Sylvia Castro Garcia says she was simply helping her jailed brother by posting his thoughts on his Facebook page. Fresno County prosecutors, however, say the information she posted jeopardized the life of a witness in her brother’s murder case – and could have cost another witness her life.
Garcia, 43, a single mom with three children and a steady job at the Internal Revenue Service in Fresno, is now headed to prison. She pleaded no contest Wednesday in Fresno County Superior Court to a felony charge of conspiring with her brother, Juan Castro Ortiz, to dissuade a witness from testifying against him in his pending murder trial.
In an interview from jail before her plea, Garcia admitted to putting her brother’s writings on his Facebook pages and Twitter account that she created for him. But she said her only crime was believing in her brother’s innocence.
“I’m in here because the system is corrupt and there’s a cover-up going on,” she said from the inmates’ side of the visitors room inside the Fresno County Jail. “The Sheriff’s Office has done a lousy job of investigating my brother’s case.”
Prosecutors, however, contend that Garcia published information that has put a witness’s life in jeopardy and could have led to the killing of another witness, Joanna Solorio Maya,who was discovered hacked to death July 13 outside an apartment complex in Mendota. Her murder remains unsolved.
In her jailhouse interview, Garcia denied having anything to do with Maya’s death.
I was doing it for the love of my brother. I am sorry for making the wrong choice.
Sylvia Castro Garcia
But after months of denying her role in her brother’s case, Garcia changed her view about her predicament on Wednesday, telling Judge Alvin Harrell III in a handwritten letter: “I am deeply sorry for this mistake that has caused me turmoil.”
“I ended up doing an unthinkable error,” she wrote. “I was doing it for the love of my brother. I am sorry for making the wrong choice.”
Harrell accepted Garcia’s no contest plea and scheduled a sentencing hearing on Dec. 30. Under the plea agreement, Garcia faces up to two years in prison. Harrell ordered her held in jail without bail until her sentencing.
The plea caught Garcia’s mother, Rosalie Alarcon, and other relatives in the courtroom by surprise. Alarcon said her daughter and son are both innocent.
“Everybody puts stuff on Facebook,” Alarcon said. “Why is she being singled out?”
Alarcon said her daughter is the oldest of four children. Garcia also is the single mother of three children; the youngest is 7 years old. She worked for the IRS for 11 years as a clerk. Her only prior offense is a drunken driving conviction in 2014, when she pleaded no contest, court records show.
In the jail interview, Garcia said she became a target of the Sheriff’s Office once she started asking questions about her brother’s case. She said the information she put on Facebook about the witness’s phone number, address and picture had already been posted by the witness. She also said the witness is a Facebook friend of Ortiz.
The last entry on Ortiz’s Facebook page is dated Nov. 16. It says: “THEY GOT ME AND MY SISTER SYLVIA NOW! we’re both locked up. HAHA BUT WE’RE STILL NOT DONE FIGHTING! 187Poetry!”
Ortiz, 39, was arrested May 30, 2015, after Maya and the other witness told detectives that they saw him shoot Jose DeJesus Fuentes-Martinez, 52, along a canal bank west of Firebaugh.
Everybody puts stuff on Facebook. Why is she being singled out?
Rosalia Alarcon, the defendant’s mother
In her jailhouse interview, Garcia contended that sheriff’s Detective Jose Diaz had a conflict in investigating the murder because, she said, the detective grew up in Mendota, is a friend of the surviving witness and her brother, and has dated a friend of that witness.
Sheriff’s spokesman Tony Botti said none of that is true: “Detective Jose Diaz is not from Mendota; he grew up on the East Coast. He also did not know any of the people involved in this case prior to the investigation. Therefore, we at the Sheriff’s Office do not see any conflict of interest in having Detective Diaz investigate this case.”
Court documents say Maya and another woman contacted Mendota police during the early hours of May 30, 2015. Ortiz was arrested later that day near Oller and Ninth streets, carrying a gun, according to a sheriff’s news release.
Garcia said she has read the sheriff’s reports about the case and contends her brother is innocent because detectives tested his hands for gunshot residue, but found none. She said detectives didn’t test Maya’s hands or the hands of the other witness for gunshot residue, however. “They just picked my brother and closed the case,” she said. “That’s why I’m upset.”
Court records give this account of the killing:
Maya and the other witness told detectives they were with Ortiz when he agreed to give Fuentes-Martinez a ride from Mendota to Firebaugh for a few dollars. On the way to Firebaugh, they said, Ortiz pulled his truck over near a canal off Jerrold Avenue, north of Nees Avenue.
The witnesses said Ortiz demanded Fuentes-Martinez’s wallet. When he refused, he was shot in the chest. Ortiz then drove Maya and the other witness back to Mendota.
Alarcon said her son has a multiple diagnosis for mental illness including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. She said sheriff’s detectives, Maya and the other witness, who were friends of Ortiz, took advantage of him.
Ortiz was arrested and charged with murder, being a felon in possession of a handgun, and carrying a loaded firearm in public. His trial has been delayed; criminal proceedings were suspended in February when his lawyer called into question his competency to stand trial.
Found mentally unfit, Ortiz was sent to Atascadero State Hospital. He stayed at the hospital until July, when he returned to the Fresno County Jail after he was declared competent to stand trial. His next court hearing was continued from Thursday to Jan. 11.
Court records say the surviving witness contacted Diaz at the Sheriff’s Office in March after she saw a posting on Ortiz’s Facebook page. The post included two photographs of the witness, her telephone number, home address and other personal information.
So what’s up little homie, how you been?
Juan Castro Ortiz, according to court records
In one post on Ortiz’s Facebook page, it says: “My name is Monique and I blame the gutter homie Duck for a murder he didn’t even do. Does anybody want to play with me?” (Duck is the moniker for Ortiz. Monique is the first name of the witness in Ortiz’s case.)
Diaz also got a warrant to search Garcia’s Facebook page. In one post, it says: “Working on my brother’s 187 diary. Check out his f/b page at Juan C. Ortiz Poet.” (187 is the Penal Code number for murder.)
Garcia also jokes about her role: “Yes he tells me what to put and when to put. Guess I’m his secretary …lol.”
In August, Diaz interviewed Garcia at her home in San Joaquin and learned Ortiz was sending her letters from jail to post online. “The defendant admitted to setting up and running all of Ortiz’s social media accounts while Ortiz was incarcerated,” court records say. “In fact, she said Ortiz doesn’t even know the passwords.”
After arresting Garcia, Diaz also collected a trove of letters and poems from Ortiz from his sister’s home. Some of the letters were encrypted with code words, Diaz says in court documents. From the letters, Diaz discovered that Ortiz was asking people about Maya. “I want to expose Maya and (the other witness) to all!” one letter says.
Diaz says Ortiz also wrote to Maya in October 2015: “So what’s up little homie, how you been?”
In a letter in October, Ortiz included a photograph of Maya and asked someone to “post up any place you might walk in Mendota,” court records say.
Then in January, Ortiz asked his sister to post pictures of Maya and the other witness on Facebook with transcripts of his case to show their involvement.
On Aug. 4, Ortiz wrote another letter to his sister, telling her that he read a newspaper account of a car wreck in which a woman from Mendota was killed. “As cold hearted as it sounds I was kinda hoping it was her,” Ortiz wrote, referring to the witness who has blamed him for shooting Fuentes-Martinez.
“Cause if it was her, then that means I would beat the murder case,” he wrote.
About two weeks later, Ortiz wrote another letter to Garcia, saying the witness’s testimony “is the only one that can do any real damage to my case. I pray that (she) would make herself unavailable to testify in court at the preliminary hearing and at trial.”
Garcia also wrote to her brother, telling him that Diaz took “letters, poems, emails, everything” from her home. “I’m sorry I’m such an idiot for keeping everything in my house. It’s my fault if he adds more charges on you. I knew this was gonna happen. I just didn’t think it would happen this soon.”
In the end, court records say, Garcia admitted to Diaz: “You know what happens when people open their mouths like that … nobody can snitch … (because) snitches gets stitches and end up in ditches.”