By Grace Johnson, Olivia LaVecchia, Rowena Li and Diane Tsai
Medill Innocence Project
Published: March 14, 2012
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?