Chicago police officials announce murder charges against Jason Austin in 2008. The charges were later dropped, and several witnesses allege that they were coerced or beaten into implicating Austin.
  • Sun-Times Media
  • Chicago police officials announce murder charges against Jason Austin in 2008. The charges were later dropped, and several witnesses allege that they were coerced or beaten into implicating Austin.

Gustavo Granados said he told the police what little he knew when they came by his west-side auto shop on August 15, 2008.

They were curious about a car he’d worked on—a 1996 Buick Regal owned by a 26-year-old West Humboldt Park resident named Jason Austin. The police indicated that it was connected to the double murder of a cop and a social worker the day before.

“When I saw it was a delicate case, at first I tried to help them,” Granados recalled.

By that time, authorities were already zeroing in on J-Rock, as Austin was known in the West Humboldt neighborhood. A number of witnesses had initially denied knowing anything about the killings of Robert Soto and Kathryn Romberg, but after multiple interviews in locked rooms at a west-side police station, several had changed their stories and put him or his car at the crime scene.

Granados agreed to review his records and talk with his three employees about the Buick Regal. He said that Austin had brought it in about a month earlier to have body work done on one of the doors and the rear fender. Then he’d brought it back. “The job had not been done right,” Granados said.

Granados said he didn’t fill out any additional paperwork the second time it was in the shop, though he and his employees thought Austin had picked up the car on August 14. “That’s what’s most probable,” he said.

But that would mean Austin’s car was in the shop when Soto and Romberg were shot early in the morning of August 13.

Granados offered his account from the witness stand in federal court Thursday, the fourth day of a hearing to determine how long Austin is going to prison. Though Austin was convicted two years ago of distributing heroin and cocaine, the sentencing has focused almost exclusively on whether he can be linked to the murders despite not being convicted of them. (You can read about the first three days here, here, and here.)

Granados testified that investigators didn’t like what he told them. “They started insulting me and they started showing me photos of the people who had been the victims,” Granados said in Spanish, which was translated by an interpreter.

He said he was taken to a west-side police station and interrogated by at least eight cops. They informed him that Austin was the murderer “and he was going to die by lethal injection,” Granados said.

“When I told them I had some rights, one of the police officers, a white police officer, he said he was going to show me what my rights were. And he took me out of the room and he put me in, what do you call it? Handcuffs. And he started hitting me and calling me, ‘You stupid Mexican.'”

A Spanish-speaking officer also started whacking him in the head, Granados said. “He said if I didn’t start telling them things, it was going to get worse—they were going to send me to Mexico and ruin my life. A white policeman said, ‘If you don’t tell the truth I’m going to take you to another room and treat you like they treat you in Mexico.'”

Granados was issued a subpoena to appear before a grand jury. A few days later, a police officer who was fluent in Spanish picked him up and drove him to the criminal courthouse at 26th and California.

Once he was there, he told a Cook County prosecutor that he had been mistreated by police. He was not asked to testify before the grand jury.

Granados said police officers have stopped by his auto shop to talk with him on at least three or four occasions since then. “I don’t talk to them because they change things around,” he said.

But prosecutors say it’s Granados who has changed his account, and that Austin’s associates intimidated him into doing so.

Granados initially told police that he’d returned the Buick Regal to Austin the day before the murders, testified Chicago police detective David Garcia, who interviewed the mechanic at the police station. Garcia said Granados signed a statement and told a Cook County prosecutor that he had not been mistreated.

The detective denied that Granados had ever been insulted, struck, or placed in handcuffs. “No, he was not.”

Another police officer testified last week that during the drive to the grand jury, Granados worried aloud that he or his family could be hurt and said he might have to relocate to Mexico.

Prosecutors say that’s because Austin’s brother and drug supplier visited Granados at his shop and threatened him. They displayed photographs of the two men on a projector in the courtroom Thursday and asked Granados if they’d ever come into his shop.

“I’m not sure,” Granados said. “A lot of people come.”

He said he hadn’t been threatened by anyone affiliated with Austin. “He never threatened me, and I think it’s the police who made this up.”