Judge rejects second plea attempt in school worker child sex abuse case

Jan. 25—A plea deal in the case of a man accused of sexually assaulting four children fell apart for a second time Wednesday morning when the accused child molester told the judge he hadn't talked to his lawyer in person about possible defenses they could have used at a jury trial.

"I've had opportunity to speak with her on occasions, not as — I haven't asked the right questions of her," Robert Apodaca told Judge Mary Marlowe Sommer during the proceeding.

Apodaca told the judge he had only spoken to his lawyer Julita Ann Leavell on the telephone and had not had an opportunity to throughly go over his case and explain, in person, any defenses he thinks he might have had.

Sommer rejected the plea and rescheduled the case for March 9. However, she said she would not set it as a plea hearing until both sets of attorneys ask for one.

"Certainly, I would think that an in-person visit over a phone [call] when you're looking at 45 years would just be a necessity," Sommer said. "Certainly, Ms. Leavell, you owe him that."

Apodaca, 32, is accused of molesting four children and teenagers while working as a school health aide at Santo Niño Regional Catholic School and Gonzales Community School from 2018 to 2021. He was set to plead guilty Wednesday to three counts of criminal sexual contact of a minor in one of his three pending child sex assault cases in First Judicial District Court, which would have seen him face between 18 and 30 years in prison.

This is the second plea agreement Sommer has rejected in Apodaca's pending cases since December. The first attempt to wrap up Apodaca's legal proceedings Dec. 7 — which saw Leavell and prosecutors agree to a consolidated plea for four different cases — was rejected after Sommer deemed Apodaca's no-contest plea was not in the best interest of justice.

Chief Deputy District Attorney Anthony Long filed a motion Dec. 12 dismissing one of the cases against Apodaca "pending further investigation," according to online court records, leaving active three cases.

District Attorney's Office spokeswoman JoHanna Cox responded to questions about the dismissed case — and its future — by pointing to a sentence in the motion indicating more investigation is needed. She did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday's rejected plea agreement.

Attorneys Paul Linnenburger and Aaron Boland, who each represent one of Apodaca's accusers and their families, did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday afternoon.

Leavell said she was surprised by her client's response to Sommer since, she said, they have spoken "voluminously" over the phone. However, she said she will speak with Apodaca face to face in order to gauge any anxieties he may have with future proceedings.

"I want to get in his head — find out what I need to do to allay his concerns because this is something he wants," Leavell said. "But if he has additional questions I need to figure out how I can answer those."

Leavell, who represents Apodaca in all three of his active sexual assault cases, said Wednesday's proceeding leaves the status of the other cases "up in the air."

"This was the big one we wanted to get out of the way," she said. "Once this was over then we kind of had — it [would have been] a little bit clearer."

A person in the courtroom gallery could be heard clapping after Sommer rejected the plea, leading the judge to tell Apodaca's family and relatives of the victims to leave the courtroom at different times to avoid "merging" in the hallway.