Play-by-Play: How the Prosecution Failed to Get Hard Time for Zapata
SAN ANGELO, TX – The final stretch of the Zapata trial unfolded with the jury deliberating Zapata's sentence into the late hours of Wednesday night. Shortly after 11 p.m., after nearly five hours of deliberation, those in the courtroom consisting mostly of Ray Zapata’s closest friends and family received the news that Zapata would only be serving six months in jail.
Zapata was found guilty of forging the will of John Sullivan, stealing the proceeds of the $8.2 million estate*, and laundering money from Sullivan’s estate for his own use
(* The prosecution used the figure of $5 million throughout the trial as it was the known value of the estate at the time of the crime. Subsequently, the State’s forensic audit determined the value of the estate in excess of $8 million).
Yesterday began with the State and the defense attorneys presenting witnesses they believed would accurately represent the 'real Ray Zapata'. The State began their sentencing arguments by recalling investigator Texas Ranger Nick Hanna to the stand. According to Hanna, during the course of his investigation, he encountered another instance in which Zapata was involved probating another will of an elderly lady who had been a close friend of him and his wife, Julie. The prosecution attempted to make a connection stating that this was another example in which Zapata had tried to raid an estate.
During the cross-examination of the defense, the jury learned that Zapata had been the caretaker in the elderly lady toward the end of her life, and that the motion he had filed was to ensure that part of the money left in the estate was donated to Catholic charities, as was her wish. In her will, she had left Zapata and his wife a Steinway grand piano and a Persian rug. It was unclear if Zapata’s motion had been approved or the outcome of the probate case, and the connection the State attempted seemed to fall on deaf ears.
The state’s second witness was Father Fabian Rosette, founder and superior at Mount Carmel Hermitage in Christoval. According to Father Fabian, he had been called by Ray Zapata and asked if the brothers would be interested in the religious artifacts left behind by a deceased individual. Father Fabian and a few of the hermitage brothers then went to Sullivan’s house and picked up the items that he had left behind and were unaware of the charges of child sex offenses Sullivan faced at the time of his death. Nor did Father Fabian know the will had not yet been probated when the religious order had helped clean up the home. The father also seemed surprised when he learned that Zapata secretly recorded their interactions while they were in the house.
He discussed the character of Zapata with the court and revealed the hermitage was not closely acquainted with him in a personal manner, but that they knew him to be a religious man who had always invited them to their restaurant when they came to town.
Courtroom testimony also revealed Father Fabian had talked to John Sullivan on several occasions in which Sullivan asked him to perform a mass completely in Latin, as was the custom before Vatican II. The father explained that was not possible and, after several phone calls between him and Sullivan, he asked him to stop contacting them because he could not fulfill Sullivan’s request.
The topic of Sullivan’s cremation was revisited. Father Fabian explained that while traditional Catholics may have preferred traditional burials, the church has allowed cremation for over 20 years. The only way that Sullivan’s remains would rest at the monastery would be his body was cremated, he testified. Father Fabian explained that, as a man of God, it was his duty to forgive those who repent and ask for the forgiveness of God. He stated while the hermitage was saddened to be associated with someone like Sullivan, they would never deny his remains a holy resting place.
The state rested and it was the defense’s turn to shake things up in the courtroom.
The first defense witness was local restaurant owner John Fuentes of Fuentes Downtown Café. Fuentes knew Zapata since they both were kids. He said Ray Zapata always was been there for him and that he considered him someone who helped anyone in need. He recalled an occasion when Zapata personally drove him to Houston to a doctor’s appointment when no one else had been able to. He also described the close relationship he knew Zapata to have with the Catholic Church and his parish community. This seemed to prompt prosecutor Shane Attaway to ask if “Christians could commit felonies?” He continued, saying what Fuentes would do if he had a family member that went through the theft of a family member’s estate. Fuentes replied that he could only speak to what he knew personally of Zapata, but that in all the years he knew him, he had always displayed sound character and upright values.
Attaway seemed to conclude his cross examination by asking “Do you know what Ray does 24/7?” Fuentes replied he didn’t. Then he simply stated, “People don’t tell you about the bad things they do.”
Linda Shoemaker, a former DA who had also worked for the Attorney General’s office prosecuting child support cases as well as cases of abuse and other crimes, riled-up the prosecution team. Shoemaker detailed the good man she knew Ray Zapata to be. She stated her opinion of his good character was gained from her personal experience with his family over several years. She considered herself a close friend of the Zapata’s and spoke about the impact she had seen Zapata have in the community. She went on to call him, “A man of God who was a positive force in the community” and ultimately blamed John Young as the real culprit in this matter.
Sparks flew during cross-examination after State prosecutor John White asked her opinion on the verdict, essentially implying that she was not an impartial witness. Shoemaker explained that even though she did not agree with the verdict, she respected the jury’s decision. She said she was sure not even the jury was convinced Zapata stole $5 million like the State constantly argued. She went on to opine that according to what she understood of the trial, since she had not been present in previous days, even the State’s own witness was not 100-percent certain that the will had been written by Zapata. After stating this several times, her words seem to strike a nerve with the prosecutor who asked in a slightly elevated voice, “So they [the jury] got it wrong?”
Shoemaker repeated that she respected the jury and that in her opinion as a prosecutor she believed Zapata to be “an ideal candidate for probation.” She went on to add, “You are from Austin sir, you don’t know how Ray is perceived in our community.”
As the exchange continued, Shoemaker once again stated that the state expert had not been completely sure of the analysis. Assistant prosecutor White appeared to get angry, and asked in what appeared to a be a very annoyed tone, “How would you know? You weren’t here [during the trial.]”
White also asked if she believed it was okay that Zapata had aided in appropriating the money that was allegedly supposed to go to needy. Shoemaker responded if they were sure those were Sullivan’s true wishes or they he had just mentioned it, after all it was her understanding that he was “a pretty sleazy man.” After her testimony, the defense rested.
In their closing arguments, the counselors used very different approaches when talking to the jury about what they believed was the appropriate sentence for the crimes. The defense, in contrast, took a very calm approach as Snodgrass explained to the jury that while he respected their verdict, he was saddened that he had been unable to “present the evidence in the light he saw it.”
He asked the jury to accept the testimony they had heard that afternoon, to consider it, and allow Zapata to be a candidate for probation. He thanked them for their long deliberation because to him, he said, it signaled they had taken their time to consider the complex components of the case in into their consideration.
Snodgrass reiterated that Zapata was not a violent criminal that would be menace to society, and allowing him to serve part of sentence while on probation would be positive for the community.
The state approached the situation in a very different manner and in a slightly more aggressive tone. Prosecutor Attaway began by telling the jury Ray Zapata was a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
They argued that he was white-collar criminal who did bad things, “when no one was looking.” He reiterated to the jury that these types of people, like Zapata, are the ones who blend into society as they commit crimes. These are the ones the public needs be wary of. In a very passionate manner, he asked the jury what type of message they wanted to send to the rest of the county and that their decisions would “speak volumes” of what the people of this area would tolerate. He stated that Zapata “uses people” and that they shouldn’t fall for the “shield of faith and religion” that Zapata, through his character witnesses, was trying to hide behind.
Attaway asked the jury to remember that Zapata could have blew the whistle, stopped the probating of the will, and done the right thing, but that he never did. He stated greed had been the motivator behind Zapata’s actions. He ended by asking the jury to deliver a verdict of double digits (more than 10 years) on the count of first-degree felony for theft, as this would eliminate Zapata’s chance of a probated sentence, forcing Zapata to serve hard time in prison.
His final statement of his closing argument was to ask the jury if they were willing to ride down the elevator with Ray Zapata and let him go back into the world knowing about the crimes he was just found guilty of committing?
Second chair prosecutor John White continued with the same aggressive tone and reminded the jury that Ray Zapata was the one who forged the will, not John Young. He also implied that he believed if John Young had forged the will, it would have been done in a better fashion than what was presented to the county clerk and would have been more convincing. He might have gotten away with it. He alleged that all the family and friends that were in the courtroom supporting Ray Zapata didn’t know who he really was and even though witnesses had stated that Zapata was a Godly man. “The Bible warned of false prophets,” White warned.
He reminded the jury that their sentencing decision will impact the way “John Young slept tonight” and that it would be a reminder for him every day of the consequences he faced until his own trial begins in October. He concluded by reminding the jury, “There is no message too strong for his case” and it was up to them to make a difference in their county.
Throughout the testimony and the hours of deliberation, his family and close friends who offered their support joined Zapata in the hallway outside the courtroom on the second floor of the courthouse.
A bit past 11 p.m., the bailiff announced a verdict was in. The small courtroom was packed with Zapata’s family and some of the law enforcement personnel who worked on the case, along with three representatives of the media.
Judge Brock Jones read the jury’s sentencing recommendations, one-by-one, for each count. The wording of the sentencing was confusing for those not familiar with legal terms. “Community supervision” was a term used for probation, which the jury recommended after the five-year sentence was read for the first-degree felony. No one seemed sure what that meant.
Ray Zapata knew. The look of relief on his face was evident. But he was facing the bench, not the large crowd of supporters behind him. No all saw the signs of relief his face was expressing.
After reading the sentences and releasing the jury from its duty, Judge Jones thought out loud. “I think I am going to recess this court until we can formally conclude the trial. I need to check my calendar first.” Prosecutor Shane Attaway expressed the same need. During the interlude, Zapata turned around and leaned over the rail and whispered in the ear of a family member. Presumably he was explaining his sentencing means he would only serve six months in jail. The rest of the sentence involved five years probation. As the word spread from the front pew towards the back, smiles began to appear on many faces in the courtroom.
After Snodgrass, the prosecutors, and Judge Brock coordinated their schedules, Judge Brock ordered a final hearing where Zapata will be formally sentenced for Tuesday, May 23 at 9 a.m.
After the hearing, prosecutor Attaway said that the sentencing recommendations returned by the jury likely mean Zapata will spend a maximum of six months in jail. He refused to comment further because, he said, he will be the prosecutor of John Young in October and it would not be appropriate to comment.
The jury recommended the following sentences:
- Count 1 – Forgery. Sentence of 6 months in state jail and a $10,000 fine. No probation recommended.
- Count 2 — Forgery. Sentence of 6 months in state jail and a $10,000 fine. No probation recommended.
- Count 3 — Theft. Sentence of 5 years in jail and a $10,000 fine. The jury recommended that since Zapata had a clean criminal record that the sentence be probated under community supervision.
- Count 4 — Money Laundering. Sentence of 2 years in jail and a $10,000 fine. The jury recommended probation in lieu of confinement.