Prosecutors drop case against man wrongly accused of bomb threat

One digit derailed an investigation into a Caltrain bomb threat when police and prosecutors pursued the wrong suspect, a developmentally disabled man who falsely confessed to the crime.

Antonio Santiago III, 26, of Pacifica was arrested on suspicion of the August 2009 incident in which cops scoured Caltrain for a bomb that wasn’t there. He spent two months in jail and was facing a three-year prison sentence, according to the San Mateo District Attorney’s Office.

Detectives traced the alarming phone call to Santiago’s cell phone — or so they thought. The last four digits of the phone number they traced was 2955, when it should have been 2555, defense attorney Jeff Hayden said. The discovery wasn’t made until earlier
this year.

Authorities initially figured it was an open-and-shut case. The reason, Hayden said, is because Santiago, who has a low IQ, falsely confessed to the crime.

He said he was “sitting around with friends” and “was bored” when he called Caltrain about the bomb, prosecutors said. Santiago pleaded no contest Aug. 27, 2009.

“[Developmentally disabled] people are more vulnerable to falsely confessing,” said Richard Leo, a law professor at the University of San Francisco and an expert in false confessions.

Hayden said he doesn’t suspect foul play by law enforcement. He said he didn’t think interrogators knew Santiago was a “blank canvas” who would have agreed with anything they said.

In March, Hayden filed a motion to withdraw Santiago’s plea. Other evidence seemed to exonerate the Pacifica man. Authorities had obtained recordings of some 15 calls made by the actual perpetrator to the transit agency information line, Hayden said. Only one call was a bomb warning, while the others were for general information, he said.

There was a clear discrepancy in the voice, Hayden said. The caller sounded “direct, forceful,” while Santiago’s speech “is very halting, timid sounding, broken,” he said.

Also, before the bomb threat was made, the caller phoned in complaining about wanting a refund after losing his money in a Caltrain ticket machine. He provided his home address in that call, which did not match Santiago’s, Hayden said.

It was not immediately clear whether officers planned to track down the real caller. A call to the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office, which is responsible for patrolling Caltrain, was not immediately returned. Prosecuting the caller after such a mix-up, however, may be difficult, Hayden said.

Santiago’s reaction to his case’s dismissal was to be expected.

“He cried when I told him,” Hayden said. “This tremendous pressure for a year, and he never got so much as a traffic ticket. This has been a really horrific experience.”

maldax@sfexaminer.com

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