HARTFORD, Mich. (WOOD) — Those who investigated the crime called it the worst case of domestic violence they had seen in decades.
Hartford police reported a man held his girlfriend hostage in the apartment they shared — raping and repeatedly beating her over three days.
Yet the suspect – an undocumented immigrant – was initially allowed to plead guilty to misdemeanor domestic violence.
It’s a charge punishable by 93 days in jail — 93 days for three days of alleged torture.
“I don’t think it’s right,” said Hartford Police Chief Tressa Beltran, whose department worked the case.
“I think anybody who has kept someone in a home for three days… and physically and sexually assaulted (them) should feel the full impact of the judicial system. But again, that is up to the Van Buren County Prosecutor’s office.”
The alleged assaults happened over several days in late February and early March in an apartment above a garage on Old Street in Hartford, a small town west of Paw Paw in Van Buren County.
“When I first entered the (hospital) room and met (the victim), the first thing I observed was that her face was swollen,” wrote Officer Tyler Sleep in his report.
POLICE: VICTIM’S EYES BLACK, LIPS SPLIT
“Her eyes were black. Her lips were split. There was heavy bruising on her left eye and bruising on the left chin area. Further, I observed that her arms had bruises all over them. Finger-print bruising and bruising from being struck,” according to Sleep’s report.
The victim told police she had come home on Feb. 28 to find her boyfriend, Carlos Cruz Hernandez, drunk.
“He started arguing saying I was cheating on him with a man at work,” the police report quoted the victim as saying.
“I told him this was not true, and he began to punch my face…. He locked me in the house and wouldn’t let me leave.”
The victim told police Hernandez sexually assaulted and beat her over three days.
“(He) would randomly begin to kick my legs and stomach,” police quoted the victim as telling them. “He started punching my arms and I would yell and cry and he would tell me that was nothing. He said he would break my leg to show me real pain. He said if you try to take off, I will kill you and dump you in the snow. No one will come looking for you.”
But on the third day, the victim managed to escape while Hernandez was distracted.
She made it to a store down the street, and a Spanish-speaking stranger called the victim’s friend to pick her up.
Later, the victim went to Lakeland Hospital in Watervliet and staff there called the police.
POLICE: HE MAY HAVE KICKED HER WITH STEEL-TOED BOOTS
“I was informed by staff that (the victim) was severely beaten from head to toe. I was also informed that it was also reported that she had been sexually assaulted, anally,” Officer Sleep wrote in his report.
“(A staff member) from Watervliet Lakeland ER called and informed me that after reviewing the bruising on (the victim), she is starting to see similar patterns. She said approximately ten similar patterns, possibly of boots. I suggested maybe he had kicked her with steel toe boots,” Sleep wrote.
When police tracked down Hernandez for questioning, he told them his girlfriend had confessed to having an affair with a man at work.
“Carlos told us that he then got upset and ’I SMACKED HER IN THE FACE A COUPLE OF TIMES,’” Sleep reported Hernandez as saying.
“Carlos said (the victim) then told him, ‘I DESERVE THIS BUT I STILL LOVE YOU! I DON’T WANT TO LEAVE YOU BECAUSE I HAVE NO ONE!’….. Carlos said to us that ‘THE TRUTH IS, I LOVE HER! I’M WILLING TO FORGIVE HER IF SHE CHANGES.’”
Hernandez denied forcing his girlfriend to have sex.
He also told police he did not kick her, but reported that during an argument, “he did pick up a ‘SOFT SQUISHY FLIP FLOP and that he struck her on the back of the shoulder, ‘LIGHTLY.’”
DEFENDANT: BRUISES CAME FROM FALLING DOWN THE STAIRS
According to the police report, Hernandez said the bruising on the victim was the result of her falling down the stairs.
“I asked him how many times did he think that he hit (the victim). Carlos said that he hit her twice in the face with an open hand.”
Police arrested Hernandez in late March on a misdemeanor charge of aggravated domestic assault, a higher-level misdemeanor that carries a sentence of one year in jail instead of just 93 days.
But, ultimately, the Mexican national, 41, was allowed to plead guilty to the 93-day misdemeanor domestic assault.
When the judge asked if Hernandez had any questions, he had just one; he wanted to know if he’d get credit for the 140 days he’d already served in the Van Buren County Jail.
His attorney, meanwhile, told the judge Hernandez said he had learned his lesson.
“He has made it clear to me he’s learned a great deal from this experience and from the mistakes he made… I also understand that he’s ready to move past this situation and make a better life for himself,” attorney David Swiderski told Judge Arthur Clarke.
Hernandez did get credit for time already served. He was released at sentencing Aug. 21 into the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which would detain him in the Calhoun County Jail pending deportation to Mexico.
POLICE: DEPORTATION, RARE DIALECT PROMPTED PLEA DEAL
“He was ultimately allowed to plead to domestic violence misdemeanor due to the fact that ICE is going to be transporting him back to Mexico,” Chief Beltran told Target 8.
“Because of the dialect (the victim) speaks, the prosecutor’s office felt that it would be difficult to find a translator for the case to go to trial, so that is another reason he was allowed to plead to a misdemeanor domestic violence.”
But Beltran said she did not understand the concern regarding a translator because police were able to use one from the Domestic Violence Coalition in order to obtain the victim’s statement.
There’s also no guarantee Hernandez won’t return to the United States later.
It already happened at least once.
ICE confirmed that the government allowed Hernandez to voluntarily leave the US in 2009, after which he obviously found his way back to America and Southwest Michigan.
When Target 8 contacted Van Buren County Prosecutor Michael Bedford about his office’s decision to charge a misdemeanor, he said Jay Blair, an assistant prosecutor based in South Haven, had been handling the case.
PROSECUTOR ADDS FELONY CHARGES AFTER TARGET 8 CALLS
Target 8’s inquiry prompted Bedford to review the case himself for the first time and, ultimately, step in and take it over.
Bedford said the misdemeanor domestic violence charge was not a mistake because the plea deal Blair made did not preclude the office from filing more felony charges.
“Jay is a trusted, tenured employee. He’s depended on. He’s worthy,” Bedford said in a telephone interview.
“I’m way more experienced than him. Would he have benefitted from calling me and asking me for guidance? Of course, he would have…. I’m giving a second opinion in this case, and it’s a much more proactive approach than what Jay Blair took… (but) even if what he did is different than what I would have done, that doesn’t mean he did anything wrong. That’s my job, to provide supervision, to provide accountability for his decision.”
According to Bedford, Blair said he had not yet closed the case officially because he was awaiting test results from the Michigan State Police lab.
FROM 93 DAYS IN JAIL TO POSSIBLE LIFE IN PRISON
Hours before the story was scheduled to air Thursday, Bedford authorized two additional charges against Hernandez – felony kidnapping and criminal sexual assault first degree with personal injury.
Both are potential life offenses.
It’s clear all of those involved – outside of the prosecutor’s office – thought the case had been closed.
ICE, Chief Beltran and Hernandez’s own defense attorney told Target 8 they believed the case was resolved with the misdemeanor plea deal.
“There was one charge. He pleaded to one charge. As far as I know, the criminal case is completed… I don’t know if deportation proceedings have begun,” defense attorney David Swiderski told Target 8.
Hartford Police reached out to ICE and were able to put a hold on Hernandez’s deportation.
ICE declined to comment on the immigration status of the victim in the case, who’s also undocumented.
She’s been staying at a shelter in an undisclosed location.
At sentencing, a representative read a letter from the victim who did not want to appear.
VICTIM NOW DISABLED, USING WALKER
“She literally cowered and said, ‘I don’t want to see him,’” said the representative in court. “(She said) ‘I don’t ever want to be in the same room as him. I am disabled now.’ She uses a walker.”
Citlali Salgado is a sexual assault advocate who provides bilingual services at the Domestic Violence Coalition in Paw Paw.
Salgado said she realizes the American justice system sometimes relies on deportation in lieu of criminal charges – a prosecutorial practice ICE confirmed as well,
However, she’d prefer those undocumented immigrants who’ve committed crimes to be held accountable here first.
“Ideally, why not both? You know? Why not serve the time that they should serve here and also get deported for a crime?” questioned Salgado.