Former Dallas police Officer Bryan Riser released from jail after judge says he can’t be held on capital murder charges

Bizar Male

This is a developing story and will be updated.

Former Dallas police Officer Bryan Riser was released from jail Wednesday after a judge ruled that he could not be held after his arrest last month on two counts of capital murder.

Dallas County Criminal Court Judge Audrey Moorehead found that police did not have enough evidence to keep Riser jailed. She issued the ruling after listening to more than three hours of testimony from homicide Detective Esteban Montenegro at a hearing on whether the case should go forward to a grand jury.

“This department that I used to love … they disrespected me,” Riser said after he walked out of the the county jail in the black suit and red, collared shirt he had worn when he was arrested. He carried his belongings in a white plastic bag as his family ushered him away from journalists.

Earlier, Riser, then wearing a striped jail uniform, had let out an audible sigh in the courtroom when the judge announced her decision.

County District Attorney John Creuzot said that although he believed there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute, the investigation would continue. The judge’s ruling means the case will not go to a grand jury without new evidence.

“Because of this office’s obligations under the law, we alerted the defense team and the judge of our opinion that there currently is insufficient corroboration of co-defendant statements and accomplice testimony to prosecute the case,” Creuzot said. “This does not mean the investigation is closed. We look forward to continuing our work with the Dallas Police Department on this or any other cases that are investigated in the city of Dallas.”

Police Chief Eddie García, who fired Riser days after his arrest, said in an interview with The Dallas Morning News that he was confident in the detectives’ work. He also pointed to the two arrest warrant affidavits that State District Judge Tammy Kemp had signed, on March 3 and on Monday. Detectives submitted an updated warrant affidavit to correct errors in the first one.

Riser was arrested on capital murder charges March 4 in the 2017 slayings of Albert Douglas and Lisa Saenz.

Riser, who was fired five days later, was accused in police records of hiring three men — Kevin Kidd, Emmanuel Kilpatrick and Jermon Simmons — to kill Douglas and Saenz. According to police records, Kilpatrick said Riser had ordered the killings.

Riser knew Saenz because she had lived with his father for a short time. Saenz had been a state’s witness in another killing and, when her body was recovered from the river, was wearing the same clothes she had worn in court earlier that day, Montenegro said.

Montenegro questioned Riser in 2017 about Saenz because he knew Riser had looked up the case she was a witness in on a city computer. Montenegro said Wednesday that he had heard the hit was a “favor for his father.”

Montenegro admitted he could not find a direct connection between Riser and Douglas.

Montenegro said Kidd, Kilpatrick and Simmons used the same method to kill Douglas and Saenz. He said Kilpatrick told police he grabbed the victims from behind, handcuffed them and drove them to the Trinity River, where they were shot and dumped into the water. Douglas’ body was never found.

But prosecutors say they don’t have any evidence to corroborate Kilpatrick’s story that Riser hired the three men. Texas law prohibits jurors from convicting someone solely on the testimony of an alleged accomplice.

Kilpatrick admitted to a string of killings in March 2017 that left five people dead in all: Douglas, Saenz, Cristobal Zepeda and Walton Irby Sr. and Walton Irby Jr., a father and son.

On the stand, Montenegro said the killings were related, but Riser was arrested only in connection with with the Douglas and Saenz slayings. Kilpatrick has been indicted in all the deaths except Douglas’. Dallas police obtained an arrest warrant on Monday for Kilpatrick and Kidd in Douglas’ death.

Kilpatrick is serving a life sentence after pleading guilty to the Walton killings. Kilpatrick named Riser in 2019 while lawyers were preparing for his trial related to Saenz’s killing. Kilpatrick was facing a capital murder charge, punishable by either death or life in prison without the possibility of parole. In exchange for his testimony, he was allowed to plead guilty to murder and receive a life sentence with the possibility of parole after 30 years.

Homicide Detective Esteban Montenegro answered questions from a prosecutor Wednesday during a court hearing for former Dallas police Officer Bryan Riser.(Lynda M. González / Staff Photographer)

In court, prosecutors took the rare step of publicly disagreeing with the lead detective on whether they had enough evidence to prosecute the case.

“Where we stand as a district attorney’s office right now today, we do not feel there’s sufficient probable cause for this case,” prosecutor Jason Fine told the judge after the detective’s testimony.

A tense exchange while Fine questioned Montenegro on the witness stand revealed that police and prosecutors had first discussed the case in December 2019. But prosecutors didn’t believe then that police had a solid case, just as they don’t today.

Montenegro said his only additional evidence since 2019 was three jail calls between Riser and family members that the detective believed implied Riser’s guilt.

Montenegro also pointed to text messages from Kilpatrick to Riser showing he expected to be paid $3,500 and sharing Kidd’s address, where Riser could deliver the money to them.

Montenegro insisted on the stand that enough evidence had been collected to arrest Riser and said detectives were waiting for additional information to come from outstanding search warrants.

“I believe there’s probable cause in that affidavit, yes,” he said. But he later said police hadn’t found a “smoking gun.”

Fine said the investigation remained active.

“I have no idea where this investigation is going, and if there’s sufficient probable cause down the line, we’ll take the case, bring it before a grand jury, we’ll get that indictment and take it to trial just like we do on any other case where we have the evidence,” he said.

Riser’s defense attorney, Toby Shook, said his client had nothing to do with the killings.

Former Dallas police Officer Bryan Riser sits for an examining trial in the Frank Crowley Courts Building.
Former Dallas police Officer Bryan Riser sits for an examining trial in the Frank Crowley Courts Building.(Lynda M. González / Staff Photographer)

Answering questions from Shook, Montenegro admitted he had made errors in the first probable cause affidavit used to arrest Riser. That affidavit was signed by state District Judge Tammy Kemp. One of the most egregious mistakes was writing that cellphone data placed Riser near where Saenz and Douglas were kidnapped and killed. That information was false, Montenegro said on the stand.

Montenegro asked Kemp to sign a new affidavit this week that did not include the information about the cellphone. He testified that he told Kemp that there had been errors in the original affidavit and that she signed the new document.

Defense attorneys may request hearings like the one Wednesday, called examining trials, in felony cases before prosecutors present the case to a grand jury. The hearings aren’t common. In Dallas County, such hearings are conducted before a county criminal court or magistrate court judge, not the state district judge who would oversee the rest of the case. The judge determines whether there is enough evidence to take the case to a grand jury.

Shook and Riser’s family called for an audit of the Police Department’s investigation and of the decision to arrest Riser.

”It’s been a nightmare that we haven’t been able to wake up from,” said Riser’s wife, Eboni Riser.

”It’s been a nightmare that we haven’t been able to wake up from,” said  Eboni Riser, the wife of former Dallas police Officer Bryan Riser,
”It’s been a nightmare that we haven’t been able to wake up from,” said Eboni Riser, the wife of former Dallas police Officer Bryan Riser,(Lynda M. González / Staff Photographer)

Chief stands behind decision to arrest

Fine said in court that prosecutors had told police in March that they still believed there was not enough evidence and had presented police with two options. Police could withdraw the arrest warrants and keep investigating or present the case to the district attorney’s office, which would then share the information with defense attorneys as required by law.

Chief García decided to fire and arrest Riser, Montenegro said on the stand.

García told The Dallas Morning News that he stood behind the decision to fire Riser on March 9.

Internal affairs records show Riser has been investigated multiple times for alleged procedural violations. In 2017, he faced three internal affairs investigations.

Most recently, Riser was investigated for “adverse conduct” after his arrest and was then fired.

“I feel we have met our threshold on proving the administrative allegations by a preponderance of the evidence,” García said.

A preponderance of the evidence is a lower burden than prosecutors would face in criminal court, where a jury or judge must determine guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in order to convict.

Riser and his wife leave the court on Wednesday.
Riser and his wife leave the court on Wednesday. (Tom Fox / Staff Photographer)

García said that prosecutors’ line of questioning of the investigation was “unprecedented” and that the hearing was treated like a jury trial.

He said the department would continue with its investigation.

“We didn’t have an advocate in the room on a case that was investigated with years of indecisiveness — when officers, in conjunction with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, did their duty to present facts that they felt had probable cause to make an arrest to a judge who agreed and concurred there is probable cause,” García said.

When asked whether the department could have arrested Riser in 2019, García said he could not comment on what was known before his tenure began in February. U. Reneé Hall, who was chief in 2019 and knew about the investigation, resigned at the end of 2020.

Shook said Wednesday that Hall had made the right call not to arrest Riser.

“People hammered on Chief Hall because Bryan Riser was still working, and she said at that time there wasn’t enough evidence,” he said. “Well, I think this hearing proved her correct.”

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