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Brownsville, Texas • 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."
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.
"I don't know what is stronger, the pain of losing my daughter or the courage that those who mocked us have given me," Garcia said.
While Lucio and Villalobos are scheduled for trial next month, it was the case against Limas who was convicted and awaits sentencing that showed how deep the alleged crimes go. His indictment outlines the bribes and kickbacks exchanged for judicial discretions prosecutors say turned his courtroom into a criminal enterprise and earned him at least $257,000.
A cascade of indictments followed implicating a former state legislator, a former investigator from the prosecutor's office and most recently Villalobos. Federal wiretaps on Limas' phones intercepted some 40,000 calls, some of which have provided an ugly glimpse of justice behind closed doors where friendships and bribes among lawyers and judge sometimes tipped the scales against the legal process.
"It's been building steadily ever since the first charges came out," said Anthony Knopp, professor emeritus of history at the University of Texas-Brownsville. "I think people are even more horrified with each new accusation and revelation. It seems to be so extensive within the legal community."
Villalobos' attorney Joel Androphy declined to answer questions about the case before trial, which is set for Aug. 30, saying only "somebody has got some things wrong." Lucio also declined to comment when asked recently in the federal courthouse where he and Villalobos watched Limas testify against another lawyer.
But many observers consider the Livingston case to be the most egregious of all. Federal prosecutors allege that Villalobos conspired with Limas and Lucio, a longtime friend and former law partner, to game the system at the expense of justice.
Limas and Villalobos were well acquainted. Villalobos was the first prosecutor assigned to his court in 2001 and later worked as his court's public defender until running for district attorney.
For their scheme to work, federal prosecutors said, it involved a conspiracy among key players both in Livingston's criminal trial and the civil case against him on behalf of the three children of the murder victim, 31-year-old Hermila Hernandez. They say Villalobos set Lucio up to represent the three children, and the criminal and civil cases both landed in Limas' courtroom.
The trio's target was the $500,000 bond put up for Livingston's release before trial. To get it, they convinced Limas to convict and sentence Livingston on the same day, thereby freeing up the bond to be used as the settlement in the lawsuit.
But Limas also agreed that day to Livingston's request that he have 60 days to get his affairs in order before reporting to prison. That meant putting Livingston on the street without any bond highly unusual for a convicted killer already sentenced to decades in prison.
Houston attorney Greg Gladden, who represented Livingston in the criminal and civil cases, said the negotiations over his client's murder plea seemed to proceed normally until Limas agreed, at Villalobos' insistence, to sentence Livingston on the same day he pleaded guilty.
"We're in chambers and the judge said, 'That's fine we'll just do the plea and we'll reset it for sentencing,'" Gladden said. "Villalobos says, 'Well, no judge, we don't care if you want to let him turn himself in later but the family is here, the press is here, we want to get it all done now. We want you to sentence him now, and if you want to let him voluntarily surrender, we don't care about that.'"
Gladden was stunned. Livingston would be let loose for 60 days without bond on a promise he'd return to serve his sentence.
"I walked out of the courthouse wondering, you know that means the sheriff is going to have to release the bond money once the civil case is resolved and I just wonder how much of that money Villalobos is getting," Gladden said.
The answer, according to the federal indictment: $80,000. That came out of the $200,000 Lucio received in attorney's fees on the wrongful death suit. Together they kicked about $10,000 to Limas to keep him quiet, according to the indictment.
"I felt humiliated, mocked," Garcia said in Spanish recently at her home in San Juan. "Why did they mock us? Why? (Villalobos) is a cynic."
When Garcia heard Limas had pleaded guilty to racketeering last year, she and another daughter went to the FBI office in Brownsville. They had complained to the FBI in McAllen in 2007 after Livingston disappeared, but didn't have any proof.
At the Brownsville office last year, the agent who greeted them said, "We've been waiting awhile for you, Mrs. Garcia."
Moises Salas Jr., president of the Cameron County Bar Association, said repairing the system's image will take years.
"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.'"