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DNA evidence clears Santa Rosa man of 5-year-old girl's sexual assault

Published: Thursday, February 14, 2013 at 1:06 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 15, 2013 at 1:24 p.m.

A Santa Rosa man accused of sexually assaulting a 5-year-old girl and jailed for seven weeks was freed Thursday after DNA test results pointed to his roommate.

Prosecutors dropped all charges Thursday against Gabriel Sanchez-Cardenas, 41, who was facing possible life imprisonment for the Dec. 23 assault that occurred during a sleepover at his apartment.

The victim, who had been invited to stay the night with her brother by Sanchez-Cardenas' two sons, identified the father as her attacker. He was arrested the next day and has been awaiting trial in Sonoma County jail ever since.

But on Thursday, prosecutors said DNA found on the girl's underwear matched samples taken from Sanchez-Cardenas' roommate, Jose Paz-Gonzalez, 37. He was arrested and charged with the assault.

Sanchez-Cardenas was freed Thursday afternoon. He always maintained his innocence, his lawyers said.

"We are beyond excited and thrilled that the system ultimately worked," said Melissa Coughlin, a deputy public defender. "From the beginning, I said he didn't do this."

District Attorney Jill Ravitch confirmed Sanchez-Cardenas had been cleared. She said her office followed the evidence to its proper conclusion.

"I think the course this case has taken underscores the fact that what we do is search for the truth," Ravitch said.

Paz-Gonzalez, who could have testified at a March preliminary hearing, was picked up by police Wednesday. He made statements to officers that sounded like a confession, Coughlin said.

Early in the investigation, Paz-Gonzalez told police he had taken a sleep aid that night and didn't notice anything unusual. The girl said the attack occurred on the couch in the living room Paz-Gonzalez was renting from Sanchez-Cardenas.

Attorney Kristine Burk, who served as co-counsel, said authorities could have done a better job of explaining to child welfare interviewers that there were two men in the apartment.

"She kind of merged the two men together because it was never clarified," Burk said.

Interim Public Defender Kathleen Pozzi said the case underscores a common problem -- children misidentifying their attackers.

"The girl unequivocally said it was our guy," Pozzi said. "She was wrong."

The girl and her brother were friends with Sanchez-Cardenas' sons. She went home from the sleepover the next day and complained to her parents that she had been sexually assaulted. Tests confirmed she was raped.

Sanchez-Cardenas denied the attack during an interrogation that lasted more than two hours and pleaded not guilty to four felony charges.

He told police he prepared pancake batter the night before and left it with Paz-Gonzalez, who was going to make breakfast for the children. Sanchez-Cardenas left for work early, before they woke up.

"You don't make pancake batter and then rape a kid," Burk said. "He seemed like a very good father."

Police took DNA samples from Paz-Gonzalez but didn't consider him a suspect until lab results came back Wednesday.

Sanchez-Cardenas spent seven weeks in jail, held in lieu of $1 million bail.

A single father who shared custody with his ex-wife, Sanchez-Cardenas was born in Mexico and became a U.S. citizen, Coughlin said. He works as a gardener.

"His life, of course, has been absolutely shredded by this," Coughlin said.

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com.

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