How six policemen became prime suspects in murder probe

Officers are in custody in Murcia, after the death of a man who had sought their help

A group of firefighters next to Diego Pérez’s body at Cala Cortina.
A group of firefighters next to Diego Pérez’s body at Cala Cortina.

Diego Pérez, 43 years old, was a diagnosed schizophrenic and regular cocaine user, who existed on small handouts for running errands for neighbors. He disappeared in the early hours of March 11 from his house in Las Seiscientas, a slum district of Cartagena, Murcia.

That night he had twice phoned the emergency services in an agitated state to say that a family wanted to kill him for stealing two bicycles. Police precinct records say his last call came in at 4.39am. After that, the trail goes cold.

The reports show that two officers went to Pérez’s house and, after checking there was no one nearby who was out to get him, went to reassure him before heading on their way. Just another routine call.

In the days after his disappearance, friends and relatives searched for Pérez – a quiet man who was liked in the neighborhood – on nearby mountains and beaches. The police joined in with the search and his photo was sent out to all patrol cars.

The six officers said they lost Pérez after he opened the car door and ran off at Cala Cortina

On March 26, his body was eventually found floating in Cala Cortina, a beach around three kilometers from the city center, by some hikers. Marine life had eaten away at the corpse but first forensic reports pointed to a violent death.

The local judicial police started asking questions. The version of events given by the family who had threatened Pérez checked out. They admitted to the episode about the bikes but denied having done anything to him. They also provided some valuable details about the case.

Then investigators stumbled upon a direct witness. The person known only by the codename P83 told them that on the morning of Pérez’s disappearance, three police patrol cars with six police officers had been seen in front of his house. Two of them had forced Pérez to get into one of the cars, which then went off together in a convoy.

Six traffic and security cameras caught the police cars headed towards Cala Cortina. Two guards at the port also placed them at the spot and, surprised by their movements, asked them what was up. “We’re bored so we’re playing hide and seek,” one of the officers told them, according to the account one of the guards gave to investigators.

The judge has placed them all in prison accused of homicide and illegal detention

The police’s internal affairs department then got involved and a Cartagena judge authorized the suspects’ patrol cars to be bugged. Their police colleagues also began following them. Then, in August, a police union filed a complaint about the bugging of the cars and the suspects raised their guard.

The investigation had already been underway for several months. Timelines of the patrol cars’ supposed movements had been drawn up and the local tides had been analyzed to help figure out where the body might have entered the water.

Then last Monday the six suspected officers were arrested, accused of homicide and illegal detention. Held separately for 48 hours in police stations throughout Murcia, they all offered similar versions of events. They admitted that – violating police procedure – they had decided to take Pérez down to the beach so that his “paranoia would pass,” but once there they lost him after he opened the car door and ran off. All six officers deny beating him.

But their accounts conflict with that of the protected witness who told internal affairs that Pérez received a blow from one of the officers before he even got into the car.

A protected witness said Pérez received a blow from one of the officers before he even got into the car

Amid tears, the arrested officers told the judge that they had hidden the fact that they had taken Pérez to Cala Cortina because they feared disciplinary action, but they denied killing him. The judge has placed them all in prison accused of homicide and illegal detention, charges punishable by up to 20 years. One of the officers, known only by the initials J. A. C. G., is also being investigated on illegal firearm charges after the wiretaps caught him boasting about owning an unregistered antique gun that he used to do his “dirty work.” Investigators are convinced that not all the officers were involved to the same extent and trust that one will crack.

Meanwhile, officers at Cartagena police headquarters have been in a state of shock since Monday’s arrests. No one expected that the disappearance of the man from Las Seiscientas would end with six officers in prison. The autopsy report reads like something out of a horror film: right eye missing, “signs of violence in the facial and cranial area, fracture-dislocation of multiple cervical vertebrae, injuries to intervertebral discs C2 to C7, destruction of higher neural centers.” In short: “Evident signs of physical violence with multiple traumatic injuries. Death was produced before immersion in the sea.” The conclusion: “Homicide.”

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