VERDICT: Jorge Garcia GUILTY in Loxahatchee animal slaughter case

imageA Palm Beach County jury has just convicted a Loxahatchee ranch owner charged with inhumanely killing two goats in a case captured on video last year.

The four women and two men announced they’d made a decision after 5 hours of deliberations, which ran almost as long as testimony in the trial that began and ended Tuesday against 48-year-old Jorge Luis Garcia.

Garcia was charged with two felony charges of animal cruelty along with two related misdemeanor charges. Jurors convicted him of lesser included misdemeanors on the felony charges and convicted him as charged of the misdemeanor charges of nonhuman killing of animals.

Circuit Judge Samantha Schosberg Feuer ordered Garcia immediately taken to the Palm Beach County jail, where he will remain until his sentencing April 26.

Garcia could have faced more than 10 years in prison if convicted on charges of felony cruelty to animals and killing animals in a nonhumane manner. Now he faces up to two years.

Just before the verdict, jurors received lunch and could be heard from outside of the jury room laughing.

“I know why they’re laughing,” Garcia said outside the courtroom. “It’s because this entire thing is a joke.”

But Assistant State Attorneys Judith Arco and Jo Wilensky on Tuesday told jurors that what Garcia and others did on his Rancho Garcia farm was a serious violation of the law.

Goats and other farm animals, they said, are supposed to be slaughtered in a manner that causes immediate and painless death. In a video they showed to jurors Tuesday, two goats slaughtered at Garcia’s farm appeared to die slow deaths as blood spilled from their slit throats as they hung upside down.

The videos were recorded by a member of the Animal Recovery Mission, an investigative animal welfare group created several years ago by Richard Couto. The investigator, who asked reporters not to use her name, testified Tuesday about one goat’s final agonizing moments.

“It was crying like the sound of a little baby screaming,” she said.

After the verdict, defense attorney Andrew Stine said he respected the jury’s decision but would be appealing the convictions.

His main argument will be that jurors should not have been allowed to see video that the ARM investigator secretly recorded on Garcia’s property. Though Stine in a pretrial hearing said it was private property, Feuer sided with prosecutors who said Garcia’s farm was operating as a business open to the public and fit a legal exception to a Florida law requiring two-party consent to record.

Stine says the issue has the making of an unprecedented appellate fight.

“A case like this hasn’t been decided in Florida,” Stine said.

According to Acro, Garcia has several prior felony cases, including an animal cruelty charge in a case sparked by conditions found on his farm when he was arrested and accused of running an illegal chop shop.

In the prior animal case, a judge withheld an adjudication of guilt and sentenced him to three years’ probation.

Couto said despite the fact that Garcia wasn’t convicted of any felonies in this case, the verdict was a victory for his group and animal lovers in Palm Beach County.

Although the case involved a pair of goats, the ARM investigator in the case said other video showed Garcia “sadistically” stomping on the necks of ducks while laughing. And though prosecutors found no evidence of horses being slaughtered in the property, Couto believes that happened there as well.

“There was a lot more going on there than what you saw,” Couto said.”


Goodman juror Dennis DeMartin’s “shocked” his contempt appeal was rejected

The juror credited for derailing Wellington polo club founder John Goodman’s DUI manslaughter trial could be headed back to jail now that an appeals court has upheld his two contempt of court convictions.

(Palm Beach Post staff file photo)
(Palm Beach Post staff file photo)

In an eight-page decision released by Florida’s 4th District Court of Appeal Wednesday, the high court backed Chief Circuit Judge Jeffrey Colbath’s 2014 conviction and 6 month jail sentence against retired Boynton Beach accountant Dennis DeMartin. In a pair of self-published, DeMartin books revealed that he conducted his own drinking experiment at the end of Goodman’s 2012 trial and also withheld from the court as a prospective juror that his own ex-wife had once been arrested for DUI.

The missteps led Colbath to throw out Goodman’s conviction and 16-year prison sentence in the case tied to the death of 23-year-old Scott Patrick Wilson, who drowned in a Wellington canal after Goodman ran a stop sign while drunk and plowed his Bentley into Wilson’s Hyundai.

Reached by phone in New Haven, Conn. Wednesday, DeMartin said the decision has left him both stunned and confused.

“I’m shocked by the whole thing,” said DeMartin, who added he is very much afraid of having to go back to jail. “I don’t know what to do.”

DeMartin became the source of public ire in the aftermath of Goodman’s first trial, especially by those upset at the cost of bringing the Texas-born millionaire to trial again. The appellate court on Wednesday ruled that there was “substantial evidence” to support the contempt of court convictions.

“Our jury trial system depends on the complete candor of all jurors during voir dire,” Judge Spencer D. Levine wrote. “Our jury trial system also requires the strict adherence of all jurors to the instructions given to them by the trial judge.”

A second jury last year convicted Goodman again, and he is now a year into his 16-year sentence. In an appeal to DeMartin’s conviction filed last year, Assistant Public Defender Paul Petillo placed the blame for for the entire debacle on the local court system.

The accusations against DeMartin, he said, were “hyperbole.”

“If it did wreak havoc (and it didn’t), that’s only because the Palm Beach County justice system let itself get caught up in the fanfare of trying a wealthy defendant,” Petillo said in a petition filed Monday. “After all, the charge, though serious, was a DUI manslaughter, and probably a handful of those are tried every year in each circuit in this court’s jurisdiction.”

Goodman’s defense team immediately asked Colbath to throw out Goodman’s conviction after DeMartin revealed he drank three mixed vodka drinks and attempted to walk around his condominium complex the night before he and five other jurors began deliberating Goodman’s fate.

DeMartin in 2014 served a month of his six-month sentence before he was granted an appellate bond. He has been living in Connecticut since last year.

He said he found out his appeal had been rejected when he got a phone call from Petillo. THe attorney told him he had 15 days to appeal the court’s ruling, he said, but he doesn’t know how he would go about doing that.

When Colbath sentenced DeMartin at the end of a short trial, the judge had little sympathy for the 72-year-old. Though DeMartin’s pro-bono attorneys, Robert Gershman and Joseph Walsh, had pleaded with the judge to keep DeMartin out of jail, Colbath said he felt DeMartin deserved the punishment.

“If I found Mr. DeMartin to be a benign Mr. Magoo who was unaware of the destruction he left in his wake, then I would find differently. I don’t think that is the case,” Colbath said.

Palm Beach man Martin Zelman, focus of twisted guardianship case, has died

A Palm Beach man, who was the focus of what amounted to a custody fight between his wife and his adult children, has died.

Martin and Lois Zelman were regulars at Palm Beach events. 013014 PBDN Debbie Schatz 11 Photos Reception for American Friends of the Israel Museum's Palm Beach Fundraiser at the Baum Residence
Martin and Lois Zelman in 2014 at a reception for American Friends of the Israel Museum’s Palm Beach Fundraiser.

The death of Martin Zelman, a successful Long Island real estate investor, was announced by his family in an obituary that appeared on March 8 in the New York Times. He was 87.

His second wife, Lois Zelman, who fought his adult children’s efforts to separate them after 15 years of marriage, was not mentioned in the obituary.

Lois Zelman was ordered out of the couple’s Palm Beach condo in 2o14 by then-Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Diana Lewis. She believed Martin’s children’s claims that Lois was a threat to their father’s well-being. The decision was overturned nearly a year later by the 4th District Court of Appeal. It ruled that Lewis had for fallen for “legal hocus pocus” and had violated Lois’ rights.

But by that time, it was too late for the couple to resume their life together. With Martin Zelman falling deeper into the well of Alzheimer’s disease, he no longer recognized his wife, said attorney Jeff Fisher, who represented Lois in the litigation.

“Due to an abuse of the guardianship process, Lois lost the ability to care for and be with her husband in the last years of his life,” Fisher said Tuesday. “Martin’s passing makes that fact all the more painful for her.  At this point, we simply hope that the rulings from her case prevent the same thing from happening to other couples who are at a similarly vulnerable stage of their lives.”

At stake in the case was roughly $10 million. According to a prenuptial agreement, if Martin divorced Lois she wouldn’t get the money.

In the guardianship case, Lewis ruled that Martin was incompetent and appointed his children as his guardians. But she let him preserve the ability to file lawsuits. While a divorce suit was filed, Judge Charles Burton later threw it out, ruling that Martin lacked the capacity to understand what he was doing.

The dispute was ultimately settled out of court.


Attorney for Trump campaign manager no stranger to controversy

West Palm Beach attorney Scott Richardson, who was tapped Tuesday to represent GOP presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s campaign manager on a battery charge, is no stranger to high-profile cases.

Defense attorney Scott Richardson (front) in court in 2014 with John Goodman during the polo mogul’s trial for DUI manslaughter.

Throughout his career, which began in 1978 as a prosecutor in the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office, the 62-year-old registered Democrat has represented priests accused of stealing from the collection plate, cops accused of killing suspects and politicians behaving badly.

Most recently, he was a member of the defense team for John Goodman when the Wellington polo mogul in 2014 – for a second time – was convicted of DUI manslaughter in the 2010 crash that killed engineering graduate Scott Wilson.

Those who have known the defense attorney, whose courtroom style is more professorial than dramatic, said they weren’t surprised Richardson, along with former U.S. Attorney Kendall Coffey, were hired to represent Corey Lewandowski on a battery charge.

“He’s a great lawyer, an exceptional trial lawyer and he’s extremely ethical,” said defense attorney Michael Salnick, who shares his longtime friend’s love of the law, baseball, the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson. “He’s an excellent choice to represent this man.”

Lewandowski turned himself in at the Jupiter police station Tuesday morning and was given a notice to appear on a misdemeanor battery charge in connection with allegations made by Michelle Fields, a former reporter for the online Breitbart News Network. At a March 8 press conference at Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter, the 28-year-old Fields claims Lewandowski manhandled her when she tried to ask Trump a question — a claim Lewandowski denies.

Richardson, often working with Salnick and former Palm Beach County State Attorney Barry Krischer, built his career representing cops accused of crimes. One of his most headline-grabbing cases was in 1991 when he and Krischer represented West Palm Beach police officers Glen Thurlow and Stephen Rollins in the beating death of Robert Jewett.

Despite an autopsy that showed Jewett’s injuries included a broken neck, nine broken ribs, a bruised lung, a puncture in his heart and blood-filled testicles, jurors cleared the officers of any wrongdoing.

In 2005, he worked similar magic for Delray Beach police officer Darren Cogoni in the shooting death of 16-year-old Jerrod Miller at a school dance. Taking the calculated risk of allowing Cogoni to testify before the grand jury, the panel cleared the rookie officer of wrongdoing.

He also represented the Rev. John Skehan, a longtime priest at St. Vincent Ferrer Catholic Church in Delray Beach. Admitting he stole from the parish from 2001 to early 2006, the 81-year-old priest pleaded guilty to grand theft over $100,000 and received a 14-month prison sentence after police said he embezzled as much as $8 million from the church.

When Palm Beach County State Attorney Michael McAuliffe was elected in 2008, he sought to shore up the office by hiring Richardson. McAuliffe created a special position for Richardson as his chief counsel, earning praise from underlings. A big part of Richardson’s job was to train young attorneys – part of what McAuliffe called his desire to build a prosecutorial force of  “national caliber.”

When McAuliffe unexpectedly quit the job before his term was up, Richardson returned to private practice.

Richardson, who is famously tight-lipped with the press, wasn’t immediately available for comment. Years ago, when asked why he counted so many police officers as clients, he explained that he enjoyed bursting misconceptions people may have about cases that received enormous attention in the press.

“I enjoy being able to present the facts within the rules governing the admissability of evidence and oftentimes overcoming initial misconceptions about the guilt or innocence of the officer,” he said.



Trial begins in Loxahatchee animal slaughter case

imageThe former owner of a Loxahatchee farm at the center of what prosecutors are calling a brutal illegal animal slaughter operation is now on trial.

Testimony began Tuesday morning in the animal cruelty trial of Jorge Garcia, arrested with several others after a nonprofit animal rights group gave investigators video evidence of farm workers shooting at and repeatedly stabbing a goat.

Another man arrested with Garcia, Rafael Ramirez, is also charged with illegally selling horse meat, although prosecutors said they found no evidence of horses being slaughtered at the farm.

Several other men took pleas in the case. Defense attorney Andrew Stine told jurors in the case that Garcia wasn’t the one who slaughtered the animal in question, and also said the manner in which it was killed was legal.

Battling brewing in Grossman v. Bryson PBC county court race

In what could be a harbinger of a particularly contentious judicial election season, the Palm Beach County Bar Association has already logged its first ethics complaint against a candidate.

A supporter of incumbent Judge Marni Bryson (above) has filed a complaint against challenger Lisa Grossman.

“We’ve never had a complaint filed this early before,” bar association CEO Patience Burns said of the complaint filed last week against county court judge candidate Lisa Grossman. “We’re not prepared to accept it.”

The Judicial Campaign Practices Commission, which reviews complaints of unethical behavior and issues advisory opinions, won’t be formed until after the election qualifying period ends at noon on May 6, Burns said.

That means the complaint, accusing Grossman of improperly converting her personal Facebook page into a campaign advertisement and dragging her nearly 300 “friends” along for an unplanned political ride, will be put on hold, she said.

Attorney Alka Sharma, co-chair of the campaign committee for incumbent Judge Marni Bryson,  said several people called her upset that Grossman was using their Facebook friendship to shore up her judicial campaign. Some of those “friends” are supporting Bryson in the Aug. 30 election, she said.

The page titled, “Lisa Grossman for Judge,” shows pictures of people holding Grossman campaign signs. Before the March 15 presidential primary, the North Palm Beach lawyer posted this: “Anyone interested in holding a sign at an early voting site between 10-6 this weekend please contact me!!”

Sharma said her research showed that the converting a personal Facebook page into one for a campaign is improper under rules that dictate what is and isn’t allowed in Florida judicial races. While such sites can be created by an election committee, they can’t be established or maintained by the candidate themselves, she wrote in the complaint. Even then, she said, the committees can’t control who counts themselves among the candidates’ supporters.

The rules for judicial candidates differ wildly from those seeking other offices. Grossman should bone up on them, Sharma said. “She seems to be kind of doing it Wild West style,” she said.

Gross declined comment. “At this point it’s all unsubstantiated hearsay,” she said.


PBC woman sues Wellington hospital for flushing baby down toilet

A Palm Beach County woman has sued Wellington Regional Medical Center, claiming a hospital worker flushed her baby down a toilet after she suffered a miscarriage in the emergency room bathroom two years ago.

IMG_0001In the lawsuit filed last week in Palm Beach County Circuit Court, Linda Gomez said she watched in horror as her baby, born more than four months premature, disappeared. She “could readily see the face of (the) child as it was flushed down the toilet … creating an image that (she) cannot forget,” according to the lawsuit filed by Tampa attorney Kennan Dandar.

Hospital officials weren’t immediately available for comment.

In addition to losing her child after 19 weeks of pregnancy in July 2014, Gomez claims hospital officials refused to retrieve the child so she could give the baby a burial “in accordance with her Christian faith.”

“The conduct of the (hospital) and its employee was outrageous, that is, as to go beyond all bounds of decency, and to be regarded as odious and utterly intolerable in a civilized community,” Dandar wrote.

He is seeking an unspecified amount in damages for Gomez for the emotional trauma she endured.

She had gone to the hospital because she was experiencing bleeding. When she went to the bathroom while waiting to see a doctor, she had the miscarriage. Unable to summon help, she cut the umbilical cord herself, Dandar wrote. The unidentified hospital worker heard her screams, flushed the toilet and told Gomez to return to the waiting room, he said in the lawsuit.

Trump attorneys battle with members of Jupiter golf club

WEST PALM BEACH  – A federal judge on Thursday listened to nearly two hours of arguments about a long-running dispute between Donald Trump and those who aren’t happy about membership changes he made since launching Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter.

The hearing on Trump’s request to throw out the law turned on phrases like “legacy addendum,” “breach” and “deposit refund obligation.” At times, even U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra was confused.

Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump holds a copy of his magazine during a press conference at Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter, Florida on March 8, 2016. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)
Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump holds a copy of his magazine at a press conference at Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter this month. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)

“What are we fighting about?” he asked attorneys at one point.

Lawyers representing roughly 60 members of the club – the site of a much-talked about press conference this month where the GOP presidential front-runner displayed now-defunct Trump Steaks, Trump magazine, Trump water and other products to prove his business savvy  – claim more than $6 million is on the line. That is how much they claim their clients are owed in membership fees alone.

Trump attorneys counter that the former members will get their cash when new members join – a practice that has existed since the club was owned by Ritz-Carlton.

Marra, who quizzed both sides at length, said he would rule soon on Trump’s request to dismiss the lawsuit.

Check back for further updates.


Milagro Cunningham gets another bid for freedom in rape of Lake Worth girl

Milagro Cunningham, who was 17 when he raped an 8-year-old Lake Worth girl, buried her under rocks and left her for dead, will get another chance at freedom.

Milagro Cunningham when he was sentenced to life in 2009.
Milagro Cunningham when he was sentenced to life in 2009.

An appeals court on Wednesday overturned Cunningham’s 70-year sentence for the 2005 crime that snared national headlines both for his viciousness and its miracle ending. The girl survived.

While less than the four life sentences Cunningham was handed in 2009 after he was convicted of multiple charges, including attempted murder, kidnapping and sexual battery, the 70-year sentence is still too long, the 4th District Court of Appeal ruled.

When the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010 ruled that juveniles can’t be sentenced to life without parole for non-homicide offenses, it meant that those who commit crimes when they are young must be given a reasonable chance to someday live outside prison walls, the West Palm Beach court wrote. The nation’s high court ruled juveniles must be given special consideration because their brains aren’t fully developed, they don’t always fully understand the consequences of their actions and they are amendable to rehabilitation.

The 70-year sentence Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Charles Burton handed Cunningham in 2014, after the high court ruling, doesn’t provide Cunningham, now 27, the opportunity to prove he has been rehabilitated and should be allowed to live outside prison walls.

In its decision, it noted that the Florida Supreme Court in 2015 threw out 90-year and 70-year sentences for juveniles convicted of non-homicide crimes. The lengthy sentences, the appeals court wrote, “did not provide the defendant with a meaningful opportunity for early release based upon maturity and rehabilitation.”

Cunningham will have to be brought before Burton for re-sentencing.

Check back for updates.

Dalia Dippolito, lawyer to have day of reckoning with judge

Dalia Dippolito testifies in a pretrial hearing Tuesday, February 23, 2016. The 33-year-old Dippolito is facing a May retrial on 2009 charges that she tried to hire a hit man to kill her husband, convicted conman Michael Dippolito. She has pleaded not guilty. Dalia Dippolito is expected to testify that a former lover threatened her with a gun and pressured her to speak to the hit man who was actually an undercover police officer. The case gained national notoriety because "Cops" happened to be filming with the Boynton Beach police. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)
Dalia Dippolito testifies in a pretrial hearing Tuesday, February 23, 2016. The 33-year-old Dippolito is facing a May retrial on 2009 charges that she tried to hire a hit man to kill her husband, convicted conman Michael Dippolito. She has pleaded not guilty. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

If all goes well for Dalia Dippolito Tuesday, the former Boynton Beach newlywed once convicted of trying to have her husband killed will escape a return trip to jail and keep the lead defense attorney going into her May retrial.

If not, the 33-year-old could be headed back to jail on accusations that she violated her house arrest by traveling to Miami late last year for an exclusive interview with ABC’s 20/20. And Circuit Judge Glenn Kelley could revoke the special permission he gave California attorney Brian Claypool to work on Dippolito’s case because Claypool told reporters last month that the judge would be giving in to community pressure and sensationalism if he rejected Dippolito’s recent quest to have her case thrown out.

“Mr. Claypool’s comments at the February 23, 2016 press conference violate Bar Rule 4-8.2(a) by making a statement concerning the integrity of the Court that he knows to be false, or that was made with reckless disregard as to its truth or falsity,” Kelley wrote earlier this month in an order for Claypool to appear in court.

Kelley, who ultimately denied Dippolito’s motion to have her charges dismissed, included as a footnote in his memo against Claypool that Dippolito also violated the rules of house arrest when she traveled to the offices of her Miami attorney Mark Eiglarsh for the December interview with ABC.

Prosecutors seized on that and just days later asked Kelley to either raise Dippolito’s bail or send her back to jail. Echoing Kelley’s words, Assistant State Attorney Craig Williams wrote on March 7 that Dippolito was allowed to travel to Miami only for the purposes of meeting with her lawyers to prepare for her retrial – not for an interview.

Williams has asked Kelley to either send Dippolito back to jail or raise her bail.

Kelley has called Dippolito, her legal team and prosecutors in for a 4 p.m. hearing Tuesday to decide both issues in what has become just the latest twist in the case that made international headlines when a YouTube video showing Dippolito crying at what turned out to be a staged crime scene went viral.

Claypool over the weekend announced plans to mount a vigorous defense to keep himself on the case, saying he’d already consulted with local defense attorneys Richard Lubin and Scott Richardson on the matter but will represent himself in an attempt to keep the judge from taking him off the case.

The statements he made were in no way intended to disparage Kelley, Claypool has said, calling the matter “an unfortunate incident.” In paperwork filed Sunday, Claypool quoted other comments he’d made about the judge in the same press conference.

“I think he is a fair judge. I think what he is trying to do is give leeway to both sides and let everything in so he can make an informed decision,” Claypool said a month ago.

The statements came after a hearing that marked Dippolito’s first time ever testifying in court since her 2009 arrest.

Her 2011 trial ended with a conviction after a jury rejected her defense that she and her husband Michael conspired together to hire an undercover Boynton Beach detective posing as a hitman to kill Michael as a ploy for a reality television show.

In the time since an appellate court overturned that conviction and 20-year sentence, Dippolito has said that she was just following the orders of Mohammed Shihadeh, the former lover who turned her in to police and sparked the undercover investigation.

She said she, her husband and Shihadeh were all working together to create an acting showcase that they hoped to parlay into more acting work, but when she tried to back out of the plot Shihadeh threatened to hurt her and her family.

— Daphne Duret, staff writer