Last year, a nine-year scam came unraveled when a delivery driver called the office of the Cameron County Juvenile Detention Center to ask where he should unload the 800 pounds of fajitas he had in his truck. The staffer who answered the phone was confused—the cafeteria didn’t serve fajitas—and an ongoing, nine-year hustle from employee Gilberto Escamilla unraveled. Escamilla, investigators quickly learned, had been receiving huge quantities of meat on behalf of the facility and reselling them for nine years. The retail value of the meat Escamilla had requisitioned and repurposed? $1.2 million, according to The Monitor.
Escamilla was busted in October, and investigators at the time said that he quickly admitted to the crime. He had regular customers (several of whom cooperated with the police investigation) and, according to the Brownsville Herald‘s report from the fall, would pre-sell most of the meat as part of the operation. In testimony, Escamilla explained that “It was selfish. It started small and got bigger and out of control.”
Of course, it’s worth questioning whether anyone can truly control that much meat. But while Escamilla seems repentant in that statement—and he ultimately pled guilty to the crime of Theft by a Public Servant—his sentence was far from lenient: State District Judge J. Manuel Banales recently sentenced Escamilla to fifty years for the crime.
Theft of more than $300,000 is automatically a first-degree felony in Texas. On top of that, Texas treats theft by a public servant differently from other kinds of theft. The theory behind that is that theft committed by a private individual harms the person or people who were stolen from; but theft by a public servant harms the taxpayers who pay their salary, and harms society at large by eroding trust in those who’ve agreed to serve us. In cases where a public employee is accused of stealing less than $300,000, charges involving public servants using their official positions to facilitate the crime are automatically escalated to the next-highest level of felony. In Escamilla’s case, the value of the meat he stole meant that it was already the highest class of felony—which helps explain why his sentence was so high.
Still, Escamilla is 53 years old, which means that a 50-year prison sentence is essentially a life sentence for a non-violent crime. The ACLU estimates that there are 3,278 people in this country facing life without parole for non-violent offenses, a fate the organization describes as “living death.” Escamilla, of course, wasn’t sentenced to life without parole—with good behavior, he could find himself serving only half of his sentence, which would see him released sometime after his 78th birthday. Which means that, while meat theft is a quirky crime and Escamilla’s situation is newsworthy, the stakes of it—both his life sentence and the $1.2 million stolen from taxpayers—make it a little less chuckle-worthy than it seemed last fall.