More than two years after the crime, a Durango man pleaded guilty Thursday in District Court to killing his brother-in-law, Ted Garcia, who managed Francisco’s Restaurante y Cantina on Main Avenue.
Joseph Dernoga, 38, will be sentenced to 16 years in prison if District Judge Jeffrey Wilson accepts the plea agreement Dernoga signed with the 6th Judicial District Attorney’s Office.
It will be added to the five-year prison term he currently is serving for an unrelated weapons violation.
Dernoga appeared Thursday in court with a shaved head, wearing shackles and an orange jail-issued jumpsuit. He answered routine questions clearly and affirmatively with no hesitation.
Dernoga shot and killed Garcia with a .270-caliber rifle, according to the plea agreement. He agreed to explain the circumstances of the killing during his sentencing hearing at 1:30 p.m. Oct. 17 in District Court.
The shooting occurred July 23 or 24, 2010, inside Garcia’s home in the 1000 block of County Road 206, just west of downtown Durango.
Garcia, 47, was shot once in the upper torso. A high-powered rifle was found in the kitchen and dining area near his body.
Dernoga, who lived in the basement, called 911 to report the death. Investigators initially were unsure if Garcia committed suicide or was killed by someone else.
A forensic pathologist said the rifle was fired from a distance greater than Garcia could have if he shot himself, ruling out suicide.
Investigators eventually identified Dernoga as a suspect.
Prosecutors presented the case to a La Plata County grand jury, which issued a 10-count indictment, including first-degree murder, tampering with evidence and being a felon in possession of a weapon.
Thursday’s plea hearing was attended by several investigators with the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office and Garcia’s brother and father, Skip and Francis Garcia, respectively.
In an interview after the hearing, Skip Garcia said his family never had any doubt that Dernoga killed Ted Garcia. The guilty plea helps the family turn a corner, he said, but the 16-year prison sentence pales in comparison to ending someone’s life.
“We don’t get any sense of remorse coming from him whatsoever,” Skip Garcia said.
“Hopefully, he will shed some light during sentencing on why he killed him,” Skip Garcia said. “There could be no justifiable reason, but for the sake of our family – I don’t know if that will help bring us any further resolve, but it may be what we need to hear.”
Criminal defendants in Colorado typically serve about 75 percent of their prison terms before becoming eligible for early release.
Skip Garcia thanked prosecutors and the Sheriff’s Office for their handling of the case.
Missing at Thursday’s plea hearing was Suzanne Garcia, Dernoga’s sister and the wife of Ted Garcia. Suzanne Garcia regularly attends her brother’s court hearings.
In a phone interview Thursday, Suzanne Garcia seemed unaware her brother had changed his plea.
“Is this some kind of joke?” she said, crying. “I didn’t even know there was court. I’m very shocked. I’m having a hard time believing this.”
She has proclaimed her brother’s innocence for the last two years. In an email sent Thursday to the Herald, she questioned her brother’s plea.
“I guess they just wore him down and he couldn’t stand watching the rest of us be tortured,” she wrote. “Maybe this was the only way that he could find to make the madness stop.”
Suzanne Garcia is charged with eight counts of perjury on suspicion of lying to the grand jury that investigated Dernoga. She also is charged with tampering with a witness, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, violation of bail conditions and violation of a protection order.
She is set for a five-day trial to begin Sept. 24.