Estela Fajardo, a prominent Waco business owner, is stuck in a web of criminal and immigration issues that’s torn her from her four kids. Now, the county says she’s lying about sexual assault.
For the last two and a half years, the closest that Estela Fajardo, 46, has come to seeing her four kids is through a video monitor in a barren room in the McLennan County Jail. A few hundred yards away, down Highway 6 in Waco, her family sits in a tiny visitation center equipped with video equipment. Through a screen, she’s watched her youngest son, Dylan, turn 2, then 3, and soon enough, 4. “When I get out, the most beautiful thing will just be to hug my kids,” Fajardo tells me when I visit her, via video, in June.
Fajardo, an undocumented immigrant who came to the United States from Mexico at 14, is caught in a nasty tangle of the criminal and immigration systems. She’s been locked up since January 2016, when she was arrested on criminal charges that she’s never been indicted for, thanks to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainer, an allegedly careless attorney and a federal illegal re-entry charge. While incarcerated, Fajardo says she’s suffered depression and anxiety, requiring psychiatric medication for the first time in her life. Worse, she says that beginning late last year, she was sexually harassed and assaulted repeatedly by a guard.
The case shows how minor criminal charges, even without a conviction, can upend the lives of undocumented immigrants and their U.S. citizen children — including those like Fajardo, who was a member of the Central Texas Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and ran a moving company, a small cattle ranch and two hair salons in Waco. The local paper once said she “represent[ed] the American Dream.”
“To hear Estela’s story, where she’s been revictimized so many times, it’s just a gross injustice,” said Fajardo’s immigration attorney, Analí Looper. “You look at Estela’s case, and you see she’s someone who was very active in the community. … This is the kind of woman we definitely want in our community.”
The trouble began January 21, 2016, when Fajardo was arrested by McLennan County Sheriff’s Department deputies on felony charges of organized crime and conspiracy to commit burglary, according to police records. The charges stemmed from an incident earlier that month when Fajardo purchased two TVs and some jewelry from a pair of men who’d stolen the goods from Waco-area homes, police records said.
Fajardo said she didn’t know the goods were stolen, had never met the men before, and purchased the items out of pity because the men said they needed gas money, baby food and diapers. But investigators claimed Fajardo was in cahoots with the men and a local pawn shop operator to fence stolen property.
“You have someone like Estela, a legitimate businesswoman, why does she need to start stealing?” argues Gerald Villarrial, Fajardo’s criminal defense attorney she hired in March. “I’ve known her for years; she’s a hard worker, making good money. … She doesn’t need to be stealing.”
In fact, Fajardo hasn’t been indicted on those felony charges. After she was arrested, the jail alerted the feds, and she was charged with illegal re-entry and transferred in February 2016 into federal custody at the Jack Harwell Detention Center, which sits adjacent to the McLennan County Jail.
The illegal re-entry charge stemmed from 1998, when Fajardo was on the verge of getting permanent legal status through her then-husband, a U.S. citizen, and her father died back in Mexico, according to Fajardo and Looper. Though she knew it was risky, Fajardo decided to return for the funeral, even though she didn’t have permission yet to leave the United States. Upon return, she was detained and deported, but with her oldest child still in Waco, she returned to the United States without authorization. Nearly two decades later, in September 2016, she was convicted of illegal re-entry and sentenced to six months.
Since Fajardo had been locked up for eight months at that point, she was given time served by a judge, court records show. With the immigration charge and sentence complete, Fajardo was transferred back to county custody, but kept at the same facility. Then — nothing. For 11 more months, court records show she sat locked up with no indictment. (The two men she allegedly bought the stolen goods from were convicted more than a year and a half ago.)
Unlike many undocumented immigrants, Fajardo could easily afford bail on her $55,000 bond, but since she was subject to an immigration detainer, that would’ve meant transfer to ICE custody and potential deportation to a country she hasn’t called home for 31 years. (Texas counties must honor all immigration detainers under Senate Bill 4.) Meanwhile, her current attorneys say the lawyer she paid to sort out her immigration and criminal cases, Francisco Maldonado, wasn’t doing much.
Maldonado only visited Fajardo “a couple times” over two years and failed to file motions to force the DA to either seek an indictment or dismiss, Fajardo’s new lawyers said, adding that he also failed to follow up on a potential immigration pathway under the Violence Against Women Act. In January, a local news outlet published allegations that Maldonado had taken advantage of other immigrant clients in Waco. The Observer couldn’t reach Maldonado for comment; his office number has been disconnected and the email registered with the State Bar of Texas no longer works.
In September, nearly two years after the initial arrest, McLennan County DA Abel Reyna finally charged Fajardo with Class A misdemeanor theft — a crime for which she’s already served nearly double the maximum sentence. Reyna did not respond to Observer requests for comment.
Then, the alleged harassment and assaults began. According to an account written by Fajardo and submitted to the county in March, a female officer at the Jack Harwell facility made sexual comments toward her, inappropriately touched her “on [her] buttcheek” and her breast and asked her to “flash her” during a pat down, between November and March.
“I felt hopeless and desperate, depressed, scared, worried, embarrassed to even talk about this situation,” Fajardo wrote. “I could not get any sleep for a long time.” (Fajardo was transferred back to the county jail in March).
In May, county investigator Kimberly King concluded that all of Fajardo’s allegations were unsubstantiated or unfounded, according to a 10-page report obtained through an open records request. In her report, King stated that no assault had occurred, citing the account of another jail official and the lack of witnesses.
“The allegation [that the guard] pulled Fajardo out and touched her buttocks is unsubstantiated due to the fact Fajardo claims there were no witnesses because everyone else was asleep,” King wrote.
Fajardo and her attorneys believe the investigation was a case of the fox guarding the henhouse. McLennan County owns the Jack Harwell facility and pays LaSalle Corrections to hold inmates there. “If the Texas Rangers or FBI had come to the exact same conclusion, then I’d say OK,” said Villarrial. “But I think any time you’re having to police your own type of folk, I question that.”
A local activist group, the Waco Immigrants Alliance, is now calling on those agencies to conduct an independent investigation. In response, the county has hit back at Fajardo’s claims.
McLennan County Chief Deputy David Kilcrease told local news outlets this week he would review the investigation, but he went on to suggest Fajardo was lying to avoid deportation. “It’s obvious here that the whole thing is to try to enhance her immigration status,” Kilcrease, who didn’t respond to Observer requests for comment, told the Waco Tribune-Herald.
Fajardo’s path forward regarding her immigration status is murky. Looper said she’s pursuing the Violence Against Women Act claim, based on Fajardo’s allegations of physical and verbal abuse by her ex-husband, who she says controlled her life by threatening to take her kids away and have her deported. (The two separated in 2004 and finally divorced last month.) If that claim is approved, Looper hopes that ICE’s San Antonio field office will use its discretion by granting a reprieve from deportation — as happened in a high-profile case outside Austin in March. Then, potentially, Fajardo could seek a special visa to stay in the United States with her citizen children based on her alleged sexual assault at the jail.
As for the theft charge, Fajardo says she wants to go to trial to prove her innocence — a process that could still take months.
Ultimately, Fajardo’s legal saga has turned a stable family unit upside-down. Her four kids, three of them minors, were all living with her when she was arrested. Now, her youngest child is in Waco with his father, but the other three are in Houston with Fajardo’s ex-husband, who’s never been their primary caretaker.
Fajardo says she worries about her kids in Houston, and says they tell her over the phone how much they want to come back. In a comment on the online petition supporting Fajardo, which has around 700 signatures, her oldest daughter wrote: “I want my mother to stay here in the US with me, along with the rest of her family. Her family is her home. … #FreeEstela.”
Top photo courtesy/Facebook.