F ormer Marine Walter Laak is in trouble again. Could the authorities be wrong about him this time, too?
An Iraq war veteran, Laak made headlines in 2008 when he was tried in the shooting death of 19-year-old Juan Cordova. The jury heard testimony that Cordova and two other men were menacing partygoers when Laak stepped in with a 9 mm Beretta to keep the peace. After firing a warning shot, Laak’s second round struck Cordova in the abdomen. He died a short time later.
Although it was reported Laak initially fled the scene and hid the pistol, a jury believed his attorney’s self-defense argument and acquitted him of murder. After surviving the war and a homicide trial, you might think Laak would count his blessings and stay far away from trouble.
But you’d be wrong.
On April 18, 2009, Laak and co-defendant Armando Ocegueda Jr. were arrested. A grand jury charged them with multiple counts of sexual assault with the use of a deadly weapon and one count of assault with the use of a deadly weapon in connection with an alleged rape. Laak and Ocegueda are alleged to have picked up the woman outside a local nightclub and sexually assaulted her at gunpoint at various locations around the valley.
Laak’s defense attorney, James Ruggeroli, asserts the woman has a checkered personal history that includes drug abuse and a prostitution arrest and admits she suffers from memory loss, epileptic seizures and brain tumors. At several places in her brief grand jury testimony the woman relied on a copy of her police statement to refresh her recollection.
Ruggeroli filed a motion to have her undergo an independent psychological evaluation, and District Judge James Bixler signed a written order Nov. 22. The document is public. The Clark County district attorney’s office immediately appealed for a ruling to the state Supreme Court.
As you might expect, defendant Laak’s version of events is far different from the alleged victim’s. Ruggeroli argues whatever sex acts were committed were consensual and only between Ocegueda and the woman. When the co-defendant refused to pay, she retaliated by stealing a pistol and "other items." When Laak went to retrieve the weapon, she complained she had been sexually assaulted.
But were her clothes torn from her? Did she seek help from neighbors once she ran from the vehicle?
Ruggeroli counters there’s no DNA evidence linking Laak to the woman, and furthermore, "Legitimately, every single question of any value (in the grand jury) she did not have a memory on. That’s the real issue that we’re fighting on now." Her memory of the alleged abduction route, for instance, didn’t coincide with cell phone triangulation done by the defense.
That said, rape victims’ memories are often sketchy. And party girls regularly are sexually assaulted in this community.
Although it’s unlikely a judge would allow Laak’s acquittal in the murder case to be mentioned at trial, there is the possibility his previously unreported court-martial from the Marines for beating up prisoners could find its way into evidence. Ruggeroli countered by providing evidence that Laak, despite his trouble, received an honorable discharge in March 2005.
The prosecution hasn’t been shy about bringing up Laak’s previous trip to District Court.
"This is an individual that killed someone," Deputy District Attorney Tim Fattig told the court in a December 2009 bail reduction hearing. "Now obviously he was acquitted of that, but there was no doubt that he killed the person. So he’s somebody that is a clear danger to the community. This was a violent attack."
But one a jury decided was in self-defense.
The former Marine’s troubles continue.
Could the authorities be wrong about him this time, too?
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.