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Judge Edward Aparicio of Edinburg, Texas, was close to inking a plea deal with federal prosecutors in connection with a 15-month federal investigation into bribery allegations when the judge was found dead in his house on April 4 of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. Three lawyers who represented Aparicio say they were close to finalizing details of a plea agreement, and say they were shocked to learn of the judge’s death on the same day he resigned from office. Houston solo practitioners Michael Ramsey and Chip Lewis, and Jose Chapa, a partner in Yzaguirre & Chapa in McAllen, Texas, are among the attorneys who represented Aparicio in connection with the federal bribery probe. “We had an agreement in principle,” says Ramsey, who has represented Aparicio since shortly after Federal Bureau of Investigation agents searched the judge’s chambers in Edinburg and his home in Weslaco in January 2004 and removed artwork and photographs from each. “We were very close to a resolution that I thought would be acceptable to the judge. I was enormously surprised by this [his death],” Ramsey says. Like Ramsey and Lewis, Chapa, who says he and Aparicio had been friends for 15 years, was surprised to hear of Aparicio’s death. But, Chapa says, Aparicio was aware an indictment was “coming down the pike,” and he may have been upset that he didn’t have all the details of the plea deal worked out. Chapa says the pressure of the investigation, and the continuing rumors about the probe circulating throughout the gossipy Rio Grande Valley legal community, were hard on Aparicio, who was concerned that they impacted his ability to serve as a judge and to represent his constituents. “It took its toll,” Chapa says. “How wouldn’t it?” Ramsey says Aparicio’s resignation on April 4 was part of the plea deal with federal prosecutors, but he declines to discuss other terms of the agreement, which had not been signed. Lewis says Aparicio was “very much in tune” with the decision to step down from the bench. Ramsey and Lewis say they were negotiating with Larry Eastepp, an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Texas in the Public Corruption Section; Eastepp did not return a telephone message seeking comment before press time. John Yembrick, a public affairs specialist for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, says U.S. Attorney Michael Shelby would have no comment on the bribery investigation beyond a brief statement. In that statement, Shelby says, “While the facts surrounding [the] tragic events are not yet fully known, we are all saddened at the needless loss of life. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Aparicio family.” In January 2004, federal agents raided Aparicio’s office in the Hidalgo County Courthouse and his home in Weslaco, armed with a search warrant that sought documents and financial records relating to any financial and/or business relationship between and among the judge and more than two dozen lawyers, most from Texas, and between the judge and three art galleries. The warrant also sought documents relating to any travel “to further the ends of bribery and money laundering” and documents or records indicating purchases designated as “payment-in-kind” relating to bribery and money laundering, such as receipts from art galleries or sports memorabilia stores or records relating to attendance at sporting events. As alleged in the warrant, the items sought were in connection with alleged violations of several sections of Title 18 of the U.S. Code, including wire fraud, extortion under color of official right, bribery of a public official, money laundering and racketeering activity involving violations of the Texas Penal Code regarding bribery of a public official. Ramsey says he and others on Aparicio’s legal team had been negotiating with federal prosecutors on and off for months. The search warrant sought items from Jan. 1, 1996, which was when Aparicio first took the bench, through January 2004. STATE OF MIND All three of Aparicio’s lawyers and others say they had not noticed any recent change in the judge’s state of mind. “He was very steadied and a thoughtful individual. I didn’t notice anything different in all of our talks. He was obviously primarily concerned about his family throughout this whole ordeal,” Lewis says. “I didn’t see any changes from the few glances that I had into the present situation,” says Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene Guerra. “It seemed like he was holding up well. I personally wasn’t concerned about the possibility of him taking his own life. There weren’t any red flags.” Aparicio, 46, leaves a wife, Celeste, and five sons. His funeral was Thursday. The presiding judge in Hidalgo County, 332nd District Judge Mario Ramirez, says Aparicio was handling his job on the bench, but it was clear he was under stress, at least in part because of the rumors about the federal investigation and the possibility that he or others would be indicted. Ramirez says that when he heard about Aparicio’s death, “I thought maybe some of the rumors were true, maybe that it just got to be too much for Ed, that he was in trouble.” Aparicio’s body was discovered inside his house by Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Trevino, who went to the judge’s house at the request of DA Guerra. Guerra says he asked Trevino to go to the judge’s house after he learned that Aparicio’s staff was concerned, because the judge had failed to show up for work April 4, and local television stations were reporting that Aparicio had resigned. “I asked the sheriff to respond to Weslaco because we were not sure if there was a hoax being played,” Guerra says, noting that he also warned reporters to be wary of the press release announcing Aparicio’s resignation. But Chapa says his office faxed Aparicio’s letter of resignation to reporters in The Valley on April 4, because that’s what Aparicio had agreed to April 1. The letter said Aparicio was stepping down for personal and family reasons. But news of Aparicio’s resignation was followed shortly afterward with news of his death. Trevino did not return two telephone messages. David Molina, a spokesman for the Weslaco Police Department, did not return three telephone messages seeking information about the investigation into Aparicio’s death. While Molina could not be reached to determine if Aparicio’s death has been officially ruled a suicide, Ramsey says “the circumstances are pretty clear” that it is.

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