With his eyes cast downward, Vince Ariaz made his first court appearance since his July 17 arrest on Friday — a hearing in which a judge reduced the former Brownwood police sergeant’s bonds from $750,000 to $200,000.
The bond reduction, ordered by 35th District Judge Steve Ellis, had no immediate effect on getting Ariaz released from the Brown County Jail, where he has been incarcerated since his arrest. He had not made the lowered bonds as of late Friday afternoon.
Ariaz, 53, is accused of having sexual contact with two teenage girls in the Brownwood Police Explorers post he supervised.
Ariaz’s wife, Carla, listened in the 35th District courtroom as her husband’s Fort Worth attorneys, Jim Lane and David Richards, argued on his behalf. During the hearing, Ariaz never appeared to look at his wife, a petite woman with short blond hair. Ariaz remained silent throughout the hearing.
Ariaz’s attorneys said the bonds on the two second degree felony charges lodged against him were excessive. Ariaz is charged with sexual assault of a child, which originally had a $250,000 bond, and indecency with a child by contact, with a $500,000 bond.
Lane argued that bonds totaling $75,000 were appropriate.
Ellis agreed that the original bonds were excessive and ordered them reduced to $100,000 on each charge.
District Attorney Micheal Murray countered that the bonds should remain high because, Murray argued, Ariaz is likely headed for prison and he is a suicide risk, a flight risk and a danger to the community.
Ellis ordered Ariaz under house arrest if he is released on bond, ordered him to surrender his driver’s license and prohibited him from applying for a passport. He must also wear an ankle bracelet for electronic monitoring, Ellis ruled.
It was unclear from court testimony whether Ariaz could make the new bonds of $200,000.
A Weatherford bail bondsman testified that he would write bonds of up to $75,000 in Ariaz’s case — “an amount that (Carla Ariaz) could afford and we could work with,” Joe Bob Plumlee testified. He said he would require a payment of 15 percent before writing the bonds.
Friday’s hearing began after Ariaz, wearing orange jail clothing, his feet and wrists shackled, was seated next to Lane and Richards. Ellis had earlier rejected Ariaz’s application for a court-appointed attorney. Lane told Ellis he had been hired by the family and required a $15,000 retainer.
Lane called Carla Ariaz to the witness stand. Most of her testimony concerned the family’s financial matters and her ability to raise money for bonds.
She answered questions directly, showing little emotion, and said little about Vince Ariaz’s situation. When Lane asked if she understood “the seriousness of the allegations” against her husband of 16 years, she replied, “Yes, I do.”
Ariaz looked down as his wife, a Wal-Mart clerk, testified.
Answering Lane’s questions, Carla Ariaz said her assets include $5,000 from the sale of her husband’s Ford F-150 pickup and $800 in Wal-Mart stock. She said she can raise another $5,000 from a loan against a life insurance policy, and will soon have access to about $40,000 in Ariaz’s retirement from the City of Brownwood.
“Do you know the victim in this case?” Lane asked her.
“Just briefly,” Carla Ariaz replied.
“Your income now has been cut in half,” Lane said.
“Yes it has,” she said.
Murray called Texas Ranger Nick Hanna to the stand. Hanna testified that then-Sgt. Dennis Weathermon of the Brownwood Police Department contacted him in January. “He said he had information about some inappropriate relationships between Sgt. Ariaz and members of the Brownwood Police Explorers,” Hanna testified.
Hanna said Ariaz is accused of fondling an Explorer in December 2004 in a police department storage room and sending her sexually graphic text messages. He said the girl’s mother and boyfriend saw the messages.
Hanna said an investigation led to two counts of indecency with a child by sexual contact being filed against Ariaz. The girl, identified in court documents by the pseudonym Jane Doe, is no longer an Explorer, Hanna had said in a previous interview.
Another investigation began involving Ariaz and a different Explorer, a 15-year-old girl identified in court documents as Nancy West — also a pseudonym.
Investigators placed Ariaz under surveillance and arrested him in the girl’s presence at the Brownwood Coliseum Annex shortly after he got off duty at 6 a.m. July 17, according to Hanna’s testimony and court documents.
Investigators have alleged in court documents that lawmen saw Ariaz having sexual contact with the girl in the moments before he was arrested.
Ariaz was charged with sexual assault of a child as a result of that investigation, Hanna testified. He said Ariaz faces 26 counts of sexual assault. Court records could not be located by media inquiries showing the 26 counts.
Hanna testified that it appeared Ariaz had established a pattern of exploitation toward the Explorers. He said it appears Ariaz singled out female Explorers who lacked “father figures” and promoted them rapidly. He maintained “constant contact” with the girls, giving them “a sense of self-importance and self-esteem,” Hanna testified.
Hanna said Ariaz, before he was arrested, was involved in an altercation with a jailer while Ariaz and “Nancy West” were at the jail in late June.
He said she and a young jailer struck up a conversation and he sent her a text message saying “hope to see you later.” Ariaz reprimanded the jailer and poked at the jailer’s patch on his uniform, Hanna testified.
One of the jailer’s family members said members of the jailer’s family and the girl and her family knew each other, and that’s what prompted the brief communication between the jailer and the girl.
Hanna said he learned of two other occasions when Ariaz confronted people who had sent the girl text messages. He said it appeared Ariaz was obsessed with the girl and had tried to prevent others from having contact with her.
Hanna, under cross-examination by Lane, said the original $750,000 bonds were the highest he’s seen for second degree felony charges. Hanna said, though, he was concerned that Ariaz would be a flight risk and a danger to himself and others if released from jail.
He said a police officer facing such charges might be compelled to take “extreme measures.”
Brownwood Police Chief Virgil Cowin placed Ariaz on indefinite suspension after his arrest. Cowin has said that is tantamount to firing him.