Sentencing: ‘A trigger was pulled’

Durango man gets 16 years for Ted Garcia murder

“A trigger was pulled. A gun discharged. Ted was shot, and then he died. I have pleaded guilty to this and accept full responsibility,” Joseph Dernoga told a packed courtroom at his sentencing for the second-degree murder of Ted Garcia. Enlarge photo

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

“A trigger was pulled. A gun discharged. Ted was shot, and then he died. I have pleaded guilty to this and accept full responsibility,” Joseph Dernoga told a packed courtroom at his sentencing for the second-degree murder of Ted Garcia.

A Durango man was sentenced to 16 years in prison Wednesday for killing his brother-in-law, Ted Garcia, who would have turned 50 on the same day.

Joseph Dernoga, 38, showed little emotion as family members – both his and the victim’s – made formal statements before District Judge Jeffrey Wilson in 6th Judicial District Court.

Dernoga pleaded guilty Sept. 6 to second-degree murder in a plea agreement with the District Attorney’s Office. The plea agreement called for 16 years in prison, leaving little doubt about what would happen Wednesday.

But as part of the plea agreement, Dernoga agreed to explain the circumstances of the homicide – called an allocution. But he failed to take direct responsibility for pulling the trigger or explain a motive for the killing.

“The circumstances surrounding the death of Ted Garcia are very simple,” Dernoga said. “A trigger was pulled. A gun discharged. Ted was shot, and then he died. I have pleaded guilty to this and accept full responsibility.”

District Judge Jeffrey Wilson was unimpressed by the confession. But he accepted the plea agreement, saying it was a fair resolution to a difficult case.

“Even if you’re not saying that you pulled the trigger, this isn’t fair at all,” Wilson said. “There are no excuses for murdering someone. There are no excuses for snatching somebody’s life from them. And we’ll never know what the reason is. Sixteen years is not nearly enough time for what you’ve pleaded guilty to.”

Dernoga shot and killed Garcia, the longtime manager of Francisco’s Restaurante y Cantina on Main Avenue, with a .270-caliber rifle late July 23, 2010, or early July 24, 2010, inside Garcia’s home in the 1000 block of County Road 206, just west of downtown Durango.

Dernoga, who lived in the basement, called 911 to report the death. Investigators eventually identified Dernoga as a suspect, but they had little physical evidence.

Prosecutors presented the case to a La Plata County grand jury, which issued a 10-count indictment, including first-degree murder, tampering with evidence and being a felon in possession of a weapon.

About 65 people packed the courtroom for Tuesday’s hearing. They included Dernoga’s sister, Suzanne Dernoga Garcia; Ted Garcia’s father, mother and brother; several investigators for the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office; lawyers who took an interest in the case; and a district judge who was observing.

Several family members made statements before sentencing.

Ted Garcia’s family used words such as “monster,” “selfish” and “evil” to describe Dernoga. They laid into him for what they characterized as years of terror, violence and harassment directed toward the Garcia family.

“We cannot even look at you or even speak your name. You are a monster in our eyes,” said Claudine Garcia, Ted’s mother. “You murdered our son, our beloved Teddy, in cold blood.”

Ted Garcia’s daughter, Claudia Garcia, said Dernoga killed a son, father, uncle and potential grandfather.

“When you’re sitting in that prison cell, I want you to think that Sunday night football will never be the same,” she said. “My children won’t have a grandpa. I have to walk down the aisle alone when I get married.”

Suzanne Dernoga Garcia, the wife of Ted Garcia and the sister of Dernoga, found herself in an awkward situation of wanting to identify the killer of her husband and protecting her brother.

She threw her support behind her brother, proclaiming his innocence for the last two years. Even during his sentencing hearing, she seemed to question his guilt.

“This is not justice,” she said. “This is a backroom deal with cigars and mirrors.”

She criticized the district attorney’s office for violating her rights as a victim. Prosecutors failed to notify her of significant developments throughout the case, including that Dernoga had struck a plea agreement calling for 16 years in prison, she said. She was never notified of the hearing and learned about the development through The Durango Herald, she said.

District Attorney Todd Risberg said it is up to prosecutors to determine who is considered a “victim.” Suzanne Dernoga Garcia was uncooperative with the criminal investigation and has been charged with perjury on suspicion of giving false testimony to the grand jury in an effort to protect her brother, Risberg said.

She is set to face trial on perjury charges later this year.

The case is far from perfect from a prosecutorial standpoint, Risberg said, so the plea agreement strikes a fair balance at making sure Dernoga receives some punishment.

“This is as close to justice as we can get in this case,” he said.

Dernoga’s public defense lawyer Justin Bogan said Dernoga took the plea agreement in hope that the Garcia family and others could begin a process of healing. No one is completely satisfied with the sentence, he said.

Tonya Golbricht, lead investigator in the case, said she hopes Dernoga’s sentencing can bring some resolution to the Garcia family. She called Dernoga’s speech “insincere and self-serving.”

“There isn’t a doubt in my mind that Dernoga killed Ted Garcia,” she wrote in an email to the Herald. “Shame on him and all who have worked to disrupt this investigation. They, too, will have their day in court.”

shane@durangoherald.com

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