ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico – Can a chatroom be a brothel?
That’s the question New Mexico’s highest court will consider in the case of a retired university president and professor implicated in an alleged online prostitution ring.
F. Chris Garcia, a longtime University of New Mexico political science professor who once served as the school’s interim president, was arrested in 2011 after Albuquerque police traced the IP address of a sex-for-sale website to him. Garcia, 71, was initially booked with maintaining a place of prostitution, along with David Flory, 70, a retired professor of physics at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey.
But a year later, in July 2012, District Court Judge Stan Whitaker decided that the website, southwestcompanions.com, was not tantamount to a house of ill repute. Although johns and hookers allegedly met up on the site, Whitaker said facilitating trysts online did not fit the charge prosecutors sought to put before a grand jury.
"The judge decided that you can't have sex on a computer," said Garcia's attorney, Robert Gorence. "They may have been able to charge my client with other things, but not maintaining a place of prostitution."
Michael Fricke, deputy district attorney for Bernalillo County, said that everything is up in the air in the 18-month-old case because no formal charges have even been filed. Following Whitaker's decision, Fricke asked the state's Supreme Court to reconsider the ruling, so prosecutors can convene a grand jury.
"I respectfully disagree with the judge’s ruling," Fricke said.
Gorence said the long delay in presenting the case to Whitaker in preparation for grand jury consideration is unfair to his client, but Fricke called the time lag “completely normal.”
"Essentially the charges have been dismissed with prejudice," Gorence said. "But depending on what the Supreme Court decides, the charges can return."
According to Gorence there were some 1,400 people who accessed the site and discussed things that may be "constitutionally privileged."
He would not say what Garcia's involvement was, other than he never received or paid money for any service associated with the website.
"It took them over a year to formally charge him," Gorence said. "It's a case of let's make an arrest now and file a charge later."
Following Garcia's arrest, he was immediately barred from the UNM campus, despite not actually being charged with a crime. He had previously enjoyed emeritus status, which granted him such privileges such as access to an office, computers and email.
When Garcia was arrested, then-University President Dave Schmidly suspended those privileges, pending the outcome of the law enforcement investigation.
"My client is suffering and wants his university privileges restored," Gorence said.
In 2001, Garcia received the American Political Science Association Distinguished Service Award.
"The honor puts him in the company of a very small group of distinguished political science faculty in the nation," said colleague Paul Hain, dean of the College of Arts and Humanities at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi at the time of the award. "One would have to walk the halls and foyers of the annual APSA meeting with Dr. Garcia to gain a sense of how well he is known and how highly he is regarded within the profession."