(KGTV) — A murder, an arrest, but no court case or conviction. There are claims that prosecutors in Riverside County knowingly kept an innocent man behind bars for allegedly killing a man more than a decade ago, even when the evidence pointed away from him.
Roger Parker spent nearly four years behind bars for a murder he didn't commit.
In a lawsuit filed in 2021, Parker claims the former Riverside County District Attorney Paul Zellerbach, his former assistant district attorneys Sean Lafferty and Jeff Van Wagenen, and former supervising deputy district attorney Trisha Fransal, "insisted on prosecuting Parker notwithstanding the express recommendations of two different trial lawyers in the office, both of whom repeatedly told their supervisors – both in face-to-face meeting and in lengthy memoranda – to dismiss the case because Parker was innocent."
In March of 2010, Brandon Stevenson was found murdered in Desert Hot Springs, the home of Willie Womack.
According to Parker's lawsuit, Womack called the police and told the officers that he had found Stevenson on his living room floor.
Parker was living with Womack at the time but said he was staying at a friend's house that night.
He says he got a phone call that police were at his house.
"They told me the police were at my house, ya know," Parker said. "They got my roommate Womack. So to be responsible, I got dressed real quick and ran up there."
What happened next would change Parker’s life. Parker says he became detectives' number one suspect.
He says he was taken to the police station for questioning and accused of a crime the evidence showed he didn't commit.
According to Parker's lawsuit, police interrogated him for more than 15 hours. "All the time encouraging him to admit that he had killed Stevenson in self-defense. Parker, who has developmentally delayed, denied killing Stevenson for several hours before ultimately confessing "very sarcastically" because "the detectives had told him self-defense was legal and denial only landed him in jail," the lawsuit stated.
Parker says he felt like he was being manipulated.
"It took probably like 20 minutes just to get everything out, going back and forth," he said. "Stopping the tape, unstopping the tape, stopping the tape. Him yelling at me because I'm doing it wrong. Ya, it took a lot of that."
Parker says detectives yelled at him because he confessed in a way they didn't like and was forced to do it multiple times.
Team 10 investigator Adam Racusin asked Parker why he confessed if he didn't commit the murder.
"I gave up on the world," Parker said. "It was that or suicide, believe it or not.”
Parker says he believed if he told the police what they wanted to hear, they'd quickly figure out he wasn't the right guy. Spending a few days behind bars wasn't a big deal to Parker. He'd grown up in the foster system and had been in and out of group homes.
"It just went on and went on, and then I broke down," Parker said. "The situations I've been through all my life, I felt safer in jail period. After I told them after pretty much everything they told me, and I said, you know what, I quit on this world. You guys are going to find out who did because I know I was nowhere near it."
That belief was wrong.
Parker says his grandmother died while he was in jail, and members of his family were harassed.
"I cried," he said. "I don't like crying. That's the one emotion that I don't like doing. I don't mind feeling it. I don't like doing it. And I hate when I have to do it in jail in front of everybody. So when I was in jail, and my family was getting harassed constantly, that was the worst time for me."
Parker would spend nearly four years in jail
According to his lawsuit, his case never made it to a preliminary hearing where a judge decided if there’s enough evidence to move forward to a trial. The lawsuit says the hearing was continued multiple times over the course of four years.
According to a lawsuit he filed against the County of Riverside and several others, Roger spent four years wrongfully incarcerated. The lawsuit says the defendants, “acted deliberately and in concert to maliciously prosecute Plaintiff, despite the fact that the two trail attorney’s assigned to the case (DiMaria and Ross) had repeatedly telling them that Plaintiff was innocent. This was a violation of Plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment right not to be prosecuted or incarcerated in the absence of probable cause.”
"To have individual prosecutors say we don't even have enough to arrest this guy and yet keep him in custody for nearly four years without ever going to a preliminary hearing or having an indictment or doing a trial is, I think, I can't think of something much more egregious than that," said Parkers civil attorney Kimberly Trimble.
The District Attorney's Office
According to Parker's lawsuit, "The first prosecutor assigned to the case, Deputy D.A. Lisa DiMaria immediately recognized that Parker's confession was a sham because it was both coerced and completely inconsistent with the physical evidence."
In a memo from 2011 obtained by Team 10, Senior Deputy District Attorney Lisa DiMaria told her superiors, "I have serious concerns about his guilt."
In the memo, she raised questions about the confession and the evidence, even suggesting the case should not be filed.
The memo states, "At the time of the staffing, all my concerns that this was a false confession were voiced. However, the determination was that we had a very dead body and a confession - how could we not file? So it was determined to file charges and wait until the fingerprint off the knife came back and any other physical evidence. Also, it was decided that the detective should go reinterview Roger. He did and Roger said he made the whole thing up because they kept pressuring him to say something. He was able to tell him what he did because of what they told him and because he could see where the blood was at the reenactment. He said the fingerprints won't be his and when the evidence comes out, they'll have to drop the charges."
Parker's lawsuit says rather than dismissing the case, they took prosecutor Lisa Di Maria off and assigned it to Christopher Ross.
Ross was a death penalty prosecutor and former Green Beret with a stellar record.
"My assessment was I can't say he's innocent, but I can say there's no way I can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he's guilty," Ross said.
According to Parker's lawsuit, "In late 2011, roughly six months after being assigned to the case, Ross told Lafferty several times that Parker was being held without probable cause and that there was no way that the case could be proven beyond a reasonable doubt."
Parker's lawsuit says over the course of the next 2.5 years, Ross wrote several memos to his boss Sean Lafferty, all of which recommended dismissing the case.
Ross told ABC 10News that in 2012, after more DNA analysis, he told his bosses, again, to dismiss the case.
"Mr. Lafferty was upset it came back negative and told me not to turn it over to the defense attorney," Ross said. "I had told him I had already done that; it was my obligation as a prosecutor, ethically and legally. He was upset at that."
ABC 10News obtained a 2012 memo Ross wrote that said in part, "Dismiss the case as it appears rife with reasonable doubt. There are many unanswered questions still pending from the investigation of this case. Many of these questions cannot be answered by ‘further investigation.’ There were many mistakes made during the investigation of this case. These mistakes cannot be undone, nor can many of them be remedied by further investigation. Forensic evidence hurts our case against the defendant and illustrates the mistakes made by law enforcement during the case investigation. It creates very reasonable doubt as to the defendant's guilt. Therefore, it is recommended that this case be dismissed."
Ross says the case was not dismissed, and Parker – already detained for nearly two years – stayed behind bars.
Fast forward about a year and a half to late 2013.
Ross said in court documents he discovered, “that another suspect, whom the police initially ruled out, had been recorded confessing to the murder.”
"It was the real killer that confessed to the murder, and I was told not to turn those over," Ross said. "Several days after that. I think five days after that, I discovered that and provided it to Mr. Lafferty; I was put on administrative leave."
According to Parker's lawsuit, "Ross was in disbelief: ‘When another person says, I killed this guy, ha, ha, ha. I cut his head off, ha, ha, ha, you need to turn that over [to the defense].’ At the same time, Lafferty removed Ross from the case, telling him, ‘Give me the case. I'll take care of it.’”
A few months later, Ross quit and filed his own lawsuit against the County of Riverside alleging disability discrimination and disability harassment among other things.
He says the working conditions were made so intolerable he was forced to resign.
His lawsuit claims, "Plaintiff's supervisor, Defendant Sean Lafferty, responded with anger and hostility. Ultimately, Defendant Lafferty and the District Attorney's Office reassigned the Parker case to another prosecutor. Defendant Lafferty instructed Plaintiff not to turn over exculpatory evidence – the recorded confession – to Parker's attorney."
Ross says he was being punished for doing the right thing.
"This guy is innocent," Ross said. "He's got a low IQ. He's mentally challenged. He's a poor black kid. You've had him in jail for four years, and now I've proven beyond any doubt that he didn't commit the crime, and you still won't dismiss the case, and you're going to put me on administrative leave. I was in shock, awe, disgusted."
Ross said on February of 2014, he filed a public claim for damages with the County of Riverside, outlining what happened with Roger Parker along with his own medical issues and reactions.
"They released him about two weeks after I gave notice of filing my lawsuit, and I thought to myself if nothing else good comes from this, an innocent man is free finally."
Riverside County and the former District Attorney
A spokesperson for the County of Riverside said in response to Team 10’s questions, "The County of Riverside's mission is to support the safety, health and wellbeing of all Riverside County residents and visitors. The county is also strongly committed to a workplace free of harassment."
In a statement to ABC 10News, the spokesperson said in part, "as your inquiry pertains to ongoing legal matters, no additional information is available at this time.”
In court filings related to Ross, Riverside County has disputed his claims.
The filings say Ross did not tell Lafferty that he believed a violation of state or federal law occurred with the Parker case.
They also focused on Ross' health and requests he made about getting medical treatment during the time he was handling Roger's prosecution.
According to Ross's lawsuit, in August of 2013, he began traveling to the Mayo Clinic in Arizona for diagnosis by specialists.
Ross says doctors believe he suffered from traumatic brain injuries while serving in the Army in Iraq and needed medical accommodations.
Previous court filings from the attorneys representing the county claim, "Over a period of approximately five months from late May to early November 2013, Ross made unsupported representations about his medical condition, work-related functional limitations, and need for accommodation. The filings say, "Ross's harassment and retaliation claims fail because he was not harassed or constructively discharged, rather his refusal to return to work from paid administrative leave was unreasonable."
Ross' attorney says he was being set up to fail so he could be fired.
"Here you have a prosecutor who's a warrior saying he's not guilty, we need to let him go, and he gets fired for that," said Ross' attorney Terry Singleton.
In the Parker lawsuit, attorneys for the county and other named defendants have denied the allegations.
ABC 10News requested an interview and comments from the former Riverside County District Attorney and others named in the lawsuit, but no one had anything to say.
Former assistant District Attorney Sean Lafferty is now a judge in Riverside County. A spokesperson for the court said the judge is unable to comment on pending litigation.
Former assistant District Attorney Jeff Van Wagenen is now the Chief Executive Officer for the County of Riverside. A spokesperson for the county said he was not available for an interview at this time.
Former Supervising Deputy District Attorney Trisha Fransdal is no longer with the District Attorney's Office. She also said she had no comment.
Former Riverside County District Attorney Paul Zellerbach now lives along the coast in San Diego County.
According to Parker's lawsuit, "On April 23, 2014, Zellerbach was filmed vandalizing the campaign sign of a political opponent, Michael Hestrin, in Indio. He later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and received a public reproval from the state bar."
Zellerbach told ABC 10news, "There's a pending lawsuit, and I'm not allowed to comment on it."
Parker and Ross
According to Parker's lawsuit, he didn't know about the jail-recorded calls until 2020.
His lawsuit asks for money and for the county to implement reforms.
Parker still lives in Desert Hot Springs with his dog, Galaxy, a few blocks from where the murder happened.
He says no one that put him behind bars more than a decade ago has said they are sorry.
"I know they won't ever see their wrongs, but I want everyone else to see their wrongs," Parker said. "When the whole world sees it you just can't hide from it."
The murder case is still “unsolved.”
A spokesperson for the Desert Hot Springs Police Department said, "The Department does not have any comment as this is an ongoing investigation."
Chris Ross says he's applied for more than 2,000 jobs and struggled to get interviews for jobs he was overqualified for.
"Destroyed my life. Destroyed my career," Ross said.
Ross now lives in Texas. His trial is set for September of this year.