Around 9 a.m. on December 13, 2018, four Avondale police officers walked into a Macy's warehouse in Goodyear and told 23-year-old Jorge Molina he needed to come with them. Molina was confused, but followed officers out of the building, where he was handcuffed, transported to Avondale city jail, and interrogated for several hours.
First, they questioned him about a white Honda. He said he owned one, but that his stepfather, a man with a history of violence and a warrant out in California, often drove it without his permission. They asked him who had access to his phone and Google account. Then, they asked him if he had murdered a man named Joseph Knight.
Molina was in shock. "I didn't shoot anybody. I'm not that type of person. I would never do anything like that," he told detectives, according to a police report obtained by Phoenix New Times.
"I told Jorge that we knew, one hundred percent, without a doubt, that his phone was at the shooting scene," the police report on Knight's murder states. "Jorge gasped and said, 'What! This feels like a fricking nightmare!'" Molina began to cry, saying, "Oh my God, this is insane."
As it turns out, police did not know "one hundred percent, without a doubt, that his phone was at the shooting scene."
Police had arrested the wrong man based on location data obtained from Google and the fact that a white Honda was spotted at the crime scene. The case against Molina quickly fell apart, and he was released from jail six days later. Prosecutors never pursued charges against Molina, yet the highly publicized arrest cost him his job, his car, and his reputation.
"They threw him in a cell in one of the worst jails in the country even after they confirmed he had an alibi and let him rot for six days when they knew he didn't do this," Molina's attorney, Heather Hamel, told New Times.
One year after his life-changing arrest, on December 13, 2019, Molina filed a $1.5 million lawsuit against the city of Avondale, the Avondale chief of police, and several Avondale police officers. Molina is suing for defamation, gross negligence, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. He is seeking compensation for the damages his wrongful arrest has caused.
According to the lawsuit, police investigating the murder knew months before they arrested Molina that the location data obtained from Google often showed him in two places at once, and that he was not the only person who drove the Honda registered under his name.
Avondale police knew almost two months before they arrested Molina that another man — his stepfather — sometimes drove Molina's white Honda. On October 25, 2018, police obtained records showing that Molina's Honda had been impounded earlier that year after Molina's stepfather was caught driving the car without a license.
Data obtained by Avondale police from Google did show that a device logged into Molina's Google account was in the area at the time of Knight's murder. Yet on a different date, the location data from Google also showed that Molina was at a retirement community in Scottsdale (where his mother worked) while debit card records showed that Molina had made a purchase at a Walmart across town at the exact same time.
Molina's attorneys argue that this and other instances like it should have made it clear to Avondale police that Google's account-location data is not always reliable in determining the actual location of a person.
"When our public officials not only accuse an innocent man of murder, but do so in willful ignorance or reckless disregard of the massive exculpatory evidence uncovered by their own investigation, it not only violates the law, but erodes the community's trust in our government," the complaint states.
Investigation Goes Awry
The bad luck for Molina had begun nine months earlier, with Knight's cold-blooded murder.
Minutes after midnight on March 14, 2018, the 29-year-old aircraft repairman had been riding his bicycle home from work at a nearby airport. When he got off his bike and approached his apartment, someone in a white Honda sedan fired nine shots at him. He died before first responders could arrive.
At first, the murder investigation proceeded as expected. Cops canvassed the area for evidence, witnesses, and surveillance footage. They interviewed Knight's friends and family in an attempt to identify potential suspects. They obtained surveillance footage showing a white Honda with a sunroof tailing Knight on his bike for several blocks. The footage was not clear enough to make out a license plate, but it showed that someone shot Knight nine times from the driver's side window.
When Avondale police found themselves without a lead one week later, they drafted a geofence warrant to Google, a type of search warrant that asks the tech giant to produce information on all devices in a given area during a certain time period. Police asked Google to provide information on any wireless communication devices that passed through the same geographical locations that the suspect vehicle did on the night of the murder.
"In direct contravention to two hundred years of American constitutional law, a 'reverse location' search warrant does not seek any specific information regarding an identified suspect based on articulable suspicion but, instead, seeks information to cast a 'digital dragnet:' Information about all Google accounts that show activity in a particular geographic location," the complaint states.
Google complied with the warrant and supplied the Avondale Police Department with a list of four Google accounts that were active in the area at the time of Knight's murder. From there, Avondale police asked Google for even more information on the accounts. Google supplied it.
Blinded by Data
Police found that a device logged into Molina's Google account was in the area at the time of the murder. Another important clue based on the data then surfaced: Whoever was using that account had searched for "shooting in Avondale" on the night of Knight's murder.
It didn't take long for police to find that Molina was the registered owner of a white Honda, a vehicle that matched the one caught on surveillance footage driving by Knight's residence that night.
The culmination of the nine-month investigation came when police arrested Molina and booked him into jail on suspicion of first-degree murder, shooting at an occupied structure, discharge of a deadly weapon, and drive-by shooting.
With Molina's ownership of a white Honda combined with the Google data, they thought they had solid evidence.
But Molina's attorneys, Heather Hamel and Stephen Benedetto, argue that Avondale police should have known neither of those things were enough to pin the murder on Molina.
"First, the data obtained from Google made clear that the data was incapable of identifying Mr. Molina's actual location with any measure of reliability," the complaint states. "Second, [the Avondale Police Department] learned that Mr. Molina's ownership of a white Honda was also inconclusive as to his presence: [Investigators] discovered police records indicating that Mr. Molina's step-father, Marcos Cruz Gaeta, had previously been arrested for driving Mr. Molina's white Honda without a license, and had done so on other occasions as well."
Despite that information, Avondale failed to investigate Gaeta — even though Gaeta had a history of violence and an arrest warrant for murder in California, the lawsuit states.
While four Avondale officers arrested Molina at work in December 2018, other officers searched Molina's home, where he lived with his mother and younger siblings. There, police questioned Molina's mother and sister, who stated that Gaeta was a "toxic" and "abusive" man who often drove Molina's white Honda. And they said Gaeta owned a gun that he took with him "everywhere."
Police decided not to contact or interview Gaeta, and instead booked Molina into jail. The 23-year-old retail worker was sent to the Lower Buckeye facility at Fourth Avenue Jail, where high-security inmates are housed.
Police found no evidence of a weapon or casings in Molina's vehicle or home, nor did they find any evidence of a motive for Knight's murder.
Truth Emerges, but Molina Stays in Jail
Around 9 a.m. the morning after the arrest, Detective Ryan Myers received a phone call from Molina's sister, Priscilla. She told him that two of Molina's closest friends had evidence showing that Molina was with them on the other side of Avondale at the time of the murder.
Text messages and Uber receipts showed that Molina and two friends went to a movie theater the night of the murder. Molina and one of the two friends had returned from the outing to Molina's home. Molina and his friend hung out there for a while before his friend ordered an Uber to take her back home. Receipts show that the Uber driver arrived at 12:08 a.m. It took a few moments for Molina's friend and the Uber driver to locate each other, so she got in the car and said goodbye to Molina, around 12:11 a.m.
Surveillance video that captured Joseph Knight's murder shows that he was killed two miles away from Molina's home — at 12:12 a.m.
As police investigated further, they found that Gaeta had been using one of Molina's old cellphones, which remained logged into his email and social media accounts, the civil complaint states.
According to the lawsuit, around noon on December 14, Detective Myers sent a text to Mischa Hepner, the deputy county attorney assigned to Molina's case. He told Hepner that numerous witnesses had confirmed Molina's alibi, and that it was "highly unlikely" Molina murdered Knight.
"I'd recommend having [Jorge] released ... the information we are getting now is leading us more towards Jorge's mom's boyfriend, Marcos," a text from Myers to Hepner states, according to the lawsuit.
"He'll be released Monday," Hepner replied, apparently indifferent to the fact that an innocent man was set to spend that Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in jail. Yet when Monday came, Molina still wasn't released. Nor was he released the day after. It wasn't until Wednesday, December 19, that Molina was finally freed.
In the meantime, a press release sent out by the Avondale Police Department ensured that Molina would never be able to live down his wrongful arrest.
Three days after detectives collected evidence indicating that Molina's alibi was solid and another person, Gaeta, was a far more likely culprit, Avondale police sent a press release to dozens of local media outlets naming Molina as the murder suspect in the Knight case. The press release made no mention of any of the evidence exonerating Molina, nor did it mention that Avondale police were currently investigating another man for the murder.
The county attorney's office never filed charges against Molina. Yet the office has still refused to provide Molina's public defender, Jack Litwak, with a turn-down letter indicating their refusal to prosecute Molina, which Molina needs to seal his arrest record and move on with his life, the lawsuit states.
Molina was released, but his highly publicized arrest had permanently altered his life. He lost his job at Macy's. When he started looking for a new job, he couldn't get an interview or pass a background check, since a quick Google search showed he had been accused of murder.
His car was impounded during the investigation. Without any income to support himself, his car was repossessed, making it even harder to find employment. Molina had to drop out of school, having missed too many classes of the accelerated college program he was enrolled in.
He's scared of police. He says he has nightmares about sitting alone in that jail cell. He began to isolate himself, afraid that if he left home, his phone may track him to another crime scene, or that he may be treated as a killer by people who recognize his widely spread mugshot.
"It was so irresponsible, not only of the police department, but of Google," Molina told ABC15 in August. If they're going to be giving police departments this type of data, shouldn't they be educated on what to do with it and how to look at it?"
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Though New Times provided the city of Avondale with a copy of the civil complaint, a spokesperson for the city said they could not comment on Molina's wrongful arrest or the allegations in the lawsuit because they have not yet been served. To date, the Avondale police department has not apologized or admitted any wrongdoing in Molina's case. New Times was unable to connect with Molina through his attorneys.
Molina's mistaken arrest highlights why police departments' emerging reliance on Google location data in criminal investigations should be cause for concern. As the lawsuit points out, there are plenty of pitfalls with Google's data collection: Google's software allows multiple devices to be logged into the same account at the same time. Like Molina, people who were never even in an area police are looking into can mistakenly be identified by Google as being at or near a crime scene if they happen to be logged into another device.
Besides providing potentially misleading information on the actual location of a person, Google's location-tracking data doesn't indicate who the owner of a particular device is, what the access credentials to that device are (phone number or IP address), or any other information that would allow law enforcement to identify the actual user of a particular device. And the data does not indicate what type of device (phone, tablet, laptop, etc.) an account is logged into.
"In other words, Google location data merely shows a possible physical location of a device that has been used to log into someone's Google account — without revealing any identifying information of the person who is in possession of that device," the lawsuit states.