A Fort Worth man cited for misdemeanor assault for grabbing an 8-year-old boy by the neck and making him pick up litter that he’d dropped was found guilty Wednesday by a jury.
Itamar Vardi faced up to a $500 fine for the Class C misdemeanor, but Municipal Judge Neel McDonald, instead, offered Vardi a choice:
Pay $269 in court costs and a fine, and be found guilty.
Or agree to pay $569 in court costs and a fine, do 100 hours of community service — and receive six months’ deferred-disposition probation.
After a long discussion with his attorney, Vardi chose the latter. That means he will not have a conviction on his record if he successfully completes his probation.
The let’s-make-a-deal sentencing closed out a two-day trial that had drawn extensive media attention — less because of the crime and more because of a viral video of the controversial handling of the call by Fort Worth officer William Martin that catapulted the case into the national spotlight.
Martin arrested the boy’s mother, Jacqueline Craig, and two of her daughters — though the charges would later be dismissed.
The case and Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald’s later decision to suspend Martin 10 days sparked protests and marches.
Vardi had been silent throughout the chaos. Until now.
‘You’ve got to pick it up’
His defense attorney, Bobbie Edmonds, said Vardi had always insisted that he did nothing wrong so he chose to fight the Class C misdemeanor in court.
On Tuesday, jurors heard from the victim in the case, now 9. The boy described how Vardi had grabbed him by the back of the neck after some lemon raisins had fallen onto the sidewalk from a package he had thrown to his younger brother.
The boy testified that Vardi then forcefully pushed him down to make him pick up the raisins. The boy’s older sister described witnessing the encounter and testified that she ran home to tell her mother, prompting Craig to confront Vardi and leading to calls to the police.
On Wednesday, Vardi took the stand in his own defense. He said he was “amazed” and in “disbelief” when he watched the boy throw what looked like yellow paper on his grass.
He testified that he repeatedly told the boy to pick the trash up but that the child only stood there looking at him.
Suspecting the boy did not understand him because of his Israeli accent, Vardi said he placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder and directed the child to the items he’d thrown on the grass.
“You’ve got to pick it up. What’s going on?” Vardi said he told the child.
He said the boy then bent down and picked up the litter. He said he never “grabbed” the boy, nor forced him toward the ground.
“When he bent over, my hand lost contact,” Vardi testified.
Vardi said he had returned to painting his fence when he turned around and noticed the boy still standing there. He said he watched as the child threw down the litter again, this time on the sidewalk, then turned and walked home.
‘Got to please the public’
Vardi said he regretted all that happened in the aftermath of his call to police and added, “I also didn’t want them to get arrested.”
But he compared his touch of the boy that day to the sort regularly done by parents, teachers and adults when instructing a child.
In closing arguments, city attorney Holly Dozier pointed out that Vardi admitted to police he was “ticked” that the boy had littered in front of him and that, in his anger, he went too far.
She argued that Vardi should have reasonably known that placing his hands on an 8-year-old boy he did not know would be construed as offensive by the child. She urged jurors to follow the letter of the law and not what Vardi claims he intended.
Edmonds, meanwhile, accused authorities of citing her client only because of the negative publicity stemming from Martin’s handling of the police call.
“ ‘Let’s find something to put on Mr. Vardi because we’ve got to please the public,’ ” Edmonds told jurors in closing arguments.
‘Never faced the humiliation’
Lt. Wade Walls, the former sergeant over the Police Department’s Crimes Against Children Unit, testified earlier in the day that the reason for the month delay in citing Vardi was because detectives initially filed the case with the Tarrant County district attorney’s office as a felony injury to a child case.
The district attorney’s office, however, did not pursue charges in the case.
Walls said the unit was informed that a Class C violation was “more appropriate.”
Vardi and his attorney did not comment after the trial.
Craig’s attorney, Lee Merritt, said that while satisfied the jury found Vardi guilty, the family is disappointed and upset that the case was not tried as a felony and that the city has treated the issue “as if it’s not a big deal.”
Further concerning, he said, is that Vardi was cut a break by the court.
“Mr. Vardi never faced arrest, never faced the humiliation of handcuffs or a jail cell the way Jacqueline Craig did,” Merritt said. “Now, it’s clear because of the actions of Mr. Vardi, the Craig family continues to suffer while our system continue to offer Mr. Vardi break after break after break.”
Merritt said the family still hopes to send a message through a civil rights lawsuit filed against Vardi, the city and Martin.