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Police face invisible barrier

Posted at 5:03 PM, Nov 12, 2015

KENT COUNTY, Mich. -- Not a day goes by that Timoteo Rodas doesn't think about the love of his life. A shrine dedicated to his late wife, Yolanda Reyes, sits in his living room.

"She was a very beautiful person. We don’t forget for one minute," Rodas said. He spoke in his native Spanish as FOX 17 media partner El Informador translated.

On April 24, 2014, Rodas dropped off Reyes at work at a greenhouse in Walker. It would be the last time he would see her. Days turned into weeks as her family grew increasingly anxious, not knowing where she was and if she was okay.

"During the time that we were living here in Grand Rapids for the past 18 years, she never had any problems with anyone," Rodas said.

As his worry for his wife mounted, the language barrier with police didn't help.

"That particular case ​was definitely one of the most challenging cases our agency has faced," said Walker Police Chief Catherine Garcia-Lindstrom.

No one in the department spoke fluent Spanish, so communication proved challenging in the early stages of the investigation, Garcia-Lindstrom said.

That’s when Xeomara Montenegro came in. She's a shopkeeper and friend of Yolanda Reyes' family. Garcia-Lindstrom said Montenegro played a pivotal role.

"By that afternoon, I went to their house and started seeing if I could help them out by translating, because I knew they had to go back and forth with the police," Montenegro said.

Montenegro even went door-to-door with officers, the chief said. "We needed to talk to all of the individuals that were working to see: Did they see anything? Did they hear anything? Did they know everything?"

But as the investigation progressed, so did the volume of police work. Garcia-Lindstrom said most of the people who worked with Reyes at the greenhouse didn't speak English.

"The number of people that we interviewed were over a thousand people," the chief said.

"We don't have someone currently employed by the city of Walker that is capable of doing that," she added. "So we actually asked for and received help from the Michigan State Police."

The Grand Rapids Police Department loaned a bilingual detective to the case team. But three weeks into the investigation, a body was found buried at a construction site. It was Reyes.

“But then they told me that she was dead, and I screamed. I never thought that would happen to my wife," Rodas recalled.

Through DNA, police tied convicted rapist Shawn Jarrett to the murder. He and Reyes worked together.

It’s a case the chief said could have easily gone cold because of the language barrier.

"I don't think we would have solved that case if it had not been for the added efforts and trying to bridge the language barrier," Garcia-Lindstrom said.

The chief said the language barrier plays out in more routine interactions between police and the public, such as accidents or domestic calls.

And the language barrier isn't limited to Spanish. "You never know what language is going to pop up," the chief said.

Other jurisdictions can help, and sometimes even a child at the scene may be able to interpret. Police can also use a phone translation service. However, Montenegro said she wishes other bilingual people would lend their skills to help bridge the communication gap.

"We are in the United States, so everyone will say, Well they better start speaking English," she said. "Yeah, but it's hard for some people. It's not that easy to learn a new language for some of them."

Montenegro said she believes the difficulty arises because of a lack of education peope experience in their home countries. "It makes it hard for them to learn a new language here as well."

Wyoming and Grandville police said they experience similar difficulties when interacting with non-English speaking citizens. However, Wyoming has the benefit of having two bilingual officers. Walker's chief said extra points are given to job applicants who speak a foreign language.