A man wanted on charges that he drove drunk and killed a woman nearly 20 years ago has been booked into the Hidalgo County jail, records show.
But he wasn’t a fugitive. He simply had never been indicted until this year.
Juan Jose Gomez, 39, is charged with intoxication manslaughter with a vehicle and two counts of intoxication assault with a vehicle causing serious bodily injury.
He was booked Thursday, records show.
According to the indictment, authorities say Gomez, who was not indicted on these charges until Aug. 11, drove drunk on Feb. 23, 2003, and killed Jennifer Ybarra.
Gomez would have been 21 at the time. Ybarra was 19 when she died.
It is not immediately clear why more than 17 years passed before Gomez was indicted and arrested to face the charges.
District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez Jr. said Thursday that he doesn’t have a concrete answer to that question yet, but his office is trying to determine what happened with the case and why Gomez did not face charges for nearly two decades.
“Everybody has every right to ask that question. We have victims that have been waiting for a long time to have justice on this case,” Rodriguez said.
In 2003, former District Attorney Rene Guerra was in charge.
“Did the office know about it back then, about this case? Yes, we knew about it. Why it went cold? We are still trying to figure that out in the sense of why the case never made its way over to the office,” Rodriguez said.
But at this point, Rodriguez said he doesn’t have a solid answer.
“I will tell you this: I will have more of a definite answer. I don’t want to accuse anyone yet without having that concrete information about why it fell through the cracks,” Rodriguez said.
Court records show the case was never indicted and online jail records don’t reflect an arrest for Gomez dating back to 2003.
In a statement, Ybarra’s family says they missed their loved one deeply.
“Jennifer Lee Ybarra shined bright. She was extraordinary in every way. She was full of life. She had a great, witty sense of humor that always put a smile on your face,” the family said. “She loved her family and her close friends. We’ve never been the same without her. We love you and miss you every day.”
The Ybarra family said they thank the parties involved in the case.
“On behalf of the Ybarra family, we would like to thank the Hidalgo County District Attorney’s Office, victim’s assistance of Ricardo Rodriguez, Texas Ranger B.J. Hill and a very special and heartfelt thank you to MADD advocate Ana Verley,” the family said in the statement. “After 17 years, thank you for bringing justice to our daughter, Jennifer Lee Ybarra’s death.”
Rodriguez said all cases are important, but added that cases involving death are particularly egregious and said Gomez should have faced the charges a long time ago.
“What’s important here, every case is important where there are victims, but when you have someone who passed away and you have victims who are seriously hurt, again, those facts should never be forgotten in the sense of making sure that this case goes forward.
“The fact that someone died, that’s something very egregious and it should have been taken care of way before now.”
Ana Verley, a victim services specialist with Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or MADD, said her organization is supporting the Ybarra family.
“MADD supports the victims of drunk and drugged driving and we are supporting the Ybarra Family as they go through the process. I have worked with this family since this crash happened and I, as they, never lost hope that someday they would get their opportunity for justice for their loved one,” Verley said.
That process began when someone sent the DA’s office a photo of Gomez, who has been living in Michigan.
“I can tell you that we found out through a person who sent a picture of the defendant that was up in Michigan and that’s how it got started,” Rodriguez said. “We started asking questions. What happened to this case? Why isn’t it here at our office?”
Rodriguez said his office has been working on the case for months. The Texas Rangers assisted in the case, he said.
Gomez was initially scheduled to be arraigned on Sept. 1, but he did not appear via video-conferencing for the hearing. It’s not immediately clear whether Gomez, who lives in Michigan, knew he had been indicted and was scheduled for arraignment.
A warrant was issued for his arrest after the hearing.
“He got charged and then over there he got arrested. When he got arrested he was given a bond where he was able to get released. He was released and came down here and turned himself in over here,” Rodriguez said.
Ottawa County, Michigan, court records indicate Gomez was arrested on Sept. 9.
As of early Thursday afternoon, Hidalgo County jail records did not list bonds for Gomez.
Gomez, however, has an attorney, Joseph A. Connors III, who has filed a pretrial writ of habeas corpus, seeking the man’s release.
That document notes that a U.S. Marshal arrested Gomez at his place of employment and says the employer and relatives posted a $10,000 bond for Gomez on Oct. 2 after a judge set bond on the condition that he turn himself into the Hidalgo County Detention Center.
“Petitioner asks that the district court conduct an evidentiary hearing and, after receiving evidence, set bail on each count bail in a reasonable cash/surety amount of grant a personal bond on counts two and three in 464th district court …,” the writ states. “Being released on bail will afford Applicant a better opportunity simultaneously to aid his defense counsel to adequately prepare a defense to those pending charges and to provide for his family like he has normally done.”
The writ says Gomez, though relatives and friends, is able to post a $2,500 cash bond on each count or a $7,500 cash bond on the intoxication manslaughter charge and $3,500 personal bonds on the two counts of intoxication assault with a vehicle.
“Applicant promises the district court that he will appear at all 464th district court hearings to answer the accusations against him,” the writ states. “Having just bought a Michigan home in September 2020, Applicant has insignificant others (sic) amounts (sic) of cash available to him.”
The defense attorney says Gomez’s wife doesn’t have the ability to make a series of large bonds because they nearly exhausted their funds in making the down payment on their home and in posting the Michigan cash bail.
If released, the writ says Gomez will return to his family and job in Michigan and make appearances via video-conferencing until the court requires him to appear in person for pretrial hearings or for a jury trial.
He is scheduled for arraignment in late October.