I-Team: Sex offender special treatment
BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Tucked away in Pointe Coupee Parish is Livonia, a small town of about 1,500, where the majority of people know each other.
About three years ago, what started at the town high school made headlines.
"We found inappropriate contact between him as a teacher and coach and my daughter by text message mainly at inappropriate hours - 11 p.m., midnight, 1 in the morning, 2 in the morning, 6 o'clock in the morning," said the victim's father Sean Donohue.
Donohue said while reviewing his then 16-year-old daughter's cell phone records, he noticed one particular name and number showing up repeatedly - Antonio Garcia, the then 33-year-old assistant cheerleading coach at Livonia High. Donohue's daughter was on that cheerleading squad.
"It's extremely inappropriate for a teacher who's teaching my daughter, teaching my child. I was angry," said Donohue.
A search of Garcia's email account found sexually explicit pictures of the teen and separate images of a naked adult male.
When interviewed by detectives in January 2009, "Garcia knew that the juvenile was very upset and tried to take advantage of a weak child. Garcia knew that the juvenile was in love with him."
Garcia was arrested and charged with indecent behavior with a juvenile. The arrest warrant was signed by Judge James Best.
About five months later, June 25, 2009, Garcia agreed to a plea deal which was approved by Judge Best.
Among the requirements for that probation:
- Seven years of hard labor with credit for time already served
- Five years of active supervised probation
- Registration as a sex offender
Garcia and his then-attorney Tommy Damico both signed the agreement.
"We entered a negotiated plea and a sentence. Then I closed my file," said Damico.
At least that's what Damico and the teen's family thought. Then, Judge Best did something that was unexpected.
"It's unusual in a negotiated plea, as a general rule, for the judge to go in and modify because you're agreeing to something. It's contractual in nature," said Damico.
In May 2011, two years into his five-year required probation, Garcia filed a motion, without Damico's knowledge, to terminate his probation. Seven months later in December, David Marquette of New Roads started acting as Garcia's attorney and filed the same motion on December 28, 2011. A hearing was set just nine days later.
Three parties were served the notice and told about the hearing: Garcia, Marquette and the District Attorney's Office in New Roads, whose prosecutor had recused himself from the case back in 2009.
The lead investigating agency, the State Attorney General's Office, was not notified. Neither was Damico, who thought he was Garcia's attorney of record.
"The prosecuting agency under the law has to be notified under the code of criminal procedure," Damico.
"How did you find out that the probation had been lifted?" asked WAFB's Kiran Chawla.
"I got a call from you," said Damico.
The Livonia police chief, who was against ending the probation early and took the initial report, told the I-team he also was not notified about the January 6th hearing to end Garcia's probation. Lastly, neither was the victim's dad, who got an unexpected call about Garcia's probation.
"The judge wanted to let him off early of his probation and (asked) what was my opinion of it. I told them no. Under no circumstances do I want him let off his probation. He needs to do his five years," said Donohue.
During our investigation, sources told the I-team that Garcia and Judge Best, who had accepted Garcia's plea deal, had become friendly attending St. Mary Catholic Church of False River and singing in choir.
At the January 6th hearing before Judge Best, Garcia and attorney Marquette submitted a report highlighting a doctor's opinion: "I believe his prognosis to be good and consider him low risk to the community."
Judge Best terminated all conditions of the probation - meaning Garcia did not have to serve the remaining half of his five-year probation sentence, which did not sit well with some not notified of the hearing.
"Very upset. He wasn't given that long a probation. Five years as it is for what he did, he should have served the five years, I think," said Donohue.
The I-team called the State Attorney General's Office last Wednesday asking if it was aware Garcia's probation had been lifted. We were told the 9News I-team made them aware of it, and they immediately filed a motion in response for the judge to set aside the early termination of probation because they were not notified of the January 6th hearing. That was last Thursday, January 19th, around 12 p.m.
Less than three hours later, Judge Best called asking for Chawla specifically to tell her a new hearing had been set to reconsider his decision to lift Garcia's probation. That was in response to the Attorney General's Office filing their latest motion.
Monday, January 23, there was another major development. Judge Best informed the State Attorney General's Office he had, effective January 23rd, reinstated Garcia's probation and canceled Tuesday's hearing he had initially set.
"Today, we were notified that the defendant, Mr. Garcia, had withdrawn his request to have his probation terminated early so there is no reason for a hearing now, and he's back on probation just like none of this ever happened," said Kurt Wall, Director of the Criminal Division at the Attorney General's Office.
When the I-team told Donohue Garcia's probation had been reinstated, he said he was "Very happy to see he will serve out his probation and thinks it's the right thing."
Copyright 2012 WAFB. All rights reserved.