September-October 2011

There’s a new kid in town …

… and he’s not what he seems. In a nationally publicized story, a 22-year-old man posed as a 15-year-old basketball player in Odessa. How prosecutors made him acknowledge his identity and ensure he could never lie about it again.

Bobby Bland

District Attorney in Ector County

On July 26, 2011, the 6-foot-5, 210-pound defendant stood in the courtroom, and Judge Denn Whalen asked him, “Are you Guerdwich Montimere?”

    The defendant answered “Yes sir.”

    “Are you the one and the same Guerdwich Montimere charged with the crimes of tampering with governmental records and sexual assault of a child?”

    “Yes sir, I am.”

    That is the normal way to begin pleas and usually the least interesting part of the hearing. And yet that afternoon in the Ector County Courthouse, every ear in the courtroom perked up to hear the answers to those questions.

    That is because two and a half years before, in February 2009, that same defendant arrived in Odessa off a Greyhound bus and began telling everyone he was Jerry Joseph. He introduced himself as a 15-year-old orphaned immigrant from Haiti who had come to live with his long lost half-brother, Jabari Caldwell, a student with a basketball scholarship at the University of Texas at Permian Basin. Jerry Joseph decided as part of this new identity that he would go to Permian High School, which was immortalized in the book, movie, and TV series Friday Night Lights, and enroll as a student.

      When he arrived at the school with his “brother,” Jerry took a birth certificate identifying himself as Jerry Joseph born on January 1, 1994. Once his Haitian birth certificate was translated into English from French, he was informed that because of his age, he would have to go to junior high, and so he was enrolled in ninth grade at Nimitz Junior High. Because of Jerry Joseph’s orphan status, he qualified for free lunches and other special assistance. Of course, someone that size quickly garnered the attention of various coaches in town, and before long, Jerry was playing basketball and getting ready to go on to Permian High where he would become a star.

    At the end of the semester, his half-brother Jabari Caldwell left Odessa because his scholarship was not renewed. With Jerry ostensibly homeless, he moved in with the head coach of the Permian basketball team, Danny Ray Wright. Coach Wright noted he was a well-behaved kid, fit in well with the family and was required to do chores and earn his own spending money. He never did anything to betray his true identity or age through his behavior or even the way he played basketball.

    At Permian, Jerry began to excel at school and sport. As a sophomore, he soon started on the varsity team. Permian is not traditionally a basketball power team, but the school did very well that year with their 6-foot-5 guard, achieving its best district record ever and a playoff berth. Jerry was even voted District Newcomer of the Year. The basketball star was popular, very mannerly, and well-liked by both faculty and students.

    He even started playing with some traveling teams. One of them played in an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) tournament in Arkansas, where only the best student-athletes in the country play. There, a coach named Louis Vives glanced across the court at Jerry Joseph and recognized him as Guerdwich Montimere, who had played on Coach Vives’ South Florida AAU team when Jerry was at Dillard High in Fort Lauderdale. Of course, Guerdwich had already graduated from high school and had even gone on to a college in Illinois on scholarship. It seemed odd that this was the same person, but both Coach Vives and his players knew it was, and the team started yelling at him, “Hey Guerd, what’s going on?” and “What are you doing, man?” Jerry Joseph turned around when they called out “Guerd” but proceeded to ignore them the rest of the time. Coach Vives, not dissuaded, went up to him directly and asked, “Guerd, what are you up to?” Jerry looked him in the eye and replied, “I don’t know who you are talking about.” He then turned away, avoiding his former team for the rest of the tournament.

    Coach Vives was not going to turn Jerry in to tournament authorities because he didn’t know the full story and because he wanted to maintain trust amongst his players, but of course, the cat was out of the bag. Once back in Florida, he sent emails to the local paper and the administration at Permian saying that the person known as Jerry Joseph was actually Guerdwich Montimere. When the principal and assistant principal received this information, they pulled Jerry out of class, but he told them he didn’t know what they were talking about. Sophomore Principal Gregory Nelson gathered photographs from the local paper and from Florida’s Dillard High School and compared them to known photos of Jerry. He was amazed at their similarities. Principal Nelson had watched every single one of Jerry Joseph’s games, knew exactly what he looked like, and saw from the photos that Jerry and Montimere were one and the same person.

    At that point administrators again called Jerry Joseph to the office and showed him the pictures; the student would not even acknowledge that they looked alike. They brought in the Ector County Independent School District Police to question him, but again, he denied being Guerdwich Montimere. Coach Wright was brought in too, and he said he didn’t know anything about it but acknowledged the resemblance between the photos. Wright’s wife searched Jerry’s room at home and found a passport and Social Security card belonging to Guerdwich Montimere, as well as some IDs belonging to other students from Dillard High School, in a suitcase hidden in the back of a closet.

    At that point, Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) agents were called in and took custody of Jerry Joseph. ICE took his fingerprints and ran them through IAFIS, but because Guerdwich Montimere had no criminal history, there was no match. Federal agents were left with a decision on how to treat him. What ICE guidelines applied? Guerdwich Montimere was a citizen, and Jerry Joseph was illegal. Guerdwich Montimere was a 22-year-old adult, and Jerry Joseph was a 16-year-old juvenile. The feds were in the process of trying to classify and house Guerdwich/Jerry when it was decided they would release him to Coach Wright, who was willing to be Jerry’s guardian, until they could get positive proof either way.

    The ICE agents obtained Jerry’s administrative file from Virginia, which had to be specially requested. Normally, when someone under the age of 14 comes into the U.S., he is not fingerprinted, but because Jerry’s mother filed for him to be able to work, Guerdwich Montimere was fingerprinted when he was a child. The file gave us prints we could use to compare to the known fingerprints of Jerry Joseph. Two technicians at the Odessa Police Department positively identified the fingerprints of Jerry Joseph and Guerdwich Montimere as the same. At that point, Chief Rowden of the Ector County Independent School District Police confronted him with that information, and after a short time the young man broke and acknowledged that the fingerprints were right and he was wrong. When asked if he was Guerdwich Montimere, he replied, “Yes sir.” Then he back-pedaled and re-told the same old story, restating that he was not Guerdwich Montimere, didn’t know anything about it, and refused to take responsibility.

    At the same time, it was determined that the documents he had filed with the school district were governmental public school records and therefore could be filed on. Jerry had defrauded the system by taking free school lunches as well as other services, and his intent was to defraud. He was arrested several times for tampering with governmental records and failure to ID, but was bonded out by well-meaning people who wanted to help Jerry Joseph.

    And then the other shoe dropped.

Sexual assault charges

Once the story was out that Jerry Joseph was really 22 years old, a 15-year-old girl he had befriended the summer before came forward and said they had had sex. Of course, at the time she believed Jerry Joseph to be a 15-year-old kid like her. Despite a lot of heat from classmates labeling her a snitch, our victim was willing to come forward and testify as to what happened.

    When our office first received the call from the school district police about the case, I thought, “Well, that’s interesting.” Then, before I knew it, I was getting calls from newspapers in Florida and USA Today, plus magazines including GQ, Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and ESPN. Every single murder case I have ever prosecuted has garnered less coverage than this case did, and that includes one where three peace officers were killed. This curious story was mentioned in print and on television and radio all over the country, and so we knew we had to treat it appropriately.

    Once we found out about the sexual assault, the dynamics of the case changed. Obviously, this was no longer a weird, cute story, but there was an actual victim’s face to put with the crime. We charged Montimere with tampering with evidence (by presenting a false birth certificate), submitting false entries into public school records, and fraudulent use of identifying information. This last count was in case we found out along the way that there was an actual Jerry Joseph whose birth certificate Guerdwich had used as his own. Prior to presenting the case to the grand jury, I made sure we looked into any collusion between the coach or the staff at Permian High and the defendant but found no wrongdoing. With the crime having occurred at the Friday Night Lights school, many rumors and innuendoes were spread and had to be fully addressed. Nothing ever came to light as to any conspiracy between the player and coach or between the student and faculty. All evidence suggested that Montimere had duped all those he had met.

Pulling together evidence

Gathering information and trial documents was the next phase of prosecution. My investigator, Linda Greenwood, reached out to all of her contacts in the federal government, including the Department of State. This was following the earthquake in Haiti, so the best we could do was find out that apparently someone had filed Montimere’s birth certificate in Haiti, but it appeared to be a very good fake. However, while the State Department provided findings, they were not likely to provide expert testimony.

    The ICE agents provided us with a copy of the administrative file, which proved invaluable for the information therein, including pictures that looked like Montimere, signatures that resembled his, information about his twin brother and his mother, and the fingerprints. We gathered all the pictures we could from Florida and locally, and put them side by side for jury presentation. We also got certified copies of all of his school and driver’s license records in Florida, as well as transcripts from Dillard High and the college he attended in Illinois.

    We also began to track down witnesses in Florida, quickly learning that how easy it would be depended on which county people lived in. My advice is, if you need to get witnesses out of Florida, start as soon as you can. We began getting the subpoenas out well over a month before the trial started, and we were still working on a few out-of-state witnesses the week before trial was to begin. We found that in Broward County, the county where most of our witnesses were located, we had to go through the courts and file the proper paperwork both locally and at the state level so that officials could serve the witnesses. Officials there were very helpful and located several people for us; through them we were able to talk to Coach Louis Vives (who had spotted Guerdwich at the basketball tournament) as well as Guerdwich’s mother. Originally, we wanted to call her as a witness to identify her son, but she told me she was not sure she could. We decided it would not be worth the chance of bringing her here just to have her say “maybe” he was her son when we already had a confession and fingerprints.

    I briefly toyed with the idea of proving up his identity by getting DNA (because we live in the “CSI” world), but the only way to prove who the defendant was through DNA would be to get samples from his mother and go through that difficult process. Then we would still have had to establish her identity through fingerprints. On top of that, Guerdwich had a twin brother; DNA can be the same in identical twins, but fingerprints are not. So we obtained a copy of Guerdwich’s brother’s fingerprints to show the difference between the two. We were prepared, through our experts, to tell the jury the truth of the science, which is that even though DNA is “cooler” and has more interesting numbers, fingerprints are actually more unique than DNA.

The plea bargain

With ESPN, USA Today, and newspapers from Florida to Texas interested, we took this case extremely seriously. However, with such national attention, it was easy to lose focus on what justice truly meant in this case and who the real victim was. She is a girl who is now 17, entering her senior year in high school, who had been subjected to a lot of taunts at school, who had been called a snitch for coming forward, and who wanted to get on with her life. She was certainly not looking forward to the media spotlight, so I sat her down and asked her what would be fair and right in this case. She said three years. At the time, I wasn’t considering any type of plea bargain like that. I thought we needed a longer sentence, what with all of the national attention, but after talking with the young lady and listening to her, I realized that what she was saying was reasonable, and in the end I needed to do what was best for the victim and in the interest of justice—not what the media thought, not what I thought, not what would look best. We needed to do what was right, and three years was the right number. It meant that she would not have to testify and could get on with her life.

    I made this offer to the defense attorney, and in the end the sticking point was that the defendant did not want to register as a sex offender—apparently he felt like he did not need to acknowledge the sexual assault. That was non-negotiable as far as I was concerned. I knew that the three years in prison would be some measure of punishment, but requiring him to register everywhere he went—as Guerdwich Montimere—would be the ultimate punishment.

    With apparently no plea in place, assistant DA Brooke Hendricks and I continued to talk to girls who were rumored to have had sex with the defendant. We never found anyone besides the one victim we knew about, but we uncovered the names of more friends, including one of his best. This teammate told us that “Jerry” had confided in him about his sexual relationship with our victim, breaking the case open. Now we did not have to rely solely on the victim’s testimony (without any physical evidence) to prove up the sexual assault:  We had his confession to a friend, and I made sure the defense attorney knew that.

    Once Montimere knew that his best friend had come forward, I got a call that afternoon from defense counsel, who said they were willing to take the deal. We brought Montimere into court, and he still had the gall to sign “Jerry Joseph” on the paperwork. The judge and I made it clear to the defense attorney that we were not going to stand by and let him deny who he was. He was going to have to state in the plea papers, on the record, and in open court, “I am Guerdwich Montimere; I committed this crime.”

    With all of the hours and hard work we put into this case, hearing those words and knowing that he will never be able to do it again was very satisfying. We knew we managed this case, with all of the attention on it, in a way that was satisfactory to all. At the time, I truly wanted to try it because we had worked so hard, but I knew the plea was necessary for the victim. With a case where everybody is paying attention, we as prosecutors can’t let the publicity, fame, and everything that goes along with that influence how we handle it. However, the publicity should influence how diligently we prepare; the game-changer in this case came the week before we were to go to trial. We had never stopped pursuing justice.

    Now everywhere Guerdwich Montimere goes, he will have to register with the local authorities and admit, “I am Guerdwich Montimere. I now live in your town, and I am a sex offender.” That is the ultimate justice.