Michelle Castillo mug

Certain statements made by the girlfriend of the man accused of killing his wife outside Glenwood cannot be used at trial after a judge last month ruled that two Colorado Bureau of Investigation agents coerced and intimidated the woman during a “good cop-bad cop” interrogation in 2016.

But the January trial of Michelle Castillo, 25, the girlfriend of Gustavo Olivio-Tellez, 28, who police say shot 28-year-old Blanca Salas in her residence at the Pinon Pines Apartments on Oct. 7, 2016, may not happen.

Thursday evening, District Attorney Jeff Cheney said that a hearing in Castillo’s case is scheduled for today at 9 a.m. It “may involve her entering guilty pleas to several felony charges and being sentenced in an expedited manner,” he said.

A few days after Salas’ murder, agents John Zamora and Collin Reese questioned Castillo. She was originally charged with, and pleaded guilty to, being an accessory to the murder, admitting that she bought the gun that was allegedly used.

But prosecutors argued for her plea deal to be rejected because she allegedly lied in a post-plea interview about details of the case, and a judge agreed in May to revoke the agreement. Castillo is now charged with first-degree murder. The district attorney’s office has not said why it thinks Castillo, who was apparently at a Glenwood restaurant during the time of the killing, is just as culpable as Olivio-Tellez.

 

CBI tactics

During the nearly seven-hour interrogation by the agents and a sheriff’s investigator, the CBI authorities told her she would never see her child again, discussed how much prison time she could receive, and offered to ask the DA’s office for leniency if she cooperated, according to the Nov. 2 order by Judge John Neiley of Garfield County District Court. The latter promise, according to case law cited by the judge, constitutes “official coercion.”

“At the same time, agent Reese was threatening Castillo with a prison sentence and giving her commands in a threatening and accusatory tone,” the ruling says.

The interview in question, the second of three by law enforcement, was conducted at the Grand Junction Police Department. Both defendants were arrested at a hotel in that city the day after the murder.

After a hearing on Oct. 5 of this year, Judge Neiley suppressed some of Castillo’s statements about the case. But it’s unclear how that might affect her trial, which is to begin Jan. 8, as she apparently discussed similar details in a third interview that the judge ruled was not coercive.

The judge’s order details the “good cop-bad cop” routine Reese and Zamora employed. Castillo was formally arrested after the interrogation for being an accessory to murder. 

Reese, Zamora and Matt Jenness, a Garfield County sheriff’s investigator, conducted the Grand Junction interview, focusing primarily on the timeline in the days leading up to the murder. The interview’s initial tone was cordial and fact-oriented, Judge Neiley wrote.

“It is apparent that Castillo was not fully at ease, but she was engaged in the questioning and dialogue with the officers,” his order says.

In the first four hours of the interrogation, which included a few breaks, Castillo allegedly made voluntary statements. She had been advised twice that, at that point, she was not under arrest.

“The door to the interrogation room was not locked, and she was free to leave the facility,” the judge noted, adding she never requested to speak with a lawyer. “The officers never threatened her or promised her anything directly or impliedly. The method and style of interrogation was not overtly aggressive or threatening.”

That would change, Judge Neiley’s order says.

 

A different tenor

At the four-hour, 17-minute mark, Reese and Zamora took over the interview, and the tone became “notably different,” the order says.

“Agents Reese and Zamora engaged in an obvious ‘good cop/bad cop’ strategy,” Judge Neiley wrote.

Zamora played the former, portraying himself as her ally, while Reese assumed “a very hostile, confrontational and aggressive manner,” telling her that she needed to come clean. The intensity of the interrogation increased from there.

Reese “threatened Castillo with a ‘best-case’ and ‘worst-case’ scenario about how much time she could expect to serve if she was convicted as an accessory to the crime,” the judge wrote. “Reese went so far as to say that he believed Castillo herself may have been the murderer. Reese’s voice never became overly loud, but his manner is clearly intimidating and threatening toward Castillo.”

He deemed her responses “bullshit,” frequently cut her off and spoke over her, the order says.

Reese “used phrases such as ‘you are going to tell me what happened’; ‘let’s stop wasting time’; and ‘we’re going to stop playing this game,’” according to the ruling. Meanwhile, Zamora “played the role of ‘protector,’ defending her against Reese’s comments.” This included him appearing to argue with Reese about giving her another chance to tell her story.

“Zamora coupled this performance with both implicit and explicit promises to Castillo about how he might be able to help her despite Reese’s threats of incarceration,” the judge wrote. “He told Castillo, ‘I’ll still put in a good word for you [with the DA] if you tell the truth’; ‘Hopefully my boss gives me a little leeway to decide what to charge you with’; and ‘I spend the time to give people chances.’”

During these exchanges, Reese said that Castillo was an “accomplice, period”; “we have her stone cold”; and that he “was tired of her bullshit.”

This back-and-forth, good cop-bad cop dynamic was effective, as it visibly wore down the defendant and induced her to provide more incriminating details about her involvement in the homicide, Judge Neiley wrote.

Castillo became more agitated and distressed, and then allegedly divulged new information about where the murder weapon was disposed of and specific comments Olivio-Tellez made to her about the murder.

All of that may not constitute coercion, the judge wrote — but then the CBI agents, at roughly the four-and-a-half hour mark, threatened Castillo with regard to her then-6-year-old daughter. After Reese tells his colleague that she was facing 32 years to life in prison, Zamora said, “She won’t see Mom,” the ruling says. Seven minutes later, after Zamora told Castillo, “Man! You have a 6 year old!”, Reese said. “Had. … it doesn’t matter.”

This had a noticeable effect on Castillo, who lowered her head, slumped in her seat and appeared near tears, her voice softening to a mumble.

“When this happened, both Zamora and Reese began volleying questions at her rapidly,” the judge wrote, adding Reese also yelled at her to speak up. “Castillo then divulged more details about her knowledge of the crime. Reese continued to make comments while Zamora was questioning her, such as … ‘We got her for free’ and ‘Michelle Castillo, you get to go [to prison] too.’”

All of this led Judge Neiley to conclude that Castillo’s will was being overborne, as she became more submissive and emotionally distraught, and appeared to be fearful of Reese. The judge suppressed all of her statements after the four-hour, 35-minute mark, ruling the agents had used “improperly coercive tactics to extract incriminating statements from Castillo.” He found that Reese at that point “was not so much interrogating her as intimidating her.

“However, most troubling is the fact that both officers played on Castillo’s emotional vulnerability as a young mother by stating that she would never see her 6-year-old daughter again,” the ruling says. “The interrogation tactics had the desired effect of breaking down Castillo’s will. … The promises and threats here, particularly the threats related to Castillo’s loss of her child, cross the line. The explicit threat of losing a child is an emotional arrow in the heart of any parent.”

 

Third interview is not suppressed

It’s unclear what effect, if any, the ruling will have, especially given Cheney’s statement about the case Thursday.

The DA’s office responded to the suppression ruling by filing a motion for clarification about whether the suppressed parts of the second interrogation impact the third interview, which was conducted solely by Jenness. The judge declined to suppress Castillo’s statements in the third interview, held at the Garfield County Jail three days later. 

While many of the same subjects were covered, presumably details like Olivio-Tellez’s alleged disposal of the gun and bullets in the Colorado River, Jenness’ questioning was “nowhere near the level of intensity or detail” as that in the CBI agents’ interrogation, the judge found. Jenness also barely mentioned her statements to Reese and Zamora, instead focusing on other aspects of the case. Judge Neiley also noted that Castillo said she was much calmer in the third interview versus the second one.

Her defense attorney, Kathy Goudy of Carbondale, declined comment, and the CBI also would not talk about the agents’ actions.

“Because this is an active case slated for trial, it would not be appropriate for the CBI to comment,” said spokeswoman Susan Medina.

chad@aspendailynews.com