San Jose Mercury News
Published Tuesday, February 2, 1999, in the San Jose Mercury News

DNA test clears accused rapist

Charges: A woman identified Gilbert Ruiz Sierras as the man who had abducted and raped her.

Valley Times

A DNA test has cleared a Union City man of charges that he raped a woman after abducting her at the Alameda County Fair.

Gilbert Ruiz Sierras lost his freedom, his job and his reputation when a woman identified him as her attacker in the summer of 1997. If convicted of the charges of kidnapping and rape, the 40-year-old man could have spent the rest of his life in prison.

``I knew I wasn't guilty, and so did my family, my friends,'' Sierras said. ``I just knew I had to wait for the system to work and everything would be OK.''

It took 18 months before authorities said they didn't have the evidence to try Sierras. After Sierras' DNA was found not to match the semen on the woman's pants, the Alameda County District Attorney's Office dismissed the charges last Tuesday.

``Mr. Sierras naively thought that no innocent person could ever be convicted,'' said his attorney, William Cole of Berkeley. ``I thought this might become one of those Alfred Hitchcock horror films where someone gets caught up in a web of circumstances they don't understand.''

Prosecutors failed to return numerous telephone calls from a reporter. The lead investigator in the case, sheriff's Sgt. Kevin Hart, refuses to dismiss Sierras as a suspect even though the investigation is over.

``Given that the semen recovered was not his, and the victim would like to go on with her life, it was felt in the interest of justice it would be best to drop the case,'' Hart said.

Sierras is one of a handful of Alameda County defendants who have been cleared of charges based on a DNA test. The technology is typically used to implicate suspects in rapes and murders.

But Cole said it shouldn't have taken a DNA test to clear his client, particularly if authorities had more carefully scrutinized the woman's story. According to psychiatric records obtained by Cole, the woman had been diagnosed as a schizophrenic and was suffering from psychotic episodes when she made her allegations.

Told of blackouts

She told a friend that she suffered from blackouts the day of the alleged assault, records show.

``The more you get into the details, the more you realize something was terribly wrong with her account,'' Cole said.

The woman's dramatic telling of the story convinced police, prosecutors and a judge that the charges against Sierras were credible.

The woman, a 40-year-old who was living in Pleasanton with her parents, reported the story six weeks after the alleged assault. She told detectives that she was raped near Tassajara Road outside Dublin after her attacker abducted her at knifepoint. As he led her from the fairgrounds to his van, the pair bumped into a sheriff's deputy on foot patrol, she said.

During the alleged assault, the woman claims she was stabbed on the hip because she was too slow taking off her clothes. She said she was raped, then pushed from the van.

As the van sped away, she said, she used a mascara pen to scribble her attacker's license plate number on her hand.

Eventually, a motorist she identified as a Granada High School student named Josh picked her up and took her back to Pleasanton, she said. No one has come forward to identify himself as the motorist, despite well-publicized requests by investigators.

She gave investigators Sierras' license plate number and identified him from a photo lineup. She said her attacker had a tattoo on his right biceps, as does Sierras. She also provided some details about the inside of his van.

Hart said the woman's story is believable.

But Cole said there are more flaws than consistencies in her story. For example, Sierras has a tattoo on his biceps, but not the one she described: a hawk with tears flowing from its eyes.

``Mr. Sierras also has his hometown, his wife's name and his last name tattooed on his arms and torso,'' Cole said. ``He's a walking driver's license, but this woman never saw those tattoos?''

The woman had what looked like a fresh scar on her hip that could have come from a knife. But there were no blood stains on her pants -- only a trace amount of semen the DNA test proves is someone else's.

The woman told investigators she wore the pants on a later date during which she had sex.

The key remaining questions are how she got his license-plate number and how she identified him. Sierras said he went to the fair with his family that summer, but not until a week after the alleged assault and not in his van.

`It wasn't me'

``I've never seen this woman before in my life,'' he said. ``If in fact she was raped, that's a terrible trauma and someone should pay for it. But it wasn't me.''

Sierras, who spent two months in jail before his family could pay his bail, said he may sue the department. Trained as a diesel mechanic in the Army, Sierras lost his job while he was in jail and has been unable to get a steady job because of the charges.

His family has been traumatized by the case, he said.

``My wife is working 12-hour days and Saturdays to pay off the loan for the bail,'' he said. ``My son couldn't play football his freshman year because he was so devastated. It was devastating for everybody, and it should never have taken this long to get my reputation back.''

©1999 Mercury Center.