March 5, 2014

Veteran Merced County employee arrested in weapons case

A 35-year-old woman arrested this week on firearm and child endangerment charges is a Merced County employee, the latest in a string of high-profile employee troubles for the county.

A 35-year-old woman arrested this week on stolen property and child endangerment charges is a Merced County employee, the latest in a string of high-profile employee troubles for the county.

Marissa Ann Gonzales works in the county’s Human Services Agency as a “family services representative III,” confirmed county spokesman Mike North. She has been a county employee since Aug. 10, 1999.

Gonzales was arrested Saturday along with 36-year-old Pedro Garcia, whom she refers to as her husband. She and Garcia are not legally married, but have been together more than 20 years, Gonzales said Wednesday.

Merced police said gang members were using the couple’s home on La Palma Lane to store firearms. At least one of the seven weapons recovered from the home had been reported stolen, police said.

On Wednesday, Gonzales denied knowing any weapons were in her home. She said that when police first came to her home Saturday, she told them they wouldn’t find any firearms.

“Unfortunately, they proved me wrong,” Gonzales told the Merced Sun-Star. “The cops said I should’ve known they were there, and, yes, I should’ve known, but if I’d known either my husband (Garcia) or the guns would’ve been out; or both.”

Merced police initially said Gonzales was a suspected gang member, but she was not booked on any gang-related charges, according to Merced County jail records.

Gonzales was arrested on suspicion of felony possession of stolen property and misdemeanor child endangerment, booking records show. She posted bail Sunday and is scheduled for arraignment April 1, authorities said.

Garcia was booked on suspicion of criminal street gang participation; being a felon in possession of firearms, ammunition and body armor; child endangerment; and possession of stolen property. He was still in custody Wednesday in lieu of more than $220,000.

Their three children, a 1-year-old boy and two girls, ages 16 and 9, were turned over to child protective services. Gonzales said she plans to get her children back and to fight the criminal charges in court.

“How could I know the gun was stolen when I didn’t even know it was there?” Gonzales said.

She said she would “do whatever it takes” to get her children back.

“I’ve already told my husband that if he bails out, he can’t come home,” she said. “My kids are everything to me, and if getting them back means I can’t be with him, so be it.”

Gonzales said she and Garcia were separated for several years, but they got back together in 2009 and she believed “he left the gang life behind.”

She said she’s worked for Merced County for about 15 years and hopes she won’t have any problems at work because of the arrest. “Maybe because it’s a felony, but I’m not guilty,” she said.

Gonzales said she returned to work Tuesday.

North said a criminal background check was not completed for Gonzales at the time of her hiring because of the classification of her position. Officials said there are several criteria that prompt background checks for county employees, but her position did not meet those criteria.

Gonzales’ salary ranges from $42,390.40 to $51,563.20 a year, according to her job description. As of Wednesday, Gonzales was still employed by Merced County, North said.

As a family services representative, Gonzales screened eligibility and handled enrollments for all public assistance programs, such as health insurance, medical benefits and food stamps. In addition to handling intakes, Gonzales is responsible for monitoring client cases and ongoing case management.

Human Services Director Ana Pagan declined to comment Wednesday, saying that the matter is a personnel issue.

District 5 Supervisor and Board Chairman Jerry O’Banion said he doesn’t believe Gonzales’ arrest reflects poorly on Merced County because employees make mistakes in their personal lives.

“I don’t think it’s a black eye for the county,” O’Banion said. “When you have as many employees as we have, you have some people that make mistakes. I don’t go along with the conspiracy theory that all we have is bad employees – because we don’t.”

O’Banion said he trusts that the Human Services Agency, along with Human Resources, will take appropriate action if the criminal charges conflict with Gonzales’ continued employment.

District 4 Supervisor Deidre Kelsey called the situation “very unusual,” saying she’s never seen a county employee with potential gang ties in her 18 years with Merced County.

“I don’t think it really reflects on the county at all if she’s been doing her job properly for 15 years and had no outward signs of inappropriate behavior,” Kelsey said. “There would be no reason to question her personal life. As long as she was performing her duties and not acting strange, I think the county has done all that they can to make sure she was a performing employee.”

“To a certain degree, what goes on in people’s personal lives is not pertinent to jobs,” Kelsey said.

Gonzales said she hopes she’s given a chance to clear her name.

“I work hard, take care of my kids and own my home,” she said. “I want people to know I’m a good person in a bad situation.”

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