NORTHWEST ARKANSAS (KNWA/KFTA) — A former employee at the Northwest Arkansas Children’s Shelter in Bentonville was arrested after allegedly raping a minor resident girl.

Hunter De La Garza, 23, was arrested for rape, a Class Y felony, on February 26 after an investigation by the Rogers Police Department.

On April 9, 2021, the Rogers Police Department was notified that a State Police investigator had received a child abuse hotline call regarding a minor girl. According to a probable cause filing, the suspect was De La Garza, an employee at the Northwest Arkansas Children’s Shelter.

The allegation was that he raped a minor girl in the bathroom at the Promenade Mall in Rogers during a one-on-one outing on February 2, 2021. The victim was interviewed at the Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC) on March 8, 2021, and did not disclose anything about the incident.

She was interviewed at CAC again on April 9, 2021, with the State Police officer observing, and provided details, stating that “I didn’t tell this last time but someone raped me.” She confirmed that it was De La Garza and offered explicit details of what he did to her, describing an encounter in a mall bathroom.

She explained that she thought “people would not believe her,” and that was why she was reluctant to discuss it. She added that she did not want to talk about it because it “triggers” her.

An NWA Children’s Shelter supervisor stated that De La Garza had worked there for a little over a year. She said that there were “several issues” with him and he was eventually fired. The “issues” included his making racial remarks and entering a bathroom with a minor girl.

In a May 27, 2021 interview with police, De La Garza told officers that “there were cameras everywhere so there was no way he could have done something without being caught” at the shelter.

The suspect added that the mall bathrooms were not in a particular store, but in another hallway on the other side of the mall. At that point, the investigator had not yet told De La Garza what the allegations against him were or where they had occurred.

When the police told him that the allegation was that he used a mall bathroom to sexually assault the minor girl, De La Garza stated that he didn’t remember going to the bathroom and that “he had a bad memory.” When asked follow-up questions about the outing, he was able to remember “most of the details of the trip,” except for the bathroom.

Later in the interview, he said that the victim called his name, and that was the reason he entered the bathroom. He told officers he was in the bathroom “for about a minute.” He added that he gave the girl “piggyback rides” to and from a mall store, even though that was against the shelter’s policy.

De La Garza volunteered to take a “polygraph test,” so two officers administered a computer voice stress analysis with his consent. He was asked two questions and when officers informed him that he “did not respond truthfully,” De La Garza replied that the test “did not go the way he wanted.”

Rogers police submitted an affidavit of probable cause on February 15, 2022. De La Garza was arrested and taken into custody at the Benton County Jail with a bond of $250,000.

Benton County Prosecuting Attorney Nathan Smith said anytime a case involves a minor they will be prosecuted vigorously.

“What we do in cases involving violence and abuse against children reveals what we value and it says a lot about our collective reality as a community,” Smith said.

De La Garza will be arraigned on April 27.

UPDATE: When asked by KNWA for a comment on this story, the NWA Children’s Shelter responded with the following:

“For 30 years, the NWA Children’s Shelter has worked tirelessly to provide a safe haven for children in crisis. We’re disturbed by these allegations and continue to focus on the safety of the children in our care. When we first learned of this incident more than a year ago, we immediately contacted authorities and ended Mr. De La Garza’s employment.  We remain committed to assisting authorities and refer all further questions to them.”