ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) - Albuquerque police and prosecutors believe Ronald Santiago murdered Bernadette and Greg Ohlemacher nearly seven years ago.
But a new look at crucial evidence in the case raises questions about whether possible sloppy police work may have doomed efforts to prosecute Santiago or anyone else from the get-go.
"We believe that the mistakes made by the Albuquerque Police Department are so constitutionally outrageous that the case should never go to trial," said Joseph Riggs, Santiago's defense attorney.
In fact, the main evidence in the case--a 9 mm bullet casing found in a gym bag in Santiago's garage that matches bullet casings found at the murder scene--has been under a cloud of doubt for years. That's because of the search warrant police used to obtain the casing.
In 2008, Albuquerque District Court Judge Albert "Pat" Murdoch decided that police violated the terms of that warrant by searching Santiago's home after a 10 p.m. deadline set out in the warrant. That meant that any evidence gathered under the terms of the warrant was unusable in court.
Then two years later the state Supreme Court overturned that decision and sent the case back to Murdoch. But seven months after that, Murdoch threw out the bullet casing evidence again , this time ruling that a brief sweep by police to secure the inside of the home before the warrant was signed constituted an illegal search.
The state Supreme Court listened to oral arguments on that issue Monday although the justices aren't likely to issue a ruling for months.
But even if justices decide to allow the case to continue, Santiago's defense attorneys could have a field day during trial because of the way police documented finding that bullet casing.
"It is the only piece of evidence that links my client to this double homicide," Riggs told News 13.
For the first year after the murders, police suspected the Ohlemachers' 20-year-old daughter Renee, the beneficiary of her parents' $1 million life insurance policy. She was also in the house at the time of the murders in August 2005 but claims she lived because she hid in a closet.
A year later, however, police connected Santiago, a former Countrywide Financial employee, to the case. He had done some work on a refinancing application the Ohlemachers submitted.
Police and prosecutors believe Santiago was trying to defraud the Ohlemachers and killed them to cover his tracks.
Investigators searched Santiago's home and found the bullet casing in a gym bag in his garage. Ballistics tests matched that casing to four others found at the murder scene.
With motive and evidence in hand, prosecutors charged Santiago with the two murders.
But a close look at the photos APD crime scene technicians took of that crucial bullet casing and where it was found reveals inconsistencies that could point to sloppy police work--or worse.
Riggs shared the photos police took of the gym bag with KRQE News 13. He said they were all the pictures that police took of the bag.
The first five photos show the outside and inside of the bag. Numerous items are pictured inside the bag including pens, a pencil, a crescent wrench, a box of 9 mm bullets and a stray unfired bullet.
Also pictured beneath some of the pens is what could be the empty bullet casing that linked Santiago to the killings.
In the second set of photos, most of the items have been removed from the compartment where the casing was found, and the bullet casing in question now appears in the corner of the compartment. It clearly was not in that corner in the previous photos.
"Now you don't see it, now you do," Riggs said. "What does that mean? Where did that shell casing come from?"
Albuquerque police and the District Attorney's Office refused to comment on the photos. So, News 13 showed them to Tom Wiggins, a retired Santa Fe Police Department homicide detective.
"Without a doubt--this is the immutable law of physics--there is no way to argue that there's a bullet casing here in this shot, and there isn't one in this shot," Wiggins said.
Still, Wiggins said the casing could have been under the other items in the bag. But the point is, he said, that a case could be made that APD didn't properly document the contents of the bag as they removed all the items.
"If there's a search warrant and they know they're going in for evidence, then the work is certainly sloppy," Wiggins said.
Riggs, however, said there's another reason he finds the bullet casing evidence suspicious.
"Neighbors said they heard five or six shots," he said. "The initial APD supervisor on scene said, ‘I saw five or six shell casings.'"
In her 911 call to police on the morning of the murders, Renee Ohlemacher also told police she heard five or six shots. But APD crime technicians could only find four shell casings in the Ohlemacher's home, one of which was sitting upright on top of a dresser.
"I keep going back to five were described, four were picked up," Riggs said. "Where's number five?"
Asked if he was trying to imply that police planted
the fifth bullet casing in Santiago's gym bag, Riggs said, "I'll leave that to the viewer's imagination."
Today Santiago remains out of jail and told News 13 he would've have made little money off the Ohlemachers if their refinancing had gone through and had no motive to kill them.
Renee Ohlemacher, meanwhile, has moved out of state.
With a trial now uncertain, the lack of closure is painful for Bernadette Ohlemacher's sister.
"I'm sure everybody says this isn't supposed to happen to your family," she said. "And it's not. It shouldn't happen to anyone's family."
A man who carjacked a woman in a church parking lot will spend seven years in prison as part of a plea deal.
Flags were lowered to half-staff across South Africa and people in black townships, in upscale mostly white suburbs and in the country's vast rural grasslands commemorated Nelson Mandela with song, tears and prayers on Friday while …
The Sandoval County sheriff's sergeant hit while investigating a weather related crash remains in critical condition.
A Santa Fe woman who failed to show up for work on Tuesday is now reported as missing, according to police who are asking the public's help in locating her.
John Smith with your forecast and Kim Vallez with your afternoon headlines.
A 21-year-old man faces nine years in prison for killing his father.