A former Waco businesswoman who police say ran a fencing operation for stolen goods testified Thursday that she loves to collect jewelry and had no way of knowing items she was buying were stolen.
Estela Fajardo, 46, an undocumented immigrant who faces deportation, is on trial in Waco’s 19th State District Court on a state-jail felony charge of theft of more than $2,500.
Her case has received notoriety because of her support by members of the Waco Immigrants Alliance and her pending lawsuit against the operators of McLennan County’s private jail on sexual assault and mistreatment allegations.
Prosecutor Tiffany Clark said Wednesday that authorities found so much stolen property at Fajardo’s Robinson Drive home that it “looked like a pawn shop,” while a former Waco police detective told the jury Thursday that there was an “astronomical” amount of stolen goods in her home.
“It was property overload,” said Sherry Kingrey, a retired Waco police detective who now works as a prison investigator for the Texas Inspector General’s Office.
Fajardo, who has lived in Waco 32 years and who has four children who are U.S. citizens, told jurors she owns a hair salon, a moving company, a building she leased to a pawn shop-type business and a 20-acre ranch in Lorena with 35 cows.
She said she likes to collect items, especially jewelry and coins, and that she frequents flea markets, garage sales, antique shops and regular retail stores to find them.
“I just love it,” she said of jewelry. “I like the different designs. I like the antiques. They don’t make them anymore.”
Kingrey and other officers broke up a brief but prolific burglary ring in late 2015 and early 2016 and arrested Ja Tramaie King and LaDerran Henry, who are serving 20 and 12 years in prison, respectively. After further investigation, they also arrested Fajardo and Rochelle Lopez, who operated a gold and silver shop on Waco Drive in a building owned by Fajardo.
Fajardo’s attorney, Gerald Villarrial, told jurors on Wednesday that King and Henry were seasoned, street-wise criminals who manipulated Fajardo into buying their stolen goods from a dozen burglaries. He insisted Fajardo did not know the items were stolen, which was echoed Thursday by Fajardo.
She said some tablets and other electronics found in her home that belonged to homeowners victimized by King and Henry were left on a chair at her moving business. She said she intended to return them, but Kingrey did not return her phone calls. She disputed Kingrey’s testimony, including her statement that Fajardo admitted to buying stolen property. Fajardo said the former detective was “harassing me big time.”
Fajardo said her hair salon was broken into and TVs were stolen. She said she asked Lopez if she knew someone who could get her cheap, used TVs to replace them, and said Lopez hooked her up with King, whom she said she did not know and did not recognize from his testimony Wednesday. She said she bought two TVs from him for $550 and only learned they were stolen when police executed the search warrant at her home and identified them as ill-gotten gains from home burglaries.
Under cross-examination from prosecutor Evan O’Donnell, Fajardo denied she ran a fencing operating for goods stolen by King and Henry and said she did not direct them about which items to steal.
Lopez testified she leased the small Waco Drive shop from Fajardo and would give her first right of refusal for any jewelry items or other goods she wanted. She often helped supplement her rent by giving Fajardo items she wanted and said Fajardo frequently had to front her cash to help the business get started in the mornings.
Prosecutors never pursued a criminal conspiracy charge filed against Lopez, who initially declined to testify. She invoked the Fifth Amendment before agreeing to testify after being granted testimonial immunity.
Lopez said she did not know that certain items she bought were stolen and said Fajardo also was unaware.
“She is a very awesome woman, and I never knew her to deal in stolen merchandise,” Lopez said of Fajardo.
Kingrey, however, said there were no goods on the shelves in Lopez’s business when she went in and said it was “very clear it was a front” for buying stolen property.
She said Fajardo was an “active participant” in the operation and was not manipulated in the least by King and Henry.
“She absolutely knew the items were stolen because she told me she knew,” Kingrey said.
While Fajardo said she did not know King and Henry, Kingrey said their phone records showed seven calls between Fajardo and Henry and 12 calls between Fajardo and King.
Attorneys will give jury summations when the trial continues Friday morning.
Fajardo has been in jail 875 days, more than the two-year maximum sentence, and will be given credit for her time in jail. She is asking Judge Ralph Strother to assess her punishment if convicted, and then she and her supporters will try to stave off an existing deportation order.