Whether statements made to law enforcement can be used against murder suspect Edgar Macias-Moreno hinge on the court’s determination of when he was “in custody.”
Macias-Moreno, who is charged with first-degree murder in the strangulation death of Hotchkiss resident Madelaine Loh almost a year ago, wants what he told Delta County Sheriff’s Office investigators early June 27, 2018, to be suppressed.
Although Macias-Moreno was advised of his rights once the decision was made to arrest him, and although he was up until that point told he was free to leave, his defense contends that he was functionally in custody from the moment then-investigator Quinn Archibeque began talking to him, so the Miranda warning he was given came too late.
Macias-Moreno was interviewed in a secure area and was escorted to and fro when he went out for a smoke or the restroom, plus he was in the presence of armed officers who were pumping him for information in a room with a camera and recorder, but no phone, public defender Shandea Sergent said during a four-hour hearing Wednesday.
“Mr. Macias-Moreno was not in a position where he felt he could leave. … He clearly was in custody,” she said, arguing for the entire interview to be suppressed.
But Assistant District Attorney Barbara Sanford said Macias-Moreno came to the DCSO voluntarily that morning, chose the time of his visit, and volunteered information to Archibeque, who initially did not know any crime had been committed, and who only asked reasonable followup questions prior to making an arrest.
Macias-Moreno was properly advised once the decision was made to actually take him into custody, and no further questioning took place after he invoked his right to counsel, Sanford said.
When Macias-Moreno arrived at the DCSO shortly after 5 a.m. June 27, 2018, both he and Loh, his girlfriend, were the subjects of a missing persons report made about a week prior.
Authorities allege Macias-Moreno, now 25, fought with Loh, 27, at their Hotchkiss camper trailer over money on or about June 19 of that year and during the argument, he strangled her.
Macias-Moreno then allegedly put Loh’s body into her SUV, loaded up her dog, and drove toward Utah, turning the dog out on the highway in Mesa County. The dog was recovered alive; Macias-Moreno has also been charged with animal cruelty. He is further charged with concealing a death.
Prosecutors allege Macias-Moreno dumped Loh’s body in the remote Utah desert, then drove to Las Vegas, where he gambled away his money. An arrest affidavit says he begged some gas money and drove back, trying to find Loh’s body, but could not.
The document also tells of suicide attempts, including one that entailed him sitting in the SUV and lighting it on fire; however, he got out of the vehicle when the heat became too intense.
Based on what Macias-Moreno allegedly told Archibeque, authorities were able to locate Loh’s body in Millard County, Utah. They found the burned vehicle near Orangeville, also in Utah. The affidavit does not say how Macias-Moreno returned to Delta County.
Dispatchers summoned Archibeque to the DCSO at about 5:15 a.m. last June 2018, he testified Wednesday. Macias-Moreno had come to the department, along with family members.
Because no deputy was available to let them inside, Archibeque arranged through dispatch to have a Delta Police Department officer admit the group, then made his way there. He took Macias-Moreno to an interview room, the door of which does not lock, and began speaking to him a few minutes before 6 a.m.
They made small talk; Macias-Moreno was offered coffee, and asked if he would be able to see his brother, once the other man arrived.
Sanford later said that, contrary to the defense’s indication, Archibeque did not condition Macias-Moreno’s access to his brother on continuing the interview.
“I remember he came in voluntarily to talk to me. I told him he was not under arrest,” said Archibeque, who is now the Delta County undersheriff.
He said he did not start out the interview with the belief Macias-Moreno had committed a crime and did not even know one might have been committed.
The interview room where Macias-Moreno was is located in a “secure” section of the DCSO, designated as such because evidence, sensitive information and weapons are all stored there, Archibeque later said.
Macias-Moreno was not physically restrained and the tenor of the interview was “not accusatory,” Archibeque said.
“He told me he may be the reason Maddie (Loh) is missing. … He talked for several minutes, telling the story,” Archibeque said.
The undersheriff said he asked only a few followup questions, to clarify the locations Macias-Moreno was giving, since these did not match up with what Archibeque knew about them. The investigator also brought in at atlas and some more detailed computer-generated maps, which he said Macias-Moreno used to point out specific locations.
During the conversation, Macias-Moreno allegedly told Archibeque he had strangled Loh. He also said Macias-Moreno told him of contemplating suicide on various occasions over a period of days, even to the point of standing on the top of a cliff.
“He was crying. He needed a break,” Archibeque said, testifying Macias-Moreno was given two or three breaks during the interview, which lasted about four hours.
During one of those breaks, Macias-Moreno went for a smoke; Archibeque said he sent him outside with a detective who also was a smoker.
That detective later testified that Macias-Moreno appeared very tired, but that he did not speak with him about the case. Sergent argued that the detective’s decision demonstrated her client was in custody at that time — the witness didn’t talk to Macias-Moreno because he had not yet been advised.
During the breaks, Archibeque said he conferred with other officers to verify information he was receiving.
“We made a decision he was no longer free to leave. … He was told he was no longer free to leave,” Archibeque said.
At that point, he read Macias-Moreno his Miranda warning. Macias-Moreno asked to think it over and confer with his family before proceeding with the interview. After that happened, he invoked his right to remain silent and to an attorney and was jailed.
Sergent during her questioning and argument suggested Macias-Moreno’s visit to the DCSO wasn’t voluntary, but had been made in response to deputies’ visits to the family home when he was still considered a missing person. She also pointed to a supplemental report that said Macias-Moreno asked to see his brother “before anything happens.”
Sergent argued Archibeque’s line of questioning lent itself to incriminating responses, but the larger issue was that of custody.
“Mr. Macias-Moreno was in custody … from the minute he was in the interrogation room,” she said. (Sergent later specified she meant from the moment Archibeque began talking to her client.)
“For what?” District Judge Steven Schultz said, asking Sergent for specific case citations showing that beginning an interview is the functional equivalent of “custody.” He said there is case law indicating a person who arrives to a law enforcement facility on his own is not, at that time, in custody.
Sergent said the time, the place and the purpose of the encounter all point to Macias-Moreno being in custody and added it was clear he did not, in fact, believe he could just leave.
Further, once Macias-Moreno allegedly said he might be the reason Loh was missing, there was no justification for Archibeque not advising him of his rights, Sergent said.
“There would be a clear sign that a crime had been committed,” she said.
Sanford said, however, that the time had been of Macias-Moreno’s choosing, as had the location, since he came in on his own. Archibeque had not known the purpose of the visit until much later, during a “low-key” and “non-accusatory” interview in a room that didn’t even have a locking door, Sanford said.
Any overall “societal pressure” to talk with law enforcement when asked does not transform a consensual encounter into “custody,” she said.
Schultz asked Sanford about instances in which it appeared as though Macias-Moreno’s movements were restricted.
“On balance, he was not in custody,” Sanford said. Archibeque also did not exploit Macias-Moreno’s mental or physical condition, she said.
Further, the defendant’s statements about Loh were made voluntarily during a non-custodial interrogation, the ADA said.
Schultz will issue a written decision at a later date.
Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.