A minor domestic violence incident that turns into charges that could mean potentially life in prison. A lead detective who is friends with the victim’s family, and harasses the defendant’s family and everyone around him to intimidate them from helping the accused. Alleged fabricated charges and a racist, discriminatory system that has it out for Latinos and protects their own at all costs.
It sounds like a movie. The Echeverria family wishes it was so, and they could turn it off.But it’s a reality they’ve faced since their youngest son was arrested in Great Falls, Montana, following a fight with his former girlfriend that has him facing an upcoming trial that, if convicted, could sentence him to as many as 50 years behind bars.
A Relationship Gone Wrong
Michael Echeverria, 28, grew up in North Hollywood and graduated from California State University Northridge (CSUN) with an accounting degree. He and the alleged victim (whose identity is not disclosed by the Sun /El Sol because of an accusation of rape) met here in the San Fernando Valley and actually lived in Echeverria’s parents’ home for four years before the relationship started to deteriorate.
There were fights and disagreements, often when they drank, his family concedes.
“I saw her hitting my son,” says Israel Echeverria, the young man’s father.
According to Daisy Chavez, one of his sisters, the girlfriend’s family “did not agree with the relationship because he’s Hispanic and she’s white.”
But starting in early 2017, the couple started to fall apart.
“She said that she wanted to be with him, then she would say no,” Chavez says, describing the rift between them. They speculate that Michael was seeing someone else and this may have provoked the rupture.
Either way, they say Michael was not interested in getting back with his girlfriend.
Then, all of a sudden, the girlfriend decided to go to Great Falls, Montana, where she has family. But while she was there she would constantly call and text Michael, telling him to come to her, until he finally decided to do it.
“She even sent him a porno video,” Chavez relates.
Chavez has done her own investigation into the phone calls, texts and communication between Echeverria and his ex-girlfriend, and concludes that she “lured” him out there after planning to get him in trouble.
She says that before leaving for Montana, the ex-girlfriend googled “domestic violence laws in California and Montana.”
The Problems Begin
On Sept. 6, 2017, Michael — without the family knowing — headed to Montana. By 9 p.m. that night he had been arrested.
He was arrested at the Heritage Inn hotel on assault and kidnapping charges after allegedly beating up his girlfriend in the midst of a drunken domestic dispute where apparently they were both hurt.
He was later charged with three counts of violation of privacy in communications for allegedly calling the woman’s family and threatening to kill them. And this past May, Echeverria was charged with rape.
Echeverria has pleaded not guilty to all the charges and awaits a trial set for Sept. 17.
He remains in jail after a rollercoaster bail process, where $150,000 grew to $1.5 million cash before coming down to a $500,000 bond. At one point, the bail was denied because the prosecutor alleged that Echeverria posed the risk of fleeing to his father’s native Guatemala.
He remains in jail while his family in the San Fernando Valley advocates for him, tries to gather evidence to support his innocence and rails against a “‘good ole boy’s’ justice system in Montana” where the lead detective is friends with the alleged victim’s family, and claims Latinos are discriminated in jail because of the color of their skin.
“Hispanic people are treated like trash,” his father said.
Chavez says that Michael “does deserve to pay for what he did,” as they don’t dispute the domestic violence incident. But, she said, that all the other charges aren’t true — especially the rape charge.
He Denies the Charges
“We had consensual sex,” Echeverria himself emphasizes on a phone call from jail with the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol.
He admits he’s not perfect, but says that everything thrown against him is not true.
And, he adds, that “my rights to an unbiased due process have been violated.”
He said that the case has “turned into a personal vendetta against me, rather than a fair, just” legal process.
“They have used power and authority to charge me with crimes I did not commit,” Echevrria said. “Because of a domestic abuse 10-minute fight I’m facing a lifetime in prison.”
He said that his former girlfriend was out of the hospital in less than a day after the incident, and was not as injured as she claims. He himself was also injured in the altercation.
Echeverria then described discriminatory treatment towards him while in jail.
He said he’s been called “Mara Salvatrucha” — a reference to the dangerous Central American gang – because his mother is from El Salvador. He also said he’s been called “wetback” and “enchilada,” that letters written to him in Spanish were not delivered (the family has filed a complaint with the Montana Human Rights Bureau), and that he was placed in solitary confinement and in chains for 30 days.
“Here in Montana, they hate Hispanics,” Echeverria said. “Here, it’s a different world. It’s scary. I’m hated because I’m Latino.”
Great Falls has a population of about 58,000 inhabitants, of which 88 percent are Caucasian. Latinos make up about 3.5 percent of the residents, followed by 1.1 percent who are African American.
The family says they have been intimidated, particularly by the lead detective in the case who is friends with the alleged victim’s family but has remained on the case — which they say is in a clear conflict of interest. They find very suspicious that the lead detective, Great Falls Police Detective Katie Cunningham, was at the alleged victim’s sister’s home when the domestic dispute occurred.
One of Echeverria’s friends, Robert Fuentes, who flew to Montana to testify on his behalf in the case, was later arrested for contacting the alleged victim and trying to come to an understanding with her. Echeverria, Fuentes and the ex-girlfriend had been friends forever, the family said, and they note the lead detective knew about the phone call.
Fuentes is back in California with an ankle monitor and afraid to get involved. Other friends of Echeverria are wary of heading to Montana to speak on his behalf.
Even Chavez says she’s afraid “I’m going to be arrested” for speaking out on behalf of her brother.
But she adds that all the money they’ve invested in the legal fight (more than $30,000 and counting) and everything they’ve done for Echeverria is because “we feel it’s so unfair to paint him as a monster for the color of his skin.”
Family Allegations “Have no Merit”
In a telephone interview with the San Fernando Sun/El Sol, Cascade County Attorney Josh Racki denied any wrongdoing on behalf of the prosecution.
He said the family’s allegations of conflict of interest, trumped up charges and misconduct in the case “have no merit.”
He added that the rape charge was filed nine months after Echeverria’s arrest because “we were doing forensic analysis on an inanimate object used to sexually assault the victim before charging the defendant with probable cause.”
The inanimate object was a sex toy Echeverria and his ex-girlfriend bought and used during their consensual sex encounter, the family contends.
When asked whether Echeverria’s rights were violated because he’s Hispanic, Racki promptly answered “That is entirely not true.”
He said that the Spanish language letters were not given to Echeverria because they contained “coded messages.” When asked to elaborate, Racki said he couldn’t do it because of the ongoing trial.
Pressed on the allegations of conflict of interest involving the lead detective in the case, Racki said “that’s false. There’s no conflict of interest.”
“He (Echeverria) has been treated like any other defendant,” he continued. “He has been charged with an extremely violent offense but he’s innocent until proven guilty and he has been treated similarly to any other inmate.”
But Echeverria and his family say that’s not the case. They remain hopeful in the outcome of the trail, despite a system that they say seems to be against them.
For now, Echeverria has not accepted a plea deal that would mean at least 20 years behind bars and remains steadfast that he will fight the charges against him in a court of law.
“They’re not going to sweep my life under the rug,” Echeverria said. “I have done no heinous crime. We’re fighting tooth and nail.”