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 firstname.lastname@example.org