Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Santos' American odyssey ends

Johnson boyfriend deported to Mexico for second time

Express Staff Writer

Bruno Santos

Bruno A. Santos-Dominguez, the by-now infamous ex-boyfriend of convicted double murderer Sarah M. Johnson, of Bellevue, was released from the Blaine County Jail last week after a 5th District Judge ruled police illegally detained him while they searched the vehicle he had been riding in when he was arrested last October.

Santos, 21, was charged with possession of methamphetamine and was incarcerated on a $10,000 bond, plus a $150,000 bond to ensure he testified at Johnson's trial, which concluded with a guilty verdict March 16 in the Sept. 2, 2003, deaths of her parents, Diane and Alan Johnson, in their Bellevue home.

According to jailers at Blaine County, Santos was released into the custody of the Department of Homeland Security on Friday, March 25, and was promptly deported.

"Unless he's on a very slow plane, he's in Mexico," said Blaine County Chief Deputy Sheriff Gene Ramsey on Monday morning.

A judge's ruling

On March 11, 5th District Judge Robert Elgee signed an order declaring that the case against Santos be dismissed. Two days earlier, he signed an order ruling that the traffic stop from which Santos was arrested "was unlawfully extended" by Bellevue Sgt. Scott Smyth after a Blaine County Sheriff's deputy issued a verbal warning for a broken taillight.

"For all intents and purposes, Sgt. Smyth, a Bellevue marshal, injected himself into this traffic stop in a foreign city," Elgee wrote. The judge's 18-page decision goes on to indict Smyth's decisions on a number of fronts.

Had Smyth not shown up, Blaine County Sheriff's Deputy Sgt. Curtis Miller would have issued a warning to the vehicle's driver, Romero Hernandez, and the traffic stop would have been over.

But, Smyth obtained permission from Hernandez to search the vehicle and proceeded to conduct a pat-down of Santos. The circumstances under which permission was obtained, however, proved important. Elgee ruled that Santos and Hernandez obviously did not understand that they were free to leave when Miller had finished issuing a warning.

"Hernandez was not told he was free to leave. Rather, Smyth asked if he would mind answering some questions. Hernandez was never told that he didn't have to answer questions. Both officers were in full uniform, and the lights on both patrol vehicles remained activated," Elgee wrote. "Importantly, Smyth was also still in possession of Santos' I.D. card, a fact that was likely not lost on Hernandez, although no one testified on that point ... After examining these factors, the court finds that a reasonable person in these circumstances would not feel free to leave."

Nonetheless, Smyth commenced a search.

"During the pat-down, Smyth removed Santos' wallet from his back pants pocket because he was concerned a weapon might be concealed in the wallet," Elgee wrote. Santos testified the wallet contained his immigration papers and about $1,000 to $1,500 in cash.

Smyth then searched the vehicle and found methamphetamine located in an empty pack of cigarettes found on the seat. Hernandez and Santos were both placed under arrest.

According to Elgee, "Smyth stated that the purpose of his questioning was that Hernandez appeared nervous and therefore, based on his experience, he appeared to be under the influence of a controlled substance. Although Sgt. Smyth's questioning was relatively short, it was nonetheless an unwarranted intrusion."

Furthermore, Elgee ruled that when Smyth removed Santos' identification cards, "he was seized for purposes of the Fourth Amendment; in short, the officer's actions communicated to him that he was not free to ignore the police presence and go about his business."

Santos' attorney, Doug Werth, said he does not have any direct information about what has happened to his client over the last several days. But he briefly discussed the case.

"It was an illegal detention, and therefore the search was illegal," Werth summarized. "Basically what you had was a traffic stop for a taillight infraction. It wasn't even a misdemeanor. It was an infraction. When the county deputy was finished with the traffic stop, an officer from Bellevue extended the length of the traffic stop in order to ask questions about whether there were drugs in the car.

"That's what the judge said crossed the line, the constitutional line of unreasonable searches and seizure."

Santos' return to his home country ended a year-and-a-half-long odyssey in which he was jailed, transported to Boise to testify in his ex-girlfriend's murder trial, stood as a defendant himself in the drug case, and deported from the United States twice.

Intertwined plots

Because of his relationship with Sarah Johnson, Santos' story during the last year and a half has been thoroughly intertwined with his former girlfriend's. Their courses, however, were charted very differently. Johnson could spend the rest of her life in prison. Santos was sent to his home country of Mexico.

Although his nationality is Mexican, it is debatable whether he will feel more at home south of the border. He went to school at Wood River High School. His mother and cousin live locally. His sister and brother-in-law live in Ogden, Utah.

But his release from the Idaho judicial system last week was the near end of a saga that started Sept. 2, 2003, the day Johnson's parents were shot.

Were it not for the three-month relationship between Johnson and Santos Dominguez, life for both of the young adults might be very different.

Prosecutors theorize Johnson killed her parents because they forbade her from seeing her boyfriend. On the day they were killed, they planned to talk with Bellevue Marshal Randy Tremble about filing statutory rape charges against the Mexican national.

Santos testified that Johnson was his girlfriend, but numerous witnesses testified that Johnson said they were more.

"When she came to my house on Friday, she said her and Bruno were going to go to Boise to pick out engagement rings," testified Megan Sowersby, one of Johnson's best friends. "I didn't say anything because I didn't really believe her. She said, 'I have to tell you something.' She said, 'Bruno proposed to me.' I was out to dinner with my volleyball team, and I went to get some water, and when I got back Bruno was on one knee at the table and proposed to me.' I didn't really believe her."

It is difficult to know whether the two ever did get engaged. Santos said only, "We talked about it. I think so. I'm not really sure." Johnson was reported to have a penchant for exaggeration.

Nonetheless, the day of the murders was one of the last days the two former lovers ever saw each other. At the hospital that afternoon, where both Johnson and Santos were taken for examinations, they had a brief exchange. Johnson was reported to have apologized to her boyfriend.

The next time they saw one another was when Santos testified at Johnson's trial. They barely looked at one another.

A nefarious character?

During Johnson's trial, attorneys on both sides painted Santos as a shady man.

"He was a bad influence on her, there's no doubt," said Blaine County Prosecutor Jim Thomas. The 19-year-old Santos and 16-year-old Johnson engaged in a "very heavy, very sexual relationship" in 2003, he said.

A pregnancy test was discovered in a trash can outside the Johnson home following the murders, and prosecutors theorize Johnson believed she was pregnant with her boyfriend's child. Investigators said his semen was found in Johnson's bed.

Defense attorneys painted him a darker shade of red. They attempted to say he either killed or orchestrated the killing of Johnson's parents. They said he had a history of violence, drug use and gang membership in the Wood River Valley.

Santos also failed a high school drug test, in which he tested positive for cocaine, which was an indicator of his connections with nefarious people, asserted Johnson's defense attorney Mark Rader.

"It's something you have to get from south of the border," Rader said. "Somehow you have to know people who know people who know people, and that's what gangs are all about."

This time, Thomas came to Santos' defense.

"Judge, you can go to any bar in this town, any bar in Hailey, and get cocaine. It doesn't necessarily have to be a Mexican Mafia connection to get it," he said. "To say because of two fights, one drug charge, that he called up these killers, that's a stretch."

And despite such allegations from defense attorneys, they declined to cross-examine their key alternative suspect.

On the morning of the murders of Alan and Diane Johnson, Santos said he woke up in his mother's living room, where he commonly slept.

"That was my day off. My cousin called me, and she asked me if I knew anything about her (Johnson's) parents, that they had been murdered," he said. "I was so surprised I had to go find out for myself.

"I got there and an officer asked me who I was. I told her I was Sarah's boyfriend. They told me to get out of the car, and that's when they arrested me."

A good heart?

Despite the beating Santos' character suffered throughout the last year and a half, and particularly during Johnson's trial, he is said to have a good heart.

Although he was not on trial for the murders of Alan and Diane Johnson, his sister, Glenda Osuna, was quick to defend him when she testified at the trial.

"How do you know Bruno Santos?" a prosecutor asked.

"I know that he is a good person," Osuna said.

Johnson was one of his most boisterous defenders.

"I asked her if Bruno could have committed this crime," said Blaine County Sheriff Walt Femling. "Every time I brought that up, she said there was no way he could have been involved. She said he had a kind heart."

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