Unless you work in a dangerous profession, you probably aren’t afraid of being murdered when you go to your job every day. Twenty-year-old Nancy DePriest didn’t have a fear in her mind when she went to work at Pizza Hut in Austin, Texas. Like any other day, she started opening the store, but then tragedy struck.
In October 1988, DePriest was attacked at work early in the morning. When her manager didn’t hear from her, he went into the store and found DePriest lifeless in the bathroom. Her murder still pierces the emotions of everyone involved, even over 30 years later.
It Seemed Like a Regular Workday
It was a normal October day in 1988 when Nancy DePriest reported for work at Pizza Hut in Austin, Texas. The 20-year-old wife and mother arrived at work at seven in the morning to prepare the pizza dough for lunch before the other employees arrived. Shortly after she began her shift, a man knocked on the door.
The man said he was a soda machine repairman. She didn’t think much of it, so she let him into the restaurant. Although she didn’t know it, the second she opened the door, she was doomed. Once inside, DePriest realized the man was not who he claimed to be.
A Robbery Gone Wrong
When he got inside, the man pulled out a gun and ordered DePriest to give him the money from the safe. After DePriest gave him the money, he told her to remove her clothes. The man was still pointing a gun at her, so she did as she was told.
He then took out handcuffs and bound her into the restaurant’s bathroom. DePriest was terrified and cried as the man assaulted her. She thought he would leave her tied up there after he was finished, but he proceeded to shoot her in the head because she had seen his face.
No Answer at Pizza Hut
Meanwhile, DePriest’s manager had been calling the store repeatedly to make sure everything was alright. When she didn’t answer, he decided to go into the restaurant to see what was wrong. Initially, her manager thought DePriest hadn’t shown up for work yet, but he made a shocking discovery.
When her manager arrived at the Pizza Hut around 9:30 a.m., he found the door was unlocked. He went inside and found DePriest handcuffed, naked, and lifeless in a pool of blood on the bathroom floor. He immediately called the police, and she was rushed to the hospital, still clinging to life.
She Didn’t Make It
When first responders got to DePriest, she was still alive but in critical condition. They took her to the nearest hospital and rushed her into emergency surgery. DePriest was then placed on life support while her family members were notified. Her husband called DePriest’s mom to break the news.
DePriest’s husband, Todd, told his mother-in-law, Jeanette Popp, that there had been a robbery, and DePriest had been shot. Popp asked how bad it was, and he told her she was on life support. They rushed to be by her side, but she never regained consciousness and passed away later that day.
The Investigation Begins
The murder occurred before the restaurant opened, so there were no witnesses. As police began their investigation, they found that there were no signs of forced entry, and the motive appeared to be robbery because money was missing from the safe. Police scoured the restaurant for evidence.
Investigators found a .22 caliber shell casing from the murder weapon in the bathroom. DePriest’s autopsy revealed that she had been sexually assaulted, so the police tried to piece together the evidence they had from the DNA found on her and at the crime scene.
A Break in the Case
Two weeks after the murder, investigators got their first break in the case when two employees from another Pizza Hut chain visited the one where DePriest was murdered. Twenty-two-year-old Chris Ochoa and 19-year-old Richard Danziger went to have dinner and a drink.
They ordered a beer and toasted DePriest. Danziger raised his glass, saying, “To Nancy DePriest, we won’t forget you.” Ochoa found the toast strange. When DePriest’s co-workers overheard them, they quickly alerted the police, and Ochoa and Danziger were brought in for questioning.
Grilled for Information
Ochoa said detectives started questioning him about what he knew regarding the murder of DePriest. He told them he didn’t have any information. The interrogation continued for hours until Sgt. Hector Polanco told Ochoa he knew he wasn’t capable of killing DePriest, but Ochoa had to have some information.
Ochoa kept telling Polanco that he didn’t know anything. Sgt. Polanco was a 12-year veteran on the force who had taken over the investigation. He was determined to get some information out of Ochoa and would do so by any means.
Although Ochoa said he didn’t know anything, Sgt. Polanco pulled out pictures of death row and told Ochoa, “This is where you will live until you die.” He also called in Danziger and his then-girlfriend, Donna Angstadt, for questioning and didn’t go easier on them.
Angstadt said Polanco was horrible to her; he pounded his fists on the table and got close to her face. At one point, she was so scared that he was coming across to grab her, so she got up and backed into the wall behind her.
They Claimed to Have an Alibi
Angstadt told investigators that she and Danziger were together at her apartment during the time of the murder. She even took a lie detector test, but the police said she failed. Polygraph tests aren’t accepted as evidence because they aren’t always accurate, but that didn’t change anything.
After the interrogations, the police didn’t believe Angstadt, Danziger, or Ochoa. Polanco said Angstadt’s alibi wasn’t strong enough because there were no witnesses to verify their whereabouts. He also believed the polygraph results, which showed that she was lying.
A Sudden Confession
Two days after Danziger and Angstadt were subpoenaed for questioning, Ochoa confessed to the assault and murder of DePriest. He also revealed that Danziger was his accomplice. Ochoa told the police that he and Danziger had entered the restaurant with keys they obtained.
Ochoa said they found DePriest alone preparing pizzas. After ordering her to remove money from the safe, he said they bound, gagged, assaulted and shot her. Ochoa revealed that he was the one who pulled the trigger. The DNA evidence backed up his claims.
The Proof Is in the DNA (Kind Of)
Evidence collected from DePriest’s body and the crime scene confirmed that Ochoa and Danziger were the killers. A blood sample provided by Ochoa matched the DNA found inside DePriest. Forensic scientist Edward Blake used a single gene to connect Ochoa to the evidence.
In 1988, forensic technology wasn’t as advanced as it is today, so they only had a single gene to compare Ochoa’s DNA to the evidence. According to Blake, the gene matched Ochoa and about 16 percent of the population in Texas. But that didn’t stop them from convicting him.
A Similar Piece of Evidence
The DNA wasn’t the only forensic evidence. A piece of hair found at the crime scene was microscopically similar to Danziger’s. There wasn’t enough data on the various characteristics of human hair, but he was a close enough match to the one they found.
Given the matching hair and DNA sample, police believed they had enough evidence to put Danziger and Ochoa away for life. Prosecutors thought the case was solid, so they moved forward to charge the two men with rape and murder. They also had help from Ochoa.
A Star Witness
Not only did Ochoa confess, but he also became the state’s star witness against Danziger. He agreed to testify against his friend because the prosecutor offered him a life sentence instead of the death penalty. Advised by his lawyer, Ochoa agreed to their terms.
Initially, Ochoa blamed Danziger, saying he was the one who pulled the trigger. However, Ochoa changed his story at the trial and claimed he shot DePriest, not Danziger, because she recognized him. Consequently, Danziger was charged with rape instead of murder.
Too Much Against Him
Danziger pled “not guilty,” insisting he was innocent and with his girlfriend at the time of the murder. Unfortunately, with the hair match and Ochoa’s testimony, the evidence against him was too great. It only took seven and a half minutes for the jury to deliberate.
The jury found Danziger guilty of aggravated sexual assault; they sentenced him to life in prison. He was disappointed and confused by the ruling. Danziger didn’t know why his friend would testify against him, but he had to face his punishment.
In return for his confession and testimony against Danziger, Ochoa avoided the death penalty and received a life sentence. Although spending his life in prison would be horrible, Ochoa thought it would be better than being put to death.
In prison, Ochoa prayed because he was tired and wanted to end it all. There was no chance for parole, and he knew he would sit there for the rest of his life. Ochoa felt horrible, but there was nothing he could do to change what had happened to him and Danziger.
Her Family Was Relieved
When DePriest’s family was told that the killers had been caught, they felt relieved. They didn’t want to deal with a long, drawn-out investigation and trial because it would have been more painful. Although it didn’t bring DePriest back, her family was satisfied to have answers.
Popp was pleased that her daughter’s killers wouldn’t be able to hurt anyone else. She thought they could put everything behind them and start to move on with their grieving and healing process. However, the case was far from over.
Danziger’s Life in Prison Was a Nightmare
Three years into his life sentence, Danziger was assaulted by another inmate, who mistook him for someone else. He was repeatedly kicked in the head with steel-toed boots leaving him critically injured. Danziger survived the attack but suffered permanent and severe brain damage.
As a result of his injuries, Danziger was transferred to a mental institution to serve the rest of his life sentence. He needed round-the-clock care because he could no longer take care of himself. He kept getting the short end of the stick.
A Mysterious Letter
The story didn’t end there. Eight years after Ochoa and Danziger were sent to jail for DePriest’s murder, Austin police received a letter from Achim Josef Marino. He was serving three life sentences in another Texas prison for a string of robberies and sexual assaults.
Marino’s letter began, “Re: Murder Confession.” His notes revealed detailed knowledge of the crime as well as a confession that he was the one who killed and sexually assaulted DePriest. He wanted to clear the names of the people who had taken the blame.
A Spiritual Awakening
In his letter, Marino said he had undergone a spiritual awakening while incarcerated. He had found religion and become a born-again Christian. Due to his newfound spirituality, the murder of DePriest weighed on his conscience.
Marino said it was part of his Alcoholics Anonymous program and Christian lifestyle to confess. He wrote, “I am 100 percent responsible for the death, the robbery, rape, and murder of Miss DePriest.” However, he never received a response.
A Year Later and Another Letter
He never heard back from the police, so Marino sent another letter. This time he sent it not only to the police but also to then-Governor Bush’s office as well as to the district attorney. In this note, he shared evidence linking him to the crime that could be found at his parents’ home.
Police found a money bag, the handcuffs used on DePriest, and the murder weapon exactly where Marino said they would be. The police then spent two years searching for a link between Marino, Ochoa, and Danziger.
The Letter Slipped Through the Cracks
Despite the confession letters, nothing happened to Marino right away. Mike Jones, a spokesperson for the governor’s office, said thousands of letters from inmates are sent to the governor each year, and standard policy calls for forwarding them to the appropriate law enforcement agency.
Jones said Marino’s letter went in a different pile because it indicated that a copy had already been sent to District Attorney Ronnie Earle’s office. The governor’s office didn’t forward it to avoid duplication. Therefore, the governor never saw the letter. Earle also said he never got the letter.
Marino Kept Confessing
When he realized he wasn’t getting a response, Marino confessed to anyone who would listen, insisting he acted alone. When he wrote to Governor Bush, he said, “You are legally and morally obligated to contact Danziger and Ochoa’s attorneys.” He didn’t realize it had never been received.
It took two years for the police to notify the district attorney’s office of the confession letter. The Austin police couldn’t connect Marino to Ochoa and Danziger, so they finally had to share the confession and evidence they found after holding on to it for so long.
Scared to Be Truthful
When the police investigated Marino’s confession, they visited Ochoa in prison. In 1998, Ochoa maintained his guilt. He was afraid the officers were trying to implicate him in another crime. To stay out of trouble, Ochoa told them what he thought they wanted to hear.
Danziger and Ochoa had already been in prison for a decade, and Ochoa didn’t want to get in more trouble. A year after the police visited him, Ochoa finally reached out for help because he knew he was innocent. The case needed to be reinvestigated.
Taking a Second Look
In 1999, Ochoa reached out to the Innocence Project, and they wrote to Texas authorities. Between the letter from the Innocence Project and the confession from Marino, District Attorney Earle decided to take another look at the case. He was startled by his discoveries.
Earle had all the new evidence tested. Marino’s gun proved to be a match to the murder weapon, and the DNA found at the crime scene also belonged to Marino. The DNA evidence was not a match for Ochoa or Danziger. Earle knew the two men were not guilty.
Why Did Ochoa Confess?
Although it defies logic why an innocent person would confess to a crime and maintain their guilt, Ochoa had his reasons. Ochoa and Danziger looked guilty because of the officer at the heart of the investigation: Polanco. During the interrogation, Ochoa was coerced into confessing.
Polanco told Ochoa, “We are going to charge you with this crime whether you had anything to do with it or not. This is a big case, and they want somebody.” Polanco threatened Ochoa by telling him what would happen to him in prison.
Ochoa Was a Puppet
Danziger’s attorney, Berkley Bettis, believes Ochoa was a puppet for the detectives. They threatened him with the death penalty and kept him in an interrogation room until he did what the police wanted. Polanco fed him lines to make the confession appear credible.
The police assaulted and threatened him. They also denied Ochoa access to his attorney in order to get him to confess. The police rejected these accusations, but it was the only reason Ochoa said he committed a crime that he had nothing to do with.
What Really Happened
In October 1988, Marino robbed, assaulted, and killed DePriest. After he shot her, he looked for the shell casing but couldn’t find it. He decided to leave it behind, so he packed up his things, wiped down the counters, and left DePriest to die.
Marino had recently been in prison, where he detested one of the female guards. When he got out, he told himself that he would kill the first white woman who resembled her, and DePriest was the unlucky victim. She was the first woman Marino saw.
Marino confessed to DePriest’s murder several times. The police had two written confessions. However, during his 2002 trial, he changed his plea to not guilty by reason of insanity. The defense team hired a psychiatrist, who concluded that Marino knew right from wrong when he killed her.
He said he changed his plea to protest the guilty verdict of Andrea Yates. A jury rejected her insanity plea and sentenced her to life in prison for drowning her five children in her home. Marino didn’t think it was right, so he claimed insanity drove him to kill DePriest.
Not Seeking the Death Penalty
Marino was already serving three life sentences and faced receiving a fourth for the murder of DePriest. Prosecutors would have sought the death penalty in most cases, but DePriest’s mom asked them not to after having a meeting with Marino in prison.
When Popp met Marino, he said he wanted to be executed instead of spending his life in prison. She couldn’t support that because Popp didn’t wish Marino’s mom to lose her child as she had lost DePriest. Popp said, “I will not stain my daughter’s memory with that man’s blood.”
He Had All the Answers
It might seem odd that Popp would want to meet her daughter’s killer, but she lost faith in the justice system after two men were wrongfully convicted. Marion was the only one who knew what really happened, so she wanted to ask him questions.
Popp asked him why he killed DePriest, to which he replied, “The voices in my head told me I had to make a human sacrifice.” Marino also told her that DePriest didn’t fight or see that he was going to shoot her. He then apologized for killing her.
Justice Was Served
It took many years and two men being wrongfully imprisoned, but the right person was finally convicted for DePriest’s murder. In 2002, Marino received his fourth life sentence for the 1988 crime. He is still in prison in Texas and will stay there until he dies.
His insanity plea did not work because a second psychiatrist testified that Marino’s attempt to cover up the crime proved that he knew killing DePriest was wrong. None of his lawyer’s arguments stopped the jury from finding him guilty.
Ochoa and Danziger Were Released
In 2001, Ochoa and Danziger were released from prison thanks to the Innocence Project. Fortunately, technological advances helped prove that the DNA found in DePriest did not match Ochoa or Danziger, which exonerated them from the crime. They were finally free after 12 years.
Ochoa said he felt horrible for implicating Danziger, but the police made him believe he would die if he didn’t confess. Once they were released from jail, he felt more comfortable sharing what the police did to him and how Polanco played a part in it.
Polanco’s Questionable Tactics
Once Ochoa revealed what happened during his interrogation that led to a false confession, authorities looked into Polanco’s tactics. It wasn’t the first time he was questioned. Polanco was accused of coercing a false murder confession and lying on the witness stand.
Polanco was fired but later exonerated by a judge. He was reinstated and stayed on the police force despite doing illegal things to close a case. He sent two innocent people to prison because he wanted to look good to the public and his superiors.
Ochoa Is Guilty of Something
Although he didn’t kill DePriest, Ochoa is guilty of not having the courage to say he didn’t do it. He also implicated another innocent man. Danziger always maintained his innocence, but he spent over a decade in prison because of Ochoa.
If Ochoa hadn’t said they committed the murder, Danziger wouldn’t have been in prison or brutally beaten. Ochoa will have to carry the guilt of his friend’s brain damage for the rest of his life. Ochoa said he was too afraid to stand up for them.
Suing for Wrongful Conviction
Danziger and Ochoa sued the City of Austin for being wrongfully convicted for the murder of DePriest. They wanted compensation for spending 12 years in jail and being coerced into confessing. Due to his brain injuries, Danziger’s sister acted as his legal guardian during the proceedings.
The men received $9 million and $5.5 million settlements, respectively. Danziger also received an additional $950,000 from Travis County because of the injuries he sustained while incarcerated in their prison. However, the legal battle didn’t end there for either of them.
Danziger Sued Ochoa
While Ochoa was threatened into confessing, it is still unknown why he took Danziger down with him. After everything was said and done, Danziger sued Ochoa for falsely incriminating him. Ochoa paid him $500,000 and assigned Danziger all of his state compensation to settle the case.
Danziger’s sister has been taking care of him since he was released from prison. The money he received from the lawsuits has helped with his care and medical bills. He shouldn’t have been in jail in the first place and didn’t deserve what happened to him.
Change in the System
After finding out about the false confession, DA Earle became one of the first prosecutors to announce that his office would voluntarily re-examine more than 400 murder and assault cases involving DNA evidence. Earle wanted to make sure that this hadn’t happened in other cases.
Because forensic science has advanced since DePriest’s case, Earle believed other people could have been wrongfully convicted due to poor DNA testing technology.
It Still Angers People
The murder might have occurred over 30 years ago, but people are still angered by it. Many people believe Polanco should be in jail for using illegal interrogation tactics. It was a terrible injustice that wouldn’t have been solved without Marino’s confession.
Many also feel that Ochoa should be in jail for taking Danziger down with him. People don’t think that he deserved money from the settlement because he was the one who confessed. Some say Ochoa should be charged with perjury for lying under oath.