Former Justice of the Peace Melo Ochoa — a judge who served western Hidalgo County for two decades before he pleaded guilty to bribery and resigned in disgrace — died on Friday. He was 74.
Melo Ochoa, who had been hospitalized with COVID-19, died at approximately 1 a.m. Friday, said his daughter, Velma Ochoa.
“He was always a hard worker and a straight shooter,” said former Peñitas Mayor Marcos Ochoa, a distant relative. “And that’s how I knew him. As far as I was concerned, with me, he was a good person.”
Jose Ismael “Melo” Ochoa was born in Peñitas, where his family owned a small store, on Oct. 4, 1946.
His mother had a reputation for helping the less fortunate.
“If you didn’t have the money to buy something, she would help you,” Marcos Ochoa said. “And him, same thing.”
Melo Ochoa married, started several small businesses and became involved in local politics.
After he served on the La Joya school board, Melo Ochoa became justice of the peace for Precinct 3 Place 2, which covers western Hidalgo County.
The job involved handling traffic tickets, signing arrest warrants and setting bonds. With support from western Hidalgo County politicians, Ochoa ran unopposed for years. He rarely made headlines and attracted little attention.
Starting in 2012, when a federal agent was shot in Hargill, a series of scandals exposed corruption throughout Hidalgo County — and revealed that Melo Ochoa had accepted bribes.
After the shooting, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested Julio Armando “Nandie” Davila, a federal informant who occasionally worked for attorneys and bondsmen; his ex-girlfriend, Aida Palacios, an investigator with the Hidalgo County District Attorney’s Office; and his brother, Arnoldo “No No” Davila.
Julio Davila claimed that he bribed Melo Ochoa to reduce bonds. Palacios and his brother, Arnoldo, corroborated key parts of his story.
“Davila advised he believed that he gave Judge Ochoa approximately $60,000.00 between 2009 and 2012,” according to a summary of the investigation released under the Texas Public Information Act. Along with cash, Davila provided Melo Ochoa with bottles of liquor, hunting boots and other gifts.
ICE, the Texas Rangers and federal prosecutors confronted Ochoa about the allegations in May 2014.
“Judge Ochoa advised that the amounts varied between $50.00 to $100.00 and admitted that, at times, the amounts were larger,” according to a summary of the interview. “He advised that Davila would go to the judge’s office to look at cases with high bonds then Davila would contact the defendant’s family.”
Melo Ochoa also confessed to accepting $1,500 from Davila “once or twice.”
On Oct. 10, 2014, about five months after the interview, Melo Ochoa resigned. A grand jury indicted him on bribery and money laundering charges less than three weeks later.
Melo Ochoa pleaded guilty.
A judge fined Melo Ochoa $10,000 and sentenced him to 10 years in prison. The prison sentence, however, was suspended. Ochoa spent about five years on community supervision instead.
The conviction marred years of service to western Hidalgo County.
“From my perspective, the legacy or the good deeds that people do are all washed away when somebody does something that is against the oath that they took in office,” said former Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene Guerra.
Judges who accept bribes destroy public trust in the judicial system, Guerra said, and call into question every decision they ever made.
“So his legacy, Judge Ochoa’s legacy, is tarnished because of the fact that he got in trouble,” Guerra said. “That’s unfortunate, but any time that elected officials make a serious mistake in the performance of their duties that is an intentional act that goes against their oath to the state and the United States, unfortunately, they get what they deserve.”