The letter arrived two days before Christmas, as Martin and Jalynda Cervantes were getting ready for the holidays.
It was addressed to Martin Cervantes from Neosho County, a rural Kansas county a little more than 100 miles southwest of Kansas City, Kansas.
He had not been to Neosho County since his son graduated from the community college there nine years ago. The letter came from a lawyer requesting Cervantes appear for a court hearing through Zoom on Jan. 4.
Cervantes was confused. He handed it to his wife, who was also incredulous. After making a few calls, Jalynda Cervantes found out what had happened:
On Dec. 6, the Neosho County Sheriff’s Office arrested a man for disorderly conduct. He told the arresting officer, Deputy Aaron Favela, that his name was Martin Servantes, according to Neosho County Sheriff Greg Taylor, and that his date of birth was Oct. 11, 1968.
The suspect, however, was not carrying identification on him. Favela called the dispatcher and requested help identifying the man. The dispatcher, Taylor said, found a man named Martin Cervantes in Kansas City, Kansas. They figured that was the man they had arrested — even though the spelling of the last name was wrong, as was the year of birth.
The suspect was booked with Martin Cervantes’ information: his social security number, driver’s license number, home address and birthday.
“To us, he didn’t have his identity stolen by a criminal,” Jalynda Cervantes said. “He had his identity stolen by the criminal justice system.”
‘We were mad’
It’s been a few weeks since Martin Cervantes received the letter in the mail. The case was dismissed against him on Dec. 28, “due to the fact that the Defendant was wrongfully identified,” the motion said.
But even though the case has been dismissed, the Cervantes’ are not pleased with the mix up. Jalynda Cervantes has worked in the criminal justice system for 35 years and is a pretrial coordinator for Wyandotte County District Court. She knows how the system is supposed to work. And also how it isn’t.
Martin Cervantes was frustrated by the situation.
“We were upset, we were mad that my information was given to this person when that should have never happened,” he said.
Even though the charge against him was dismissed, he is afraid that the arrest will still show up on his record in a background check. And it shouldn’t, he said, because he wasn’t the individual arrested.
The Star ran a criminal background check through the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. The arrest still showed up.
To have it removed, the District Court of Neosho County would have to issue an expungement for mistaken identity, said KBI spokeswoman Melissa Underwood.
The KBI has not received that request.
Martin Cervantes worries having this on his record will affect his job and future. He works for the Kansas City, Kansas School District, where he mentors at-risk juveniles, he said. Kids call him Mr. C. He often shares his life story with them: How he’d been a gang member in Los Angeles before deciding to move to Kansas City, Kansas, in hopes of building a better life for him and his son. He and Jalynda Cervantes met online in the early 2000s and married in 2005.
He and his wife also have concealed carry licenses that have to be renewed and they’re unsure if this will affect his ability to carry a gun.
“This is all going to be a cloud over my head now,” Martin Cervantes said. “I know that law enforcement jobs can be tiring and stressful, but we all have to do our jobs, regardless of where we work or what we do.”
The sheriff’s office
In a 25-minute phone interview with The Star, Taylor said the mistake was made because the arresting officer, Favela, didn’t have much experience. Favela ended up taking the word of the dispatcher who provided the identification, Taylor said. He said the deputy should have compared the photo on the driver’s license to the suspect who was arrested.
After Taylor found out what happened, he conducted an internal investigation and disciplined Favela, though he said he couldn’t disclose further details. But he said Favela is still employed with the sheriff’s department as a deputy.
Taylor said they the department is also going through training again so that officers know how to properly identify suspects that are not carrying IDs.
“Once (Jalynda Cervantes) called and told us about the mistaken identity, we were able to get it fixed and taken care of as quickly as possible without him being a victim of being arrested wrongly or anything like that,” Taylor said.
The Cervantes’ said they are speaking out to make sure this doesn’t happen again. But they also said they support the police. Martin Cervantes’ son is an officer with the Kansas City, Kansas, Police Department. Their two-story house is outlined with a strip of blue neon light, an homage to the pro-police thin blue line symbol, Martin Cervantes’ wedding band and Apple Watch band also have a thin blue line.
“I’m not out for anybody to lose their job or anything like that,” Jalynda Cervantes said. “But when you’re doing something that affects somebody’s life to that extent, you have to be professional and confident in what you’re doing.
“I would like to know why that person did that. Why did they think that was OK.”
Added Martin Cervantes, “It’s not OK. It’s not professional.”