A Dallas couple was arrested just days before Christmas on murder charges. After ten days in jail, police acknowledged the pair did not commit the crime.
Rubi Esparza, 33, and her husband Basilio Tovar, 50, were arrested at their home on December 19, just before 6 a.m., and charged with the murder of 29-year-old Xavier Ramon Hernandez-Hankins, who was shot on November 5.
On that night, Hernandez, Esparza, Tovar, and other family members went to Players Bar on West Illinois Avenue in Oak Cliff.
Hernandez had been dating Tovar’s sister, who told detectives that Hernandez became upset and left the bar on foot, according to the arrest warrant. The warrant does not specify what Hernandez was upset about or why.
Around 1:00 a.m., police responded to a shooting in the 4300 block of West Illinois Avenue, just down the street from Players Bar. They found Hernandez on the ground with a gunshot wound to the head.
The victim was transported to a nearby hospital, where he later died, according to police.
The police affidavit stated that witnesses saw a newer model black Silverado with a bed cover pull up next to Hernandez, who was on the sidewalk. The passenger door opened, and then a gunshot rang out. Video surveillance in the area captured an image of a black truck with chrome wheels and chrome lining.
A license plate reader near the crime scene identified a black pickup that left the bar as being registered to Tovar, and cell phone records indicated the couple was “in the area” of the crime.
According to a statement from the Dallas Police Department, detectives had probable cause to arrest Esparza and Tovar, but the department later acknowledged the couple did not commit the crime after Tovar’s attorney pointed out discrepancies in the evidence.
Chris Mulder, the attorney representing Tovar, learned about the incident through Tovar’s cousin, who was at the bar that night and works in Mulder’s office.
Mulder said that multiple details in the affidavit either did not match witness accounts or were too vague to be sufficient cause for arrest. He said the truck in the surveillance image does not exactly match Tovar’s truck.
“When I saw the probable cause affidavit, the warrant of arrest, then that really upset me,” Mulder told WFAA. “It basically says, ‘Y’all have a black pickup truck, and a black pickup truck was seen near the offense, time and date. That’s it.'”
In addition, a witness placed Tovar and Esparza at the bar at the time of the shooting.
Mulder said the couple saw the police response to the shooting when they left the bar but did not learn what had happened or who was killed until the next day.
Esparza and Tovar claim that police tried to turn the two against one another over the course of the investigation.
“[The detective] said, “Well, your wife already told me. You might as well go ahead and tell me why you did it,'” Tovar related. “[I said,] ‘I know my wife didn’t tell you nothing because there’s nothing to tell.'”
Esparza said that after she told detectives what she recalled, they accused her of lying, pressured her to change her story, and implored her to think about her kids.
“I was crying. I kept thinking about my kids, my husband, and I’m like murder like, this is crazy,” Esparza stated.
“I think it was a hunch that the detective had,” Mulder said. “He thought maybe he could get Rubi to implicate her husband.”
After the couple was arrested, Mulder began receiving tips and gathering information about the case, including tips concerning the identity of a potential suspect. He drove to the police department on December 22 to present his findings to the police, but the detective working on the case was on vacation.
Tovar and Esparza spent Christmas in jail. After the detective finally reviewed the information days later, the department agreed to drop the charges and file the release paperwork.
“When they finally looked at it, it was convincing enough where they cut these folks loose within a day,” stated Mulder.
“Upon further investigation, it was determined they did not commit the crime,” stated Kristin Lowman, assistant director of DPD’s media relations office. “We can confirm the paperwork has been filed for the charges to be dropped.”
“Obviously, it was a mistake by police,” Mulder said. “I’m just glad that they had an open mind and listened; otherwise, these people would have been sitting in jail until the trial.”
Esparza was released from jail last Thursday, and Tovar was released the following day.
The early-morning arrest by police, with weapons drawn, was reportedly traumatizing for the family, including Esparza’s parents, who live behind their home.
Police searched the couple’s house, turning it “upside down,” as Esparza described it.
Their truck was impounded and their phones were seized, and the items were not immediately returned to them upon their release from jail. Esparza lost her accounting job.
Tovar said that the detective on the case called him last weekend, WFAA reported.
“He just called me [to] let me know that he was sorry for making a mistake,” Tovar said.
The DPD is reviewing how police came to arrest two innocent people, the news outlet reported.
Lowman said that police have identified a person of interest in the Hernandez murder case, and the investigation is ongoing, according to The Dallas Morning News.
Hernandez was killed along the boundary line between City Council District 1 and District 3, represented by Chad West and Casey Thomas II, respectively.
Although the Dallas Police Department has been working to curb violent crime, implementing a Violent Crime Reduction Plan in 2021, homicides continue to plague the city. Hernandez’s murder was one of 14 homicides in Dallas in November.