Jasper Co. grand jury declines to indict prison guard accused in molestation probe
After considering charges for both a Texas prison guard and his accuser, a Jasper County grand jury declined to indict anyone involved in a molestation probe at the Goodman Unit north of Beaumont.
Earlier in the year, a Houston woman visiting the East Texas lock-up publicly alleged an officer had fondled her breast. But investigators later called into question her version of events, instead asking a grand jury to consider felony tampering charges against the woman and misdemeanor official oppression charges against the officer, who has since resigned.
Earlier this month, a grand jury no-billed the case.
The woman at the center of the claims - Sylvia Hidalgo - first went public with her allegations back in August, at a press conference in Houston featuring local activist Quanell X.
“This guard should be indicted, he should be charged,” Quanell told reporters, urging the prison system to have a “zero tolerance policy for this kind of behavior.”
READ MORE: Texas prison guard resigns amid molestation probe
But, after looking into the case and getting a warrant for Hidalgo’s phone, investigators determined there may have been more to it.
“It’s a little bit different story than what was presented,” said Jack Choate, executive director of the Special Prosecution Unit, which handles Texas prison criminal cases.
The incident caught on tape happened sometime in the fall of 2017, while Hidalgo was driving into the unit for a visit. It wasn’t the first time she’d interacted with the accused officer, she said, so she knew to set up a camera and catch him in the act when he reached in the window and touched her.
“I wasn’t dressed provocatively,” she said. “When I left, I was just in total shock.”
Afterward, she went to prison officials with her allegations. The officer resigned and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice forwarded the case to the Office of the Inspector General, which handles criminal investigations for the agency.
“Initially they treated her like she was a suspect not a victim,” Quanell said. “Too often when a woman makes an outcry she is treated as a suspect not a victim. This lady is a victim, the video speaks to her being a victim. The video is louder than words.”
The short clip shown at the press conference showed a man’s hand reaching in the car window and tickling Hidalgo’s breast, but investigators said that it was only one portion of a longer clip. Initially, according to Choate, Hidalgo was not willing to hand over the rest of the footage, so investigators had to get a search warrant for her phone.
The footage reviewed by the Chronicle shows Hidalgo setting her phone on the floor by her foot to clandestinely record the interaction. She pulls up to talk to an officer and asks some questions about visitation, her arm hanging out the window.
They chit-chat about where she plans to eat afterward and she leans back in her seat before he reaches in to tickle the underside of her arm.
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She looks to the side, then appears to nod quickly before he reaches in and touches her breast lightly.
Though the officer could have been charged with the misdemeanor without taking the case to a grand jury, Choate said, prosecutors decided to do so anyway.
“The intent was to present all the different possibilities of charges against anybody involved,” he said.
When reached by phone late Monday, Quanell was surprised both to learn of the grand jury’s failure to indict and of the existence of additional footage. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice declined to comment.