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III1Aifredo Guardiola, September 2009 A JUST JUNKIE” DID A FALSE CONFESSION AND FAULTY ARSON SCIENCE LAND ALFREDO GUARDIOLA IN PRISON FOR 19 YEARS AND COUNTING? BY DAVE MANN he warned him not to go alone. It was a Wednesday morning in late August, and Alejandra Quintanilla was driving to the courthouse in downtown Houston. Sitting next to her, in the passenger seat, was her older brother, Alfredo Guardiola. He had been subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury to testify about one of Houston’s most notorious house fires. Four people had died despite the rescue efforts of Guardiola and several other men who had rushed from neighboring houses to help. He wasn’t a suspect. Prosecutors said they just wanted him to recount for the grand jury what he saw the night of the fire. Still, the subpoena made Quintanilla nervous. Her brother was a gentle man and a heroin addict, and she feared the police would take advantage of him. Tales of coerced confessions were well-known in Houston’s Latino community. As they drove downtown that morning, she tried to convince him to take a lawyer along. But Guardiola saw nothing to worry about. He had nothing to hide, he said. There was no reason to be suspicious. She dropped him outside the courthouse a little before 9 a.m. That was the last time she’s ever seen him outside prison. When Guardiola walked into the courthouse that morning, he had already spoken with police and fire investigators at least a half-dozen times since the fire. His account hadn’t changed: He had been hanging out at a friend’s house in Denver Harbor, a mostly Latino neighborhood on Houston’s east side, on May 1989. A little after midnight, he heard shouting. He went to the window and saw a nearby house on fire. He bolted outside and jumped two fences. When he reached the front of the burning 8 THE TEXAS OBSERVER OCTOBER 2, 2009 photo by Dave Mann house, he could hear the Gonzales familythe parents and their three childreninside crying for help. Guardiola and two other men tried to bust through the front door and to crack the large front window but couldn’t break either. The Gonzales family had barricaded the front door with plywood and encased the windows in metal bars after they’d been terrorized by burglaries of their home. Guardiola could see the mother, Elizabeth Gonzales, through the large front window but couldn’t reach her. Flames sprang from the windows and roof. After a few minutes, the rooms darkened with smoke, and he no longer saw anyone inside. He later learned that one member of the family survived-9-year-old Joe Louis, who said his father had broken a window with a shotgun and squeezed him out between the bars. But his parents and two young siblings died. The fire haunted Guardiola. He often thought about the image of Elizabeth Gonzales trapped behind the window, screaming. More than 15 months later, on Aug. 29, 199o, Guardiola entered the criminal justice building, subpoena in hand. Waiting in the lobby for Guardiola were a Houston police officer named Jose Selveraa member of the police department’s “Chicano squad,” as it was then calledand a fire investigator, Hilario “Lalo” Torres. He’d spoken with both at least four times about the fire. They said they would escort him to the prosecutor’s office. By August 199o, Selvera and Torres had become frustrated investigators. They had worked the case from the start. Torres had been specially assigned by one of the city’s most influential politicians. Houston City Council member Ben Reyes, who then represented Denver Harbor, had called the Police Department the day after the fire with a tip. He said he had heard rumors “on the street” that gang members in the neighborhood had set