By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
While they claim Puente wasn't eligible to receive money, Alvarado and Lyon maintain that they would have sued on behalf of her children, gotten a settlement equal to the one Garcia got and therefore deserved part of it since Garcia allegedly interfered with their contract. "The same work would have been done whether or not Maria Puente had standing," Jenevein says, "except the money would have gone to the children, not to her directly."
When Puente told Navarro's brother that she was worried about how Alvarado and Guajardo were handling her case, he recommended she go see Garcia. The former Dallas mayor pro tem and League of United Latin American Citizens general counsel has practiced law in Dallas since 1983 and runs a seven-lawyer firm in Oak Cliff that specializes in personal injury law. By 2006 he'd litigated 50 wrongful death cases and tried 70-100 jury trials. When Puente went to see Garcia about her case in October 2006, they discussed her marriage at 16 in Mexico. She told Garcia that she had been raped and then forced by local authorities and her assailant's parents to marry the alleged rapist without her parents' consent. "For me, that marriage never existed," she would testify in court. At some point around the time she hired Garcia and terminated Alvarado, Puente says, she looked for a Mexican lawyer online and hired the Monterrey-based Jorge Dagoberto Luna, who advertised online as an attorney specializing in family law, to annul the marriage. Garcia says Luna and several other Mexican legal professionals maintained it could be annulled, even at such a late date, because of her age at the time and the alleged lack of parental consent.
According to Garcia, the Monterrey legal-assistant-posing-as-a-lawyer strung them along for months, continuing to assure them he'd resolve the annulment and asking for more payments to do so. Yet Cleveland Wrecking Co. and Mike's Trucking, defendants in the wrongful death case, must have decided that the 12 years Puente lived with Navarro as his wife, as well as the four children they had together, constituted sufficient standing in court, because they settled for $5 million in March 2008. Three million of that went to Puente, and $2 million was designated to lawyer's fees, according to court records.
Alvarado and Lyon later sued Garcia and Puente. In early 2009, Garcia, through Friedman, accused Alvarado and Guajardo of witness tampering and filed a motion for a temporary restraining order to prevent further tampering. The result was a series of melodramatic hearings in which each side accused the other of threatening witnesses and pressuring uneducated, Spanish-speaking people to sign false affidavits.
The first witness in a February hearing was Mike Robinson, owner of Mike's Trucking, Navarro's employer. Before he could answer a question, the court was drawn—for the umpteenth time—into the issue of whether the witness would be allowed to refer to Puente as Navarro's widow. Judge Priddy voiced concern that if she was not Navarro's spouse that would "constitute fraud on the court" and said he might sanction Garcia for producing evidence of a questionable annulment. The judge directed everyone to refer to Puente simply as "Maria."
Robinson then testified that in the days following Navarro's death, he was at a Navarro relative's home in Garland when Guajardo arrived and introduced himself as counsel for the family. He later found out that, at the time, Guajardo had not yet been sworn as an attorney. Then, in late 2008 leading up to the trial in the fee dispute, Robinson said Guajardo contacted him through a mutual friend. They had dinner at a Chili's near Grand Prairie, Robinson said, and Guajardo told him that Puente had committed fraud and that if she didn't remove herself from the case, she would face jail time. "He told me, 'Get in touch with [Navarro's brother] and get him to talk to Maria to pull herself away from the case, or we're going to have to go and do things that may possibly get her thrown in jail,'" Robinson said.
Guajardo denies ever threatening Robinson or anyone, for that matter. According to Jenevein, the strongest evidence in their case that Garcia "induced" Puente to be his client wasn't the alleged fraud, but rather testimony by a Navarro relative suggesting that Garcia offered Puente money to help her illegally cross the border after visiting Mexico (Garcia denies ever offering her money).
Robinson testified that during their conversation at Chili's, Guajardo repeatedly insisted that he did not introduce himself as a lawyer in August 2006. Robinson also said Guajardo brought up the fact that Robinson had loaned Puente the $2,500 that supposedly was used to pay a smuggler to cross the border. Guajardo warned him "that could come back on [Robinson]," which he interpreted as a threat. "It didn't seem right that somebody could go around making threats like that," Robinson testified.
Next to take the stand was Patricia Muñoz, a Spanish-speaking woman whose husband was killed in a workplace accident and, like several other witnesses who'd at one time had contact with Alvarado's firm, had switched to Garcia to represent them in their ensuing wrongful death case.