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Las Vegas man found innocent 8 years later

Victor Villalta waited eight years to prove in court he was innocent of sexually assaulting two girls, 6- and 9-year-old sisters.

He never got the chance. He never had to.

On the eve of his trial, the Clark County district attorney’s office handed over a Las Vegas police detective’s notes from 2006 that questioned the validity of the accusations made by the girls.

Soon after, Villalta passed a polygraph exam “with flying colors.” And on June 24 prosecutors dropped the case that has haunted the 29-year-old for nearly his entire adult life.

It remains unclear why the key piece of evidence was not revealed to Villalta for nearly a decade. And while Villalta might never learn why it happened, both police and prosecutors agree there was a breakdown in getting information to the defense.

What is known is that Villalta — who steadfastly denied the charges — has been vindicated, and a district judge has dismissed the case with prejudice, meaning he never again can be charged for the same crime.

It has been three weeks since the threat of a life prison term was lifted off Villalta’s shoulders, but he still is grappling with how eight years of his life were squandered by those charged with protecting the innocent.

The case cost him his union job at Caesars Palace, his credit was destroyed, and he was denied visiting his grandmother on her deathbed.

And he suffered a toll he still can’t quantify.

He held off on marrying his high school sweetheart, who stuck with him throughout. He delayed starting a family, fearing his child would be left fatherless. He couldn’t sleep at night, and gained weight from the stress.

What he remembers are the stares from people at each court appearance as authorities hurled pedophile allegations at him.

That yoke has been lifted, yet Villalta still doesn’t know how he feels.

“Mentally, emotionally … I’ve been tainted,” he said. “It feels like I don’t have a feeling. I’m relieved, but I can’t feel it. I’m happy, but I can’t feel it. It’s like you’re emotionally just destroyed.”

THE ORIGINAL COMPLAINT

The sexual molestation of the girls did not begin with Victor Villalta, court records and documents show.

It began with the girls’ 17-year-old brother.

In 2005, the brother was ordered as a juvenile to Briarwood Group Home for molesting his younger brother and sister.

On Dec. 31, 2005, during therapy sessions, the 17-year-old said Villalta had at some point — it’s unclear when — molested his 6- and 9-year-old sisters.

Villalta was a neighbor in a central valley neighborhood near Decatur Boulevard and Sahara Avenue and a friend of another brother of the girls.

In March 2006, Detective Tracy Smith began interviewing the two girls based on the brother’s claims.

The younger girl said Villalta had molested her, and she had seen him do the same to her 9-year-old sister.

The older sister “did not disclose any sexual abuse but did state that Victor was one of her brother’s friends that comes over to her house,” a police report said. But Smith believed she was molested, too.

Initially, Smith said, Villalta wanted to talk about the accusations and was offered a chance to take a polygraph exam. But he retained a lawyer, Phil Singer, who told him not to talk to police.

By May, the case was dormant.

In September, Smith picked up the investigation hoping that after months of therapy the traumatized girls would be ready to give “more consistent details of suspect Victor Villalta.”

They did. “It was quite a bit different than their first dis­closures,” Smith noted.

JAIL AND HOUSE ARREST

The district attorney’s office authorized an arrest warrant for Villalta on Nov. 9, 2006.

A month and $8,000 later, the then 22-year-old Villalta bailed out of the Clark County Detention Center. He faced a dozen sexual assault-related charges, some carrying life prison sentences.

In a month’s time he lost his Culinary union job at Caesars Palace, although the resort promised to hold his job for two years if he was cleared. His credit fell apart, and he no longer could buy a home with his high school sweetheart, Vanessa.

Prosecutors had Villalta put on house arrest.

For the next three years and 10 months, he remained confined to his home. House arrest, he said, is “not like being incarcerated, but they are basically taking away your freedom anyway.”

Villalta couldn’t hold down a steady job. He was rejected repeatedly because of the pending criminal case.

He felt anguish.

“I stressed a lot. I couldn’t sleep at night,” he said. He would stay awake at night going over every detail of the case in his head. He fell out of shape and gained weight.

Villalta held off marrying Vanessa and starting a family, fearing he might be sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

“It’s hard when you’re locked in a room by yourself and you feel like the walls are getting smaller every day. It tests your sanity,” he said.

DELAYS AND DEALS

Villalta’s case began to crawl through the justice system.

The first trial date was in August 2007. It was delayed, which became routine over the next eight years, although three significant events contributed to those delays.

In November 2008, Villalta’s lawyer, Singer, was suspended from practicing law and eventually disbarred. Next, the lead prosecutor in the case, Mary Kay Holthus, became ill with cancer. Following that, the wife of Villalta’s new defense lawyer, Martin Hart, was diagnosed with cancer.

District Attorney Steve Wolfson, who did not take office until 2012, noted the defense asked for twice as many delays as the prosecution during the length of the case.

Defense lawyer Hart recalled entertaining a dozen plea offers from prosecutors throughout the delays. There were too many to count for Villalta.

“After the first three or four offers, I told Marty (Hart) I don’t want to hear about them anymore because there was no point,” he said. “I didn’t do anything, and I’m not going to plead that I did anything. So either we do this at trial or they drop the charges. I don’t have anything to hide.”

One deal, Villalta said, was for him to plead guilty to a felony, register as a sex offender and face at minimum five years of probation, if not prison. For Villalta, it was an absurd offer.

“You can’t get a job,” he said. “You can’t take your son to school. You can’t throw your son a birthday party. How can you live like that?”

Villalta became frustrated and felt prosecutors were playing games.

He wanted to be cleared of any wrongdoing not only for his own sanity, but for his future wife, Vanessa, his parents and his siblings who kept faith in him.

“I thank God for them. They have been my backbone through all of this,” Villalta said.

NEW PROSECUTORS

In the fall of 2013, two new prosecutors, Agnes Lexis and Elana Graham, took over the case. Wolfson said Holthus had a conflict with another criminal case she was handling, which is common for prosecutors.

District Judge Valerie Adair would delay the trial three more times between September and June.

As the June 24 trial date neared, Lexis and Graham began prepping their case.

Wolfson said the two prosecutors were combing through evidence when they discovered case notes from Detective Smith that questioned the validity of the allegations against Villalta.

Dated May 15, 2006, the notes said she called the girls’ therapist: “She advised me … (The girls) never disclosed sexual abuse from Victor until I brought it to her attention. (The therapist) is uncertain if Victor actually molested them … Both girls stories change all the time with suspect Victor. (The therapist) believes that the girls will be or will disclose sexual abuse … to get further emotional support/love from their mother.”

Detective Smith had suspended the case until September 2006 as the girls underwent four months of counseling. The girls then changed what they said Villalta did, and their statements became consistent, the notes said.

Prosecutors Lexis and Graham immediately contacted Hart and offered Villalta a new deal: If he passed a polygraph exam, they would move to dismiss the case.

He passed the test with ease on June 23.

“When my office learned of the new information, we acted quickly and we acted consistent with what is justice,” Wolfson said.

Instead of picking a jury June 24, Judge Adair dismissed the case.

Villalta thanked Lexis and Graham for “doing the right thing and giving me the opportunity to clear my name.”

“There’s no doubt in my mind he didn’t do it,” Hart said. “He’s not just not guilty, he was an innocent person.”

BREAKDOWN

Al Salinas, Metro deputy chief of investigative services, and Assistant District Attorney Christopher Lalli agreed there was a breakdown in getting the notes to the defense, but it’s unclear when or how it occurred.

“We’ve already started to take a look at the process,” Salinas said. “Should the defense have gotten that information from the get-go? Of course, it’s exculpatory.”

Lalli said discovery issues have long existed because of the archaic, paper-driven case submittal process between police and the district attorney’s office.

Lalli is hoping to remedy the problems by developing an electronic case management system, which would ease the exchange of files between police and prosecutors.

“The hope is that it is going to eliminate the vast majority of discrepancies in getting discovery to the defendant,” he said.

Hart said he knows the notes were not part of any discovery he received in the case and firmly believes prosecutors Lexis and Graham never saw them before they alerted him.

“Whether (the notes) were in the file earlier, I can’t say. I don’t know. They should have been,” he said.

MOVING ON

When Villalta was released from house arrest in October 2010 he decided he no longer could ignore his life.

He first hiked a mountain at Red Rock Canyon. A month later, he married Vanessa. In March 2012, their son, Alonzo, was born.

Since the birth, his wife has worked while he has cared for their son.

He said he doesn’t hold ill feelings toward the girls.

“I don’t because they’re kids. You can easily manipulate a kid to say what you want them to say at their age,” Villalta said. “They (authorities) know they didn’t have anything to go by, but because they kept pressing and pressing and pressing the story on to them, of course a kid is going to jump and say ‘OK maybe something happened.’ ”

Still, Villalta understands why authorities pursued the case. “It’s in all of us. We want to protect kids,” he said. But to what extent, he asked.

“It’s eight years of someone’s freedom you’ve played with,” he said. “You can’t just forgive and forget.”

Meanwhile, Villalta and Hart would later learn that the 17-year-old brother of the girls, who was charged with molesting his siblings and first leveled the accusations against Villalta, was allowed to move back home.

“It’s funny how the person who didn’t do anything had to go through all this and the person that did everything got put at (Briarwood) for a couple of years and then got released back with the family,” Villalta said.

Since the dismissal, Villalta has worked to have his records sealed so he can try and get a job.

Villalta knows he has put his life on hold for long enough.

“I’m ready to move on. This was a big rock in my road, and I was happy to pull it aside and clear my name from this. There is even more of a reason for me to live now.”

Contact Francis McCabe at fmccabe@reviewjournal.com or 702-224-5512. Find him on Twitter: @fjmccabe.

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