Five ex-detention center staffers plead not guilty to fed charges

Sixth man yet to be arraigned

The privately-owned East Hidalgo Detention Center in La Villa is seen in an undated photo. (Monitor Photo)

McALLEN — Five men and women facing federal charges of bribery — and in one instance, sexual abuse of an inmate — have pleaded not guilty and will soon be released on bond.

Charges against a total of six former employees of the East Hidalgo Detention Center were announced late last week by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Five of those individuals appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge Juan F. Alanis for arraignment and detention hearings Tuesday and Wednesday.

The sixth — 25-year-old Domingo Hernandez of Mercedes — made an initial appearance in New Mexico and will be arraigned here soon, according to a news release.

Hernandez, along with Jayson Catalan, 37; Erasmo Loya, 54; Veronica Ortega, 43; and Jhaziel Loredo, 32 are all accused of accepting bribes in exchange for smuggling contraband into the La Villa detention facility, which houses federal inmates under a contract from the U.S. Marshals Office.

Brenda Alicia Fuentes, 47, stands accused of sexually abusing an inmate in federal custody.

Reached via email, a spokesperson for The GEO Group, which owns and operates the private prison, said, “We can confirm, that all of these employees were terminated from their positions shortly after their arrests.”

“We will continue to cooperate with law enforcement as they investigate the matter,” the statement further reads.

All six people have been charged under separate, sequential indictments. That of Hernandez remains under seal. Should they be found guilty of the various charges, the six face up to 15 years in prison, up to a $250,000 fine, and up to three years of supervised release each, court records show.

Catalan, of Mercedes, was employed at the detention center for three years and served as a commissary officer at the detention center. Federal prosecutors allege he smuggled food into the prison approximately a dozen times between January and July of this year.

“He was asked by inmates to do a favor and then another inmate would notice,” and would also ask for food, Assistant U.S. Attorney Amy Greenbaum said during Catalan’s bond and detention hearing Wednesday.

Catalan was allegedly paid $80 for every occurrence, Greenbaum said.

Erasmo Loya, of Edcouch, worked as a correctional officer at the prison. He is alleged to have accepted between $1,000 and $2,000 to smuggle food and marijuana into the facility more than five times between November 2016 and June of this year.

Veronica Ortega, of McAllen, worked as a certified medical assistant at the facility. Prosecutors allege she accepted approximately $780 to smuggle marijuana to an inmate between April and May of this year.

“She would conceal is within herself and then deliver it to the inmate,” Greenbaum said Wednesday, adding that Ortega had mentioned the inmate in a social media post as recently as July.

While admonishing Ortega, the judge advised her to not speak of the case online. “It’s just not advisable to put anything on social media as these proceedings go forth,” Alanis said.

Jhaziel Loredo, of Progreso, allegedly smuggled Xanax and marijuana into the prison between October 2018 and August 2019, for which he accepted $1,000 and $600, respectively. Loredo also allegedly accepted a payment after an inmate thought Loredo, who worked as a correctional officer, had used his position to get the inmate transferred out of confinement in “the hole.”

During Loredo’s bond and detention hearing, prosecutors argued the charges against him were especially serious given that one of his duties at the time was to conduct “shakedowns” for contraband.

And finally, Brenda Alicia Fuentes, who worked at the detention center for seven years and served as a cook supervisor, stands accused of sexual abuse of an inmate.

According to the government, the inmate — identified only by the initials R.R.H. — told investigators that Fuentes carried out a sexual relationship with him. Fuentes also allegedly provided the inmate with her phone number so the pair could communicate when she was not at work.

The inmate would call Fuentes from jail phones and would engage in sexual and flirtatious conversations, according to a deputy U.S. Marshal who testified during Fuentes’ bond and detention hearing Tuesday afternoon.

The agent also testified that surveillance video allegedly showed Fuentes and the inmate entering a closet at the prison before emerging several minutes later. The inmate told investigators that Fuentes had performed oral sex on him.

Prosecutors argued against granting bond to Fuentes, arguing that issues may arise with finding a suitable third-party custodian for her during her release.

According to statements made in open court, one of Fuentes’ two daughters also worked at the East Hidalgo Detention Center as a correctional officer and had said she felt like she was “about to be arrested” as well.

Later in the hearing, Greenbaum indicated the daughter, who now works at the Willacy County Regional Detention Center in Raymondville, may indeed be under investigation for bribery.

“Our main concern is we didn’t want her to live with her daughter, who is a correctional officer,” the prosecutor said.

Fuentes’ public defender, Rudy Santiago Moreno, rebutted, arguing that the government had not sufficiently proven a concern that Fuentes was a flight risk, and therefore bond should be granted.

Alanis ultimately advised Fuentes to not speak to her daughter about her own case, or any case that may be pending against her daughter. “You’re looking at your own legal jeopardy,” Alanis said.

The judge also advised Fuentes to not reach out to a different inmate or their family, whom prosecutors allege she also had inappropriate communications with.

A review of “toll records” showed that Fuentes had allegedly exchanged over 5,000 communications with that second inmate or a member of their family, and had smuggled contraband into the prison on the inmate’s behalf. Fuentes has not been charged in connection with those allegations.

Alanis gave all five defendants $30,000 bonds. For Catalan, Loya, Ortega and Loredo, Alanis also required they pay a $500 deposit. All five were remanded to custody pending the satisfaction of their release conditions by pretrial services.

The cases against Loya, Fuentes, Ortega and Loredo will go before U.S. District Judge Micaela Alvarez early next year. Final pretrial hearings are set for Dec. 30, with jury selection slated for Jan. 7, 2020.

Meanwhile, Catalan’s case is set to be heard by U.S. District Judge Ricardo H. Hinojosa. A final pretrial hearing in that case is set for Jan. 6, 2020, with jury selection slated for the following day.