Former La Villa detention center staffer pleads guilty to sex abuse

A former employee of the East Hidalgo Detention Center has pleaded guilty to carrying out a sexual relationship with a detainee housed at the La Villa facility.

Brenda Alicia Fuentes, 48, pleaded guilty in federal court Tuesday afternoon to one count of sex abuse of an inmate after reaching an agreement with federal prosecutors earlier this month.

In exchange for her plea, the government has agreed to recommend that the “offense level will decrease by two levels,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Amy Greenbaum said during Fuentes’ rearraignment hearing Tuesday.

Fuentes, a Weslaco resident who worked at the detention center for seven years and served as a cook supervisor, admitted that she performed oral sex on several occasions on a detainee identified as “RRH.”

Additionally, the inmate told investigators that Fuentes had given him her phone number so they could speak when she wasn’t at work, according to a deputy U.S. Marshal who testified during Fuentes’ bond and detention hearing last November.

The inmate also told agents that Fuentes had performed oral sex on him in an incident that appeared to be corroborated by surveillance video which allegedly showed Fuentes and the inmate entering a closet at the prison before emerging several minutes later.

U.S. District Judge Micaela Alvarez accepted Fuentes’ guilty plea and set sentencing for Aug. 13. The judge allowed Fuentes to remain out on bond. “Certainly, now more than ever, that’s certainly something you do not want to do before it is necessary,” Alvarez said of being taken into custody in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fuentes is one of seven former staffers or correctional officers who were arrested by federal law enforcement in recent months for improper conduct at the federal prison. Among the arrested is Fuentes’ 21-year-old daughter, Amber Marie Estrada, who was taken into custody in mid-March.

Estrada, who worked as a correctional officer, is accused of accepting bribes in exchange for bringing contraband into the facility. Estrada allegedly accepted money and a horse as payment for the contraband, the indictment against her states.

She is expected to appear for a final pretrial conference on July 6, court records show.

Like Fuentes, the remaining five men and women were arrested in late November 2019. Two of them — Jayson Catalan, 37, of Mercedes, and Jhaziel Loredo, 32, of Progreso — have since reached plea agreements with prosecutors.

On March 2, Catalan, who worked for three years in the prison commissary, pleaded guilty to bribery for smuggling food into the facility in exchange for money approximately a dozen times between January and July 2019.

Originally set to be sentenced on May 12, Catalan’s sentencing hearing has been cancelled until further notice, court records show.

Meanwhile, Loredo appeared in court on March 4 to plead guilty to bribery, as well. Prosecutors allege Loredo accepted hundreds of dollars in bribes to smuggle Xanax and marijuana into the prison between October 2018 and August 2019.

Loredo worked as a correctional officer whose duties included conducting contraband “shakedowns” on inmates, Greenbaum said during Loredo’s bond and detention hearing last fall.

His sentencing is scheduled for June 24.

Two other defendants — Erasmo Eduardo Loya, of Edcouch, and Veronica Ortega, of McAllen — had been slated to appear in court at the same time as Fuentes Tuesday, but final pretrial conferences for both have been reset to Aug. 3.

The government alleges Loya accepted between $1,000 and $2,000 to smuggle food and marijuana into the prison while he worked as a correctional officer there. Ortega is accused of accepting approximately $780 to smuggle marijuana while she worked at the facility as a certified medical assistant.

The seventh defendant — 25-year-old Mercedes resident Domingo Gonzalez Hernandez, is slated to appear for a final pretrial conference Friday morning.

The former correctional officer is charged with accepting bribes — including a Chevrolet pickup truck, a gift card and money in exchange for bringing contraband into the prison between September 2016 and July 28, 2018 — according to the indictment against him.