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Trial opens for deputy accused of cash theft

On a summer day in 1993, Hillsborough sheriff's Deputy Given Garcia found himself at a Dover strawberry farm, investigating a complaint that a field worker had been behaving strangely.

Before he took Maria Quintero into custody, witnesses said, he asked her if she had any money.

"She pulled out a big wad of money $20 bills," strawberry farmer Harvey Carr testified Tuesday, holding his thumb and forefinger inches apart for illustration.

The question the jury must decide: Did the deputy steal that cash from Quintero, who was killed that night after she was released from his custody and ran out onto Interstate 4? Did he tell his then-wife that he got the cash from a woman who was killed in accident and who wouldn't "need it where she's going"?

Or is the 31-year-old Garcia accused of an appalling theft he didn't commit?

As the trial opened Tuesday, witnesses said Quintero, 35, came to the 18-acre strawberry farm where she had previously worked looking for a place to stay. She had all she owned in two suitcases, a few bags and a purse.

Quintero was acting oddly, crying, saying she was afraid of someone, hiding her papers and her jewelry, said her fellow worker Rosa Castro.

"We thought she needed help," Castro said. They called the Sheriff's Office.

Garcia spoke no Spanish and Quintero spoke no English, so Castro acted as interpreter. Garcia checked her papers, made calls to federal authorities and asked her about her money. Quintero showed him the money and said it was about $700 to $800, Castro said. Quintero told the deputy she wanted to go to Mexico.

The deputy took her to a Shell station at I-4 and Forbes Road and released her after federal authorities would not take her. At some point, Quintero ran up onto the busy highway and in front of a van, where she was hit and killed. The medical examiner found no cash on Quintero.

Quintero's family filed a federal lawsuit in 1995 that chronicles allegations of missing money and accuses Garcia of indirectly causing her death. Sheriff's officials said they didn't know about the missing money until the lawsuit was filed.

Last year, Garcia was fired after an internal affairs investigation found that he stole Quintero's cash while she was in his custody or while she lay dead on the highway.

"He said he got it (the money) from a bag from a lady that was killed from an accident," Garcia's ex-wife Lori Sanchez Garcia told investigators. She said Garcia told her, "She's not going to need it where she's going."

Garcia's attorney said the cash his wife saw was actually given to Garcia by his mother so the troubled young couple could go on a beach vacation.

Tuesday, prosecutor Craig Clendinen held up a law enforcement badge before the jury and asked for a verdict "that tells Maria what this badge really stands for." Defense attorney John Fitzgibbons called the evidence "sadly lacking," and said Garcia was innocent and would take the stand to tell his side of the story.

If convicted of grand theft, Garcia faces a maximum sentence of 364 days in the county jail.