JUSTICE

Dolores Vázquez awaits an apology 14 years after false murder conviction

She might still be in jail if the real killer had not been found

Dolores Vázquez during a seminar in April in Madrid on the presumption of innocence.
Dolores Vázquez during a seminar in April in Madrid on the presumption of innocence.

Fourteen years after being convicted of a crime she did not commit, Dolores Vázquez lives like a fugitive in a small town to the east of London. She works for a transport company as a timetable coordinator for the delivery drivers. If the real killer of Rocío Wanninkhof had not been found and if her sentence had been ratified, Vázquez would only now be on the verge of release after spending 15 years in prison.

A few weeks ago Vázquez was in Madrid to appear at a function organized by the Pombo Foundation, Carlos III University and the Wolters Kluwer Foundation attended by judges, jurists, lawyers and attorneys. It was a conference on the presumption of innocence and parallel trials. Vázquez made an emotional five-minute speech in front of representatives of the system that condemned her unjustly and has still not offered an apology. During her trial and subsequent incarceration, Vázquez was described as cold and calculating. But in Madrid, tears flowed as she recounted her story. In the last psychological report she underwent, a specialist was able to put a figure on the suffering Vázquez has endured: 35. A score of 100 represents a fully rounded normal subject. Dolores Vázquez today is 35 percent of her previous self.

There are also figures placed on Vázquez’s legal battle with the Spanish state. The compensation she is seeking stands at four million euros. The Attorney General’s Office decided on a figure of 62,280 euros for 519 days in prison. The Spanish Supreme Court has changed the criteria in such cases following a European Court of Human Rights ruling that would have benefited Vázquez’s case. But her claim predates the changes and cannot be altered because of the statute of limitations. But beyond cold figures lies a human desire to her cause: “Still nobody has apologized to me.”

Vázquez’s life has been a prison without walls since her release. Before she returned to the UK she spent some time in Granada where one of her sisters lived (Vázquez is the daughter of Galician emigrants who grew up in Epsom in the UK). There she found that even job offers came with a double intention. She would not pick up the phone to more than half a dozen people and even then she would struggle to talk, believing it may be tapped. Today she no longer memorizes the license plates of cars traveling behind her or records her daily movements in a notebook.

In Madrid, tears flowed as she recounted her story

Dolores Vázquez was the victim of a parallel trial that declared her guilty. Hers was the first case in 21st-century Spain to attract enormous media interest. Details of the investigation and Vázquez’s private life received blanket coverage to the extent that when her trial by jury started, her fate already seemed to have been decided. Pedro Apalategui, Vázquez’s lawyer, recalls that not one of the people called asked to be excused from jury duty, a very rare occurrence. The verdict was barely debated. “There were many imperfections in that trial and that has been used as an argument against jury trials, without taking into account the huge media pressure they were under,” says Apalategui.

Vázquez still remembers the shouts from prisoners at the Alhaurín de la Torre jail in Málaga: “Murderer! Murderer!” Apalategui also remembers giving up his Saturdays for 17 months. “I soon realized that my visits were the only thing keeping Dolores sane.” Vázquez’s anxiety even led her to believe that her cell mate, who had been assigned to stop her committing suicide, was really placed there to spy on her and see if she confessed in her sleep.

The case against Vázquez was resolved by chance on September 18, 2003. The girlfriend of Tony Alexander King, a British former convict living on the Costa del Sol, told police that she was suspicious about some blood stains she found on one of his shirts days after the body of Sonia Carabantes had been discovered in Coín, Málaga. DNA evidence proved that King had killed the 17-year-old and traces were also matched to a cigarette butt found near the body of Rocío Wanninkhof. The new evidence sparked a dispute between police departments that resulted in King being handed to the jurisdiction of the Civil Guard, which mounted a conspiracy theory that Dolores Vázquez had arranged several killings on the Costa del Sol. Only a tip-off from a high-ranking police chief allowed Apalategui to act.

Fourteen years later, Apalategui still keeps a piece of evidence that he couldn’t use during the trial in a drawer: Dolores Vázquez prohibited its submission from her prison cell. It was a book gifted to Vázquez by Rocío Wanninkhof for her birthday. In it was note: “You are such a beautiful girl, so friendly and kind. That’s why I’m giving you this book. I love you so much like this heart and if you don’t love me too it will break like this one. For Loli from Rocío.” In the message were three red hearts, one of them broken.

Vázquez’s anxiety led her to believe her cell mate was  spying on her

For months it was argued that Wanninkhof, the daughter of Vázquez’s lesbian lover of nearly 10 years, Alicia Hornos, had never taken to her and that this rejection could have provoked a desire for revenge, which was one of the essential elements in the prosecution’s case.

In the initial trial, the court heard that Vázquez, despite leading the search for the missing girl in 1999, blamed 19-year-old Rocío for breaking up her relationship with Hornos.

A piece of evidence that disproved the suspected motive has remained in a drawer for 14 years, the same time Dolores Vázquez has been waiting for an apology.

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