916.695.6882; jazmineulloa@gmail.com

Narcos, drugs and the toll of a war

Major narco leaders not among FBI’s Top Ten Most Wanted?

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán – the man labeled the world’s most powerful drug trafficker — is not among the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives.

Neither is his rival, Heriberto Lazcano, though he is said to run one of the most vicious illicit networks to move tons of cocaine and marijuana into the United States. Nor is Miguel Ángel Treviño, believed to be Lazcano’s second in command.
Full story.

Residents near 12th, Chicon say momentum turning

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
At the corner of 12th and Chicon streets, where gentrification is transforming the demographics of a historic neighborhood, new and longtime residents have found common ground: a demand for public safety.

For more than 40 years, authorities say, empty businesses and blighted houses have sustained a bustling sale of pot and crack cocaine along the streets and alleys of an intersection marked by a stubborn notoriety. The trade runs night and day, and efforts to stymie the ensuing stream of prostitution, theft and occasional violence have fallen by the wayside through the decades, leaving what some say is a stinging residue of bitter relations with police.
Full story.

Does shipping drug cartel heads north work?

By Jazmine Ulloa
San Antonio Express-News
 
MEXICO CITY — There were 15 of them, some in tan jumpsuits, all in
shackles. It took three flights and throngs of law enforcement officers to transfer them.

Major players in the Mexican underworld, they landed on U.S. soil Jan. 20, 2007, to face charges from Texas to New York, from Colorado to California. Among them was Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, one of the most ruthless and feared drug lords in the Western Hemisphere.
Full story.

Legal notes from inside and outside the courtroom.

Ex-football player Erxleben arrested again on fraud charges

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
Eight years after his release from prison on fraud charges, former football player Russell Erxleben was arrested Thursday at his Dripping Springs home. He is accused of defrauding investors through a Ponzi scheme that paid out more than $2 million in nearly four years.

In an indictment handed up Tuesday and unsealed Thursday, Erxleben was charged with five counts of wire fraud, two counts of money laundering and one count of securities fraud. He appeared, in black gym shorts and a T-shirt, before a federal judge hours after his arrest and asked for a court-appointed lawyer.
Full story.

Jovita’s owner Pardo, accused of heroin trafficking, dies of cancer

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
The prominent restaurateur at the center of a federal drug and money laundering investigation died Wednesday — nine days after he was released on bond because he was diagnosed with a terminal illness.

Amado “Mayo” Pardo, 64, was one of 15 people netted in a raid last summer at Jovita’s Restaurant and Bar on South First Street. All were charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute heroin, punishable by a minimum of 10 years and a maximum of life in prison.
Full story.

Trial begins for outspoken detainee

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald
 
Rama Carty stands trial for the alleged assaults against two officers at the Port Isabel Detention Center in Bayview.

A federal jury will determine this week whether a man born in the Democratic Republic of Congo is guilty of assaulting two officers at Port Isabel Detention Center in Bayview.
Full story.

Camacho takes witness stand

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald
 
In court Thursday, Angela Camacho testified she did not remember much of what took place the night of March 11, 2003, the date her three children were beheaded.
Camacho, 30, pleaded guilty to three counts of capital murder in July 2005 in the deaths of the children. Her common-law husband, John Allen Rubio, 29, is on trial this week to determine whether he is presently competent to stand trial on capital murder charges for the killings.
Full story.

Municipal judge released from psychiatric facility

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald
 
A Brownsville municipal judge was ordered released Monday afternoon from a mandatory stay at a psychiatric facility, where he had been held since his arrest earlier in January.

In a two-day hearing, Municipal Judge Phil Bellamy was found to be mentally unstable, but a Cameron County judge said there was not enough evidence to suggest he would be a danger to himself or others if he were released.
Full story.

Daily and enterprise stories from the night crime beat.

Online collective aims to ‘print’ plastic guns

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
Cody Wilson’s idea was not to sell guns but to print them — lots of them — with the mission of developing an open-source design that could be widely shared and distributed online.

But the second-year law student at the University of Texas has found himself at the center of a legal controversy after the 3-D printing company that allowed him to borrow a printer sent a team of contractors late last week to reclaim its property a day after it was delivered to his central Austin apartment near Hyde Park.
Full story.

Family, co-workers mourn man killed while changing tire

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
Ana Margarita Loredo had been joking with her father last week alongside the curb of their East Austin home, when she said she saw a silver Mercury Tracer violently swerve in their direction. She does not know how she managed to escape its path, she said, but she regrets not moving quickly enough to save her father.

“I keep thinking maybe there was something I could have done, but I never thought the car would hit my car,” she said in Spanish on Monday.
Full story.

Residents near 12th, Chicon say momentum turning

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
At the corner of 12th and Chicon streets, where gentrification is transforming the demographics of a historic neighborhood, new and longtime residents have found common ground: a demand for public safety.

For more than 40 years, authorities say, empty businesses and blighted houses have sustained a bustling sale of pot and crack cocaine along the streets and alleys of an intersection marked by a stubborn notoriety. The trade runs night and day, and efforts to stymie the ensuing stream of prostitution, theft and occasional violence have fallen by the wayside through the decades, leaving what some say is a stinging residue of bitter relations with police.
Full story.

Lack of funding leads to backlog of untested rape kits

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
To investigators in San Marcos, he was an unidentified strain of DNA, a sequence of numbers and letters swabbed off the skin of his victim in February 2011 and entered into a national FBI database under unsolved case 11-09621.

But not until last month did Buda and Austin police learn his name, officials said, by tracking him down in a separate sexual assault case that led to his arrest.
Full story.

Austin drug seizures are up, but what does it mean?

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
On display last month on long, white tables next to guns and stacks of cash were more than a dozen bricks of cocaine and six small bundles of heroin. Four blocks of marijuana the size of throw pillows sat nearby.

The narcotics seizures made by the Austin Police Department in three separate cases over an estimated three weeks were among the largest in its history.
Full story.

Austin police’s missing-person unit has high rate of success

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
A call came in this month from a mother who said her 18 -year-old son was gone. He took the car and had not attended school, made it to work or even picked up his paycheck in the two weeks since he was last seen. She did not know his friends or have any of their names, phone numbers or addresses. She could not think of a reason why he would have just dropped everything and left.

On a muggy December morning, Detectives David Gann and Timothy Hoppock , with the missing persons unit of the Austin Police Department , stood outside the woman’s East Austin apartment, running through all the possible leads.
Full story.

Remains of Kyle woman missing for seven years identified

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
KYLE — On Wednesday morning, Maria Piñeda received a painful answer to the question she said she had been asking herself for the past seven years, “Where is my daughter?”

Authorities with the Hays County sheriff’s office and the Justice of the Peace came to tell her that remains recovered from the Blanco River in March were identified as her 24-year-old daughter, Laurie Piñeda, who was swept away at a flooded low-water crossing northeast of San Marcos on Nov. 14, 2004.
Full story.

Body found may be missing elderly woman, police say

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
In the days after Mary Townsley was reported missing, her longtime friend and neighbor, David Robert Bravo, said he kept listening for a knock on the wall.

Townsley, 81, is a frail, quiet woman whose hands and feet are disfigured and often ache, he said. Whenever she fell, she could not get back up and would tap at the thin plaster dividing their apartments to call him.
Full story.

Woman’s kin hope for answers in slaying

By Jazmine Ulloa
San Antonio Express-News
 
A photo of Maria Teresa Leon kept next to the urn holding her ashes shows a woman with solemn eyes and long, dark hair. In the days before she went missing, her parents recalled, their daughter had seemed
quieter than usual.

Leon, 38, worked at a local shoe factory. She was reserved and prone to worry, and she rarely smiled, said her father, Abel Leon. A single mother to an 8-year-old boy and sole provider for her parents, there were bills to pay, chores to do and homework to help with.
Full story.

Courthouse partiers just want to go home

By Jazmine Ulloa
San Antonio Express-News
 
The trip was to last three months, the adventure of a lifetime.

The idea was to tour the United States from the East to West coasts and back in a rented recreational vehicle, breakdancing on the streets to scrounge up extra cash as needed.

The five young men, all French citizens, saved money for six months, charting routes, booking hotels, buying tickets. But the cross-country trek ended abruptly after two of them broke into the Bexar County Courthouse early Wednesday.
Full story.

Woman’s kin hope for answers in slaying

By Jazmine Ulloa
San Antonio Express-News
 
A photo of Maria Teresa Leon kept next to the urn holding her ashes shows a woman with solemn eyes and long, dark hair. In the days before she went missing, her parents recalled, their daughter had seemed
quieter than usual.

Leon, 38, worked at a local shoe factory. She was reserved and prone to worry, and she rarely smiled, said her father, Abel Leon. A single mother to an 8-year-old boy and sole provider for her parents, there were bills to pay, chores to do and homework to help with.

She wore a dress the last time he bid his daughter farewell, at their Southwest Side apartment. She looked nervous.

“It was almost as if she knew, could feel what was going to happen,” he said, holding back tears. He received the news of her death four days later.

Police found Leon’s body Aug. 24 in the trunk of her maroon 1995 Ford Thunderbird, which had been abandoned near 26th and Ruiz streets. Her death was ruled a homicide.

Investigators said they were called to the West Side neighborhood after residents reported a foul odor coming from the vehicle. Residents complained that they had started calling police about the car days earlier.

Police have not identified a suspect in the case but friends and relatives said they want to know more about the man Leon was last seen with, her ex-boyfriend, Rafael Hernandez.

The night Leon’s body was found, police issued an appeal for the public’s help in locating Hernandez, 38, in connection with a 2010 domestic violence incident involving Leon.

He is still at large, wanted on two arrest warrants for assault with family violence in that incident, but police say they are treating it as a separate case and have not named him as a person of interest in Leon’s killing.

Authorities have not released much other information, citing the pending investigation. Attempts to reach Hernandez’s family were unsuccessful.

Leon’s friends and relatives recalled Hernandez as a man of two extreme natures — affable, respectable on one side; darker, violent and exceedingly jealous on the other. They said he was someone they had warned her not to trust.

“She had a care for him that was incomprehensible. She had a fear of him that was incomprehensible,” her father said. “She never wished him any harm.”

A search of public records shows that Hernandez had been sentenced to a year in jail for a 2007 charge of assault with bodily injury-family/household and was on probation for a 2008 charge of burglary of a habitation with intent to commit assault. Neither incident appears to involve Leon.

Sandra Almanza, 40, and Illeana Parral, 40, Leon’s co-workers at a cabinet-making company, said Leon would often tell them Hernandez abused her. They had rushed to comfort her when she once came to work with bruises across her face and neck. Still, she continued to return to him over the course of a tumultuous, off-and-on relationship that started in 2007, they said.

They could not tell if it was dread or affection that kept her going back.

“I would always tell her, ‘What ties you to him? You are not married. He does not help you with your son. He does not support you,’” Almanza said. “We just never understood what tied her to him.”

Almanza said she became one of Leon’s closest friends in the 10 years they knew each other. She said she and Leon had been at Sombras Night Club on the West Side the Saturday night before she disappeared and that Hernandez had unexpectedly shown up shortly before closing time and tagged along as they left.

Almanza told officers that Leon had seemed scared and did not want to leave with Hernandez but said she would to “avoid trouble,” according to a police report. She tried to persuade Leon to flag down two police officers on their way out, but the victim declined, the report states.

Weeks later, Almanza wept with remorse as she remembered the calls to Leon that went unanswered the next day. She said she wouldn’t have let Leon go home alone had her friend not insisted she would be fine.
“I miss my ‘flaca’ (skinny girl),” she said of Leon, through tears. “That’s what I used to call her. She was beautiful and a hard worker. To me, she is not dead.”

As published Oct. 24, 2011

Photo by Billy Calzada

 

U-visa might take a U-turn

By Jazmine Ulloa
San Antonio Express-News
 
A police report that Patricia Martinez keeps folded in a large Ziploc bag tells some of the story she wants to forget.

A man, it states, walked into the small travel agency in Los Angeles where she worked, chatted her up, then grabbed her arm and thrust her against a wall, fondling her breasts and trying to disrobe her.

More than eight years later, in the living room of her San Antonio home, Martinez, now 27, could still recall his face, disheveled hair and ragged clothing. He was larger than her and stronger, she said. The struggle seemed to last hours. Then he fled and she sank to the floor and wept, more from her feelings of impotence than anything else.

Martinez, a petite woman with short, brown hair from Monterrey, Mexico, was living in the United States illegally when the assault occurred on Dec. 28, 2002. To call police seemed “well, illogical,” she said.

But she did. It led to something she hadn’t expected — a U-visa, temporary legal status for crime victims who cooperate in criminal investigations, especially cases of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking. Some recipients can apply for permanent residency after three years.

Holding up the police report, Martinez said, “This has changed my life.”

Most of the 5,825 U-visas granted in 2009 and 10,073 in 2010 have stemmed from domestic violence cases, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Congress approved the U-visa through the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, almost unanimously in 2000 to encourage immigrants to report crime without fear of deportation, forge trust between them and local authorities and thus strengthen crime fighting in their communities.

But a push among Texas lawmakers to prohibit “sanctuary cities” and other measures that would link local police work to immigration enforcement could derail those efforts, critics say, creating ambiguity for officers and crime victims who don’t want to be questioned about their citizenship.

HB 12, expected to hit the House floor early next month for debate, would not require officers to check the immigration status of individuals they detain but it would prevent local governments from denying them the ability to do so, at the risk of losing state funds. Proponents say the bill aims to stop local jurisdictions from protecting illegal immigrants but wouldn’t threaten efforts to help crime victims.

“Contrary to arguments made by some, there is no conflict between U-visas and banning sanctuary city policies,” said U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. “Illegal immigrant victims of crime will not be prevented from obtaining U-visas if sanctuary city policies are banned.”

Some Texas police chiefs and sheriffs, including San Antonio Police Chief William McManus, have lobbied against HB 12, meeting at the state Capitol in February to denounce a slew of what they termed “Arizona-style” bills they said would undermine cooperation between officers and otherwise law-abiding people who are here illegally.

El Paso County Sheriff Richard Wiles said local police have a more urgent need to build partnerships with the public than federal law enforcement.

“We need the whole community to trust and respect us and to call us and help us to prevent crime, and we don’t want to tear that down,” Wiles said in a recent interview while at a border sheriffs’ meeting in San Antonio. He called HB 12 “just a political smokescreen because we already have plenty of room under the existing laws to do what we have to do.”

Programs such as Secure Communities, which compares fingerprints of those arrested to Department of Homeland Security and FBI databases, have the benefit of keeping local officers from having to enforce immigration laws, a job they’re not trained to do and that would be especially difficult in family violence cases, Bexar County Sheriff Amadeo Ortiz said.

“Who do you ask (about their status)?” Ortiz said. “Do you ask everyone you come into contact with? Who knows? They could be from Russia or Canada, and those people are usually not targeted.”

Officers want to solve cases and keep the streets safe regardless “of who you are or where you’re from,” added his deputy chief for patrols, Dale Bennett. “There is an inherent propensity to shy away from law enforcement that makes solving cases difficult in our current population,” he said. “Adding the potential threat of arrest and deportation (to those who report crimes) increases that risk of never solving cases that much greater.”

Because of those concerns, state Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, filed a bill that would keep authorities from asking victims and witnesses their immigration status, but observers say it is not likely to make it out of committee.

And if those people fail to come forward, investigators stand to lose valuable witnesses, said Lee J. Terán, a St. Mary’s University law professor. One of her clients was shot and severely beaten by drug traffickers who left him for dead, but survived and helped authorities capture his assailants, Teran said.
“In this case, as well as in others (with different witnesses), the police really needed him to prosecute the perpetrators,” she said.

Today, Martinez is studying for a graduate school entrance exam and will seek a part-time job when her two children are a little older. Because her U-visa’s benefits extend to her former boyfriend, now her husband, he is working at a local restaurant to support the family.

She remembers how stunned she was to see Los Angeles police rush to respond to her report of the assault. They even searched the streets for her attacker with dogs and a helicopter but were unable to find him. Months later, Martinez nervously picked him out of a photo lineup. She hadn’t even wanted to go to the station, she recalled.

“I was afraid he would come back one day to finish what he started,” she said

As published April 17, 2011

 

U-visa applicants mired in bureaucracy

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald
 
He erupted in rage one night, slamming her against the wall while she wrapped her arms around her stomach in an effort to protect her womb. He stormed through their home, yelling, cursing, “breaking everything in sight,” she recalls.

When he left, shattered glass and tears were riddled across the floor. She called the police, then made the decision — perhaps the toughest she has ever made — to press charges against her husband. An immigrant woman from the small Mexican town of Silacayoapan, she had no legal documents, no steady income, no family members nearby.

“I felt I had nowhere to go, that he was my only salvation, that without him, I could not do anything,” she says, taking a deep breath. But she had been six months pregnant, and her son, then 16 years old, had witnessed the abuse.

Though she did not know it then, the police report she filed that night in 2006 would become her way out. By coming forward to the authorities, the immigrant woman, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation from her husband, became eligible for a U Visa, a temporary legal status for victims of violent crime in the United States who cooperate in criminal investigations.

The visa was created through the Victims of Violence and Trafficking Act in 2000 to encourage a vulnerable immigrant population to report crime without fear of deportation. But it took seven years for the Department of Homeland Security to issue the regulations that would govern the application process, a delay that has mired legal services agencies aiding visa petitioners in a bureaucratic tangle.

From 2000 until October 2007, while the rules were under negotiation, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services did not grant the visa, but “interim relief,” which had to be renewed every year and authorized work and travel but not legal status.

Next week, the interim relief period ends — meaning that by then, all who have qualified for the temporary status should have filed their paperwork again under the new application process.

That has tied back legal service agencies in the last two years. Before the formal rules were established, agencies had created their own forms, working out the process as they went along, said Celestino Gallegos, an immigration attorney at Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid in Edinburg.

“It was a piecemeal, time-consuming process,” he said, and in a way “revictimized” immigrants by its sluggishness and unpredictability. Now the new regulations require additional documentation or records that some petitioners no longer have, putting victims through another long process, Gallegos said.

“Congress intended for victims to have immigration relief. I do not think Congress intended for them to be bogged down in red tape,” he said. “It should have been, from the very get-go, a simple process.”

Some immigration advocates said bureaucratic reshuffling after Sept. 11 caused the delay in regulations, others said the change in administration has now accelerated the process. But establishing criteria and training for immigration officials was a complex procedure, which took time, said Chris Rhatigan, spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The national immigration agency is making progress, she said. It can grant visas for up to 10,000 petitioners plus family members each fiscal year, according to the limit set by Congress. While a little more than 50 were approved in 2008, about 6,000 were approved the following year, Rhatigan said. This year, the agency has begun to process more than 11,000 requests.

“We really have done a tremendous effort to reach out to those people who have not responded to our request for supplemental information (for the visa application),” she said.

Proyecto Libertad, an immigration legal services agency in Harlingen, has helped about 80 petitioners qualify for the visa and, like other area service agencies, has dozens of more applications pending. Despite the backlog, Juan Rios, an assistant coordinator at Proyecto, urged people not to become discouraged.

“We are helping people, not at the rhythm we want, not at the level the community is demanding,” he said. “But we want people to still come in and ask questions and to know what rights they have.”

Immigrants also should not be afraid to report crime to the authorities, said Cameron County Sheriff Omar Lucio. Law enforcement officials have viewed the U Visa program with skepticism in the past, believing it encouraged some to exaggerate crimes or create scams. But on the positive side, the program is a way for authorities to build trust among immigrant communities, Lucio said.

“People can come here and report a crime and they will not be questioned about their citizenship,” he said.

Like the woman from Silacayoapan, at least three-fourths of applicants from across the country and more than half in the Rio Grande Valley have been victims of domestic violence, according to immigration services agencies.

For many women, the choice to call the police comes with great pain, Maria Salas Aquino said. She endured an abusive relationship for more than a decade before she finally reported her husband to the authorities.

Her husband’s blows were first psychological, she says. He took away her pride, her beauty and her self-worth. The physical abuse followed.

She thought he would change — that she could change him. And she had withstood it all, she recalls, even his addiction to cocaine. But seeing him wring her teenage child’s shirt and lift him off the ground one day in June tore her apart.

She dialed 9-1-1 and arrived at local women’s shelter soon after. There, she learned she could apply for a U Visa even though she and her husband were in the country illegally.

The process was long, but it opened doors, Aquino said. The day she got her first job at a local tortilleria, she cried out of joy.

“At the shelter, we would have night discussions. We would think, ‘poor him,’ ‘poor him.’ That is when we learned to think, ‘poor me,’ why should I tolerate this?” she said. “I am very happy now, my children are safe. I am grateful.”

As published Jan. 24, 2010

 

Municipal judge released from psychiatric facility

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald

A Brownsville municipal judge was ordered released Monday afternoon from a mandatory stay at a psychiatric facility, where he had been held since his arrest earlier in January.

In a two-day hearing, Municipal Judge Phil Bellamy was found to be mentally unstable, but a Cameron County judge said there was not enough evidence to suggest he would be a danger to himself or others if he were released.

“Mr. Bellamy, I am concerned about you…Whether you agree or not, it does not matter, but I do think you need some serious help on this. I hope that you, for the sake of your family and yourself, get these things straightened out,” Cameron County Court-at-Law No. 3 Judge Menton Murray Jr. said at Monday’s continuation hearing.

Bellamy, 46, had been at Valley Baptist Medical Center East Campus since Jan. 11, when Brownsville police officers arrested him after a customer service dispute at Sam’s Club, according to court testimony. Police said he was taken into custody on charges of disorderly conduct and terroristic threats for arguing with two Sam’s employees and a manager and yelling expletives before leaving the store.

At the hearing, psychiatrists testified that Bellamy had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and described his refusal to take medications, “flight of ideas” and manic episodes of “grandiosity,” in which Bellamy likened himself to fictional characters Spock and Spongebob.

Daniel Villarreal, the lead psychiatrist at the medical center, testified that Bellamy had tried to escape from the facility last week and had made several threats to sue hospital staff. Francisco Torres, another psychiatrist at the medical center, said Bellamy had been aggressive and irritable, describing one instance in which Bellamy tried to prevent staff from treating another patient.

But in an impassioned response, Bellamy defended his behavior, claiming the medical facility maltreated patients and forced them to take psychoactive drugs they had a right not to accept.

“I was acting like a caged animal, which is exactly what I was, held against my will, brought in unconstitutionally and illegally,” Bellamy said, when asked about the day he was first transported to the medical center.

And although Bellamy had expressed outrage, not once had he tried to cause another person bodily injury, said Noe Garza, Bellamy’s attorney. Threats against hospital staff, for example, had been legal not physical, Garza said.

Bellamy said in court he would set up appointments with two of his own doctors upon his release. It is still unclear whether he will return to his position as a municipal judge. But City Manager Charlie Cabler said part-time judges are handling his cases to allow the city to make a decision.

“We are going to have to evaluate the situation,” Cabler said. “We are giving him time to handle his personal situation right now and any concerns he may have. We need to make sure he can handle the operation of a municipal court.”

As published Jan. 25, 2010

Photo by Brad Doherty