In July 2009, 18-year-old Cameron Coker's life was ripped apart for future viewing by a national audience.
Coker, who'd previously been convicted of dealing drugs, was now the prime suspect in the shooting death of a 16-year-old boy at an apartment complex just east of Highway 6. For this homicide case, Harris County Sheriff's investigators had company: A film crew from the A&E show The First 48 was there to show the nuts and bolts of the investigation. Entering its tenth season, the series was based on the premise that the first 48 hours of a police investigation are the most crucial. After that time frame, potential evidence goes missing; crime scenes become contaminated; witnesses disappear.
This episode focuses on the murder of Erik Elizarraraz, who was killed on June 20, 2009, after a scuffle with a group of men at the Fox Pointe Apartments. The boy allegedly exchanged words with two guys in a gold Toyota or Honda earlier in the day, and the guys had returned that night, along with some friends. When Elizarraraz went to the balcony, someone in the group supposedly yelled up at him — calling him a "cholo." Regrettably, Elizarraraz took the bait. Witnesses said he went down to confront one of the men, who hit him to the ground and then shot him point-blank in the head as he tried to get to his feet.
When the episode, "Straight Menace," aired eight months later, Coker wasn't able to watch, since he was in Harris County Jail awaiting trial on the murder charge. But everyone else who tuned in could see just how the tall, skinny kid not yet out of his teens got pulled into a homicide investigation. Turns out serendipity played a big part.
Coker's name comes up three days into the investigation while Sgt. Ronald Hunter questions an alleged eyewitness to the shooting. The man, who looks to be barely out of his teens (he's never identified), glances at a photograph of young black males taped to the back of Hunter's office door and points to it. He says one of the men is "Killa" — the shooter.
The alleged witness says he knows "with everything I love and Jesus Christ as my witness, that's him."
When two other alleged witnesses identify Coker in a photo spread, the investigators are sure they have their man.
Looking into the camera, Hunter pontificates on the photo that had been on his door.
"This picture, as far as I'm concerned, is a divine intervention," he says. "And I have no idea where this picture came from, but the witness took this picture and he immediately picked out this suspect. And I'd like to think we had a little help from God himself."
Unfortunately, God subsequently dropped out of the investigation, and the three alleged eyewitnesses recanted. But not until after Coker spent nearly three years in jail. The recantations, along with the fact that prosecutors withheld police reports from Coker's attorney showing that investigators had information on another suspect, led the Harris County District Attorney's Office to drop the charge.
But "Straight Menace" is still shown on A&E, and the tragedy inflicted on this wrongfully accused man is only the latest injustice in this show's history. In Detroit, city police shot a seven-year-old girl in the head in a botched attempt to catch a suspect sought on The First 48. And in Miami, according to an analysis of court records done by our sister paper Miami New Times, 15 men have walked free after being charged with murder under the program's glare.
Evidence suggests that the television show puts undue pressure on police departments to hurry their investigations and make quick arrests. The wrongly accused have their lives ruined, all for a bit of reality entertainment. But The First 48 is one of the most popular shows on television, with millions tuning in every week. With ratings as seductive as this, what do a few mistakes matter?
Few jobs elicit greater esteem than a detective's. There's a cultural fascination with solving murders, manifested in the sheer number of TV shows that deconstruct homicide investigations. Crime television — from the endless stream of CSI spinoffs to Cold Case to Law & Order — accounts for nearly one-fourth of all prime-time television programming. This demand means production companies are constantly under pressure to expand upon the standard crime-television formula, according to a 2007 study titled "The CSI Effect." No channel is more bound to that effect than A&E. Over the past decade, the station has birthed a dizzying assortment of crime programs: Cold Case Files, American Justice, City Confidential, Investigative Reports, Crime 360 and The First 48, which first aired in 2004.
The narrative structure of The First 48 is both conventional and chronological, and nearly every episode begins with a murder. But the show's true genius lies in how it ratchets up the drama with an artificially imposed deadline.
"For homicide detectives," the narrator pronounces in a gravelly timbre at the program's start, "the clock starts ticking the moment they are called. Their chance of solving a murder is cut in half if they don't get a lead within the first 48 hours." Throughout the program, producers splice into the frame a ticking clock, and detectives may fret over their deadline. Dramatic tension mounts as investigators collect evidence, interview witnesses and identify suspects, until it hits a crescendo with a climactic confrontation between suspect and detective during the episode's final interrogation.
That same deadline pressure meant nothing but trouble for a 21-year-old Miami man, Taiwan Smart. On the night of November 13, 2009, gunshots broke out just before midnight on NW 77th Street in Little Haiti. At that time of night, neighbors would later tell police, they often hear gunfire. Usually, it's some jacked addict playing around like a fool. Other times, it's significantly worse. But in this Miami neighborhood, where nearly one in 60 is a victim of violent crime, you don't mess with someone else's business.
So when 18-year-old Ciara Armbrister ducked out of her one-bedroom apartment just minutes later, she wasn't worried. Wearing Spider-Man socks, she padded down the weedy alley behind her building toward the apartment of the teenager she'd recently started sleeping with. She knew 18-year-old Jonathan Volcy, confident and smooth, was a drug dealer. But so were a lot of people in this neighborhood.
Her mood darkened, however, when she saw Volcy's back door wide open. Strange, she thought. The back door's never open. She crept into the 500-square-foot apartment, cluttered with Moon Pie wrappers and baggies of coke. Peeking around the corner, she saw them: two bodies, face-down, drenched in blood.
Armbrister couldn't breathe, couldn't think. She had to get out of there. Moments later, she was pounding at the door of a neighbor, who put down his Xbox controller. Armbrister's socks, he noticed, were sopping crimson. "Somebody shot them boys!" she shrieked. "Somebody shot them boys!"
It didn't take long for the cops to arrive. Close behind was a camera crew from The First 48. In the double murder of Volcy and his 14-year-old housemate, Raynathan Ray, the clock was already ticking.
Under the camera's gaze, detectives quickly assembled a grisly assortment of facts. Seven bullet holes pockmarked the apartment. Four 9mm Luger bullet casings littered the floor. The side window was open six inches. Bloody footprints and shoe prints marked the white tile floor. Both victims had been killed by a single gunshot to the back of the head. Whoever executed the boys had been inside the apartment. This had been an "inside job," as the episode would later be named.
It was great television. And sure enough, within days, barely past the show's deadline, Miami police had their man. The missing roommate, 21-year-old Taiwan Smart — who'd been present before the murders but conspicuously absent afterward — surrendered to police at his mother's urging, was interrogated by them on November 17 and by November 18, 2009, was charged with two counts of second-degree murder. "What we have is a circumstantial case, but the circumstantial evidence that we have tells a strong story," Detective Fabio Sanchez said into the cameras as Smart was carted away in handcuffs. Sanchez paused. "It's a shame that these two victims, who were very young, had to lose their lives to a person who they thought was their friend."
The cops' case, however, wasn't nearly as strong as Sanchez made it sound. To lock up Smart — which they'd do for a staggering 20 months — the Miami police would grossly misrepresent witness statements and tell outright lies. They'd take an impoverished kid and destroy his character not only on the streets but on a national scale. Finally, they'd ignore the man who was fingered as the real killer.
During Smart's interrogation, the first hint that the cops weren't on his side arrived three hours in. "You're not telling us something, or else you're bending the truth," veteran Detective T.C. Cepero suddenly said, eyebrows plunging into a scowl. "We have all gathered a lot of evidence, and it talks."
"What are you talking about?" Smart gasped.
"The evidence talks," Cepero replied, telling Smart the shooter had been inside the apartment, where cops had collected four bullet casings. Plus, both men had been shot point-blank, in the back of the head. "Don't get into [a lie] you can't get out of."
"You think I'm lying?" Smart asked. He pleaded multiple times for a polygraph test. He sank his head in his hands. "You're trying to get me to say something I don't know."
"You're telling me a story you concocted, and it's bullshit," Cepero told him, asserting that if Smart's story had been accurate, the window would have been shattered. (Police evidence logs show the window had been open six inches.) "I believe the evidence ten times more. I'm calling you a liar because you're blowing smoke up my ass."
Sanchez leaned into Smart. "You know what the evidence is telling me right now?" Sanchez seethed. "That you're a fucking liar."
Eleven hours into the interrogation, when Smart realized he was going to jail for two murders, he wept uncontrollably. "I don't want to go to jail for something I didn't do!" Smart, now cuffed to the chair, begged Sanchez, who wrote in an arrest report that the youth's statements weren't "consistent" with evidence.
"I'm asking you," Smart wept. "Out of the decency of your heart, please help me! Please!"
But days later, at Smart's probable-cause hearing, when Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jorge Cueto asked for harder proof linking Smart to the murders, Sanchez perpetuated the injustice.
The detective misrepresented his interview with Armbrister, who had repeatedly told investigators that the victims had argued with a "Spanish guy," not Smart. Instead, Sanchez told the judge: "She could hear [Smart and the victims] arguing over drugs and money."
Then, when the judge asked how Smart's story conflicted with the evidence, the cop distorted Smart's statement. "Smart claims the shooter shot through the window, killing both victims," Sanchez said, despite the fact that Smart had repeatedly claimed he did not witness the murders. "There is no evidence the shooting occurred outside. It occurred inside."
Hearing this, Cueto nodded and Smart, now formally charged with two counts of murder, was led away.
In Coker's case, his interrogation was downright anticlimactic.
Coker, who turned himself in once he found out investigators were looking for him, quietly but firmly denied his involvement — which is totally expected. At first, Coker said he was in jail at the time of the shooting — for evading arrest — but investigators pointed out that he had been released about 15 hours before Elizarraraz was killed.
Sheriff's detective Wayne Kuhlman and Sgt. Ron Hunter told him that witnesses had placed him at the scene. There was no question he killed 16-year-old Erik Elizarraraz.
But Coker wouldn't budge.
"Sir, why don't y'all just put me on a lie-detector test?"
The investigators said they were happy to give him a polygraph. Coker flashed a naive expression, as if he actually thought the test was going to make a difference.
"And then are y'all gonna leave me alone after that, after I give y'all what y'all want?" he asked. "Y'all not going to be asking me all these outrageous questions, trying to confuse me?"
He went on: "This is my life y'all are playing with — my life."
No, the investigators said: You shot him.
"I swear to God, from the bottom of my heart, on everything I love, sir, I was not there," he said.
It was like a broken record with this kid. It's something Kuhlman and Hunter have heard more times than they'd care to count. Coker might be trying his best to come off like a wide-eyed schoolboy, but he already had a record. And three witnesses put the gun in his hand.
It's like what Kuhlman said earlier in "Straight Menace," even before Coker turned himself in: "There will be people that will say, 'Oh, there's two lives messed up because of the other guy that's gonna go to prison for this,' but you know what? That guy messed his own life up."
Except, as it turns out, he didn't.
On February 10, 2012, ten days before the case was to go to trial, and 931 days after Coker went to jail, prosecutor Jill Foltermann began interviewing the three alleged witnesses. She incorporated the disastrous results in an affidavit, which states the following:
One witness, Andrew Nguyen, "'took a good guess' as to who he believed shot Erik Elizarraraz. Mr. Nguyen informed me that he did not actually witness the shooting because he was inside the apartment when the shooting occurred. He did not see who had the gun or who shot. [Nguyen] indicated that the person he picked was 'based on what his other friends had told him about' the shooter."
Another witness, Roberto Valdez, "indicated that he had been drinking beer, smoking weed and doing Xanax" on the day of the shooting. He told Foltermann "he did not recall what happened, and said that he did not see the shooter or the gun. He indicated that he did not recall giving the officers a description of the defendant, what he was wearing, or the gun...Mr. Valdez said that when he viewed the photo array that he told the officers he was not sure and was going to 'guess' and asked if he should continue...Mr. Valdez said that he wrote an abbreviated note at the bottom of the photo spread. The note, Valdez told the prosecutor, meant 'I'm probably wrong.'"
The last witness to help lock up Coker for three years, James Decastro, told the prosecutor that "when he viewed the photo array...he was not '100%' sure that the person he circled was the one that he observed shoot Erik Elizarraraz. Mr. Decastro said he was '50/50.'"
Turns out it was close enough.
"I couldn't believe they did that to me," Coker says. "It was like a torture that no one should have to go through in this life."
The First 48 no longer films Harris County Sheriff's investigations, according to HCSO spokesman Alan Bernstein. "By mutual agreement, the project was brought to a close last year in April or thereabouts after accomplishing the goal of showing the public some of the behind-the-scenes work done by our investigators," Bernstein explained in an email.
At the time of Taiwan Smart's arrest, there were several people detectives may have wanted to interview. One witness, named only "Christine" in the investigation's internal logs, said the killer had sought vengeance for a previous Little Haiti murder — a tale corroborated by Smart. Another witness, 40-year-old Wayne Mitchell, had heard that his friend's cousins were behind the killings.
Officers didn't investigate the leads.
Though the consequences of this lapse would be severe, other mistakes filmed by The First 48 — which has also shot in Detroit, Dallas and Memphis — have been substantially more tragic.
In Detroit on May 16, 2010, after First 48 videographers expressed a desire to achieve a "good show" and capture "great video footage," police stormed a duplex in an impoverished neighborhood, according to a federal lawsuit. It was past midnight. All the streetlights had suddenly gone black. The cops were hunting for a murder suspect. As cameras rolled and dogs bayed madly, city police fired a flashbang grenade through a front window.
"Police!" one officer cried. The grenade exploded next to a living-room couch where a seven-year-old girl, Aiyana Jones, slept. From the patio, a cop lowered a submachine gun and fired into the house, striking the girl in the head. Upon entry, however, the cops realized they'd raided the wrong house. Their suspect lived next door. The officer who fired the gun, Joseph Weekley, was indicted for manslaughter and awaits trial. First 48 producer Allison Howard pleaded no contest last year to obstruction of justice after she lied about "copying, showing, or giving video footage she shot of the raid to third parties," Detroit prosecutors said. The episode was never aired.
Each of the 113 cases filmed in Miami also still airs periodically — even those featuring men who later walked free of murder charges.
"I talked to a lawyer about suing, but there wasn't nothing we could do," says Frank Sands, who spent three years in prison on murder charges and hasn't found steady work since. "Because [The First 48] shows 'All suspects are presumed innocent until proven guilty' at the beginning of the program, they're covered."
A&E shirks responsibility for episodes that broadcast incorrect information, and spokespeople confess the channel doesn't re-edit or correct flawed programs beyond stating at a show's end that murder charges were dropped. "We simply film the investigations as they unfold," a spokesperson said. "Every episode states clearly that all individuals are innocent until proven guilty."
The closing statement has A&E covered legally, perhaps, but ethically? Miami Detective Fernando Bosch admitted under oath in 2011 that he has "play-acted" parts of investigations for The First 48 and couldn't tell upon later viewing which parts were staged and which were real. "Most of [the detectives] do things like that," he said.
More troubling still, the show highlights almost exclusively some of the most impoverished neighborhoods around the country. Nearly every person charged with murder belongs to the same demographic: young, male, black, urban, poor and without the resources to challenge a television conglomerate like A&E.
Defense attorney Marlene Montaner was appointed to Taiwan Smart's case. Reviewing the evidence in early 2010, she couldn't find any confessions, direct evidence or any person pointing the finger at her client.
"I remember just looking for someone anywhere saying he was the one who did it. You had one witness in which police misrepresented what she said, but that was it." She visited Smart the next day. His manner conveyed innocence, but who could be sure? She paid for his polygraph test, and he passed.
That's when she hired a private detective and scrutinized the police investigation. She says they found a "sloppy," "rushed" case that hinged on a contaminated crime scene and one witness who hadn't seen the murders. Police hadn't arrived at the NW 77th Street apartment until more than an hour after the murders, and by then, bloody footprints — none of which matched Smart's foot size — inked the cluttered space.
Detectives had also made a big deal of the bullet casings, claiming their presence inside the home refuted Smart's assertion that the shooter had been outside. But it's unclear from the investigation's log whether police ever thoroughly searched the apartment's grassy exterior for additional casings — a vital lapse. According to the logs, police discovered fewer casings than bullet holes, six of which had trajectories leading from the window where Smart claimed the stranger had shot.
But as weeks melted into months and months into years, nothing happened. Fabio Sanchez didn't release his lead investigator's report, which is necessary for trial, until after Smart had spent more than a year in prison. Smart, awaiting trial, was transferred to the Miami-Dade Stockade jail facility.
Then serendipity struck. Within the stockade are sprawling cells that house dozens of men at a time, and inside Smart's, a new inmate named Arsenio Carter arrived.
Day after day, Carter eyed Smart. "Aren't you the guy who's in jail for those two Little Haiti murders?" Carter asked Smart, according to court records filed in Smart's defense. Carter allegedly taunted Smart in front of other inmates.
On January 11, Carter pulled aside inmate Earnest Evans, 20, whom he knew from the outside. "I have a secret to tell you," Carter said, according to Evans's later testimony, and confessed to killing the two men and letting Smart get away. Eventually the secret got out, and Smart told his attorney, who quickly interviewed her client and Evans and shipped their statements to prosecutors. On June 6, 2011, Smart took two separate state-sponsored polygraph tests. An expert hammered him with questions for hours.
Ultimately, "Smart denied any involvement, and it was the opinion of [the expert] that he was being truthful," according to prosecutor Marie Mato's closeout memo.
Prosecutors summoned Sanchez and told him what had happened. Sanchez now "agreed [the state] could not prove their case, and it appeared Taiwan Smart was not the shooter," Mato wrote.
Sanchez was not reprimanded for his work on the case. The Miami Police Department has not apologized to Smart. A&E has continued to broadcast its First 48 episode featuring Smart. And Carter, who's since been released from prison, hasn't been seriously investigated by any other agency for his possible connection to the murders.
In the two years since his release from prison, Smart's luck hasn't turned. With a pair of murder charges on his record, he's struggled to find work or an apartment. He spent months living in a small motel room with his mom, uncle, girlfriend and two siblings — while supporting them with the $6.09 hourly wage he makes cleaning cars at the Busy Bee off Biscayne Boulevard. Now he and his family live in a claustrophobic apartment where they have neither kitchen sink nor stove, and the electricity flickers on and off.
Meanwhile, The First 48 has arrived at Season 13, and even today, nearly 1.4 million people tune in for some airings. But this season, the program hasn't featured Miami, though producers call the city the "face" of the show. Last year Police Chief Manuel Orosa asked the show's producers to donate $10,000 per episode to a local youth sports program that works with at-risk children, but they declined. So The First 48, which doesn't compensate police departments in any way, left Miami and now films in Broward County, Cleveland and Dallas. (Memphis and Detroit have also discontinued their relationships with the show.)
The families of the murdered never see a dime of the show's profits. Smart has filed a civil lawsuit against the City of Miami for false arrest and imprisonment. "Despite the police questioning of Taiwan for 15 consecutive hours," the lawsuit says, "and his pleas of innocence and his factual accounts, police were only concerned with closing the book on the crime within 48 hours to captivate the public with the expeditious crime-solving...It intentionally placed Taiwan as a remote second in importance to the pursuit of the First 48 marquee."
Cameron Coker's attorney, Vivian King, says she has repeatedly asked The First 48's producers to stop airing the episode now that Coker has been exonerated, but they decline. Producers refused to comment for this article.
When "Straight Menace" aired in March 2010, viewers howled for Coker's execution. "Put him down," Cams2guilty wrote in an online forum discussing the show. "They got the death penalty in Houston?" Another commenter posted: "Anyone who watched this episode and came to any conclusion other than Cameron Coker killed Erik Elizarraraz must have a mental illness. Every bit of evidence pointed at Coker, and two seasoned Harris County detectives interrogated him. People who say otherwise are the reason murderers walk free to kill again." Holly Morris, a blond suburban mom, gushed on Facebook, "The First 48 is by far the best show on TV...I love it!!! Goes to show why murderers should NEVER be let out!!!"
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Coker says he fears eventual retribution for a crime he didn't commit.
"Just imagine the image they made out of me," Coker says. "Even when I walk places I've never been, people know me from The First 48 without really knowing what happened."
In a review of 22 other Houston-based episodes of the series, Miami New Times found only one other instance in which a suspect was charged and jailed before the case was dismissed: Keegan Maull spent 21 months in jail on a murder charge before the alleged eyewitness who helped put him there changed his story. (One of the other episodes involves charges against two defendants who are still awaiting trial.)
Erik Elizarraraz's murder remains unsolved.