Hearing focuses on alleged shoplifter’s admission of guilt
The Aspen Times
A former Aspen policewoman who now handles security issues for a grocery-store chain testified Monday in a Pitkin County District Court proceeding involving a woman accused of multiple felonies related to theft.
Valerie McFarlane — who resigned from the Aspen Police Department in February 2010 following allegations of ethics-code breaches — was the District Attorney’s Office’s primary witness during a hearing to determine whether evidence in the scheduled April trial of 41-year-old Elsa Murillo-Gonzalez should be suppressed.
Murillo-Gonzalez, a Roaring Fork Valley resident with a lengthy history of arrests, faces multiple felony and misdemeanor charges related to theft and forgery stemming from an alleged forged-check-cashing spree in late November 2013. At the time, police said she was working as a housekeeper when she stole her employer’s checks and netted $6,000 cash from multiple Alpine Bank branches after forging and cashing them.
McFarlane said she’s been working as a loss-prevention specialist for the City Market grocery store chain for more than four years. She said she was working in the El Jebel location Dec. 13, 2013, monitoring surveillance cameras when she noticed that Murillo-Gonzalez had entered the store.
McFarlane said she knew Murillo-Gonzalez from a previous incident in which Murillo-Gonzalez had been caught shoplifting at the store. Using store cameras, she followed Murillo-Gonzalez for nearly 40 minutes.
A video that was played in court Monday showed Murillo-Gonzalez apparently picking up several items and stashing them in a wastebasket that also was a sales item. After borrowing a small amount of money from an acquaintance who worked in the store and purchasing prescription drugs from the pharmacy, she attempted to flee with the wastebasket and more than $100 worth of goods, according to McFarlane.
McFarlane said she contacted Murillo-Gonzalez in the foyer between the two sets of doors at the grocery’s main entrance. She said Murillo-Gonzalez told her she was heading to her car to get a checkbook to pay for the items.
“I said, ‘That’s not how we do things, Elsa,’” McFarlane recalled.
She said under questioning, Murillo-Gonzalez expressed frustration with her situation.
“She said, ‘I want to go back to jail. I need help because this is the only way I know how to survive. I don’t give a s— about my life,’” McFarlane said.
Aspen felony prosecutor Andrea Bryan is seeking the right to use the alleged statement and others that were included in McFarlane’s report of the shoplifting case in Murillo-Gonzalez’ two-week trial related to the November 2013 charges involving stolen, forged and cashed checks, which is scheduled to start April 27.
“It’s a statement of her motive,” Bryan said. “It’s a statement of her intent to steal.”
However, throughout the three-plus hour hearing, Carbondale defense attorney Chip McCrory sought to discredit the testimony of McFarlane and former Basalt police Sgt. Stu Curry, who now is a law enforcement training officer in Glenwood Springs. Curry was the Basalt officer who responded to the City Market after McFarlane phoned police to report the shoplifting incident.
McCrory questioned whether Murillo-Gonzalez was ever read her Miranda rights prior to the alleged statement. Bryan said McFarlane didn’t have to read the Miranda rights because she was not a law enforcement officer.
Curry testified that he used his smartphone application to advise Murillo-Gonzalez of her Miranda rights. McCrory noted that the store video that was viewed in court does not show Curry using his phone to perform that duty. He also pointed out that the initial stages of the session in which Curry and McFarlane questioned his client were missing from the court video. There was no audio accompanying the video.
McCrory questioned the accuracy of McFarlane’s report, asking McFarlane for details about when Murillo-Gonzalez made the statement in question. McFarlane admitted that she wrote the report the following day based on her recollections of the interview. She said she couldn’t remember exactly when Murillo-Gonzalez spoke of wanting to return to jail.
“I just do bullet points for my reports,” McFarlane said. “I remembered specific things and put them in my report the next day.”
McCrory said that it was apparent from the video that McFarlane gave Murillo-Gonzalez no time to actually read a “civil-demand statement” admitting guilt to the store and accepting responsibility for the purchases. Murillo-Gonzalez is pictured signing the statement.
He also suggested that his client was being held in the small security office under possible coercion and intimidation.
“You didn’t give her a chance to read it, did you?” McCrory said.
“No,” McFarlane answered.
District Judge Gail Nichols said near the end of the proceeding that she didn’t believe that Murillo-Gonzalez’ constitutional rights had been violated. Based on the testimony, she said it appeared that Murillo-Gonzalez’ statements were voluntary.
“There is absolutely zero evidence to suggest (coercion) of Ms. Murillo,” Nichols said, adding that she would issue a written ruling in the near future concerning other issues related to the hearing.
Prosecutors have said that before November 2013, Murillo-Gonzalez had five prior felony convictions and a record of failing to appear for court dates. She also was arrested in January 2014 following an investigation showing that she was an accomplice in a theft at the Thrift Shop of Aspen, according to police.
Because of the previous felony convictions, Murillo-Gonzalez is facing charges in the “habitual criminal” category, court records show. If convicted, she could be sentenced to a mandatory 24 years in prison.
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