Betsy Blaney, Associated Press
LUBBOCK, Texas (AP) — A former Haitian star athlete who posed as a teenager to play high school basketball in Texas was sentenced Wednesday to three years in prison after reaching a plea deal, a prosecutor said.
Guerdwich Montimere, 23, pleaded guilty to two counts of sexual assault and three counts of tampering with government records, said Ector County District Attorney Bobby Bland.
Officials say the naturalized U.S. citizen from Haiti had graduated from high school in Florida, where he also played basketball, years before he moved to Odessa, Texas, and presented himself as a ninth-grader named Jerry Joseph. Montimere was 21 and 22 when he played one season at Odessa Permian High, the same rabidly competitive school that inspired the book, movie and TV show “Friday Night Lights” about high school football. Montimere helped lead the Panthers to the 2010 state playoffs, but the team had to forfeit after his story unraveled.
Montimere was indicted last year on six felony charges, including sexual assault and tampering with government records. His trial was to begin next week in Odessa, and he had faced up to 20 years in prison if convicted on the original counts. The indictment accused him of identity theft. The sexual assault counts accused him of having sex with a 15-year-old girl.
“Sometimes your best defense is to take the road with the least amount of risk. He could have gotten 20 years,” Montimere’s attorney, Dusty Gallivan, said.
A message was also left with Montimere’s mother, Manikisse Montimere.
Suspicions were raised about Joseph after coaches from Florida at a postseason amateur basketball tournament in Arkansas said they recognized him as Montimere, a 2007 graduate of a Fort Lauderdale, Florida, high school.
Because he was living with Odessa basketball coach Danny Wright and not a parent or guardian, Montimere had to apply to the University Interscholastic League in Austin to play high school basketball. A waiver was granted and he was the star of the team.
Wright, who still calls Montimere by the name Jerry, said he was furious once he learned Joseph wasn’t who he said he was.
“I was blindsided,” Wright said. “I never saw it coming. I just thought he was a big kid.”
Montimere was named the District 2-5A Newcomer of the Year, an honor that was stripped when his deception was exposed. The Panthers also forfeited their 16 wins, although Wright said the “team would have been good with or without Jerry.”
Bland noted Montimere will have to register as a sex offender. Gallivan said that was “one of the biggest obstacles to overcome” when it came to reaching a deal, but that Bland wouldn’t budge on the issue.
Bland also said the victim had wanted a plea deal.
After the Arkansas tournament, Permian officials had begun receiving anonymous phone calls and emails saying Joseph was really Montimere. Odessa school officials looked into the situation, and Joseph was initially cleared by immigration authorities and allowed to return to the school.
But the investigation continued, and officials eventually confirmed Montimere’s identity. School officials said Montimere confessed after he was confronted with the new evidence.
In spite of everything, Montimere still had the support of some teachers, who had planned to be in the courtroom for his trial.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press