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A Milwaukee man who admitted to a fatal 2013 hit-and-run was ordered out of prison Monday after investigators discovered that he gave a false confession to protect the true suspect — his son.
Juan Silva Sr. is expected to be released later Monday or early Tuesday from the Racine County Jail, where he was serving a five-year sentence for the killing of Juan R. Zapata-Guerrero, a 39-year-old father of three, according to his lawyer, Hans Koesser.
Silva's 22-year-old son, Juan Silva Jr., has been charged with the crime. He has waived his right to trial and jail is due in court next month, authorities said.
The twist in the case — first reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel — began to emerge about a month ago, when someone who works with Silva's wife told authorities she had mentioned her husband's attempt to spare their son from prison.
That turned investigators back to their files on the Sept. 28, 2013 crash in which a white GMC van killed Zapata-Guerrero and injured a friend.
The day after the crash, the elder Silva, a painting contractor, turned himself in, telling police that he panicked at the scene and drove away. He took officers back to his house, where damage on the van matched debris from the accident and his wife corroborated his account, Milwaukee County Assistant District Attorney Grant Huebner said.
Silva agreed to a plea deal in which he was sentenced to five years behind bars.
"At his plea he said he did it, and at sentencing he said he did it, and we had no reason to believe otherwise," Huebner told NBC News.
But after receiving the recent tip, the ruse unraveled. Silva's wife, then Silva, then their son, admitted the truth.
They told investigators that the younger Silva came home on the night of the accident very upset and said he'd just hit something, Huebner said. The father then saw on the news that someone had died, and decided to take the blame to spare his son's life from being ruined.
Thomas R. Jones, who represented Silva, told NBC News that he had no inkling his client had been lying. While the van, registered to Silva, was clearly identifiable in footage from a nearby business' security camera, the video wasn't clear enough to make out the driver, Jones said.
Jones noted that the case arguably wouldn't have been considered a crime if the driver hadn't fled the scene.
"If the driver had stopped instead of continuing on, there may have been no criminal charges because the two victims are seen on the video coming out the tavern, they're going between two parked cars then into the street," Jones said. "It was in the evening, it was raining, and it was dark."
He added, "I think a defense could have been made that this was unavoidable."
The father, who has already served more than a year in prison, will not be charged for the false confession, Huebner said.
But the prosecutor did not sympathize with his efforts to shoulder the blame.
"I think it's a complete manipulation of the system," Huebner said. "What you have is, you have basically a family that decided they were going to decide amongst themselves who should pay the price, instead of a judge or a jury or the system."
Meanwhile, Huebner said, authorities had to tell Zapata-Guerrero's family that the man they thought had killed him was the wrong guy.
"Any limited closure they were able to get, any belief they had in the system, has been robbed from them."