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Prominent Merced County residents lobbied for jail release of housing nonprofit manager

The Merced County District Attorney plans to file two more felonies against Firm Build's managers today after investigators received a report from the Contractors State License Board.

Rudy Buendia III will face 17 charges connected to the demise of Firm Build, the nonprofit he ran for about a decade. The 45-year-old father was released Wednesday from the John Latorraca Correctional Center by Merced County Superior Court Judge Brian McCabe.

District Attorney Larry Morse II declined to comment on Buendia's release.

Buendia has been charged with embezzlement, grand theft and diversion of construction funds. The allegations come following a 15-month investigation that began after Firm Build, which relied heavily on taxpayer funding, went bankrupt.

Buendia refused to surrender to authorities for two days and was arrested Sunday by Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin, who said he couldn't understand why this arrest is garnering so much attention. "It wasn't that big of deal," Pazin said Thursday. "For some it sounds unique. For me, it's not."

The sheriff said he got a call from an intermediary who told him that Buendia was ready to turn himself in.

Pazin refused to say whether he handcuffed Buendia, only explaining that "procedures were followed," and that law enforcement has discretion.

The arrest happened at Highway 99 and Childs Avenue because Buendia and his family feared that it would be a spectacle if he showed up at the jail.

Buendia was released following an outpouring of support from friends and family at the Merced County Superior Court.

Twenty letters given by Buendia's attorney to the judge during the hearing, and later obtained by the Sun-Star, show that Buendia, a Merced County planning commissioner and former Housing Authority commissioner, had high and far-reaching support for a reduced bail.

McCabe, in thumbing through the letters, noted that he knew seven of the people. He cited Buendia's clean record and 30-year history in the community as reasons that he should be freed.

The letter writers say that Buendia is trustworthy and a family man who doesn't belong in jail.

"The sayings 'he wouldn't hurt a fly' and 'he'd give you the shirt off his back' come to mind when I think of Rudy," Housing Authority Commissioner Mary Padilla Stillahn wrote. "That's just him."

For the most cynical residents, the letters are evidence of a good old boys network that favors its members. Some readers on the Sun-Star's Web site have wondered why Buendia was released without having to post bail.

Two other Firm Build leaders, Patrick Bowman and Joe Cuellar, bailed out shortly after they were arrested last week.

Christina Ledezma, Firm Build's bookkeeper who's facing nine felonies, had her release denied Tuesday by a different judge. She's in jail in lieu of $312,000.

Some statements of support for Buendia came from Merced College President Ben Duran, Supervisor John Pedrozo's sister and sister-in-law, Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin's former secretary and a current Housing Authority commissioner.

One letter, from Lili Harrell, a U.S. District Court bailiff, is on federal letterhead. "(Buendia)will have our complete support as this case adjudicated and his innocence is proven," the letter reads.

On plain paper, Duran wrote, "I have known Rudy and his family for more than forty years and believe that he would not be a flight risk due to his commitment to his family and his community ties.

"Though I do not know the facts of the case against Mr. Buendia, my request is strictly limited to asking for a fair and reasonable bail."

Judy Blackburn, Pedrozo's sister and principal of Our Lady of Mercy School, wrote that Buendia is a "person with strong moral character and believe he's a man with strong integrity."

Supervisor Pedrozo said he's been out of commission because of recent surgery. He said he had no idea his sister and sister-in-law were writing letters of support. Pedrozo asked the Board of Supervisors to reappoint Buendia to the Planning Commission in 2006.

"I'm in a precarious position (as a supervisor)," Pedrozo explained. "They do what they want to do."

He said he's not going to take sides, which is up to a jury, adding, "You're innocent until proven guilty."

The latest charges stem from work Firm Build did for the Merced County Community Action Agency. Investigator Wayne Hutton said a building remodeled for $30,000 was found to be out of compliance with the American Disabilities Act and there were exposed wires in the attic. Building permits were never pulled for the work, he said.

Both Cuellar, the nonprofit's administrative manager, and Buendia will face an additional count of diversion of construction funds and grand theft.

Reporter Scott Jason can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or sjason@mercedsun-star.com.

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