Sunday, October 25, 2020

Ex-probation officer sentenced to probation for bribery in child adoption case

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A former Wichita County probation officer who adopted a client’s baby will herself serve five years of probation after pleading guilty to attempted bribery, and her conviction ensures she will never be in a position of public trust again, Wichita County District Attorney John Gillespie said.

Lakashia Nicole McKnight, 39, of Wichita Falls was sentenced Thursday for attempted bribery and misdemeanor official oppression in connection with her actions in pursuit of the adoption of a probationer’s newborn infant, officials said.

“What was very important to me in this case is to ensure that Miss McKnight is never in a position of public trust again,” Gillespie said.

A felony charge of purchasing a child in connection with an incident on Oct. 9, 2018, the day of the baby’s birth, and a felony charge of tampering with evidence were dismissed as part of a plea bargain, he said. McKnight had no prior convictions.

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If she does not successfully follow the terms of her probation, she could face 10 years in prison, according to Gillespie. She received time served, eight days in jail, for the misdemeanor charge.

The convictions cannot be expunged from her record, Gillespie said.

Attempted bribery is a third-degree felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Gillespie said he considered several things, including McKnight’s lack of a prior criminal record and his goal of preventing her from being hired to a position of public trust again, in determining whether to pursue prison time for her.

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“It’s just an incredibly complicated case because of the nature of the offense and the participation of two people in this,” Gillespie said.

He said he opted not to charge probationer Brenda Lee Velasquez, 43, of Wichita Falls in connection with the bribery or purchase of a child allegations — even though she was a party to them. Those offenses involve two people, he said.

McKnight was accused of applying pressure on Velasquez to obtain the child through her former position as a probation officer, according to court records.

Velasquez had been sentenced to 10 years of probation after pleading guilty to a felony drug offense on March 16, 2015, according to court records.

McKnight supervised Velasquez’s probation from Jan. 19, 2018, to Oct. 29, 2018, according to court records.

She was alleged to have bribed Velasquez with cash and furniture and of holding sway over her with the power to pursue the revocation of Velasquez’s probation and her imprisonment — all to obtain possession of the baby, according to court records.

“You have somebody who was on probation, who at some point appeared to be willing to give her baby up to a probation officer, and at some point, she pulls back from that,” Gillespie said.

“It’s a crime that you can look at it and see maybe the justification would be they were trying to provide a good home for a child. It’s the wrong way to go about it. It’s a corruption of the system, and it should never have happened,” he said.

But a jury might have viewed the situation with some sympathy for McKnight, Gillespie said.

He opted not to charge Velasquez in light of the power that McKnight held over and had some sympathy for the probationer because of the pressure put on her, he said.

Velasquez complained Thursday to another local media outlet, KFDX, that she had not been notified of the sentencing hearing and that she thought McKnight’s sentence was too light.

“We don’t notify parties to the offenses,” Gillespie said. “Even though she was not a co-defendant, she still was a party to these offenses. So for me, it was a systemic corruption case instead of focused on a particular individual.”

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Attempts to reach Velasquez’s lawyer Thursday afternoon were unsuccessful.

When the D.A. learned that McKnight had adopted Velasquez’s baby while he happened to listen in on her probation revocation hearing May 17, 2019, he halted the court proceedings and subsequently asked the Texas Rangers to investigate, Gillespie said.

If not halted, the hearing would have probably resulted in Velasquez being sent to prison for probation violations, Gillespie said.

The Texas Rangers investigation led to a complete overhaul of the Adult Probation Department, the termination of several employees, and felony and misdemeanor charges against three other now former members of the department besides McKnight.

“This case from the very beginning, it’s about having confidence and trust in aspects of the criminal justice system,” Gillespie said. “In this specific instance, it was the probation department.”

The D.A. said he looked at the McKnight cases as part of systemic corruption.

He said the probation office is now in good hands under the leadership of Kirk Wolfe.

McKnight still has custody of Velasquez’s now toddler-age daughter, according to court records.

Velasquez is seeking to get her daughter back through a review of the adoption, according to civil records filed in 89th District Court.

She contends her parental rights were wrongly terminated, according to civil filings in the case against McKnight and Thomas Lee Hinton.

McKnight is listed as Lakashia Nicole Hinton on her Texas driver’s license, according to publicdata.com.

Judge Charles Barnard has voluntarily recused himself from the case involving the adoption, court records show.

Judge Jim Hogan, a retired county court-at-law judge, was appointed to preside over the case.

In addition, Velasquez recently filed a lawsuit against McKnight, other former Wichita County probation employees and the state of Texas, according to court records.

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