a brief interview, Dearington declined to discuss the details of the case, saying only that when O’Donnell worked for him, he “followed the rules” and “didn’t create problems.” “That was then,” Dearington said. “Now is now. I don’t know what happened to him.”

To O’Donnell, though, you had to look no further than his arrest warrant to see how outlandish these claims were. There was nothing to back up the accusations against him — it was Stiles’ word against his — with only one exception: the TV, which had been traced to the Walmart where O’Donnell bought it.

But even this, O’Donnell said, was an innocent gesture that had been turned into a crime: He’d bought the television for Stiles — and her two roommates, he emphasizes — when she was living at a convalescent home. The three were a pathetic sight, living on meager disability payments and rarely, if ever, entertaining visitors. Their one luxury — an old TV in the center of the room — was broken, and the home wouldn’t replace it; during a visit one day, O’Donnell heard Oprah through its speakers but its screen had turned to solid black. So he bought an old-school, fat-backed, cathode-tube kind for $200. To him, there was nothing improper about it. “There was no court date,” O’Donnell said. “It was just an investigation.”

Even Gould’s lawyer, Joe Visone, who was furious with O’Donnell over the purchase, doesn’t buy the state’s argument that it was intended as a bribe. Still, Visone said, the relationship between an investigator and a witness should be strictly professional. O’Donnell, who’d been a cop, then an investigator, should have known that his actions, even if well-intentioned, might present the appearance of impropriety. “If you worked at Burger King, you don’t know better,” Visone said. “If you were a police officer, if you were one of the top investigators for the New Haven State’s Attorney’s Office, how could you not know?”

But if the charges against O’Donnell were otherwise baseless, that would mean Stiles had lied to the authorities, again, this time implicating O’Donnell. But why would she do that? “No idea,” O’Donnell said in an interview last year. “That’s just the way she is.” He paused, then added, “It could have been fed to her.”

But by 2011, Stiles had cleaned up. She wasn’t in the same desperate position she’d been in in 1993. Still, the full transcript of her recent interview with the New Haven detectives — the one in which she said O’Donnell coerced her — is peculiar. It doesn’t read like proof of O’Donnell’s criminality; if anything, it suggests that Stiles was as perplexing, and crafty, as ever.

At one point, Stiles began describing how, during the original criminal trial, she was sick but delivered her testimony anyway. “I was so mad at myself for lying,” she said. The detective interviewing her, Tony Reyes, asked what she lied about. “Just different things,” she replied. Reyes asked her again: Was it true what she said back then? “Most of it,” she said. When Reyes asked Stiles if she was being honest with him, she said that “most” of what she was telling him was true. He asked what she meant, and her response was bewildering. “I mean, most of what [O’Donnell] said and most of what I did because most of what he said is basically the truth,” she said.

Little of this was included in O’Donnell’s arrest warrant. Nor was this unexplained fact: When Stiles was asked to read and sign the typed statement from her interview with Reyes — to confirm that it was true — she refused to sign.

In the months after the arrest, O’Donnell’s life capsized. His cancer may have receded, but he gave up his investigator’s license and was kicked off the case he’d worked on for nearly a decade. O’Donnell was already in substantial debt, a fact that prosecutors provided as the motive for his crimes: The wrongful conviction settlement was his anticipated payday. With a trial approaching, those financial troubles only multiplied.

In the end, it didn’t matter. As O’Donnell was scrambling to help prepare a defense, Gould’s third trial reached a conclusion. In a decision published in the fall of 2012, the judge, Samuel Sferrazza, concluded that O’Donnell’s investigative work was too duplicitous to be believed: He “plied” Doreen Stiles with cash and a television, the judge wrote, and he promised her a cut of the wrongful conviction settlement.

“He pissed in the punch bowl of the Connecticut criminal justice system.”

Sferrazza didn’t even find one of the most important moments of O’Donnell’s investigation — his inability to match Stiles’ supposedly five-minute walk from Ferry Street and Grand Avenue to the building where La Casa Green once sat — to be especially important. “On July 4, 1993, Stiles was a heroin-addicted, street walker who measured her days and nights in cravings and ‘fixes’ rather than hours and minutes,” the judge wrote. This walk, which O’Donnell did six times, took him between eight and nine minutes. (We were able to walk this distance a couple of minutes faster, but considering differences in age and height, we didn’t know what to make of the inconsistency.)

Boyd stuck by her recantation, but she wasn’t enough. Nor was it enough for Carlos DeLeon to have an alleged motive to kill his father: A state firearms expert tested the semiautomatic pistol that could have fired the bullet that killed DeLeon Vega and “conclusively excluded” it as a murder weapon, Sferrazza wrote.

With O'Donnell's investigation in tatters, the judge denied Gould’s petition to have his conviction overturned. Gould is now appealing that decision.

For O’Donnell, things just got worse. During the most recent habeas trial, in 2012, his startling interview with Pamela Youmans — the one in which she tearfully confessed to witnessing DeLeon Vega’s murder — was introduced as evidence of Gould’s innocence. Youmans had always denied that it was her on the tape, so Sferrazza weighed in on its authenticity. His analysis was simple — he compared the Pamela Youmans who appeared in his courtroom with the Pamela Youmans on O’Donnell’s recording — and his conclusion was damning. In the judge’s view, the tape was a fake, and O’Donnell was a fraud.

In court, the judge wrote, Youmans was chatty and unintimidated, while the woman on the tape was “extremely subdued, passive and terse.” The real Youmans has a “somewhat nasal, Southern drawl,” he wrote, adding that the voice on the tape “in no way resembles that of Pamela Youmans.”

It’s a difficult assertion to reconcile. In listening to O’Donnell’s recordings of Youmans, there are significant differences in tone, in mood, in personality. In one, she says that she didn’t see a thing inside La Casa Green; the authenticity of this tape has never been questioned. In the other, allegedly staged recording, she says that she witnessed the murder and that it had haunted her for years. Youmans, by all accounts, is mercurial, but neither voice seems to possess what Sferrazza called her “nasal, Southern drawl” and, to the untrained ear, the two recordings don’t sound as dissimilar as the judge had determined. Nevertheless, after the judge’s allegation, the state’s attorney pursued an additional two criminal charges of perjury against O’Donnell.

We wanted an opinion from a voice identification authority who had nothing to do with the case, so we sent the Youmans tapes to the forensic expert Thomas Owen, who conducted an analysis using a program called Easy Voice Biometrics. A few weeks later, the results came back: The voices did not seem to be the same, he said. But even this judgment was inconclusive — the quality of one of the tapes was too poor for a definitive comparison. (Play two excerpts below.)

Again, it was one person’s word against another’s, with each possible scenario seeming less likely and more outlandish than the last. Could O’Donnell really have fabricated his lousy, cassette-recorded interview with Youmans?

Last year we drove to Waterbury, the former brass manufacturing city 20 miles northwest of New Haven, where she was apparently living amid empty, weed-choked lots and plywood-boarded factories. Behind the door of a first-floor apartment in a red wood-frame building, a gruff female voice shouted, “Who is it?” After a brief explanation of who we were and why were there, she shouted again, through the still-closed door. “There ain’t no questions,” she said. “Get away from my door.”

In O’Donnell’s criminal trial, the jury ultimately sided with him on the question of whether he’d staged the interview with Youmans. But on everything else, the former police officer was found guilty. On Oct. 7, 2013, more than a year after Gould returned to prison — and after just a few hours of deliberation — O’Donnell was convicted of two serious felonies: the witness tampering and bribery of Doreen Stiles. He faced a maximum of 20 years in prison, and in an interview two months later, he seemed frayed and suspicious of everyone, even his own lawyer.

“They’re all corrupt as hell,” he said.

Youmans wouldn’t talk, but maybe Stiles, the prosecution’s on again, off again star witness, would. It didn’t seem likely, of course: We had an address for her in a public housing complex on the edge of downtown New Haven, but it was old, and even if she was alive and there, we assumed she’d have the same surly posture as Pamela Youmans. Still, if we did find her, and she did agree to talk, maybe she could clarify her mind-boggling involvement in the cases of George Gould, Ronald Taylor and, now, Jerry O’Donnell.

Read Part 4 of "A Murder at La Casa Green"

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