Though he avoided arrest for more than 27 years, Santa Barbara murder suspect Miguel Godoy Morales was snatched by the long arm of the law last month in a rural area outside Tijuana, Mexico. Morales is accused of stabbing and killing Antonio Pineda in 1984 during a drunken brawl over a girl. He’ll be tried in a Mexican court and, if convicted of homicide, spend 30 to 60 years in prison there. “Today is our day,” said Santa Barbara Police Chief Cam Sanchez as he announced the arrest. “A case might be cold, but it’s not forgotten. … We’re going to find you as long as it takes.”
According to a News-Press article published May 28, 1984, the day after the fatal stabbing took place, the men had been arguing on and off for the past week when things escalated in the Las Conchas bar on East Haley Street. The two took the fight outside where Morales reportedly stabbed Pineda four times — piercing the victim’s heart — on the 500 block of Olive Street. Santa Barbara detectives immediately issued an arrest warrant for Morales, but the 52-year-old Mexican national was never seen in town again.
Chief Sanchez, accompanied by department spokesperson Sgt. Lorenzo Duarte, held a press conference yesterday afternoon at SBPD headquarters to explain the legal and political routes they took to find Morales. In 2004, Santa Barbara detectives traveled to San Diego to meet with state and federal law enforcement agents and file an Article 4 case against Morales. The filing, if granted, allows Mexican authorities to arrest and prosecute a suspect living in Mexico if he or she committed murder in the United States. The statute of limitations for murder in Mexico — which doesn’t have the death penalty — is 45 years.
The detectives and agents then traveled to Mexico City for a sit-down with members of the Procuraduria General de la Republica (PGR) — the country’s attorney general’s office — who accepted the Article 4 case. A federal judge in Mexico then issued a warrant for Morales’s arrest, but several years passed without any sign of him. Sanchez said he’d periodically drive to the PGR office in Los Angeles to “grease the skids,” as he put it, keeping the Morales case and others on the foreign agency’s to-do list. That kind of effort and attention “moves you up in line,” Sanchez said.
On October 12 of this year — after surveilling their suspect’s home and workplace off and on for nearly three decades — U.S. federal agents spotted Morales fixing a broken-down car near his house. They approached him and explained he was being arrested for an outstanding domestic violence warrant. Only when Morales was flown to Mexico City was he told he was in custody for murder as well. “I heard he was extremely shocked,” said Sanchez, explaining Morales must have felt quite comfortable after all these years as he never changed his name or driver’s license.
Now, Sanchez went on, Mexican prosecutors will compile their case against Morales, using interviews and information gathered by Santa Barbara detectives, two of whom came out of retirement during the final push to capture their fugitive. The SBPD has re-contacted a number of witnesses in the event Mexican authorities want to gather additional statements and verify prior accounts. When Sgt. Duarte informed the victim’s wife of Morales’s arrest, she expressed bittersweet gratitude: “I still love the man as I did back in 1984, but I’m happy I now have closure,” Duarte remembered her saying.
Though this closes a major chapter in the 1984 murder case, Sanchez explained 21 city homicide files remain open and unsolved. About a third of that number don’t have suspects; the rest have suspects, but they’ve fled the area. One who was recently identified and located was killed in a Mexican prison before he could be prosecuted.
The chief — a former homicide detective who developed the department’s Cold Case Unit when he took the helm — said his detectives never let go of unsolved crimes. “You don’t forget about the suspects, the victims, the families,” he said. Sanchez explained that he gets a Christmas card from a murder victim’s mother every year asking that he give her the ultimate Christmas gift of arresting her son’s killer. “I’ve been here 11 years, and I’ve received 11 cards,” he said. “I’ll get another one in a couple months.”