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Plea deal hearing gets chaotic for High Point couple accused of food stamps fraud

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GREENSBORO — Chaos erupted in Guilford County Superior Court on Monday afternoon when a woman ignored her translator and told a judge that her attorney did not discuss her plea deal with her.

This caused Judge Anderson Cromer to pause to consider how to proceed, but the case eventually ended where it was supposed to have, with the woman and her husband pleading guilty.

Luz Walker and her husband, David Walker, agreed to a plea deal for felony obtaining property by false pretense and conspiracy after being accused of defrauding the U.S. Department of Agriculture of more than $265,400 by misusing the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the agency that allocates food stamps.

Special Prosecutor Scott Harkey told Cromer that the Walkers owned Carolina Meats in High Point and Greensboro and accepted EBT cards from the SNAP program. But instead of selling their products to customers, they swiped the customers’ cards for a certain dollar amount, gave back the customer half of the cash and pocketed the rest.

Harkey said the Walkers did this more than 1,000 times between January 2013 and 2014.

Cromer sentenced David Walker to up to 7 years in prison and Luz Walker to more than 5 years in prison. They will be eligible for parole. They have to pay full restitution.

But neither plea deal came about smoothly in court.

“Are you indeed guilty of this crime?” Cromer asked David Walker.

“Can I say ‘no comment’?” Walker asked the judge before finally admitting his guilt.

“He’s a smart man,” said Joel Oakley, David Walker’s attorney. “The hardest thing about working with Mr. Walker is that to him he didn’t take (the money). It was hard for him to understand he committed fraud.”

Oakley said his client finally realized what he did after looking at documentation provided by the prosecution.

“This is happening all over Greensboro,” said Howard Neumann, chief assistant district attorney for Guilford County. “We hope word gets out and people take note that you can be arrested for this.”

Luz Walker’s guilty plea took more time after she told the judge in English that her attorney hadn’t explained the plea deal to her.

“Your honor, I met with her in jail for 45 minutes,” attorney Larry Tomar said after his client claimed otherwise. “Can I please approach for one minute?”

But Cromer hesitated because he said the court transcript already included Walker’s saying she didn’t understand the plea deal.

“One minute is not going to help based on this record,” Cromer said. “I am halfway responsible for creating it, but it (the minute) ain’t going to help. I’m just setting it (the case) up to fail.”

Snickers scattered throughout the courtroom because the trial had been anything but a typical procedure, including disruptions from the audience. Cromer said he wasn’t about to have a plea deal come back at him for the first time in his 14-year career.

Cromer gave Tomar time to talk with his client outside the courtroom before he accepted her guilty plea. She came back later that afternoon.

But the plea itself wasn’t the only problem the defense ran into during the hearing. Cromer said he couldn’t understand why Luz Walker claimed she needed an interpreter but answered the judge’s questions in English before an interpreter had a chance to translate the judge’s words.

“You’re putting your translator in an awkward spot,” Cromer said. “She doesn’t know whether to interpret your English or your Spanish.”

A family member could be overheard telling someone in the audience that Luz Walker speaks Spanish in a dialect found in Columbia that didn’t match her interpreter’s dialect.

Meanwhile, three people in the audience fell asleep, snoring loudly and disrupting the hearing. One stumbled through the aisle as a bailiff told him to go outside and “pull it together.”

Contact Danielle Battaglia at (336) 373-4476, and follow @dbattagliaNR on Twitter.

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