Former Cameron County employee loses appeal over stolen fajitas

Defendant Gilberto Escamilla looks back before the start of a sentencing hearing Friday, April 20, 2018, in the 107th state District Courtroom in Brownsville, Texas. Escamilla entered two pleas of guilty for charges related to the theft of over 1-million dollars of meats he stole and resold over two years through his position with Cameron County. (Jason Hoekema | The Brownsville Herald)

The 13th Court of Appeals affirmed the five-decade sentence a former juvenile detention center employee received for stealing more than $1 million worth of fajitas over nine years.

On April 20, 2018, visiting Judge Manuel Bañales sentenced 54-year-old Gilberto Escamilla to 50 years in prison after the former Darrell B. Hester Juvenile Justice Center food services administrator pleaded guilty to theft by a public servant in an amount greater than $200,000.

The Cameron County District Attorney’s Office Special Investigations Unit arrested the man in 2017 after a Labatt Food Service driver called the detention center to let employees there know that their 800-pound delivery of fajitas, which are not on the menu, had arrived.

The value of the fajitas totaled $1,251,578. That figure doesn’t include brisket, pork chops, sausage and chicken that Escamilla also admitted during court hearings to stealing and selling to people and restaurants.

In his appeal, Escamilla argued that Associate Judge Louis Sorola did not have the authority to preside over the case and that he received ineffective assistance of counsel.

Escamilla alleged that his trial attorneys failed to present mitigation evidence during sentencing and failed to investigate Bañales before recommending that he waive his right to a jury trial and let Bañales sentence him.

He complains in his appeal that during his sentencing hearing his attorneys failed to present mitigation evidence.

“At the motion for new trial hearing, twelve relatives and friends of Escamilla testified in his support. Most of them testified that they would have recommended probation if they had been called, but none of them had been called to testify during trial,” the 13th Court of Appeals ruling states. “According to Escamilla, the testimony of these witnesses undermines the confidence of the judgment, and failing to call them during sentencing constituted deficient performance by his counsel.”

However, Escamilla’s attorney did filed a mitigation motion with the court and it was Escamilla’s who opposed bringing in family witnesses to testify on his behalf during the sentencing trial, the ruling states.

“Escamilla also argues he received ineffective assistance of counsel because his counsel did not properly investigate Judge Bañales before advising Escamilla to waive his right to a jury trial. According to Escamilla, he would have opted for a jury had he been properly advised,” the ruling states.

The 13th Court of Appeals ruled that both attorneys at the sentencing hearing provided reasonable explanations for trial strategy, which included previous experience with the judge and prior favorable rulings in Escamilla’s case.

Lastly, Escamilla asserted that Sorola, the associate judge, did not have authority to preside over his case.

“However, at no point before, during, or after the bench trial did Escamilla raise an objection based on the above complaints concerning Associate Judge Sorola’s authority to preside over the case,” the ruling states.

Furthermore, it was Bañales, not Sorola, who accepted Escamilla’s plea and assessed punishment.

“Escamilla does not demonstrate how Associate Judge Sorola’s actions affected his substantial rights or otherwise constituted reversible error,” the ruling states.

Escamilla’s projected release date is in 2038, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.