COLUMBUS, Ga. – A federal jury has returned a guilty verdict in the first convened jury trial in the Middle District of Georgia since COVID-19 precautions took effect, said Charlie Peeler, the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia.
Ernesto Rivera-Rodriguez, 55, of Cataula, Harris County, Georgia, was found guilty of one count of transmitting threats in interstate commerce. His trial, which began on Monday, October 19 before U.S. District Judge Clay Land, concluded with a guilty verdict today. Rivera-Rodriguez faces a maximum five years in prison. A sentencing date has not been set. There is no parole in the federal system.
As the trial was to take place during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Court developed a plan to protect USAO personnel, defense counsel, the defendant, witnesses, jurors and court personnel by requiring the use of masks, spreading individuals out within the courtroom and diligently sanitizing all areas. In addition, witnesses wore clear masks and plexiglass barriers were used. Jurors were seated in the gallery in order to remain at safe distances, and witnesses sat socially distanced in the jury box. Jury selection was conducted in two groups, as opposed to the usual one gathering, to ensure people were socially distanced and safe.
“There were many precautions put in place to ensure that both a safe and a fair trial was conducted here in the Middle District of Georgia,” said U.S. Attorney Peeler. “This guilty verdict holds the defendant accountable for terrorizing the hard-working employees of the timeshare company and the hard-working men and women of the Polk County Sheriff’s Office. Our office will vigorously prosecute those who choose to threaten others while hiding behind a telephone or a computer. I want to thank all involved for ensuring justice was served today.”
According to facts entered into court, Rivera-Rodriguez was vacationing at a timeshare property he owned in Orlando, Florida in November 2017, when he was arrested by Polk County, Florida deputies for misdemeanor possession of marijuana, to which he pled guilty. Rivera-Rodriguez, a former Marine, then threatened to kill the police officers involved in his arrest. Shortly after his arrest, Rivera-Rodriguez became involved in a dispute with the timeshare company and again made multiple threats, including stating that he would take an AR-15 to the timeshare and kill employees if he was not refunded $75,000. In one of multiple, legally recorded threats, Rivera-Rodriguez told a timeshare employee, “Please don’t make me go over there and start spilling blood over there in Orlando, because I will take it out on the people over there.” Rivera-Rodriguez added, “I will go to Florida and take it out on someone over there, and if that cop shows up, I’m taking his (profanity) head off, too.” The FBI spoke with Rivera-Rodriguez on numerous occasions, but he refused to stop making the threats. Ultimately, Rivera-Rodriguez was indicted and detained. According to a family member, Rivera-Rodriguez had a concealed weapon permit and “was always armed.”
The case was investigated by FBI and the Polk County, Florida Sheriff’s Office. Assistant U.S. Attorney Mel Hyde is prosecuting the case for the Government. Questions can be directed to Pamela Lightsey, Public Information Officer, United States Attorney’s Office, at (478) 621-2603 or Melissa Hodges, Public Affairs Director (Contractor), United States Attorney’s Office, at (478) 765-2362.