Edgar Macias-Moreno was not “in custody” at the time he reportedly confessed to the strangulation death of Madelaine Loh and his statements therefore will not be suppressed, a recent court ruling said.
Macias-Moreno is charged with murdering Loh, his girlfriend, during an argument in their Hotchkiss camping trailer last year, then driving her body into Utah, and depositing it in the desert. Macias-Moreno proceeded to Las Vegas, then back to Delta County.
He and Loh were subjects of a missing persons report when, on June 27, 2018, when he walked into the Delta County Sheriff’s Office and, eventually, confessed to killing her with the words “I guess I am the reason she’s missing,” it is alleged.
Then-Sgt. Quinn Archibeque spoke to Macias-Moreno for about four hours, receiving information that ultimately enabled Utah authorities to find Loh’s body. Once the decision was made to arrest him, Macias-Moreno was advised of his rights; prior to that time, he had been told he was free to go at any time and that his discussion was voluntary.
On June 5, Macias-Moreno’s defense attorney argued the statements he made should be suppressed, because he was functionally in custody from the moment Archibeque began speaking to him — his interview took place in a secure area and although prior to his arrest he was told he was free to leave, Macias-Moreno did not think that he was, attorney Shandea Sergent argued.
She also argued her client’s statements were involuntary, coerced through the exploitation of his emotional state and extreme tiredness.
Assistant District Attorney Barbara Sanford countered, saying Macias-Moreno went to the sheriff’s office of his own free will and volunteered the information to authorities, who at first didn’t know a crime had been committed and they then asked reasonable follow-up questions.
In a July 9 order, District Judge Steven Schultz rejected most of the defense’s argument.
Archibeque was clearly interrogating Macias-Moreno about Loh’s disappearance, but the circumstances surrounding the interview “suggest the defendant was not in custody when he made his confession in this case,” Schultz said.
Macias-Moreno was at the DCSO entirely by his own choice, putting the time and place of the interview under his control. Further, “it appears the defendant decided to speak with someone about his culpability in the death of Madelaine Loh before he arrived at DCSO.”
That Loh and Macias-Moreno were the subjects of an active missing persons report doesn’t change the fact that Macias-Moreno decided to go to the authorities, Schultz said. The time, place and purpose of the interview therefore show Macias-Moreno wasn’t in custody at the time of his incriminating statements.
Archibeque, who is now Delta County undersheriff, interviewed Macias-Moreno without anyone else present. His badge and gun were not visible; he was dressed in plain clothes and sat beside Macias-Moreno during the interview, with nothing blocking the unlocked door, Schultz’s order details.
These facts also support a finding that he was not in custody at that time, the judge said.
Schultz also considered what was said to Macias-Moreno, finding that Archibeque didn’t threaten or promise anything, or make a reference to criminal liability.
“Although the sergeant’s questions became more focused, it was equally clear that Mr. Macias-Moreno was an active participant in that conversation and was trying to provide law enforcement with the information necessary to locate Ms. Loh,” Schultz wrote.
He found it “of particular significance” that Archibeque specifically told Macias-Moreno at the beginning he wasn’t under arrest and that he was speaking to him voluntarily, also reconfirming this information at about the third hour of the interview.
“Both of those statements support a finding that the defendant was not in custody during the interview,” Schultz said.
Neither was Archibeque aggressive or threatening, Schultz also said, noting the investigator retrieved coffee and water for Macias-Moreno and also allowed his family to come see him after the arrest. “This factor weighs in favor of a finding of a non-custodial interrogation,” Schultz said.
A defendant who is restrained or otherwise limited in movement could believe he or she is in custody and Sergent argued Macias-Moreno was indirectly controlled. The judge rejected the argument, finding that no one ever told the defendant he couldn’t leave, but instead, had repeatedly reminded him he was there of his own volition.
The interrogation began at about 5:30 in the morning and stretched on for about four hours — the duration outweighing its “low-key” nature, the judge also said. The entire time doesn’t factor into findings, but Schultz did find Macias-Moreno underwent about two hours of actual interrogation.
“While courts have not established a bright line for determining when a consensual interview becomes custodial, the court finds that the duration of the interview in this case favors a finding that the defendant was in custody, at least for the latter part of these discussions,” Schultz’s order reads.
However, the length of the interview was mostly because of Archibeque’s efforts to get information about Macias-Moreno’s travel route between Colorado, Utah, Las Vegas and back.
In weighing multiple factors, Schultz found Macias-Moreno was not in custody at the time he reportedly confessed.
He was not the prime suspect in any crime when he arrived at the DCSO that morning, the order states.
“Indeed, at that point, law enforcement was not even aware that a crime had been committed,” Schultz said.
“ … a reasonable person in (his) position would not have felt that his or her freedom had been curtailed to a degree associated with a formal arrest.”
Schultz also found Macias-Moreno’s statements were voluntary.
“As far as the court could tell from the videotape of the interview, there was no attempt to employ coercive techniques against Mr. Macias-Moreno at all,” Schultz said. Most significantly, Macias-Moreno repeatedly agreed he was talking voluntarily, and he made an “express statement” he’d come to the DCSO to take responsibility, the order also says.
Macias-Moreno chose the time and setting of the interview, not law enforcement, Schultz reiterated.
More importantly, Archibeque “made no effort to take advantage of either of those issues during the interrogation,” Schultz said, finding Macias-Moreno’s statements were “wholly voluntary.”
Macias-Moreno is set for an Aug. 12 plea hearing.
Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.