False Confessions II: The Phoenix Buddhist Temple Massacre (UPDATED)

On August 10, 1991, nine bodies were discovered at the Wat Promkunaram Buddhist Temple in the West Valley near Tucson Phoenix, AZ. The nine victims were six Buddhist monks, a nun and two acolytes.

William Hermann of The Arizona Republic described the scene.

Investigators found nine victims lying face down and grouped together, their heads pointing inward like spokes in a wheel. Some had their hands clasped in prayer. The carpet was bloody from head wounds made by .22-caliber bullets and shotgun blasts to torsos, arms and legs.

Maricopa County Sheriff’s detectives spent six days processing the crime scene. They made numerous diagrams, collected all of the shell casings, tore down walls, and removed all of the carpeting. However, despite all of their efforts they did not identify any promising suspects until a month later when they received a phone call from a patient in a mental hospital named Mike McGraw. He told them that some of his friends had committed the murders.

After the phone call, the police picked up McGraw and four of his friends: Mark Nunez (age 19), Dante Parker (age 20), Leo Bruce (age 28), and Victor Zarate (age 28). Over the course of three days of grueling nonstop interrogations from 9 pm to dawn, they eventually obtained confessions from four of the five suspects by refusing to take “no” for an answer and, after breaking them down, they committed the additional sin of providing them with some details of the crime that only the killers would know so that their confessions would be self-authenticating. Only Mark Nunez Victor Zarate failed to succumb to their tactics, so they released him and then they held a big press conference where they triumphantly announced that they had solved the murders.

Six weeks later their case against the Tucson Four, who had subsequently recanted their confessions, fell apart when the crime lab announced that it had identified the murder weapon.

How did that happen, you ask?

On August 21st police had confiscated a .22 caliber rifle from two West Valley boys, Rolando Caratachea and Johnathan Doody, after stopping them at Luke Air Force Base. When the crime lab finally got around to testing the rifle, the analyst discovered that that it was the murder weapon.

The next day, detectives picked up Caratachea (the owner of the gun), Doody and a third boy, Alessandro Garcia, and subjected them to the same non-stop interrogation tactics. Two days later, Garcia confessed that he and Doody did the shootings. Doody admitted that he was present but denied shooting anyone. Caratachea denied being involved.

Three weeks later, Garcia confessed to another murder. Katharine Ramsland reports he told the police that two months after the temple massacre,

he and his 14-year-old girlfriend, Michelle Hoover, had murdered Alice Cameron, 50, in a campground. Garcia had goaded Michelle to do it, so she had pulled the trigger. They waited an hour to be sure the woman was dead and then stole her money, which amounted to $20. Michelle pleaded guilty and got 15 years.

As in the case of the Tucson Four, police had coerced an innocent man into falsely confessing to killing Hoover. He was released after serving more than a year in prison.

One month later the prosecution dismissed the charges against the Tucson Four and released them from jail.

Garcia and Doody, who were juveniles, were charged with the murders. Their cases were transferred to adult court due to the seriousness of the charges and the prosecution announced that it would seek the death penalty against both defendants.

Garcia eventually entered into a plea agreement in which he agreed to plead guilty to first degree murder and testify against Doody in exchange for the prosecution agreeing not to seek the death penalty against him.

Doody was convicted. The judge declined to impose the death penalty because he was not certain whether Doody was more culpable than Garcia. He sentenced him to 281 years in prison. Garcia was sentenced to 271 years in prison.

In May, 2011, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Doody’s conviction on the ground that his confession was coerced. The Court remanded the case to the trial court for a new trial. The SCOTUS denied review.

His case has not been resolved.

The Tucson Four sued Maricopa County and the case settled for $2.8 million.

The man who falsely confessed to the Hoover murder also received a settlement.

Those of you who are interested in reading more about false confessions, please google the name Dr. Richard Ofshe or go to falseconfessions.org

UPDATE: I have edited the article to make the following corrections: The temple is located in the West Valley, near Phoenix. Victor Zarate, rather than Mark Nunez, refused to confess and was released.

18 Responses to False Confessions II: The Phoenix Buddhist Temple Massacre (UPDATED)

  1. Malisha says:

    Gudjonsson is very good! His work is a pleasure to read. It is interesting to see how authority figures (police) affect people who have “relationships with authority figures” issues. You have Fogen who has a kind of “suck-up” relationship with authority figures as opposed to “beat-up” relationships with people he believes should regard HIM as an authority figure. This is an interesting subject for study, of course. It always amazed me that wife-beaters would “lose their tempers” with their wives but NEVER with their bosses at work! It seemed to make it harder for judges to believe that they were violent at home. After all, they were all “yessir” and “nosir” in public.

  2. bmaz says:

    We do agree on a lot of things. By the way, you mentioned Ofshe; he was, along with Gigli Gudjonsson, my expert on this case.

  3. Dennis says:

    Is it just me or does this remind anyone of the Wako massacre committed by the government?

  4. Malisha says:

    I sometimes wonder whether I would ever confess to a serious felony I did not commit because I remember a couple of incidents in my life where somebody actually convinced me (to a pretty great degree, maybe not absolute certainty but pretty much) that I had done something I actually did not do. In one case, something was lost and I was told that I definitely took it with a certain purpose and announced that I was putting it somewhere (that DID make sense) but that none of that had occurred and it was later found exactly where it would have been if I had never touched it (an expensive camera!). Another time I was just shouted down about some alleged insult I had delivered that I ended up believing I had done by accident, but it turned out I had not done it at all. So it’s not impossible to convince someone they have done something terrible that they have not done, but I’m wondering if that kind of mistaken adoption of guilt can be assumed mistakenly about crimes like murder. It’s not impossible.

    What’s much more likely is that someone gets deliberately brow-beaten or tricked into false confessions by prosecutorial and/or police misconduct. After all, there are feathers people can earn in their hats if they get confessions in cases they cannot (or do not try to) solve.

    • Two sides to a story says:

      It’s interesting how we can allow our minds to be played with by others, even without duress.

  5. SpecialladyT says:

    10th & 11th discovery up……..


  6. cielo62 says:

    >^..^< following

  7. Xena says:

    This gives me a feeling of depression. Did the cops ever go back to Mike McGraw to ask why he accused his friends of committing the murder?

  8. Two sides to a story says:

    I lived in Tucson at the time of this case and remember well the constant media diatribe about the four innocent men. It always sounded fishy to me.

    • Two sides to a story says:

      PS – Actually, you need to correct your article. The West Valley is in Phoenix, so the temple murders were in the Phoenix area, not Tucson. But some or all of the innocent men were from Tucson.

      • Two sides to a story says:

        Sorry, keep thinking of things – the fact that the four sued Maricopa County – shows the jurisdiction of the crime – Phoenix is in Maricopa County. Tucson is in Pima County.
        You can delete the extra messages if you want! Great article!

      • bmaz says:

        Yes, the Wat Pronkunarum Temple was west of Phoenix in Maricopa County. The “Tucson Four” (actually five if you count McGraw) were all from the bario in South tucson and had known each other since grade school. Mark Nunez was actually Mike McGraw’s cousin.

        Why did McGraw call? Because he was literally crazy and starved for attention. Also he was jonesing for fast food bad as he had been cooped up in the Tucson Psychiatric Hospital. When the Maricopa County Sheriffs first went down to Tucson to get him after the phone tip, he demanded a series of stops at Jack in the box and Burger King as he led them on a fabricated tour of all the supposed staging areas for the crime and divying up of the loot afterwards. It was all a lie.

        Lastly, it was not Mark Nunez who held out and was release. Victor Zarate was released early because there was video of him at work at the Tucson Greyhound Park at the time the murders occurred.

        • Hi, Bmaz.

          Welcome to the blog.

          Note to all my readers: Bmaz is a criminal defense lawyer in Arizona. He blogs at emptywheel.net

          I met him electronically at Firedoglake/Emptywheel during the run-up to the Scooter Libby trial.

          We agree about many things but not everything. I respect and like him.

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