COLUMBUS, Ga. (WRBL) – A Cataula man was found guilty in federal court in the first jury trial in the Middle District of Georgia since COVID-19 precautions were put in place.
Ernesto Rivera-Rodriguez, 55 of Catalua, was found guilty on one count of transmitting threats in interstate commerce, according to officials. His trial started on Oct. 19, with U.S. District Judge Clay Land presiding.
The Harris County man was found guilty Oct. 22 and faces up to five years in prison. There is no parole in the federal system. So far, no sentencing date has been set.
“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 Charles 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 court records, Rivera-Rodriguez was vacationing at a timeshare in Orlando, Fla. in November 2017. Polk County, Fla. deputies took him into custody for a misdemeanor, possession of marijuana. He pled guilty to the charge.
Department of Justice officials say Rivera-Rodriguez threatened to kill the officers involved in his arrest. Soon after he was taken into custody, Rivera-Rodriguez was involved in a dispute with the timeshare company and made more threats, including threatening to shoot the employees with an AR-15 if he did not receive a refund for $75,000.
The threats were legally recorded, and according to the DOJ included:
““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 said. “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 Federal Bureau of Investigation spoke with Rivera-Rodriguez multiple times but he would not stop making threats. He was indicted and detained, the DOJ said, and according to family he “was always armed” and possessed a concealed weapon permit.
Middle District of Georgia court officials took steps to make the trial safe amidst the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
To protect U.S. Attorney’s Office personnel, defense counsel, the defendant, witness, jurors, and court staff, masks were required and social distancing measures were put in place.
Officials say that the courtroom was diligently sanitized and witnesses wore clear masks, in addition to the use of plexiglass barriers in court.
Jurors were also seated in the gallery to maintain safe distances, and witnesses were socially distanced in the jury box.