Seiler: For want of a watchdog

Times Union [Albany NY]

December 4, 2021

By Casey Seiler

It was one of the craziest stories of 2019, and now it’s one of the most infuriating stories of 2021.

I’m referring to the case of Angel Garcia, the former Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany deacon who last week was indicted on two felony counts related to the sexual abuse of children — acts that he allegedly committed when he should have been in state prison for sexually abusing his 6-year-old goddaughter years ago. 

It’s quite possible that the only reason Garcia was finally consigned to prison two years ago was because Cayla Harris, at the time a newly arrived Hearst Fellow at the Times Union, uncovered a monumental judicial-bureaucratic oversight while she was building a database of regional sexual offenders and their status. The project was part of her coverage of abuse cases launched under the state’s Child Victims Act law, which in August 2019 opened a one-year “lookback window” for previously time-barred civil suits related to child sexual abuse. (The window was later extended to two years, due in part to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the court system.)

While it was relatively easy to hunt down the prison terms of virtually all offenders and ascertain their status on the state’s sex offender registry, Garcia was nowhere to be found in the public record beyond the state Court of Appeals’ summer 2016 rejection of his appeal of his 2014 conviction and five-year sentence. He had been allowed to remain free pending that appeal.

So Harris called the office of Albany County District Attorney David Soares to ask where this convicted sexual predator was residing. Additional reporting showed he was living in the Pine Hills, free as a bird.

Suddenly, lots of people began pointing fingers at each other: The court system blamed Soares’ office and Soares’ office blamed the court system — both accusations predicated on the notion that the other was responsible for not following proper legal procedures to formally call for Garcia’s incarceration. It was an orgy of buck-passing, or a game of Simon Says with much higher stakes.

Last week, Garcia — current address: Coxsackie Correctional Facility — was accused of abusing two more girls, alleged crimes that took place during the period when he would have been in prison if not for this monumental botch. Imagine being the parent of one of those girls, and ponder how many more children Garcia might have targeted if our reporter hadn’t done the work that the criminal justice system was supposed to do. 

What continues to blow my mind is the fact that, as far as I know, there’s never been a proper public accounting — beyond the Times Union’s reporting, that is — of what went wrong here. This is a situation that fairly begs for an independent review of the legal breakdowns that allowed Garcia to remain on the street. Not merely to assign blame, but to make sure it never happens again.

Harris remained in Albany for the onset of the pandemic and near the end of her tenure wrote one of the best and most prescient profiles of how the crisis was bringing out the best and worst in former Gov. Andrew Cuomo. She went on to do the second year of her Hearst Fellowship covering the Texas statehouse for the San Antonio Express-News, where she’s now on permanent staff.

I write this not to brag on behalf of our former colleague and the Times Union — or not exclusively to do that — but to draw attention to the sort of necessary watchdog work that a sufficiently resourced newspaper is able to do. In the days before Thanksgiving, we learned that Alden Capital, the hedge fund that has already turned two once-vibrant Capital Region newspapers into the journalistic equivalent of ghost ships, has set its sights on Lee Enterprises, the chain that owns the Glens Falls Post-Star and the Buffalo News, among dozens of other solid papers around the nation. Lee is attempting to resist Alden’s takeover offer, at least for now.

I highly recommend McKay Coppins’ recent cover story in The Atlantic about Alden, a piece that Chris Churchill discussed last weekend in his column. Read both and ask yourself if the type of papers that operate according to Alden’s rapacious business model are likely to devote the time to the sort of digging that put Angel Garcia where he belonged — albeit too late to prevent his alleged abuse of two more young victims.

And then ask yourself who’ll suffer when that sort of work isn’t being done.