At a Glance

  • Innocent Years Served: 27 Years
  • Sentence: 33 Years
  • Wrongful Conviction: First-Degree Murder
  • Year: 1996
  • Jurisdiction: Yakima County
  • Released: August 2023
  • Exonerated: August 2023
  • Cost of Wrongful Incarceration*: $1,267,388
  • Lost Wages**: $1,395,004

About  Evaristo “Junior”

Salas was 15 years old when charged, but was tried as an adult and sentenced to nearly 33 years in prison.

The Investigation

Junior’s wrongful conviction was based on 1) the testimony of Ofelia Cortez, an eyewitness who participated in 14 identification procedures before choosing Junior in a photo laydown, and 2) the testimony of Bill Bruhn, a police informant who claimed to have overheard Junior bragging to other children in the neighborhood about murdering Jose Arreola.  Mr. Arreola was sitting in the passenger seat of a parked truck with tinted windows on a November evening when he was shot through the window.

Despite his youth (14 at the time of the murder) and small stature (5 feet tall and 100 pounds), Junior was tried as an adult, convicted, sentenced to 33 years, and sent to Walla Walla to begin serving his time. Junior wrote to us after his appeals were final and we looked into the case about 20 years ago.  Unfortunately, the eyewitness refused to speak with us, and the informant was nowhere to be found.  Without any newly discovered evidence to work with, we were not able to move forward with his case at that time.

Many years later, in 2018, a series entitled Wrong Man on the Starz network aired, featuring Junior’s case in the first two episodes of the first season.  During filming, Bill Bruhn recanted his trial testimony and indicated that the lead Detective Jim Rivard had given him drugs and cash in exchange for going along with whatever narrative Rivard presented to him, including the story about Junior.  During trial and in subsequent proceedings, Rivard denied ever providing any incentives to Bruhn for his work on Junior’s case.

In addition, it was discovered that Ofelia had lied to the lot owner in order to retrieve her truck from impound only three days after the crime, and had it cleaned and sold before it could be processed for evidence.  Based on this action, Detective Rivard referred her for charges for rendering criminal assistance in the homicide of Jose Arreola.  She was never charged, and Junior’s defense counsel was never told of the circumstances under which the truck was taken from impound, or that the state’s star witness had been investigated and referred for charges in the case.

Further investigation revealed that prior to her 14th identification procedure, Ofelia had in fact been subjected to hypnosis.  The victim’s mother, Reina Arreola, provided a declaration indicating that law enforcement had taken Ofelia into the other room and put her “to sleep” on the day she identified Junior.  The detective’s handwritten notes also indicated that Ofelia was willing to undergo hypnosis if it would help.   Ofelia and Detective Rivard continued to deny she was hypnotized.

A jury convicted him two days after his 16th birthday and he was sentenced to nearly 33 years in prison.

Post-Conviction and Exoneration

I am thrilled to report that our client Evaristo “Junior” Salas was fully exonerated and released from custody on Thursday, August 17 after 27 years in custody.  Tried as an adult and wrongly convicted of first-degree murder in 1996 at the age of 15, Junior is now a free man for the first time in his life.  He is 42.

Together with co-counsel Laura Shaver -who was recruited by the filmmakers and brought WashIP back to the case – we filed a motion for a new trial in Junior’s case in January of 2020, just before the courts closed down due to the pandemic. More than a year and a half later, the trial court in Yakima County summarily denied the motion, and we appealed.  The Court of Appeals agreed with us that the testimony of key witnesses – including Ofelia Cortez, Bill Bruhn, and former Detective Rivard – was needed to determine whether there was sufficient newly discovered evidence to grant Junior’s motion for a new trial.  The Court of Appeals set a deadline for this step to be complete by September 1.

This hearing was held the week of August 14 in Yakima with WashIP Litigation Director John Marlow and Laura Shaver representing Junior. All testimony was taken as anticipated, with Detective Rivard taking the stand last, on the afternoon of Wednesday, August 16.  During his testimony – under cross-examination by Laura Shaver – Rivard admitted that he actually had paid Bill Bruhn for his work on Junior’s case (something he staunchly denied for 27 years), was forced to acknowledge through her questioning that he falsified reports, and that he changed the case number on a receipt issued to Bruhn, in a clear attempt to hide the payments he was making related to Junior’s case.

Immediately after Rivard’s cross, and without any redirect, the prosecutor indicated to us off the record that Rivard’s testimony was a “game changer” and that he needed to speak with the elected prosecutor for Yakima County.  The next morning, with the courtroom filled with Junior’s loved ones and supporters, the prosecutor moved to vacate Junior’s 1996 conviction, and dismiss the case with prejudice. The judge ordered Junior’s immediate release to screams of joy and tears.

We scrambled to get from Yakima to Airway Heights (outside Spokane), and at about 4 pm that same day, Junior walked out of the prison a free person for the first time in 27 years – and the first time in his life as a free man, as he was a child when he went down.  At his request, he left the prison parking lot with his family and promptly headed to McDonalds. Junior is now taking time to reflect, surrounded by his large community and loving family.

“I wasn’t going to ask the judge for leniency on a crime I didn’t do,” he said. “Not only is it wrong morally, it blurs the line. I was either going to get exonerated or I wasn’t. It was really hard.” – Salas

Evaristo Junior Salas is Washington Innocence Project’s 20th Freed Family Member/ 16th Exoneree.

*Based on the average annual per-person incarceration costs in Washington State as of May 2019. Does not include the financial cost of trial, appeals, community supervision, retrial, or related civil proceedings.
**Based on the average salary by age; not including retirement or social security contributions.