Plugging the hole

For the second time in four months, a woman charged with fracturing the skull of a 21-month-old infant while in this country illegally is sitting in a Mexican jail, awaiting extradition to face murder charges in Dallas.

But plugging the legal loophole that allowed her to escape justice in the first place is proving to be another matter.

In January, the Dallas Observer broke the story of how Maricela Martinez, a 25-year-old native of Guanajuato, Mexico, had taken advantage of the loophole in order to escape charges of killing 21-month-old Briana Cisneros.

Thanks to what authorities describe as a series of "glitches in the system," every year dozens of illegal immigrants charged with crimes ranging from drug running to murder are quietly shipped back home without being called to account for their crimes.

The "glitches" have a handful of crime-and-punishment bureaucracies working to plug the hole--not to mention cover their backsides. Earlier this month, at an extraordinary three-day hearing on whether the bondsman who sprang Martinez should have to make good on her $100,000 bail, all interested parties got to tell their sides under oath.

What emerged was a tragi-comic story of a botched sting and bureaucratic miscues that allowed Martinez, and perhaps others, to slip through the grip of at least three law enforcement agencies. It turns out that the sheriff's department, the district attorney's office, and the INS all knew that Martinez was in danger of being shipped out of the country, and then bungled efforts to keep her here.

The Martinez case illustrates how the system has worked to benefit a surprising number of illegal aliens who would rather return home than face criminal charges.

On October 14, 1996, an ambulance carrying little Briana Cisneros arrived at the Parkland Hospital emergency room. Briana arrived with a skull fracture, retinal hemorrhaging, and massive brain swelling. As the doctor in charge noted, death was "inevitable."

Martinez, an undocumented alien who claimed that the girl had fallen from a highchair while in her care, accompanied the little girl to the hospital. Because emergency room personnel felt that Martinez's story was inconsistent with Briana's injuries, they contacted the Dallas police. That afternoon, Martinez was booked into the Dallas County jail on charges of "serious bodily injury to a child." (Defense attorneys say the charge is common in cases where child-abuse results in death, since it carries the same penalty as murder but is easier to prove.) Martinez was taken before a magistrate, who set her bond at $100,000.

At the time she was booked into jail, Martinez also had her first encounter with the U. S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. Since she listed a foreign place of birth, INS officials interviewed her and determined that she had illegally entered the country. According to INS spokesman Lynn Ligon, INS officials put a "hold," or notation on Martinez's file. As Ligon explained, a hold means that "when and if they are released for any reason--on parole, after they've served time, or if they bond out--they come into our custody."

Up to this point, there was nothing unusual about Maricela Martinez's arrest. But soon enough, strange things began to happen.

According to law enforcement officials, upon learning of her daughter's plight, Catalina Martinez, Maricela's mother, journeyed from Apaseo, Mexico, to Dallas. The first thing she did was hire her daughter a private attorney, Donna Winfield, to replace her court-appointed lawyer.

What happened next depends upon whom you talk to.

Attorney Randy Adler is being very careful. "I don't know when Ms. Winfield first contacted my client," says Adler, who is one of the few experts in the arcane area of bonding law. "I wasn't privy to that information."

Adler represents Eddie Dees, the owner of Fast Action bonding and the man who wrote the bond that freed Maricela Martinez from the Dallas County jail. "What I do know is that the attorney [Winfield] contacted the bondsman [Dees] and arranged for the bond; she handled the money." Adler confirms that "Fast Eddie," as his client is known about the courthouse, wanted $10,000 to post Martinez's $100,000 bail.

According to a statement that Catalina Martinez gave law enforcement authorities, Winfield in turn quoted a price of $11,500 to bail Martinez's daughter out of jail, perhaps adding the additional $1,500 for her involvement. Winfield could not be reached for comment.

It took the Martinez family several months, but in March 1997, they apparently raised the money. (According to her statement to county officials, Catalina Martinez sold the family farm.) On March 20, 1997, Eddie Dees posted a bond, and on March 21, Maricela Martinez was delivered into the custody of INS officials, who took her to its Denton facility.

But she didn't stay there long.
Sometime during the next few days, Catalina Martinez went to the office of the Dallas County clerk, trying to find out when her daughter might be released. Mrs. Martinez, who spoke only Spanish, had some difficulty making herself understood. At last, an employee named Flor de la Fuente overheard Ms. Martinez and undertook to translate for her.

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Christine Biederman