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Jury-friendly county court line up for 2016

by Kelli Barnes

As reported in the Booster last week, Judge Jacques Blanchette changed the way cases will be brought to Tyler County criminal court beginning in 2016. Going forward, jury notices will be sent out two weeks prior to court and pleas from defendants will not be accepted after that time.

The 2016 county court schedule is: Plea dates January 19, April 18, July 18 and October 17. Trial dates February 16 and 19, March 15 and 17, May 16 and 17, June 20 and 21, August 15 and 16, September 19 and 20, November 21 and 22, December 19 and 20.

To date, there are 492 cases on the docket and they can be broken down into six categories. The first two are the plea cases (32 total) and trial cases (42 total). The third are motion to revoke cases. There are six in this category, and are comprised of people on probation who have not fulfilled their obligations and have been sent back through the system by their probation officer.

Next, pretrial diversion cases, which are negotiated between the defendant and District Attorney Lou Ann Cloy, if the DA chooses to offer a plea deal. There are currently 13 cases in this category.

The fifth are felony pending cases. In these cases, the defendant also has felony charges. It is likely the misdemeanor cases in this category will be dropped when the defendant pleas guilty to felony charges. There are 68 of these on the docket.

Finally, are the failure to appear cases, and as reported last week, there are 342. Of this number, 198 are theft by financial instrument (hot checks). Hot check cases are handled directly by the DA's office. In Tyler County, the DA fights for restitution to businesses and individuals who have lost money as a result of the theft. They can also assess a collection fee for each of these cases, which goes directly into a "hot check fund" used to supplement expenses in the DA's office. Ninety of the failure to appear cases are defendants located in Tyler County, 84 are located in surrounding counties and 80 cases have bond agents.

DETCOG Executive Director Diggles indicted on wire-fraud related charges

by Emily Waldrep

According to a statement released by the U.S. Attorneys Office, Executive Director of the Deep East Texas Council of Governments, Walter Diggles, had been indicted by a Federal Grand Jury on 28-counts of wire-fraud related charges. Diggles has been placed on administrative leave with no pay following the indictments.

Walter Diggles, age 62, his wife Rosie Diggles, age 61, and his daughter Anita Diggles, age 39, all pled not guilty to the indictments before U.S. Magistrate Judge Keith Giblin in the Jack Brooks Federal Building in downtown Beaumont on Monday afternoon. In total, there are 15 charges against Walter Diggles, 12 charges against Rosie Diggles, and 1 charge against Anita Diggles. Walter Diggles has been charged with 1 count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, 11 counts of wire fraud, 1 count of theft from a program receiving federal funds, and 3 counts of engaging in monetary transactions derived from specifically unlawful activity.

On Sunday, December 21 the following statement was released by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Texas. It outlines the 28 count indictments against Walter Diggles, Rosie Diggles, and Anita Diggles.

"U.S. Attorney John M. Bales announced today that two residents of Jasper along with a resident of Houston, have been charged with federal violations in the Eastern District of Texas.

Walter Diggles, 62, Rosie Diggles, 61, and Anita Diggles, 39, were indicted on December 2, and jointly charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud. In addition, Walter Diggles was charged individually with eleven counts of wire fraud, two counts of theft from a program that receives federal funding, and three counts of money laundering (engaging in monetary transactions with money derived from unlawful activity). Rosie Diggles was also individually charged with ten counts of wire fraud and with one count of money laundering (engaging in monetary transactions with money derived from unlawful activity). Additionally, the indictment includes a notice of forfeiture stating that the Government is seeking to forfeit over $1.3 million from the defendants.

According to information presented in court, the defendants are alleged to have devised a scheme to obtain and make personal use of federal block grant funds that Congress appropriated following Hurricanes Rita, Katrina, Ike, and Dolly. The indictment alleges that these funds were made available to the State of Texas, which in turn contracted with several councils of governments within the state to assist in administering and distributing the funds. Walter Diggles is the Executive Director of the Deep East Texas Council of Governments, and the Indictment alleges that he made use of his position to approve inflated requests for reimbursement of federal block grant funds and that Rosie Diggles and Anita Diggles prepared many of the requests. The indictment also alleges that Walter Diggles individually engaged in activities and approved requests for block grant funds that were fraudulent in nature and that all of the defendants spent the excess funds on personal expenses.

The defendants had initial appearances before U.S. Magistrate Judge Keith Giblin today (December 21). They each face up to 30 years in federal prison if convicted of the charges.

It is important to note: A grand jury indictment is not evidence of guilt. All defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.

This case is being investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation; the Internal Revenue Service; the U.S. Department of Homeland Security / U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement; the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; and the Texas State Auditor's Office. This case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Tom Gibson and James Noble."

Walter Diggles Lawyer, Ryan Gertz, also issued a statement on December 20 that stated that the entirety of the indictments are a "misunderstanding."

"In the spirit of "no good deed goes unpunished," the United States Attorney's office for the Eastern District of Texas sought and obtained a sensational, but unsubstantiated, indictment through secret proceedings handed down on December 2nd," Gertz said in his statement. "After a highly publicized raid and a two year investigation the indictment reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of how federal and state block grants work. Money provided by DETCOG block grants are given on a reimbursement basis rather than a contract basis. The entire indictment reflects a misunderstanding of this simple fact."

Walter Diggles has served as Executive Director of the Deep East Texas Council of Governments since 1990 and as Pastor of the Lighthouse Church in Jasper County since 1980. In February 2014, investigators from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other agencies arrived at DETCOG offices, the New Lighthouse Church of God in Christ where Diggles pastored, as well as Diggles home with search warrants and confiscated file cabinets and boxes.

The counties served by DETCOG include Jasper, Newton, Tyler, Polk, Sabine, San Augustine, San Jacinto, Houston, Hardin, Shelby, Trinity, Angelina and Nacogdoches.

Marijuana, rock cocaine discovered in Woodville traffic stop

by Emily Waldrep

On Friday, December 11, Officer Zachary with the Woodville Police Department was working traffic on Railroad Street when he observed a driver of a vehicle that he knew from past contact did not have a driver's license. Zachary conducted a traffic stop at Willis and Blackgum Street, and made contact with the driver who was identified as Malcolm Isiah Lewis, age 28 from Woodville.

"Zachary confirmed Lewis was not a licensed driver, and officers had prior knowledge that Lewis has been involved in drug activity," said Captain Mike McCulley of the Woodville Police Department. "Routine questioning was done regarding why Lewis was driving without a license, and it was learned through the database that Lewis had previously gotten a citation for driving without a license."
At that time, Lewis was placed under arrest for driving while license invalid. During an inventory of his vehicle after arrest, Zachary discovered several clear plastic baggies, some containing marijuana and one containing several crack cocaine rocks hidden under the driver's side front seat.

The evidence recovered was 7 baggies of marijuana that weighed approximately 1 ounce, and 23 rock of crack cocaine, which was approximately 7 grams. Lewis was charged with Possession of Marijuana, a misdemeanor, and Possession of Controlled Substance Penalty Group 1, which is a second degree felony.

"Officers continually work traffic and know that people that commit common traffic violations are also doing other things, so there are going to be extra officers out looking for this type of criminal activity," McCulley said. "These drugs were packaged for resale and not for personal use, and we are going to try to catch them one at a time."

Tyler County judge sets new rule for criminal court: take plea within two weeks or face a trial

By Kelli Barnes

Judge Jacques Blanchette has changed the way cases will be brought to Tyler County criminal court beginning in 2016. Thursday, December 17 Judge Blanchette informed the District Attorney and all attorneys present, that jury notices will be sent out two weeks prior to court and no pleas from defendants will be taken after that time period. "I cannot in good conscience, allow cases to sit on the docket for two and three years, causing the District Attorney to have to send over dismissals because witnesses are no longer available," said Blanchette. "If we do not start doing something besides what we are doing, we are going to get further behind." Blanchette also expressed concerns for citizens called for jury duty, who take time off work to do their civic duty and then deals are made just minutes before (a jury will be picked) and the jury pool is sent home.

Nine years ago, there were 963 cases on the docket and it took time to get the number of cases down to something reasonable, a task worked on by Blanchette and former assistant District Attorney Dan Hunt. Today, there are 492 cases on the docket and 342 of these are failure to appear cases. Warrants have been issued for the arrest of these defendants.

There are 44 trial cases on the docket, some on the docket over 900 days. "What we are doing is not working and this change (in trial rule in Tyler County) is my attempt to get these cases moving, which is my job," said Blanchette. Of the 44 trial cases, 18 are considered "high priority" by the judge.

The cases will be prioritized based on three criteria: number of days on the docket, seriousness of the charge, and number of times the case has been requested for continuance. This year, 294 cases have been submitted for dismissal. The reasons have been: insufficient evidence, successful completion pretrial diversions, victim request, plea to a higher charge with lesser charge being dismissed (12-45'd), and "in the interest of justice".

Two attorneys present, Michael Risinger and Timothy McDonough, expressed concerns. "Respectfully I disagree with the judge...I have been practicing for 20 years and in my experience, until a defendant sees the jury or has the threat of a jury, they will not make a deal," said McDonough. "I do not think this is going to save anyone any time."

"Sometimes, economically, seeking a jury (trial) is more costly (than the jury pool process)...and you are taking our liberties away and removing that right from my clients," said Risinger. "You have a defined sentence by a plea from the District Attorney, and an undefined sentence from a jury."

District Attorney Lou Ann Cloy said, "It's my fault...I have been short handed for eight months...we are busy with CPS cases and felonies...I don't have time."

Cloy did hire an assistant in September, Ben Kissee, a graduate of SMU law school. Kissee recently received a temporary trial card from Texas Bar Association, which gives him the opportunity to work in a courtroom under supervision of an attorney. Another attorney, Anne Pickle, has also been hired full time by Cloy on December 9.

In other business, two plea agreements were settled during court. One, a DWI second offense was reduced to a DWI first offense, an agreement between the state and the defendant's attorney, resulting in a guilty plea, court costs, 12 month's probation, DWI educational program and an ignition devise requirement for 12 months while on probation. This case cleared after 418 days. The second, a guilty plea to assault causes bodily injury, resulting in fines and probation and credit was given for time served. This case cleared after 216 days. Two other defendants were in court but their attorneys, Kevin Laine and Bryan Laine, both from Hardin county, were not present in court so the defendants were sent home.

The following court schedule set by Judge Blanchette, in conjunction with the new rule set in place for 2016 is: Plea dates - January 19, April 18, July 18 and October 17.

Trial dates - February 16 and 19, March 15 and 17, May 16 and 17, June 20 and 21, August 15 and 16, September 19 and 20, November 21 and 22, and December 19 and 20.

(Editor's note: The Tyler County Booster will be following all court cases in 2016, to inform the public on the progress in this court.)

Woodville traffic stop leads to two felony charges for Woodville man

by Emily Waldrep

On December 9, Sergeant Hicks with the Woodville Police Department made a traffic stop on a vehicle on West Live Oak near Gardner Street for a traffic violation and made contact with the driver, who was identified as Markeze Riley, age 22 of Woodville. While making contact with the driver, Hicks smelled marijuana coming from inside the vehicle.

"Hicks had the driver produce his identification an upon checking it and returning to the vehicle, Hicks observed a green leafy substance in and around the console," said Woodville Police Captain Mike McCulley. "The driver was also found to have outstanding warrants and was placed under arrest for those."

There was also a passenger in the vehicle who was identified as Christopher Montoya, age 21 of Woodville. Montoya had some marijuana on his person and was found in his seat once he was taken out of the vehicle.
Deputy Ryan arrived to assist in the search of the vehicle and officers found a medium sized bag of marijuana hidden behind the seat.

"Both the driver and the passenger denied any ownership or knowledge of the marijuana and were both charged with possession of drug paraphernalia," McCulley said. "Both admitted to smoking marijuana earlier but denied knowing there was any usable amount in the car."

Both Montoya and Riley were advised that anything found on their person upon entering the jail would constitute a felony. Both were escorted into the jail. During the search of Montoya in the jail room, he attempted to flush a baggie of 18 crack cocaine rocks down the toilet. Deputy Ryan and a jailer were able to stop him from destroying the evidence, which was later turned over to Sgt. Hicks for investigation.

Montoya was charged with Possession of a Prohibited Substance in a Correctional Facility, which is a third degree felony and Tampering with Evidence, which is also a third degree felony.

"So instead of getting a couple of misdemeanors, Montoya has now gotten several felonies," McCulley said.