Corso successfully defends framed teacher against possession charges
Originally published Sunday, November 19, 2006 in The Gainesville Times
When police found drugs stashed behind the license plate of Javier “Javy” Davila’s car, he knew they weren’t his.
But Davila never imagined that a respected physical education teacher from Johnson High School would plant the plastic baggy containing trace amounts of methamphetamine to keep him away from her adopted daughter.
Yet that’s what Davila and his lawyer say happened. Now the teacher, 29-year-old Kristi Creegan, faces felony charges of perjury and false statements in connection with the trial of Davila’s drug case. Creegan is due to appear in Hall County Superior Court on Monday, when her lawyer says she will plead not guilty.
Davila, 22, was exonerated in May after prosecutors dismissed felony charges of possession of methamphetamine and possession of cocaine. The dismissal came on the third day of Davila’s trial, after prosecutors heard the testimony of a woman who said Creegan enlisted her to help frame Davila. Creegan also testified in the trial, and prosecutors now say she lied on the witness stand.
Creegan worked for the Hall County School System as a volleyball coach for seven years, most notably at Johnson High School. Well-regarded by her peers for her coaching abilities, she was named coach of the year in 2003 in The Times’ All-Area Volleyball honors. Creegan resigned from Chestatee High School in late August, two months before she was indicted. She later took a job as a PE teacher at a primary school in the Fayetteville, N.C., area. She has an unlisted phone number and efforts to reach her were unsuccessful. Her lawyer, Robert “Lucky” Chandler, said she denies the charges.
“We intend to enter a not guilty plea and proceed from there,” he said.
Chandler would not comment on the allegations that Creegan framed Davila. In court transcripts provided to The Times, Creegan acknowledges under oath that she gave police tips about Davila, but denies that she planted any drugs.
Arturo Corso, the Gainesville lawyer who successfully defended Davila, said the case was unusual in that it involved an otherwise upstanding citizen engaging in tactics more often seen from common criminals.
“It had always been our theory that someone had been planting the drugs,” Corso said. “But usually when you talk about someone planting it, you’re not talking about a police informant.”
Corso’s accusations are supported by the sworn testimony of Teresa Padgett, a recovering drug addict whose daughter, Yesenia, was adopted by Creegan. Padgett told a jury that Creegan offered to give her a place to stay after her release from jail “if I would help her set Javy up.”
“I told her yes,” Padgett said.
“My freedom was in jeopardy”
Javier Davila’s legal troubles started in December 2004, two years after he began dating Yesenia Creegan. The daughter of a crack cocaine addict, Yesenia was taken into Coach Kristi Creegan’s home at age 14, when she was a student in one of the teacher’s health classes at Johnson High School. Initially a foster parent, Creegan later adopted Yesenia and the girl took her last name.
Yesenia was 17 when she started dating 19-year-old Javy. She became pregnant the following year with his child.
At some point, Corso alleges, “for reasons only Kristi can explain, she decided she did not like Javy dating her daughter.”
Though Yesenia and Kristi Creegan are both white, Javy doesn’t think that his being Hispanic had anything to do with her perceived animosity.
“I never thought it was discrimination,” he said, noting that Creegan “had a lot of Hispanic friends.”
“I don’t think my being Latino had anything to do with it,” he said.
Davila was living at his parents’ home on Harmony Church Road and making $600 a week driving a forklift for the local Wrigley plant when police came to his home one day, acting on a tip.
A police dog “alerted” on the scent of drugs near the tag of Davila’s 1991 Chevy Caprice, and a search of the gas cap area beneath the license plate yielded the meth. Davila was arrested and spent a week in jail before making $10,000 bond.
A few weeks later, Kristi Creegan dropped by Davila’s house while he was away and asked a cousin if he would ride with her to pick out a Christmas gift for Davila, according to Corso. The cousin agreed, but before they could leave, she asked to use the rest room, according to court testimony.
After the two left, Davila’s father, David Davila, “thought this was way too peculiar a situation,” Corso said.
Then on the last day of February, 2005, officers with the Hall County Multi-Agency Narcotics Squad came calling at the Davila home again. They made a beeline to a chest of drawers in Javy Davila’s bedroom, where they found a bag containing four and a half “rocks” of crack cocaine in a plastic bag under a bottom drawer, Corso said.
Now Davila was facing two felony drug charges, and looking at the very real possibility of hard time behind bars.
“I was scared,” Davila said. “My freedom was in jeopardy. I was afraid I was going to get locked up for something I didn’t do.”
According to court testimony, Davila’s second arrest came after Creegan told a school resource officer she had received a tip from a student that Davila was a drug dealer. That student later denied under oath that he ever told Creegan anything about Javy Davila.
The break in the defense’s case came when Yesenia Creegan allegedly told Davila that her mother admitted to setting him up, according to Corso. Armed with new information, the lawyer went searching for Yesenia’s birth mother, Teresa Padgett. He found her in a rehabilitation center in Atlanta, where she eventually admitted to her role in the scheme. It was the key testimony they needed.
“Most of the time, when someone frames you, they don’t have any accomplices,” Corso said. “They don’t have any eyewitnesses.”
Yet Padgett proved to be the perfect eyewitness for the defense. In her testimony, she told a jury that Creegan gave her cash to buy crack cocaine, drove her to buy it, then dropped by Johnson High School to hide the drugs overnight so that Padgett wouldn’t “smoke it up.”
Padgett testified she met with Davila and Yesenia and kept them preoccupied while Creegan went to his house to plant the drugs.
“When she got finished and she got out of the house, she called me and told me she was finished and she was on her way back to school,” Padgett testified.
In earlier testimony, Creegan claimed that Padgett admitted to planting the drugs.
While questioning her, Corso reminded Creegan that perjury could cost the teacher her job.
“Absolutely,” she replied.
Elation and despair
In the end, Padgett’s testimony was all prosecutors needed to hear.
In front of the jury, Assistant District Attorney Vanessa Sykes dismissed both charges.
Superior Court Judge Kathlene Gosselin, in explaining the prosecutor’s actions to the jury, said, “That is a particularly professional thing on behalf of the state to do. It takes a lot of guts as well.”
Corso called it a “My Cousin Vinny” moment, referring to the courtroom comedy. “You could almost hear a silent cheer from the jury,” he said.
Said Davila, “I wanted to jump up and down.”
Corso says law enforcement officials aren’t to blame for his client’s troubles.
“None of the police officers at any time knew they were being used in this way and being given false information,” Corso said.
“I don’t hold anything against them,” Davila said. “They were just doing the job they’re supposed to do. I don’t have any hard feelings toward anyone.”
The indictment against Creegan charges that she lied when she testified under oath that a student gave her information about Davila being a drug dealer. It also charged that she gave a false statement when she made the same comments to a school resource officer.
Hall County District Attorney Lee Darragh would not comment on the pending case beyond the contents of the indictment.
Officials with the Cumberland County School District in North Carolina where Creegan now works say she passed a routine criminal background check. They had no knowledge of her indictment until it was brought to their attention by a reporter.
Corso says the case demonstrates that “innocent people get arrested all the time and go to trial. Sometimes innocent people are convicted.”
“Who would ever believe a teacher at a local school would try three times to frame an innocent person?” Corso said.
The trial, Davila says, left him with mixed emotions.
“I was happy for the jury to hear the testimony, but my spirit went to the ground to know that she did that. It was a terrible feeling.”