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Many Hurricane Harvey looters are escaping jail time

District Attorney Kim Ogg promised 'heftier penalties' in August


HOUSTON – During Hurricane Harvey, while most people scrambled to save their homes, businesses and children, truckloads of bandits, criminals and looters took full advantage of the community.

"I don't know how people can do that, and I don't know how they can sleep at night," homeowner Elizabeth Burnham said.

The Villages of Bear Creek -- on the west side, near the bloated Addicks Reservoir -- was a neighborhood devastated by floodwaters, and worse. 

"There was also 5 feet of sewage on everything," Burnham said.

Burnham salvaged what she could on her front lawn, only to have it disappear, piece by piece. She even had signs up, asking people not to take items from her yard.

"I hope karma gets them," Burnham said.

Initially, local leaders provided assurance.

District Attorney Kim Ogg said in a news release issued Aug. 29, 2017, that people will face "heftier penalties" if they are found to have broken the law in the disaster area. Burglarizing a home could mean life in prison.

"People displaced or harmed in this storm are not going to be easy prey," Ogg said. "Anyone who tries to take advantage of this storm to break into homes or businesses, should know that they are going to feel the full weight of the law."

Texas law states that certain crimes bring harsher sentences "if they are committed in a county declared a disaster area by the governor," Ogg said. "Burglarizing a home would normally bring a penalty of two to 20 years in prison, but now brings five years to life."

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Channel 2 Investigates looked into looting cases filed after Harvey. So far, there have been 54 convictions, but 74 percent of those sentences have included a year or less behind bars.

Additionally, in several cases, the "looting enhancement" was dropped and charges were reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor.

Judges made those decisions, often with the prosecutors' input.

In 18 convictions, there was no jail sentence at all. Instead, the looters got deferred adjudication, which means another chance.

Assistant District Attorney Brittney Aaron helped prosecute some of these cases.

"You're talking about someone, if they fail to show up or they fail to do a drug test, they're looking at going to prison for 10 years, (and) that's without a jury," Aaron said.

Three of the four people convicted in the looting of an East Houston Fiesta supermarket got no jail sentence, and all three had prior criminal convictions.

Pastor Jaime Garcia leads Bethel Baptist Church in East Houston. His congregation has spent many weekends at that supermarket parking lot, handing out supplies to area flood victims.

"Sometimes you gotta send a bigger message, so maybe we need to look at that a little deeper and see why we're just giving them a pat on the hand," Garcia said.

Derrick Martin's family owned a flag company in Pasadena that got flooded and then looted. He watched the looting unfold via his cellphone and called the Pasadena Police Department. Officers arrested Drake Boren, 20, at the scene of the crime.

Boren has a criminal record, too. But he received no jail time with his conviction.

Investigator Joel Eisenbaum asked Aaron, "Do you worry about when you have five, 10, 15 folks who are getting deferred adjudication, (that) you're not sending the right hard-line message?"

"I think the message of our office is that justice is served and, at the same time, justice is upheld," Aaron said.

But not all of the suspects catch a break.

Looter Thomas Gamelin just got 20 years behind bars. He is appealing his sentence.

In Harris County, another 36 felony looting cases are still pending.