Case against SRJC student support manager Hilleary Zarate proceeds in court


Chelsea Kurnick

Hilleary Zarate listens to her lawyer, Amy Chapman, argue in her defense against Jan. 10, 2022 felony drug charges during a preliminary hearing in Sonoma County Superior Court on March 8, 2023. An enhancement charge was dropped, but primary charge proceedings will continue on Friday, March 17.

The drug possession case against Santa Rosa Junior College Student Support Manager Hilleary Zarate will go to trial, a Sonoma County Superior Court judge decided at her March 8 preliminary hearing, which offered the first opportunity to hear the state’s case against Zarate and her defense.

Santa Rosa Police arrested Zarate Jan. 10, 2022 on one felony count of possession of methamphetamine for sale and an enhancement charge for the quantity. After her arrest, Zarate was placed on administrative leave from her job as SRJC student support manager and has continued to earn her $123,378 salary, though she is not allowed to work. 

At the hearing, Zarate’s attorney, Amy Chapman, argued before Hon. Judge Robert LaForge that Zarate did not know that her boyfriend at the time, Rey David Garcia, kept drugs at her home nor about his business activity. Judge Laforge determined there is sufficient evidence to proceed with the felony count but dropped the enhancement charge against Zarate.

Garcia also appeared in court with his attorney. He faces additional felony charges related to narcotics trafficking and possession of metal knuckles, an illegal weapon in California.

Deputy District Attorney Thomas Gotshall called two witnesses, both narcotics detectives from Santa Rosa Police Department (SRPD), who observed Zarate during their investigation of Garcia from late December 2021 until her arrest in January 2022.

Detectives testified Zarate told officers she and Garcia began dating during the COVID-19 pandemic, and he used her home to do laundry. Detectives said during a roughly three-week period, officers surveilling Garcia observed several times in which Garcia traveled to Zarate’s home, entered for a few minutes, then drove to a house in southwest Santa Rosa known to SRPD narcotics detectives as a place where drugs are sold and used.

This pattern led detectives to suspect Garcia was storing drugs at Zarate’s home. In court, detectives alleged Garcia used Zarate’s residence as a “stash house” for methamphetamine he was selling. During cross-examination, Chapman asserted Garcia had access to Zarate’s home and noted officers sometimes observed Garcia entering when Zarate was not there.

SRPD detectives served search warrants at Zarate and Garcia’s homes simultaneously on Jan. 10, 2022. In Zarate’s bedroom, detectives testified they found eight 1-ounce bags of methamphetamine hidden inside a pair of fuzzy women’s socks in a dresser. In her closet, detectives said they found 1 gram of cocaine and materials believed to be used for selling drugs, but no evidence of drug use.

At Garcia’s home, detectives allegedly found 3.4 pounds of methamphetamine (about seven times the quantity found at Zarate’s house), brass knuckles and further evidence of a narcotics trafficking operation.

“Methamphetamine is one of the most commonly used drugs in Sonoma County,” said SRPD narcotics Detective Ryan Hughes, whom the plaintiff established as an expert witness.

Initially, prosecutors charged both Zarate and Garcia with an enhancement for the total amount of methamphetamine found at both houses. Chapman argued that Zarate’s enhancement charge for possessing a quantity of methamphetamine over one kilogram was inappropriate, because only 7.85 ounces were found at her home.

Zarate is not in custody, having posted bail on Jan. 12, 2022. After her arrest, Zarate was placed on administrative leave from her job as SRJC student support manager but continues to earn her $123,378 salary. If she is acquitted, she could potentially return to her position. If convicted, Zarate faces a prison term of up to three years and a $10,000 fine.

Zarate’s arraignment on formal charges will be at 8:30 a.m. March 17 in Sonoma County Superior Court.