In one of the most horrifying cases of corruption in recent memory, a district attorney in south Texas is accused of taking a massive kickback in return for allowing a convicted murderer to escape from custody.
Shortly after her daughter was shot to death by a former lover, Hermila Garcia remembers hearing these comforting words from the local Texas prosecutor: "I am the state. I am the law. I am going to represent and defend your daughter."Limas pleaded guilty in March 2011 to accepting over $250,000 in bribes in return for favorable rulings. But this case may very well be the most horrific of all.
Cameron County District Attorney Armando Villalobos' office did secure a murder conviction and 23-year prison term against Amit Livingston, but federal prosecutors allege he also orchestrated a scheme to line his own pockets that allowed Livingston to escape. Five years later, the killer remains at large.
A dozen people, half lawyers, have been indicted as part of a federal probe into what some observers call the most widespread case of judicial corruption they've ever seen. The saga has gripped the community in this southernmost tip of Texas.
Besides Villalobos, two others charged were present the day Livingston dodged prison: Abel Limas, the judge who presided over the murder trial, and Eduardo "Eddie" Lucio, a lawyer who represented the victim's children in a civil case.
According to federal prosecutors, the three arranged for Lucio to represent the children of Hermilla Hernandez in a wrongful-death suit against Livingston, and for Limas to get both the civil and criminal cases. Livingston pleaded guilty in the criminal case, and then asked Limas to sentence him on the same day--thus allowing him to use the $500,000 bond to settle the civil case. But then Livingston asked for 60 days to get his affairs in order before reporting to prison--a request Limas granted. Even Livingston's own attorney was stunned--it's virtually unheard of for someone convicted of any violent felony to be allowed out of custody before sentencing. He never came back.
As it turned out, Lucio got $200,000 in attorneys' fees in the civil case. He then kicked back $80,000 to Villalobos and $10,000 to Limas, according to the federal indictment. Garcia thought something was fishy when she got word that Livingston had escaped. She complained to the FBI, but no one listened to her until Limas pleaded guilty last year.
This revelation doesn't come as too big of a shock to most people in this area.
Moises Salas Jr., president of the Cameron County Bar Association, said repairing the system's image will take years.At this point, the only question here is how soon Villalobos will have to leave office--either by pleading guilty or being convicted.
"Down here, I think the perception has always been that the lawyers are crooked, the judges are crooked and they're all kind of watching each other's back, you know greasing the skids for each other," Salas said. "And this comes out and I think for the general public, I hear people saying, 'Well, that just confirms what we always believed.'"