The Last Boy: After a Murder, a Witness Spirals Down and Out in Arizona

Paul Yalda emerges from the West Mesa Justice Court in Mesa, Ariz., just before agreeing to an interview with Medill students. (Grace Johnson/Medill)

Paul Yalda emerges from the West Mesa Justice Court in Mesa, Ariz., just before agreeing to an interview with Medill students. (Grace Johnson/Medill)

By Grace Johnson, Olivia LaVecchia, Rowena Li and Diane Tsai
Medill Innocence Project

MESA, Ariz.—On Thursday, Feb. 16, 2012, Paul Yalda did not show up to his own pre-trial conference at the West Mesa Justice Court in Arizona on a misdemeanor shoplifting charge. A county official said the judge planned to issue a bench warrant for Yalda’s arrest.

This run-in with the law was not an isolated incident. When he was 16, Yalda was arrested and charged with first-degree murder.

Yalda was one of five boys who pulled up in a red 1995 Nissan Pathfinder at the intersection of Cicero and Diversey avenues on June 13, 1997, the night the Bulls clinched their fifth NBA championship. The streets were crowded with revelers celebrating the victory. While the boys stopped at a red light, a group of people on the corner began throwing bricks, bottles and other debris at the car, breaking windows and injuring Yalda. In the wake of the chaos, Concepcion Diaz, a bystander waiting to catch the bus home from work, was lying in a pool of blood, dead from a bullet that tore through his back, penetrated his lung and ripped through his chest. He was 32.

Yalda was charged with first-degree murder, along with his four friends: John Yacoub, 15; Dragon Jovanovich, 16; Jose Dominguez, 17; and Ariel Gomez, also 17. Only Dominguez and Gomez were convicted. Dominguez’s sentence was reduced on appeal almost three years later. Gomez is still serving time. After he was acquitted, Yalda and his family moved to Arizona. Since then, the man whom friends describe as big-hearted and mild-mannered has struggled to keep his life on track, facing bankruptcy, home foreclosure, multiple arrests and drug use, records show. Long before the 1997 incident, Yalda had several marks on his juvenile record, such as trespassing, simple battery and involvement in a “mob act;” the earliest offense, which was for trespassing, indicates he was 10 years old, according to police records. Yalda attributes many of his problems today to the night of the shooting.

“It’s something I want to forget about,” Yalda said. “Thank God we made it out alive, but someone else didn’t. That screwed up my life a little. I didn’t do any time for it, but I saw someone get killed. I was a witness. It still haunts me to this day.”

When Medill students were trying to locate Yalda, one of his brothers said he might be in Canada; an ex-girlfriend said she thought he could be in Boston; his mother said she hadn’t seen him in about a year. None of that turned out to be the case. Now, at 31, Yalda lives mainly with his parents in Phoenix, and bankruptcy records show that as of March 2010, he owned little more than a bicycle and the clothes on his back.

For nearly half a year, Medill students sought to interview everyone who was in the Pathfinder on the night of the crime. Yalda was the last to be found, when he finally showed up in the small, dusty parking lot of the West Mesa Justice Court, a day late for his pre-trial conference on the shoplifting charge. (Read about how the students tracked him down in the accompanying story, “Finding Paul Yalda.”)

At first Yalda angrily declined an interview, but when he relented, he offered candid remarks about the crime and his childhood friend, Gomez—namely, that Gomez was responsible for Diaz’s death. “He’s guilty,” Yalda said. “He is guilty, and this is coming from a longtime friend. We were friends in elementary school and then again in high school. We knew each other for a long time.”

Gomez expressed incredulity on hearing Yalda’s claim that Gomez is guilty. “It’s hard to believe,” he said. “Why would he say something like that? I don’t understand. I don’t see what he would have to gain to say something like that. I don’t know what he has to gain to say something that makes it worse for me.”

Yalda also said someone else had a gun at that intersection, despite the prosecution’s assertion at trial that there was one gun and one shooter: Gomez. Yalda said two shots were fired at the boys in the Pathfinder, breaking the back windows.

But many of the details of Yalda’s account diverge from all of the other defendants’ stories, including the separate statements they gave to police immediately following the shooting. Some of Yalda’s recollections also are inconsistent with the facts. He said, for instance, that the gun police found in Gomez’s home was black; it was chrome. And questions remain, such as, how did Yalda see Gomez fire the weapon when Yalda was a passenger in the middle backseat of the Pathfinder, bleeding and periodically blacking out?

Living beyond his means

Paul Yalda's home in Arizona, which he purchased in 2007 and lost in foreclosure in 2009. (Diane Tsai/Medill)

Paul Yalda’s home in Arizona, which he purchased in 2007 and lost in foreclosure in 2009. (Diane Tsai/Medill)

About 1,750 miles away from the intersection of Cicero and Diversey, Yalda tried to create a new life after his acquittal in 1998. In 2007, he bought a two-story, five-bedroom house at the end of a cul-de-sac on West Horse Mesa Road in Maricopa, Ariz. The house, in a quaint subdivision called Alterra, is set against a backdrop of various shades of gray and brown. Desert plants emerge from rocky landscaping, and in the distance, the dark outline of South Mountain is punctuated by the expanse of flat land and clear sky. The faint scent of manure from two nearby dairy farms lingers in the air. It is a quiet neighborhood, near a few modest shopping centers and Maricopa Elementary School.

Records show that Yalda purchased his house for $325,163 with his fiancée, Natalie Sarkisian. Two years later, in 2009, Yalda and Sarkisian were forced into foreclosure. The home later sold for $135,500—less than half of what he paid. Sarkisian could not be reached for comment.

Things weren’t always this way. While Yalda was living in Maricopa, he held a job at Countrywide Home Loans, according to court records. Yalda and Sarkisian repainted the white interior walls of the house and installed custom wooden window treatments. Yalda purchased a light-colored BMW.

Yalda’s former next-door neighbor, Andy Valdez, hung out “countless” times with Yalda while they were neighbors and said he was aware that Yalda was living beyond his means.“He was a nice fellow that just fell on hard times,” Valdez said. “When I met him, he was on a downward spiral. He was a happy guy, but you could tell there was a lot weighing on the guy.”

Between February 2008 and March 2011, Yalda was arrested several times on drug-related charges. On one occasion at the end of 2008, while Yalda was still living at West Horse Mesa Road, he was found with drugs in his car: Xanax, an anti-anxiety medication, and Oxycontin, a painkiller. “Paul was observed to have poor balance, blood shot watery eyes, [and a] foaming mouth,” according to an affidavit Phoenix Police Officer Thomas Cuthbertson filed in support of a search warrant.

In early 2009, Yalda agreed to participate in a “drug diversion program,” court records show, but tested positive for amphetamines and was “caught trying to cheat with a home made device.”

Then his BMW was repossessed. Yalda and Sarkisian lost their home in February 2009. Next, his fiancée left, and two or three months later, the gas and electricity for the house were shut off and the locks were changed.

The entrance to a high-end shopping center where Paul Yalda went for dental care during a short-lived spending spree. When he filed for bankruptcy in 2010, he was still indebted to the dentist. (Diane Tsai/Medill)

The entrance to a high-end shopping center where Paul Yalda went for dental care during a short-lived spending spree. When he filed for bankruptcy in 2010, he was still indebted to the dentist. (Diane Tsai/Medill)

In March 2010, about a year after he lost his home, Yalda filed for bankruptcy. With zero reported income, Yalda owed more than $120,000 to dozens of creditors, including Jared the Galleria of Jewelry and AccuCare Dental Centers, records show.

Despite his financial troubles and problems with the law, the other boys in the Pathfinder that night said Yalda was mild-mannered and polite. Jovanovic remembered Yalda as being the quietest of the five boys in the car the night of Diaz’s murder—one thing Gomez said he liked about Yalda. “Paul was more humble, not the rowdy type,” Gomez said. One of Yalda’s former attorneys, Maricopa County public defender Arja Shah, also recalled an easy-going guy. “I don’t remember him being difficult,” Shah said. “He was actually quite nice. I remember the difficult ones.”

Yalda served time from May last year to July for driving under the influence on an invalid license, records show. This followed a string of arrests for drug possession, including on one occasion, marijuana, Oxycodone, a muscle relaxant and a synthetic opiate; another arrest for the same muscle relaxant; on a third, Xanax and Oxycontin; on a fourth, Oxycodone again; and in a fifth incident, heroin, according to records.

“Pretty much every occasion when I initially contact him, initially he’s polite and cooperative,” said Cuthbertson, who has arrested Yalda several times. “Once I start probing into the possible criminal activity, that’s when his mood swings start to change. He’d be polite, get angry, start crying, apologizing, always denying wrongdoing.” During a September 2009 arrest, Cuthbertson noted in his report that Yalda “def[initely] stiffened up and resisted” the handcuffing and described it in an interview for this article as “actively pulling away.”

Cuthbertson also remembered once seeing Yalda’s mother, Mariam Yalda, in court. “When she’s initially in court, she presented herself as polite,” he said, “but then she’d get argumentative, even with the judge.” When students spoke with Mariam Yalda, after finding her walking to an Arizona park, she told them that she hadn’t seen her son “in almost a year; he doesn’t live with us.” She declined to comment further. Yalda later said in an interview for this article that he was living at his parents’ house and was inside the house when Medill students knocked on the door.

An ex-girlfriend said she thought Yalda might be in Boston, while his brother, Peter Yalda, suggested that Yalda had moved out of the country after he was released from prison in July. “He lives in Canada, he got married,” his brother said. “I have a hard time getting in touch with the guy myself. I can never reach him.”

Mountains near Paul Yalda's foreclosed former home in Maricopa, Ariz. (Diane Tsai/Medill)

Mountains near Paul Yalda’s foreclosed former home in Maricopa, Ariz. (Diane Tsai/Medill)

When students finally found Yalda in the parking lot of the West Mesa Justice Court, he was slouching in the passenger seat of a Jeep Grand Cherokee. He appeared much thinner than the 172 pounds listed in his Arizona Department of Corrections record. His sagging khakis were held up by a belt that barely fit his frame. Yalda kept a black baseball hat and black sunglasses on while he spoke. He was wearing a brown shirt with a cross on the front and rhinestone pattern on the back, a big silver watch, chain bracelet and cross necklace.

Yalda said he never left Arizona, or married, and he described the crime as a life-altering event. “It’s always been messing with my life,” he said. “It’s always been a part of my life. My therapist and I always talk about it, we always go over it and say it’s not my fault and I didn’t have any control, but still I always blame myself… I’m so messed up from it.”

June 13, 1997

The five teenagers ( (from left: Ariel Gomez, Jose Dominguez, Paul Yalda, John Yacoub and Dragon Jovanovic) were charged with the 1997 murder of 32-year-old Concepcion Diaz. Although Jovanovic, Yacoub and Yalda were acquitted, Gomez and Dominguez were convicted. Dominguez was released on appeal almost three years later. (Trial exhibits)

The five teenagers (from left: Ariel Gomez, Jose Dominguez, Paul Yalda, John Yacoub and Dragon Jovanovic) were charged with the 1997 murder of 32-year-old Concepcion Diaz. Although Jovanovic, Yacoub and Yalda were acquitted, Gomez and Dominguez were convicted. Dominguez was released on appeal almost three years later. (Trial exhibits)

The statements of witnesses who were at the intersection of Cicero and Diversey on the night of June 13, 1997, tell different stories. Several witnesses whose names students obtained from police records, as well as the four other boys in the car, all gave statements that diverge from Yalda’s account in his interview with Medill students.

For Gomez, the moment he fired the gun is fixed in his memory. He vividly described firing a single shot, straight into the sky, not at anyone, while his car was stopped on Diversey. He said the gun he fired, a chrome .45-caliber semi-automatic Ruger, was the same gun police recovered from his house later that night. He said he did not own another gun. One bullet was found in Diaz, lodged in his right wrist. Experts cannot say whether this is the same bullet that cut through his body. But the forensic scientist who analyzed the bullet for police determined it could not have been fired from the gun police found in Gomez’s home, based on the grooves in the bullet.

At trial, prosecutors argued that due to the way Gomez schemed to destroy the car following the shooting, he could have similarly destroyed or hidden the murder weapon. Judge Dennis Dernbach found Gomez guilty of first-degree murder.

Yalda gives a different version of events. In an interview for this article, he said, Gomez “had two .45s and he switched the gun. That’s why the ballistics didn’t match, because he switched the gun.”

Yalda’s story isn’t consistent with the one he gave in an oral statement to authorities hours after the crime, nor does it match any of the other boys’ statements. Though four of the five boys, including Yalda, later disputed the veracity of their statements, Yalda said in an interview for this story that his statement was “pretty much right.” But there was no mention of a second gun in Yalda’s or any of the other boys’ statements.

In his interview with Medill students, Yalda described the gun Gomez fired as “a chrome .45 with a clear clip, maybe ivory,” and said “the cops got a black .45.” However, records show that police recovered a chrome gun, and several eyewitnesses who saw the gun remembered it as chrome.

Dominguez declined to comment for this story, other than expressing surprise at Yalda’s allegation that Gomez had switched the gun. “He said that?” Dominguez asked. “I don’t know where he got that from.”

Yalda’s recollection also raises questions about the background of Diaz, the victim. Yalda said Diaz was a leader of the gang the Latin Counts and said that Gomez was targeting him “point blank.”

Gomez, however, questioned Yalda’s account of what happened. “I’d never seen Diaz before,” Gomez said. “Why would I target him?”

Tattoos often signal gang affiliation, and the medical examiner’s report did not indicate any tattoos on Diaz. Members of the Diaz family also denied Diaz was affiliated with a gang. “He was afraid of his own shadow,” said Roxanne Avalos, Diaz’s sister-in-law.

Jovanovic was shocked by Yalda’s allegation about Diaz: “He has to make up a better story. When I tell you that’s completely false, that’s completely false. I don’t even know how or why he could say anything like that. Have you seen a picture of this guy? He’s not a leader of a gang.”

Yalda said that after the Chicago Tribune published the names and ages of the boys in the car, the Latin Counts sought retribution, and “they tried to kill all of us and our families.”

“Gangbangers would do drive-bys at my house,” he said. “I was getting death threats. My mom couldn’t walk down the street. Our tires were getting slashed every day.” Yalda said this is why his family moved, and they chose Arizona because the warm climate would help his father’s arthritis.

Yalda still has a scar from the moment his head was injured. “I was in the passenger seat, we were bumper-to-bumper,” he said. “I was blocking myself, and I saw a guy look me point blank in the eyes. And so I’m covering the front of my face when this guy on the corner throws a curb at me—half a cracked curb, through the open window. The curb smashes into me behind my ear. My right ear was pretty much bent. They wanted to kill us.”

After this, “I blacked out on-and-off,” but Yalda said he nonetheless remembered what happened next. “I couldn’t even talk, I just started losing blood,” he said. “We made a right into an alley and stopped and [Gomez] grabbed the gun from the hood.” Yalda said that Gomez told him to get in the back of the car, in the middle seat, between Yacoub and Jovanovic. Dominguez was driving, and Gomez took the front passenger seat.

“I just wanted to celebrate, and next thing I know I’m with a psycho,” Yalda said. “If I had control of the vehicle, I would have fled out of there. He felt like he was a man ‘cause he had a gun in the engine.”

Yalda said that Dominguez looped around to the intersection, then turned onto Cicero and began driving north in the southbound lane, against traffic. He said this is where Gomez began shooting. “Ariel was hanging out of the car shooting, going up the one-way,” Yalda said. “All I heard is, ‘He has a gun!’ People yelled that, and everyone scattered.”

Gomez said he shot once into the sky while they were stopped at the light on Diversey. But Yalda said, “He fired one shot into the crowd, and then two shots into the guy.” He said Gomez fired at the victim as Dominguez was turning the car into the parking lot. He described Gomez as hanging out the window, sitting on the windowsill with his torso facing Dominguez, the driver.

Yalda also remembered shots other than Gomez’s, but at trial, the prosecution argued there was no crossfire. “There were other people on the corner,” Yalda said, “and they fired back at us two shots and shot out the back window.”

Yalda recalled Gomez had his hands over the hood of the car. Yalda, who was in the middle back seat and injured, said he could see through the windshield Gomez pull the trigger. Yalda said he didn’t see the bullet enter the victim, “but I could see the connection,” he said. “I saw [Gomez] point at the guy as he was… trying to run and get away.”

Jovanovic said he was hanging out the back passenger side window with a full view of Gomez, whom he said fired once into the air. Dominguez declined to comment for this article, but in his statement to authorities, he said, “Half of [Gomez’s] body was sticking out of the window and pointing the gun at… the gang members.”

Yacoub, who was sitting on Yalda’s left, said he couldn’t see Gomez and that he was lost in the chaos, trying to protect himself and Yalda. “I don’t know what Ariel was doing, I couldn’t see him,” Yacoub said. “I had Paul next to me and was covering his head and my head.” Yalda said that at this point the car was moving “about 40” mph because “we hit the curb and got air off it. We were moving fast.”

But Gomez said, “I don’t think it was possible for us to hit 40 [mph].”

The car was “smashing through the parking lot,” Yalda said. “It’s hard for me to remember all these details, I was losing a lot of blood. Before I started bleeding and passed out, I heard Ariel say, ‘I got that motherf—–, I got him,’ and then I totally passed out.”

Yalda said the car hit a pedestrian while in the shopping center parking lot. “He rolls over the car,” he said. The boys regrouped at Jovanovic’s house, and Yacoub recalled that he wanted to take Yalda to a hospital. He said Yalda couldn’t walk well and was dizzy from his head wound. Instead, the boys came up with a plan to destroy the car, which they worried could link them to the possible hit-and-run.

“Ariel and them had this smart idea to get rid of the car, and they crashed it into a factory,” Yalda said. “It went through the factory.” After this, the boys returned to Gomez’s house and, soon after, police arrived to arrest them.

Yalda said that he passed out again due to his head injury and remembers regaining consciousness at the police station. “I wake up getting smashed up, beaten up by the cops, and the cop was eating the McDonald’s my dad bought for me, biting into the Big Mac,” he said. “[The cop] was writing the statement, he was saying, ‘This is what happened,’ and it was pretty much right, but I wasn’t saying any of the stuff… My head was bad, so I asked if I could go to a hospital. I said, ‘Can I have a doctor?’ and he asked, ‘You want a doctor?’ and then he grabbed me and slammed my head against the wall.”

The Chicago Police Department did not respond to several requests for an interview for this article.

Yalda graduated from high school in 1998 while he was out on bond awaiting trial. Today, Yalda has no contact with any of the boys in the car except for Yacoub, with whom he talks occasionally.

Yalda and Gomez have not spoken since the trial.

This investigation was conducted by 10 undergraduate students at Medill as part of an investigative journalism class taught by Northwestern University Professor Alec Klein, director of the Medill Innocence Project, which supported the class work. Alison Flowers, research associate at the Medill Innocence Project, also contributed to this report.

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