How a stranger’s offer to help an elderly blind woman vote led to fraud charges

For years, Dominicia “Minnie” Barela’s boyfriend took her to the polls to vote.

But after Delfino Garcia suffered a stroke in 2011, and had to be moved into a nursing home, the 76-year-old blind woman began to depend on others.

So when a woman visited her north Fort Worth home in 2016, saying she was there to help Barela vote, it seemed like a blessing.

The woman, who identified herself as Leticia Sanchez, helped Barela fill out her mail-in ballot for the March 2016 Democratic primary — and suggested they fill out her boyfriend’s ballot too.

“She said we can do Delfino’s. I said, ‘No. He’s not here,’” Barela recalled. “She said, ‘It’s OK. We can do it. Nobody is going to find out.’”

Against her better judgment, Barela said, she sat by as Sanchez filled out her boyfriend’s ballot and then instructed Barela to sign Garcia’s name.

“I said I’m not supposed to sign for no one else. She said you won’t get in trouble,” Barela said. “I said are you sure? She said it’s OK. ‘That’s what I’m here for is to help people.’”

State authorities now allege Sanchez, also known as Leticia Sanchez Pierce, was among four women being paid to target elderly voters in north Fort Worth in a scheme to harvest their ballots for specific 2016 candidates.

Sanchez, a teacher assistant at Como Elementary, is on leave but still employed by the Fort Worth school district, according to Clint Bond, a spokesman for the district.

Leticia Sanchez
Leticia Sanchez Tarrant County Sheriff's Office

Sanchez, 57, was indicted last week on 17 counts in connection with the alleged voter fraud operation. Among the accusations were that she marked Garcia’s ballot without his consent and provided false information on applications for mail-in ballots for Garcia and Barela.

When asked who paid Sanchez and the other women, Texas Attorney General spokesman Jeff Hillery said “details will come out when this case goes to trial.”

He noted that the charges in these cases “are in connection with the 2016 Democratic primary, but the case has connections with the 2015 city council election.”

All this comes as early voting for the Nov. 6 mid-term election begins Monday and runs through Nov. 2.

Search warrant

A search warrant affidavit obtained by the Star-Telegram shows that investigators went to great lengths to delve into the alleged voter fraud, including obtaining DNA samples from Sanchez to compare to fluids or cells left on the envelope containing Garcia’s ballot.

According to the affidavit, an investigator became suspicious of organized voter fraud while examining applications for ballots by mail for the years 2015 and 2016. He noted a large number of applications had been faxed — in batches ranging from 10 to more than 100 — to the Tarrant County Elections Office from a single fax number.

Among those applications was Garcia’s.

Barela said she met Sanchez only that one time in 2016, when she knocked on her door and said she was helping people vote who didn’t have any other way to cast their ballots.

After Sanchez sat down at her kitchen table, Barela recalled that she read the ballot to her and she announced her choices for Sanchez to mark. She doesn’t remember the woman pressuring her to choose any specific candidate.

When it came to the ballot that belonged to Garcia, ”Sanchez told her that she marked his ballot the same way as she had marked Barela’s,” the affidavit stated.

“She had never seen Delfino. She has never talked to him. It was only me here,” Barela said.

Barela told investigators that Sanchez “sealed the carrier envelopes and took them with her.”

Investigators reviewed records with the Tarrant County Election’s office, including Garcia’s applications for mail-in ballots in 2015 and 2016 and the envelope the ballot came in for the 2016 primary election.

It turns out that the signature on that envelope containing the ballot matches signatures on Garcia’s applications for mail-in ballots in 2015 and 2016 — but it didn’t match the signature on Garcia’s driver’s license, the affidavit shows.

Leticia Sanchez was the name listed as the person who helped Garcia with the envelope the ballot was in, according to the affidavit.

Investigators obtained the search warrant to get blood and cheek swab samples from Sanchez, to see if her DNA matched fluid or cells left on the sealed envelope that contained Garcia’s ballot.

The Attorney General’s office did not answer a question from the Star-Telegram about whether the DNA sample matched the fluid from the envelope.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office will prosecute the cases.

Voter fraud investigation

The recent indictments come two years after allegations of voter fraud began surfacing before the presidential election in 2016. At the time, officials said workers from Paxton’s office were in Tarrant County gathering paperwork and interviewing potential witnesses.

Around that time, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted: “Largest Voter Fraud Investigation in Texas History Underway in Tarrant County. We will crush illegal voting.”

The complaints that year focused on mail-in ballots, which allow people to vote from their homes without any ID or verification of identity.

A key concern has been how often people may assist others — or physically help by witnessing — with filling out the applications for mail-in ballots or the ballots themselves.

Supporters said mail-in balloting is crucial for overseas residents, the military and senior citizens. Critics maintained that such voting is ripe for abuse and raises concerns about “vote harvesting,” in which people fill out and return other people’s ballots.

In many cases, AG officials say, “the voters do not even know their votes have been stolen.”

Barela said she was stunned when investigators visited her home, asking questions about Sanchez’s visit.

“I’m not mad at her. I’m just hurt that she did something that she wasn’t supposed to do,” Barela said.

She said she blames herself for not going with her gut and refusing to sign Garcia’s ballot.

“I said, why did I do that,” Barela said. “When they’re helping you, you think that’s a good thing. It’s nice to have people thinking about the person that is blind.”

She likely is through with mail-in ballots, but she won’t give up on voting. She will, however, make sure a family member takes her to the polls.

More than anything, Barela said she’s disappointed in Sanchez.

“She did wrong,” she said. “She shouldn’t have done that.”

Anna Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley
Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram