A 52-year-old county resident accused of molesting a 5-year-old girl in February 2012 accepted a plea agreement last month on the sexual abuse charge. Attorneys reached a so-called “West plea” under the condition that a doctor would evaluate the suspect to determine his level of risk as an offender – which would help the judge decide an appropriate sentence ranging from probation to eight years in state prison.
Arnaldo Mateo Hernandez – also known as Arnaldo Gomez – was set for that doctor’s evaluation Thursday on the felony charge, lewd and lascivious acts with a child under age 14. Under the West plea scenario, suspects are not expressly admitting to guilt, but are willing to accept the related punishment if found guilty.
Hernandez failed to appear at Thursday’s hearing – after appearing at all prior hearings – and is now a fugitive.
Family members remain particularly upset that Hernandez – without any bail considerations – has been a free man through the entire process, the victim’s mother said in an interview with the Free Lance.
She said they are concerned Hernandez might eventually receive probation. She also contended he is an illegal immigrant and said she is worried that he would remain in the U.S. without deportation considerations.
“He’s not going to get one night in jail,” she said. “He’s not going get deported.”
While Hernandez has been free since his booking and release last April, compounding the frustration for the suspected victim’s family is that they still have questions about the Hollister Police Department’s reasoning in pursuing a less aggressive option for enforcement after the investigation. Police filed a report with the district attorney and left the arrest decision with prosecutors, rather than pursuing a warrant and instigating Gomez’s booking into the county jail.
Lt. Edward Escamilla, the jail commander, confirmed the booking procedure is at the discretion of the investigating police agency, or the district attorney.
“You would have to contact them and find out why,” Escamilla said.
Neither Hollister police officials nor Deputy District Attorney Karen Forcum, who oversaw the prosecution, could be reached immediately to comment on the case.
Tensions lead to altercation
Tensions boiled over for the family Feb. 13, when Hernandez was scheduled for trial. As the victim and her parents approached the courthouse, authorities informed them of the plea arrangement, said there would be no trial and instructed the mother and father to “take the child” to a specific room for a follow-up meeting, according to the girl’s mother.
As they walked around a corner at the courthouse, the family came across Hernandez, with an altercation ensuing between the alleged victim’s father and suspect. It resulted in sheriff’s deputies arresting the victim’s father, who now faces a battery charge of his own. To protect the suspected molestation victim’s identity, the Free Lance is not naming the girl’s mother or father.
The mother’s view of the suspected sex abuse, meanwhile, contrasts with that of the defendant, who is represented by public defender Gregory LaForge. His client claimed any touching was done over the girl’s clothing, the attorney said, but the mother contended that Hernandez touched her genitalia under her clothes and forced her to touch his genitalia, too. The mother’s story aligns with that of the district attorney, whose complaint in court records alleged the suspect, while in his bedroom, touched her on the genitalia and buttocks, and had her touch him.
The district attorney filed charges April 17 and sent Hernandez a letter instructing him to get booked into the jail, which occurred April 26.
As part of that booking process, the federal Department of Justice routinely conducts immigration background checks on each jail suspect – which can lead to holds on those individuals and eventual deportation.
In the case of Hernandez, who was born in Mexico, the DOJ after his arrest sent the jail a notice saying the agency did not identify any records relating to the suspect, Escamilla said. Because Hernandez had never been in the Immigration and Customs Enforcement database – and appears to have had a clean criminal record before the abuse arrest – the DOJ could not confirm his status or issue a hold.
“If he’s never been in the system, they don’t know,” Escamilla said.
A phone message with the ICE public affairs office was not immediately returned before publication.
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