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Ex-deputy cleared in theft

Nearly four years ago, a troubled woman who had been released from the custody of a sheriff's deputy ran onto Interstate 4 and was killed in traffic. The mystery of Maria Quintero deepened when the wad of money that earlier had been in her pocket was nowhere to be found.

On Thursday, a Tampa jury took four hours to decide that the deputy, Given Garcia Jr., was innocent of stealing hundreds of dollars in cash from Quintero before or after her death.

"There was definitely reasonable doubt," said juror Edward Olejniczak. "We don't think the state had enough to prove their case."

"The money's gone," said jury foreman Roger Habbestad. "But I personally don't think Mr. Garcia took it." Others on the jury felt more strongly that Garcia may have, he said.

As the verdict was read in the courtroom Thursday afternoon, Garcia's mother burst into tears.

"You're free to go," Circuit Judge Diana Allen told him.

Garcia, 31, said he was relieved.

"I was worried," he said. "I've been innocent all along."

Garcia was called to a Dover strawberry farm in July 1993 because of a complaint that Quintero,

a migrant worker, had been behaving strangely. Garcia questioned Quintero, and when he asked her if she had any money, witnesses said she pulled a thick handful of cash from her jeans pocket, which she said was $700 to $800.

Because of problems with her immigration papers, Garcia took her into custody after contacting border patrol officials. He said he later released her at a gas station by the highway because federal officials would not pick her up. She later ran into traffic on the highway and was hit by a van. Garcia was one of the deputies on the scene.

Quintero's cash was never recovered.

Defense attorney John Fitzgibbons told the jury the case was "circumstantial _ the most dangerous kind of case that exists."

There also was a conflict between the testimony of two women in Garcia's life.

His ex-wife, Lori Sanchez Garcia, testified that the deputy came home from work the day Quintero was killed, showed her nearly $600 in cash and told her he had gotten it from a dead woman who was in an accident. Sanchez Garcia said after she got upset, he told her his mother had given him the money for a beach vacation.

Garcia testified he made up the first story because his wife didn't like for his mother to get involved in their finances. His mother testified that she indeed gave her son the cash.

Garcia told the jury he didn't learn that Quintero's money might be missing until days after he made up the story to his wife.

"The only way Given Garcia could know what he told Lori is if he was the thief," prosecutor Craig Clendinen told the jury.

Had Garcia been convicted of grand theft, state sentencing guidelines would have called for a maximum sentence of 364 days in county jail.

Garcia also is named in a federal lawsuit accusing him of stealing the money and indirectly causing Quintero's death. Fitzgibbons said he expects the acquittal "will cause some problems for them in the civil case."

Attorney Omar Medina, who represents Quintero's parents, who live in a small town in Mexico, noted that the standard of proof in the civil case will be a preponderance of the evidence, not beyond a reasonable doubt.

"I'm going forward with complete confidence," he said. He said the case will likely be tried by late summer.

Garcia was fired by the Sheriff's Office last year after an internal affairs investigation found that he stole the money from Quintero. Fitzgibbons said he plans to ask the office to reinstate Garcia.

Sheriff's Col. Tom DePolis said the acquittal "won't affect our position on his termination."

Garcia, who is going to school to get an engineering degree, expressed his own reservations.

"I don't want to get into law enforcement if I continually have to watch my back and wonder what's next," he said.