Leonides Gonzales and Renee Saldana walked into Kane County Court Thursday afternoon accused of homicide. They left the county jail Thursday night as free men.
Kane County First Assistant State's Atty. Robert Berlin asked a judge Thursday to withdraw charges against the men for the 1999 murder of John Dawson, 41, of Aurora.
"We felt we didn't have sufficient evidence to convict either one of them because of new developments in the investigation," Berlin said Friday. "But it's not an exoneration of these defendants."
Defense attorney Kathleen Colton had a different perspective. She said the case was so weak that Gonzales, 23, and Saldana, 20, both of Aurora, never should have been charged.
Gonzales was jailed March 22; Saldana on April 12.
Berlin said a witness interview Thursday prompted prosecutors to withdraw the charges.
He left open the option of re-filing charges, however, if new evidence emerges.
Colton said police had unfairly targeted Gonzales and Saldana because authorities believed the men were involved in other crimes but never caught.
"If you want to assess blame," Colton said, "you have to start with the Aurora police, but the state should have been a lot more selective and more demanding of this investigation."
Dawson was shot to death Nov. 9, 1999, while asleep in his home in the 300 block of South Lincoln Avenue. Colton said police were "bamboozled" by two brothers, one of whom is serving a sentence in prison for aggravated discharge of a firearm. An informant implicated one of the brothers, Jorle Ortiz, and police interviewed him in February at a Puerto Rico prison, where Ortiz was being held on a drug conviction.
Ortiz denied involvement in Dawson's murder and instead gave authorities the first names of three men. Two were Renee and Tony, Gonzales' nickname. Ortiz also suggested investigators speak with his brother, Samuel, who gave authorities a similar account.
Colton said the Ortiz brothers lived directly behind Dawson at the time of the murder and that Samuel Ortiz was in the Robinson Correctional Facility after being convicted of shooting at another man.
"It's a pretty big leap of faith for a prosecutor to look at this and decide there was a case," Colton said.
But Berlin countered: "I don't think that this was a vexatious prosecution where we were out to get people or the investigation was shoddy. The evidence we had at the time we charged the defendants was different than what we had Thursday."
He declined to discuss evidence but said the investigation is ongoing. Colton was shielding Gonzales and Saldana from interviews Friday. But Saldana's mother, Yolanda Alegria, said she was planning a family reunion and cookout Saturday to celebrate her son's homecoming.
On Monday, he's planning to apply for a job, Alegria said.
"I always knew my prayers were going to be answered," she said, choking back tears. "I'm very happy that he's home."