Northeast Times

Somerton parents waive preliminary hearing in school case

Somer­ton res­id­ents Ham­let and Olesia Gar­cia still in­sist they did noth­ing wrong when they en­rolled their 5-year-old daugh­ter in a Lower Mo­re­land pub­lic school in fall 2011.

And months later, when school of­fi­cials told the couple that their daugh­ter didn’t be­long in a kinder­garten class at Pine Road Ele­ment­ary, the Gar­cias vo­lun­teered to pay more than $10,000 in tu­ition but were re­buffed, they claimed. Yet, with the specter of a full-blown tri­al, felony con­vic­tions and pos­sible pris­on sen­tences loom­ing, the Gar­cias on Thursday chose in­stead for a less dra­coni­an res­ol­u­tion. They waived a pre­lim­in­ary hear­ing in a Wil­low Grove dis­trict court and agreed to pay back the money. In ex­change, the Mont­gomery County dis­trict at­tor­ney’s of­fice agreed to re­com­mend them for ac­cel­er­ated re­hab­il­it­at­ive dis­pos­i­tion, or ARD.

Through the ARD pro­gram, the Gar­cias could end up with pro­ba­tion, com­munity ser­vice, fines and court costs. But if they avoid any more leg­al trouble, they’ll even­tu­ally be able to ex­punge the case from their crim­in­al re­cords.

Spe­cif­ic terms of the ARD await fur­ther re­view by the DA’s of­fice, fol­lowed by court ap­prov­al.

“Un­der all the cir­cum­stances, I really do be­lieve ARD would be a fair res­ol­u­tion,” said de­fense at­tor­ney Mi­chael Cas­sidy.

Cas­sidy smiled when asked if the Gar­cias would’ve liked to fight the charges. The at­tor­ney then paused and re­it­er­ated his en­dorse­ment of the non-tri­al out­come.

In a sep­ar­ate dis­trict court pro­ceed­ing, Olesia Gar­cia’s fath­er, Hunt­ing­don Val­ley res­id­ent Gregori Sofitchouk, waived his pre­lim­in­ary hear­ing on a mis­de­mean­or count of false swear­ing as the dis­trict at­tor­ney’s of­fice agreed to re­com­mend his case for ARD, too.

In Au­gust, au­thor­it­ies ar­res­ted the Gar­cias for theft of ser­vices and con­spir­acy, ac­cus­ing them of falsi­fy­ing their daugh­ter’s ad­dress on school en­roll­ment pa­pers. On the pa­per­work, the Gar­cias re­por­ted that the girl and her moth­er lived with Sofitchouk.

Olesia Gar­cia’s step­moth­er, Vic­tor­ia Kar­lova, blew the whistle on the al­leged fraud last spring after she re­ceived a Valentine’s Day card in the mail that the young­ster had made for her par­ents in class, au­thor­it­ies said.

School of­fi­cials in­vest­ig­ated the false ad­dress claim, placed the Gar­cias un­der sur­veil­lance and con­fron­ted them with the fraud al­leg­a­tion be­fore re­fer­ring the case to Lower Mo­re­land po­lice.

Po­lice ques­tioned Sofitchouk, who al­legedly per­petu­ated the ruse by stat­ing that Olesia Gar­cia and her daugh­ter were liv­ing with him rather than with Ham­let Gar­cia in North­east Phil­adelphia.

On Thursday, Sofitchouk com­mu­nic­ated with the court via a Rus­si­an in­ter­pret­er. He owns a flower shop in Hol­land, Bucks County, and has no crim­in­al re­cord and is free on his own re­cog­niz­ance. Kar­lova and oth­er re­l­at­ives at­ten­ded the court ses­sion but were not called to testi­fy.

Olesia Gar­cia, a nat­ive of Ukraine, owns an in­de­pend­ent in­sur­ance agency where her hus­band, a nat­ive of Cuba, works. Both par­ents are Amer­ic­an cit­izens with no crim­in­al re­cords. They are each free on $10,000 un­se­cured bail.

All three de­fend­ants are sched­uled for Com­mon Pleas Court ar­raign­ments on Dec. 19 in Nor­ris­town.

Ac­cord­ing to As­sist­ant Dis­trict At­tor­ney John Walko, ARD is gen­er­ally offered to first-time of­fend­ers in theft cases in­volving less than $5,000. But the Gar­cias al­legedly stole $10,752.81 — that’s how much it cost the Lower Mo­re­land School Dis­trict to edu­cate a child for the 2011-12 school year.

The school dis­trict’s own po­lice have in­vest­ig­ated 15 cases this year in­volving non-res­id­ent stu­dents.

“Out of 15, this is the only one they brought to the dis­trict at­tor­ney’s of­fice,” Walko said after the hear­ing. “This case was dif­fer­ent be­cause [the Gar­cias] wer­en’t will­ing to work it out [with the school]. They claimed they had a right to have their child in the school.”

In­ter­viewed by the North­east Times in Septem­ber, the Gar­cias said that they were sep­ar­ated when they en­rolled their daugh­ter at Pine Road Ele­ment­ary. The couple re­con­ciled last spring around the time school of­fi­cials con­tac­ted them with the fraud ac­cus­a­tions.

The couple’s daugh­ter now at­tends a private school in Bucks County.

The Gar­cias ques­tion wheth­er the school and pro­sec­utor were try­ing to use the couple to set an ex­ample to the par­ents of oth­er po­ten­tial non-res­id­ent stu­dents. After ar­rest­ing and book­ing the Gar­cias, the dis­trict at­tor­ney’s of­fice aler­ted the news me­dia to the case and dis­trib­uted the couple’s mug shots.

“From day one, the school dis­trict just wanted to get the money back for tax­pay­ers,” Walko said. “The dis­trict at­tor­ney’s of­fice isn’t try­ing to make an ex­ample. We’re just try­ing to get the money back and justice to be done.” ••

Re­port­er Wil­li­am Kenny can be reached at 215-354-3031 or wkenny@bsmphilly.com

You can reach at wkenny@bsmphilly.com.

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