Pasco father who took daughter to Mexico wins case before state Supreme Court

Kristin M. Kraemer, Tri-City HeraldMarch 7, 2013 

A Pasco father who claims he wanted to get his young daughter out of harm's way when he took her to Mexico in 2008 against a court order said he felt numb Thursday after learning the charges will be dropped.

Jose "Joe" Veliz Jr. said he has spent 4 1/2 years battling the judicial system, trying to get police, prosecutors and judges to see there was no court-ordered parenting plan in place when he left the state with the 4-year-old girl.

It took going to the state's highest court for Veliz to find someone who agreed with him.

The Washington Supreme Court ordered the dismissal of Veliz's felony conviction for first-degree custodial interference, citing insufficient evidence.

The five justices who voted in favor of the ruling said though there was a domestic violence protection order in place that allowed Veliz limited visitations with the girl, it is not the same as a court-ordered parenting plan under state law and didn't meet the elements necessary for the charge.

Veliz's wife, Lorena, had custody of the child since they had separated four months earlier.

A temporary parenting plan was entered nine days after Veliz left town with the girl and three days after he was charged with custodial interference in Franklin County Superior Court.

Four Supreme Court justices disagreed with the dismissal, saying their colleagues erred "by unnecessarily limiting the definition."

"A violation of a domestic violence protection order's residential provisions for children should constitute custodial interference" under the law, according to the dissenting opinion written by Justice Jim Johnson.

Veliz, 52, acknowledges that he handled things wrong and should not have left the country with his daughter for four months, when he only was supposed to have her for 31 hours.

However, he believes his daughter was being sexually assaulted by someone who never has been charged and said he became desperate in trying to protect the girl.

Veliz, who works as a paralegal, said initial media reports on the case made him out to be "an all-around bad person," and that Pasco police and Franklin County prosecutors were out to get him and refused to listen to his side of the story.

"These people have done me a lot of harm," Veliz told the Herald on Thursday. "I can't say that it was correct, taking my daughter to Mexico. It was a wrong thing to do, I know it was."

He said no parent can understand what he did until he or she is in his shoes.

"I'm kind of glad it's over. I'm just going to move on. I'm not going to harp on all the other things. All I know is I won, and that's all that matters," he added. "And I'm glad that the state Supreme Court had the decency and the brains to listen to exactly what's going on here, because Franklin County does not have it."

But Veliz said his battle isn't over -- he hasn't seen his daughter since they were detained at the San Ysidro border crossing in December 2008, when the two were trying to drive into San Diego from Tijuana.

Prosecutor Shawn Sant told the Herald in a text message that his office is "disappointed with the narrow reading by the majority opinion that deprives a victim the benefit of a court's order relating to custody of children in a protection order."

Sant, who became the county's elected prosecutor in January 2011, was not in the office when Veliz was charged.

"It was certainly the judge's intent that the order of the court relating to the custody of children was to be followed by the parties, and should have been interpreted under its plain meaning and statutory intent by the Legislature as a parenting plan," he added.

Veliz picked up his daughter at 10 a.m. on Aug. 16, 2008, for an overnight weekend visit. The protection order that his wife got after the couple separated said he was supposed to return the girl by 5 p.m. the next day, but he never showed up.

He was arrested on a warrant by customs officials exactly four months later, and held in a San Diego jail for two more months while fighting extradition. Meanwhile, the girl was reunited with her mother.

A Franklin County Superior Court jury convicted Veliz in August 2009. He was sentenced a month later to six months in jail, with credit for serving 79 days behind bars.

Veliz was granted a $50,000 appeal bond so he could remain out of custody while fighting the conviction and sentence in the appellate courts. He never served the rest of his sentence.

Veliz unsuccessfully tried to get the case dismissed while it still was in Superior Court by arguing that a protection order and a court-ordered parenting plan weren't the same.

The Washington Court of Appeals upheld his conviction.

The Supreme Court agreed to review the issue, and after hearing arguments June 26 in Olympia decided that the Legislature did not intend for protection orders received through the Domestic Violence Prevention Act to constitute parenting plans.

The majority ruling said Franklin County prosecutors could have charged Veliz with first-degree custodial interference without having to prove the existence of a parenting plan, but they never amended the charging documents to remove that element.

By reversing the Court of Appeals, the justices ordered that the case go back to Superior Court to be dismissed. It typically can take about a month for the trial court to get the order.

Veliz was represented on the appeal process by George Trejo Jr. of Yakima and his wife, Julian Trejo.

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