Wrongly jailed man in the clear
By Janet Lundquist firstname.lastname@example.org April 5, 2013 9:26PM
Pedro Hernandez outside of the Will County Courthouse in Joliet after he was released Friday morning. Hernandez was wrongly jailed after being mistakened for a 1978 murder suspect. | Janet Lundquist for Sun-Times media
Updated: May 8, 2013 6:59AM
Pedro Hernandez sat on the edge of his seat in felony courtroom 405 Friday morning, waiting to appear before a Will County judge on a murder charge.
But Hernandez, 67, was in a better place Friday than he was March 13, when he was booked into the county jail on the murder charge — which was based on a crime committed in Joliet in 1978 by someone with the same name.
Hernandez, who closely matched the other Pedro Hernandez’s description, spent more than two weeks in jail on the charge before prosecutors confirmed he wasn’t the guy they wanted.
“It’s been a nightmare,” Hernandez said Friday, sitting in the courtroom gallery. “My family’s been through hell.”
This week, the warrant for the original murder suspect was reissued — and mistakenly contained Hernandez’ driver’s license number and date of birth.
Friday, public defender Greg DeBord filed a motion to throw out the warrant altogether, a move supported by prosecutors.
Hernandez, a widower and father of four, was stopped by New Lenox police March 13 after a traffic accident. He still faces a driving under the influence charge from that incident.
But he said when police told him he was going to jail on the murder warrant — the charge accused him of stabbing a man to death outside a bar in the 400 block of Meeker Street in 1978 — he tried to remain calm. In the booking room, Hernandez said officers were in his face, screaming profanities in what he thought was an attempt to get him to lash out. He said he didn’t put up any resistance.
“It was hard, man. It was hard,” he said.
The discrepancies in Hernandez’ identification were initially pointed out by Jodene Bick, an investigator in the public defender’s office.
“We had some questions about it because the date of birth was incorrect from the original police reports,” DeBord said. The original Hernandez had a birth date of Aug. 19, 1946. The Hernandez arrested in March: June 13, 1945.
“The photo of the person, granted, there’s 30-some years difference, but it just didn’t seem to be the same person,” DeBord said.
Coupled with the fact that Hernandez hasn’t been in hiding — he worked for Caterpillar for 33 years and serving as the business agent for the union, living in New Lenox since the early 1990s — and the public defenders were pretty sure they were right.
Joliet police combed through 35-year-old reports and contacted witnesses in the murder case in their effort to determine whether they had their man.
The original Pedro Hernandez had not been arrested before, so there were no fingerprints on file. Eventually, investigators reached a third cousin of the Pedro Hernandez they want, and that person did not recognize the photo of the Pedro Hernandez arrested in March.
The cousin said the Pedro Hernandez police want is likely in Mexico, but was unwilling to confirm it for police, said Joliet police Det. Tim Powers.
Meanwhile, Hernandez said he suffered in jail, eating unhealthy food and going stir crazy while constrained to his cell most of the day.
“I’m a tough guy. But I had to call on my reserves to handle the situation,” he said. He compared the treatment to his training in the U.S. Army 50 years ago, except that in the army, he knew it was training.
“This was for real. It was not the same,” he said. “No human being should be put through those conditions.”
There was a dark episode in Hernandez’ past, however. In 1966, he was involved in a fatal stabbing in Rockdale, authorities said.
During a fight, a teen charged at Hernandez holding a push broom and Hernandez stabbed him in the chest, authorities said. Hernandez said it was self-defense, and no charge was ever filed.
Friday, Hernandez said he is willing to pay for things he’s done wrong, and said he’s spent his life trying to put the Rockdale incident behind him.
When his sisters picked him up from the county jail March 28, the first thing he wanted was a good meal, he said. Then he wanted a shower and he wanted to see his grandchildren.
“When (jail guards) opened up my cell door to say you’re free to go, as they were walking away they said, ‘Don’t kill nobody,’” Hernandez said. “In their mind, I’m still that guy they’re looking for.”