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He now calls tale of cash a cover

Was it a cover story to placate his wife, or a confession to an ugly crime?

A former Hillsborough sheriff's deputy accused of stealing hundreds of dollars from a dead woman who had just been run down in traffic testified Wednesday that it was just bad luck that he made up a story telling his wife he took the cash.

"I did not do it," Given Garcia Jr., 31, told the jury.

Garcia, charged with grand theft, admitted he showed his wife a wad of nearly $600 cash in July 1993, the day after migrant worker Maria Quintero was killed on Interstate 4. He said he first told his wife he found the money at the scene of the accident while he was looking for the dead woman's missing shoe _ a cover story, he said, so his wife wouldn't know his mother had actually given it to him for a beach vacation.

Garcia said he didn't even know any money was missing from Quintero, 35, until a fellow deputy told him a few days later.

So it was just bad luck, the prosecutor asked, that the money was actually missing after you told your wife you took it?

"Yes sir," Garcia said.

Earlier, his now ex-wife Lori Sanchez Garcia testified that he called her into their bedroom, showed her the cash and told her "he had gotten it from a bag on the side of the road from a dead woman."

She said when she "went ballistic" and told him to take it back, he said he had actually gotten it from his mom.

"I dropped it," Sanchez Garcia said, crying a little.

She said that after her mother-in-law denied making the loan, she angrily confronted her husband. "He told me to shut up and calm down," she said. "He told me if I went to the Sheriff's Office with it, I would look like an idiot."

Garcia's mother testified that she indeed gave him the money, said she never talked to her daughter-in-law about it, and denied she would lie under oath for her son.

Garcia had been called to a Dover strawberry farm that night where workers said Maria Quintero, who had arrived with two suitcases and several bags, had been acting nervous. Witnesses said Quintero said she wanted to go home to Mexico.

The deputy checked her papers and called federal officials. When he asked her if she had any money, she pulled a wad of bills from her jeans and told a friend in Spanish that it was $700 to $800.

Garcia took her into custody because of problems with her immigration papers, but later released her at a 24-hour Shell station at Interstate 4 after he said border patrol officials refused to come get her. In an interview with internal affairs investigators, Garcia said a black car was parked next to a pay phone and Quintero gave something to the people inside.

Neither of the other two deputies who were on the scene that night recalled seeing the car or the incident.

At some point, Quintero ran up on I-4 and in front of a van, which killed her. Garcia was one of the officers on the scene.

A federal lawsuit filed in 1995 by Quintero's family accuses Garcia of indirectly causing her death and chronicles the missing money. Garcia was fired from his deputy job last year after the internal affairs investigation found that he stole Quintero's money either when she was in his custody or while she lay dead on the highway.

Attorneys are scheduled to make their closing arguments this morning. If convicted, Garcia faces a maximum sentence of 364 days in county jail.