Jury convicts defendant in Texas 'fight club' case

August 13, 2009 1:17:35 PM PDT
A former state employee responsible for some of Texas' most vulnerable residents was convicted Thursday of injuring them, during orchestrated fights at a state facility for the developmentally disabled. Jesse Salazar, 26, was the first of six former employees of the Corpus Christi State School who were charged in connection with an abuse scandal that police described of as a "fight club" at the living center.

The jury found him guilty of intentionally causing injury to a disabled person, a third-degree felony, after deliberating for less than two hours. The trial immediately moved into the penalty phase, with Salazar facing up to 10 years in prison.

For more than a year, authorities said, staff on the night shift in one of the facility's dorms staged regular fights among the residents. They instigated the fights with direct commands and pranks aimed at spurring the residents to turn on each other, police said.

Almost 20 videos of the bouts were discovered in March when a cell phone containing the images was found at a clothing store and turned in to police. The four videos shown to jurors in Salazar's case were filmed in early 2008.

One video showed a resident terrified, screaming while running around a room as another resident tried to hit him. Salazar could be seen filming the melee with his cell phone. In another video, Salazar appeared to tell a resident to push another far bigger resident to instigate a fight.

Investigators believe there were far more fights than those recorded on the cell phone of Anthony Dixon, another former employee awaiting trial. Co-workers said the fights in the particular living unit occurred as regularly as twice a week.

"They planned this. They did this on a regular basis," said Nueces County Assistant District Attorney Doug Mann in his closing argument Thursday. "This was all about their entertainment."

Depending on the outcome of the penalty phase, Salazar could be the first of those charged to serve jail time. Vincent Johnson, another former employee, pleaded guilty last week and received a two-year suspended jail sentence.

More indictments could be in the works. Corpus Christi Police Detective Curtis Abbott testified Thursday that the number of suspects in the case had risen to 12 and of those, cases had been prepared against at least three more than the six already charged.

Salazar did not testify, and his attorney, Cecil Starcher, presented no witnesses. Starcher repeatedly turned attention toward Dixon, whom police had signaled as the mastermind of the fights. He said Salazar had intervened to stop the fights.

Mann answered that Salazar only intervened in the fights when they got to the point that a resident might receive a visible injury that would later have to be explained.

"He didn't want to be discovered," Mann said. "He didn't want to get found out."

The trial of another former employee, Stephanie Garza, is scheduled to begin Monday. It is unclear how it will proceed, because the district attorney granted her immunity in exchange for her testimony. She testified in Salazar's case, but the judge on her case has refused to dismiss it.

Former employees Johnson and D'Angelo Riley have pleaded guilty. Garza, Dixon and Guadalupe Delarosa Jr. await trial.