A man wanted in the fatal stabbing of a West Friendship small-business owner has fled to a northern region of Mexico where Howard County police must navigate a lengthy and difficult legal process to retrieve him.
Mexican authorities will not give up Joel Nunez Valles, 32, unless Howard County prosecutors promise not to seek the death penalty in the mid-October killing of Abolinar Avila, 50, also known as Juan Miguel Gonzalez, who ran a lawn-care business out of his home-office on a farm near the Howard County Fairgrounds.
Capt. Tara Nelson, chief of Howard County's criminal investigations bureau, said this week that police are awaiting results of a crucial forensic test that they hope will give them enough evidence to begin the extradition process.
The amount of evidence required for a successful extradition is far greater than what is required to obtain an arrest warrant for someone in the United States. Between 1980 and 1994, Mexico returned eight suspects to the United States, a leading extradition expert said, although the pace has picked up in recent years.
"Mexico has had a reputation for years of not extraditing people to the United States, and when they do, they move incredibly slow," said Douglas McNabb, a Washington attorney who specializes in international criminal defense. "That's been true up until a year ago, and it wasn't until recently that they would extradite someone facing life in prison. Mexico equated that to death."
The killing, the third of four in the county last year, was reported Oct. 19 by Hal Streaker, the landlord of the victim, who was known to virtually all of his business acquaintances as Gonzalez.
Gonzalez had not been seen on the West Friendship farm, where he lived and ran his business, for almost two days before Streaker walked up to the front door of his office, a construction trailer inside a large farm storage shed.
A laborer who spoke little English had waited the previous day for Gonzalez to emerge. On the second day, the worker found Streaker and pulled him over to the trailer while frantically repeating, "Juan, Juan."
Streaker, who owns the farm and a paving company, said that the normally locked door was slightly ajar and creaked open when he pushed it about 8:15 a.m.
Streaker said he found Gonzalez lying facedown on the floor, his head on his forearm. Streaker said he checked the man's neck for a pulse, and he "was as cold as a cucumber."
Little blood was evident - just bloodied tissues that looked as if someone had tried to wipe up a small stain on the floor. Only weeks later, after police had removed the tape marking the crime scene, did Streaker see a larger stain.
Police originally labeled the case "an unattended death" until autopsy results confirmed a homicide. Gonzalez had been stabbed multiple times with a small object. Police would not reveal any more details about the weapon.
"You could tell that there had been a scuffle," Streaker said. "Things were in disarray by the door."
He said that Valles had done lawn-care work for Gonzalez for a short time, but that Gonzalez had fired him about two weeks before his death. Gonzalez worked seven days a week and frequently sent money to and spent weekends with his two children, who Streaker believes lived in Columbia with their mother.
Three trucks that Gonzalez used are sitting on the farm in the 13000 block of Route 144.
It is unclear when Valles, who did part-time labor, fled the country. His return is governed by a 1980 treaty between the United States and Mexico.
Before beginning the extradition process, McNabb said, detectives should first request a "red notice" through the Washington bureau of Interpol, the International Criminal Police Organization. The notice alerts Interpol's 184 member countries that Valles is wanted in the United States, effectively keeping him in Mexico.
"If he attempts to leave Mexico and enter another country, security at that port of entry will run his name, the notice will pop up, and he will be arrested," said McNabb, who frequently represents people facing extradition.
The next step is the formal extradition process. County detectives must complete multiple forms and include enough compelling evidence for the packet to win approval from Maryland, the U.S. State Department and Mexican diplomats, who review the materials to determine compliance with the treaty. McNabb said that the Department of Justice will play a role assisting Howard police.
Once the packet is approved, Mexican authorities will arrest Valles, but he has the right to an extradition hearing in Mexico and an appeal if a judge rules that he should be returned to Howard County.
McNabb said that detectives must be careful - even have the packet translated into Spanish by a certified translator - or the materials will get kicked back to them repeatedly for omissions or errors. He also said that the fact that Valles and Gonzalez are Mexican citizens will not matter, nor will direct contact with local authorities in the state of Chihuahua, where county police believe Valles is hiding.
"Howard County police want this guy back as quickly as possible, and if they are thinking six months or so, that's not going to happen," McNabb said. "It could be years, depending on whether the suspect has money to engage quality counsel or appeal. It could be a long time."
Nelson said that Howard County has little experience with the extradition process, but police know that the packet must contain very convincing details.
"We have waited to move forward with this so that we can present the strongest case possible," she said. "We realize that we can't go back and add to the packet after the fact."
Howard County police have set up a tip line, 410-313-2283, that can take information in English or Spanish about the killing of Abolinar Avila, also known as Juan Miguel Gonzalez. Police are offering a reward of up to $5,000 for information that leads to the arrest of the suspect, Joel Nunez Valles.