916.695.6882; jazmineulloa@gmail.com

An intro to the cops beat

The first time I rode in a police car I was 15, maybe 16. And I was in the backseat. I wasn’t in handcuffs, but I was in trouble.

I’d broken curfew by crossing back into my hometown of El Paso from Ciudad Juarez in the early morning hours without parental supervision. It was a measure El Paso had to keep young kids from partying in the Mexican city before it became one of the deadliest places in the world. And it was a rule we were constantly looking for ways to get around—sometimes, like in this case, unsuccessfully.

But let’s skip the details. Needless to say, the drive of shame isn’t a proud memory. My mother’s glare burned through the steel of the car. She hit my head with a good, ol’ coscorrón, fueling all stereotypes of a Mexican mother’s wrath, as soon as she bid the officer goodbye and slammed the door. My relationship with my mom is awesome, but with law enforcement it had been one of fear and some disdain ever since.

That’s changed since I came to San Antonio three months ago and took the job as, ironically, the night crime reporter. Now I listen to scanners. They chat away in my dreams sometimes, dictating dispatcher code of emergencies in faraway lands. I’ll admit it. I wasn’t fond of it. Not at first. So much to get used to, the winding and intertwining highways, the briefs, the tweets, the constant updates on so many deaths—then checking the fax machine the next day for the police reports (which I still forget to do sometimes).

My perception has quickly changed, though. I like the rush of getting to the scene, the chase after information, the beauty in the details of some cases. I’m learning to be strong, even in the most heart-wrenching of crimes, and yet to remain sensitive when it seems like the same shootings and stabbings and assaults keep happening time and time again. There are people hurting for loved ones behind so many of the stories we write.

I’m also getting to know the police officers, realizing they’re not always craving donuts or out to get me. Just this week, I even got to ride in another cop car — this time on a voluntary ride-along. Things looked different from the passenger’s seat, and Jason Macias, an overnight officer from the police department’s Central Substation, took me around his typical patrol areas, giving me a tour of the inside world I’m always trying to peek into from the other side of the yellow caution tape.

He told me about his job, how he loved the freedom of it and having his office in his car. He wanted to help people but was often frustrated seeing the same criminals he helped put away, soon back on the streets. Then near 3 a.m., just as I was dozing off and we were going to stop to eat, the scanners started calling out a shooting on East Market Street and Alamo, smack in the middle of downtown. We arrived to find two men bloodied and lying curled up on the sidewalk. One struggled to get up. The other victim had this look on his face. It’s cliché to say, but I’ll never forget how he was there … and then just gone. It reminded me life is precious. That it’s short.

As published May 7, 2011 in the Rap Sheet Blog of the San Antonio Express-News

Photo by Jazmine Ulloa

 

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.

A collection of my best clips.

Hezbollah, Mexican organized crime connection debated

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
Ex-associates in Corpus Christi called Manssor Arbabsiar a joke, a floundering businessman who smoked too much, drank too much and often solicited prostitutes. Neighbors in Round Rock knew him as a rude and unfriendly recluse.

But on Oct. 17 in a New York courtroom, the former car salesman and restaurateur pleaded guilty to participating in a scheme to kill the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States. The plot: Arbabsiar — working for Iran’s Quds Force — hired a hit man he thought was a member of the Zetas Mexican drug cartel. The assassin was actually a paid informant of the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Full story.

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.

Eatery’s code battle highlights Old Austin’s struggle

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
To code and fire officials, the violations are cut and dry: Casa de Luz, a popular eatery and South Austin institution, has a dining area that isn’t up to restaurant requirements, they say, and has been operating illegally for years, posing potential dangers to customers in emergency situations.

But the dispute, which came to a head late last month, has captured the attention of a throng of Casa de Luz patrons and supporters who say the city’s push to enforce a one-size-fits-all code amid rapid urbanization is hurting the places that keep Austin’s character alive.
Full story.

She still wears black

By Jazmine Ulloa
San Antonio Magazine
 
Sgt. Yvonne Vann wants to testify. She wants to tell the jury what was taken, what she lost in the early hours of May 28, 2011, when authorities allege 42-year-old Mark Anthony Gonzales, intoxicated and on antidepressants, opened ambush-style fire on Bexar County Sheriff Deputy Sgt. Kenneth Vann, her colleague and husband.

A veteran and sheriff deputy for almost 24 years, Kenneth, 48, had been waiting in a marked patrol car at a red light in east San Antonio when he was attacked. He died at the scene, and the slaying ignited a massive investigation that involved local and federal agencies and garnered national headlines.
Full story.

Private security for Mexican citizens a growing business

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
Some private security companies in Austin and across Texas have begun tapping into a burgeoning demand: personal protection services for wealthy Mexican citizens visiting the United States.

The increase over the past two years correlates with a wave of Mexican citizens, typically well-off business owners and entrepreneurs, looking to relocate to Texas in the wake of the bloodshed seething south of the U.S.-Mexico border, and some security businesses have noted the rising need statewide, agents said.
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.

Convict couldn’t handle freedom

By Jazmine Ulloa
San Antonio Express-News
 
Most inmates want out of the pen. Randall Lee Church burned a house down to get back inside.

Released in April after years of incarceration, he could not adjust. “Everything had gone fast forward without me,” he said in a recent interview at Bexar County Jail.
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.

Human interest and news articles with a softer touch.

Apartment walkway collapse could lead to tougher code enforcement

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
Five months after a walkway collapsed at the Wood Ridge Apartments, little progress has been made on repairs at the Southeast Austin property, and community leaders say the city is allowing slumlords to go unchecked in low-income neighborhoods.

With another apartment building in the same area evacuated last month, city officials say they want to toughen code enforcement efforts at aging, multifamily complexes by actively inspecting properties and working with owners to improve safety conditions. But skeptics say the efforts don’t have real teeth.
Full story.

Hope slowly returning for Bastrop fire victims

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
BASTROP COUNTY — There are things the wildfire did not take from Jerry Tuttle last September, a ring his girlfriend gave him four years ago among them.

He wears it on his left hand and spreads his fingers to show it off, a darkened Black Hills gold band engraved with clusters of grapes and what he thinks are maple leaves.
Full story.

The Kings and Queens of Brownsville

When it comes to chess, students in Texas’ southernmost border town make all the right moves
 
By Jazmine Ulloa
Texas Co-op Power Magazine
 
With foldable chessboards in small, oblong bags slung over their shoulders, armies of excited children squeeze through the halls of Filemon B. Vela Middle School on a winter Saturday morning. Everywhere, coaches, teachers and volunteers shuffle groups back and forth from one corridor to the next to gaming areas set up throughout the small campus in Brownsville. Alongside follow mothers and fathers, cousins and grandparents, aunts, uncles and anyone else the competitors’ families have invited to the annual Chess of Champions, one of 10 major chess tournaments held for students in kindergarten through high school in this border city.
Full story.

The Iron Canvas

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Texas Observer
 
On a windy, late-February Sunday in Brownsville, gallery owner Mark Clark and a dozen artists left the gallery carrying paintings and other pieces. They crossed the street, passed a lone Border Patrol van on the river levee, and arrived in Hope Park, a green space on the Rio Grande that celebrates ties between Mexico and the United States. In defiance of the Border Patrol, they began hanging artwork on the rusty, unfinished wall snaking its way partly through the park, the art’s colors popping against the gritty iron bars and overcast sky. It was a way to “beautify the ugly,” Clark says. “It lets people know that the wall has not gone away as a political issue and that we are extremely disappointed in the Obama administration and their decision to continue this idiocy.”
Full story.

Proposal calls for upscale businesses

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald
 
Ropa usada stores are ubiquitous in downtown Brownsville. They are the hole-in-the-wall places where shoppers rummage through bundles of second-hand clothes to the murmur of portable fans, items are often sold by the pound, and bargains can be negotiated.

But these run-down little shops might not mesh well with revitalization plans the city is considering for the area. The city’s planning consortium, United Brownsville, is looking to transform downtown into a tourist draw and a cultural and economic boon for the city. And that signals the need to attract more upscale businesses to the area.
Full story.

Personalities who move and inspire.

Austin data buff gives civilians tools to help fight crime in their communities

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
In his fight against crime, Jack Darby doesn’t sport a cape. The creator of krimelabb.com wields a keyboard.

An information technology analyst with more than 20 years of experience, Darby has worked for six technology consulting startups in Austin, modeling and converting data and forecasting trends. He is a numbers buff.
Full story.

The Working Life: Mina Thornton, 47

As told to Jazmine Ulloa
Texas Monthly
 
People always ask, “Does this color look good on me?” I never ask. There’s not a color I won’t wear. I’ve liked clothes since I was a little girl. I’d always mix and match shades and patterns. But I was the youngest of ten, and my parents could only afford to give us so much. So I grew up to be resourceful, even as I sought out expensive brands. I remember how, after those rare trips to the mall, my sisters would come home with double the number of outfits that I did. I was particular. I preferred having fewer garments of higher value.

I still choose quality over quantity. I don’t have a closet full of shoes. I don’t wear many accessories. I keep it simple, classy. That’s what guides my ropa usada philosophy. Used clothing has long been a thriving industry in Hidalgo and all over the Rio Grande Valley. Like other ropa usada dealers, I buy my secondhand clothing by the pound from all over the country; I then sell the bales internationally, mostly in Mexico. But I also sell some of the clothes at my store. While most vendors traditionally focus on either selling wholesale, by the truckload, or retail, in a storefront, I was one of the first store owners in the city to do both.
Full story.

The Working Life: Jason Macias, 40

As told to Jazmine Ulloa
Texas Monthly
 
A police officer is the first stopgap against crime. We patrol areas with high levels of illegal activity, and we write tickets—lots of them. These are often for minor offenses, but they are the first measure when we can’t, say, catch a drug dealer in the act. Our citations enable investigators to build a case that allows for a raid. I have friends, for instance, who go out to the areas known for being rife with drugs. They keep busting the same people, helping narcotics detectives zero in on who’s selling and who’s buying.

I oversee the shallow West Side of San Antonio, which officers used to call the “wild, wild West” back in the day. The area has calmed down, but it remains one of the rougher parts of the Alamo City. In my square, where Guadalupe Street crosses South Sabinas, there’s a lot of prostitution. There are several closed-off roads where guys go to pick up the prostitutes. Even though I have probable cause to stop all of them for being there, and I know what they’re doing, I can’t always arrest them for prostitution. It’s difficult to prove. So I bust them for other things, such as walking in the street or other traffic violations. I try to keep these women and their johns away from the neighborhoods, but there are a lot of narrow alleys and empty lots, and these people are pretty unashamed. The tickets I issue pile up for the frequent offenders, and detectives—say, on the vice unit—can later break up the larger sex rings.
Full story.

Family remembers victim of fiery crash

By Jazmine Ulloa
San Antonio Express-News
 
When Francisco Perez wed his wife almost 25 years ago, she knew how to cook only one dish, he recalls.

“Arroz con pollo,” he said in Spanish with a faint chuckle. Rice and chicken. “Practically every day for the first two months of our marriage that is what she prepared for me: arroz con pollo. Arroz con pollo. Arroz con pollo.”

But Matilde Perez, 39, killed in a fiery crash on the South Side early last week, had mastered the culinary arts and had been working as a caterer in the months before her death, her husband said. A vivacious woman who loved to dance, laugh and work with her hands, she made some mean chiles rellenos and a mole no one in the family could duplicate.
Full story.

The Working Life: Jody Blackburn, 45

As told to Jazmine Ulloa
Texas Monthly
 
I first learned about folk healing from an elderly woman in my neighborhood named Rita. None of our neighbors in Brownsville liked her much. They called her la bruja. The witch. I was nine then and living with my father and grandparents, just down the block from her home. My grandparents would chide me for visiting her. There were lots of stories, like that she knew black magic and used it on ill-behaved children.

But I had a strange desire to be around her, and as we became friends, I realized that the rumors were just misconceptions. What I remember most about Rita are the plants she used to grow in pots inside her house and around the backyard. She taught me to connect with herbs, to know their scents, feel their textures. I learned how to brew ointments and concoct “kitchen witch” recipes with foods and teas. She taught me that every person, every animal, every plant has its own energy.
Full story.

Gloria Brooks shares a few cooking tips

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald
 
Gloria Brooks is known in Brownsville for her sandwichón, a twist on your typical sandwich that looks like a cake and layers chicken or ham with bread and cream cheese.

She bakes a wide assortment of treats that have earned her the nickname the “Cookie Lady.” And she makes some mean empanadas that back in the day made her popular across the city.

But most requests coming into her kitchen during the winter season are for a traditional treasure — fresh, golden tamales.
Full story.

Meeting the ghosts of the past

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald
 
Thursday afternoon had all the makings of a ghost story. Wind rustled through the trees of Brownsville’s Old City Cemetery. Cloudy skies intensified the colors of the graveyard — flowers resting on the headstones, the green of the grass and the hint of gray in Yolanda Gonzalez’s eyes.

At 79 years old, Gonzalez is a petite woman with an encyclopedic knowledge of the city’s history and folklore and has long been associated with the supernatural. She became locally known as the “Ghost Lady” during the 47 years she worked as a librarian for the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College. And she also has a collection of macabre stories about Fort Brown.
Full story.

Convict couldn’t handle being free

By Jazmine Ulloa
San Antonio Express-News
 
Most inmates want out of the pen. Randall Lee Church burned a house down to get back inside.

Released in April after years of incarceration, he could not adjust. “Everything had gone fast forward without me,” he said in a recent interview at Bexar County Jail.

Church, 46, admits he did it. He already has pleaded guilty to arson and is going back to prison, where he spent 26 years for fatally stabbing a man.

Featured on NPR’s two-way blog

He can fix his blue eyes on a visitor through jail glass and admit to the killing, too. But it was in self-defense, he adds — a drunken dispute over $97 that turned into a scuffle and a misunderstanding, a miserable mistake.

He didn’t persuade a jury. At 18, he was locked up for murder. It was 1983. Ronald Reagan was president. Cordless phones were modern technology. McDonald’s had just introduced the Chicken McNugget.

Inside his small, gray cell within the Texas prison system, Church forgot the world and it forgot him.

Stepping out to freedom, “I didn’t know how to use computers or cell phones or the Internet,” Church said. “The weirdest thing was walking into a store, like Walmart, and have parents hide their children from me, like I was supposed to jump at them.”

Fed up on July 10, 96 days after his release, he poured gasoline through a window of the empty house on the Southeast Side, then threw in flaming rags and paper towels, setting the place on fire.

Days later, he told police he did it because he wanted to go back to his job at his former prison unit.

Most former inmates confront some measure of fear or anxiety upon release, experts say. They tend to have low levels of education, few job skills and high incidences of mental health and substance-abuse issues. Many have no money or family and struggle to find affordable housing and social services.

And while the barriers to re-enter society always have been high, they’re even greater in a tough economy.

More than four out of 10 adult offenders nationwide return to state prisons within three years of their release, studies show. Experts call it a revolving door—though Church’s actions make him something of an extreme case.

Former Bexar County Jail inmates sometimes deliberately court arrest for minor crimes to get three square meals and a roof over their heads when things get tough on the outside, said County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson, who helped form the Bexar County Re-entry Roundtable, a dialogue among public, religious and nonprofit actors on how to help inmates return to society.

But there are no statistics on felons like Church, who reoffend deliberately because they can’t cope with their freedom.

“I don’t mean to diminish what this man did,” said Ann L. Jacobs, director of the Prisoner Reentry Institute at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “But when you think about what people come out to, how much the world has changed, what a disadvantage they are at and what little support they generally have, it is kind of a miracle it goes as well as it does for as many people as it does.”

The crime

The man Church killed was named James Alfred Michael, but people called him “Willie” because he looked like Willie Nelson, with a stockier build. He was 56 and had peppered dark hair. The two had met just months earlier while in a Baytown jail for public intoxication.

Church said Michael gave him a place to stay when they got out and often loaned him cash. Church hustled drugs to support himself, he said. Raised in West Virginia, he had moved to Baytown as a teen and never had been much of a good kid, he said. He found school boring and had dropped out of 10th grade. Eventually, he earned his GED.

“Back then, I lived right for the day, getting high, drinking, not thinking of the consequences,” Church said.
Church remembers the last night Michael came home from work on Oct. 6, 1983. They had been drinking and got into it over $97 that Michael claimed Church took. Church vehemently denied it — lying — and they came to blows, he recalled.

They soon broke up the fight, but Michael always carried a knife on his belt and Church noticed it was missing. When his partner went upstairs, Church believed he had gone to retrieve it. So he grabbed a big knife from the kitchen and bore it through Michael’s chest when he came back.

“I was scared half to death,” Church said. When police led him out, “I kept picturing myself on television, like it was happening to somebody else.”

Church was sentenced to life in prison. He kept busy, working at different facilities. His latest job, as a janitor at the McConnell Unit in Beeville, had been the best, the one he yearned to return to when he was freed, he said. It gave him access to all the free soda and ice he wanted in the summers.

Prison reform

While Church was behind bars, the federal and state prison population more than quadrupled.
The numbers of inmates in the United States grew from 319,598 in 1980 to 1.5 million in 2009, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Corrections costs skyrocketed. States today collectively spend more than $50 billion a year by some estimates.

Studies indicate the United States has the highest proportion of its population locked up, its offenders tending to serve some of the lengthiest sentences in the world.

But more striking are the reports that show recidivism rates, the number of people who, like Church, return to correctional facilities after their release, lawmakers and prison reform activists said. A report published just this year by the Pew Center on the States found that on average more than 40 percent of those released from penitentiaries are reincarcerated within three years, for committing a new crime or for violating the terms of their release.

In the past decade, the debate among criminal justice circles has shifted to focus on programs and resources that can help prisoners re-enter society.

President George W. Bush included prisoner re-entry in his 2004 State of the Union address, marking an end to the country’s “period of punitiveness” and paving the way for the Second Chance Act and other legislation to help prisoners adjust to life after incarceration, Jacobs said.

“We are at a time in our culture when the prison budgets are depleting budgets for higher education in most states, when there are more African American men in prison then there are in college. We can’t allow that as a society. It will pull us all down,” Jacobs said.

Today, almost every state has re-entry programs and resources to assist the 700,000 people on average who are released from correctional facilities annually, but almost every state is under budget pressures.

Texas is known for its toughness on crime and is the country’s leader in rate of imprisonment but undertook wide-ranging prison reforms in 2007 that have significantly reduced the state’s recidivism rate.

Only 24.3 percent of Texas inmates released that year returned to prison within three years, according to the Texas Legislative Budget Board.

But looming budget cuts could hinder this progress in giving inmates “the tools to live responsibly,” said Ana Yáñez-Correa, director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

“While people are in prison, they need to be given vocational programs and counseling and cognitive thinking programming, so that when they get out, they can support their families,” she said.

For inmates like Church, such resources could make a difference in the transition back to the outside world.

The shock

Fellow inmates warned Church he was in for a shock. He didn’t believe them, thinking they were angry or envious he would soon walk free. Days after he was released, he realized they’d been right.

Prices were higher and scanned with bar codes. Video games were more realistic. People were always on their cell phones. Cars had childproof locks.

“I didn’t know this,” Church said. “It was so overwhelming. I was constantly embarrassed by simple things I just didn’t know.”

He made his way to San Antonio and was living on a small ranch with a relative of a friend he met in prison. On her property was a dilapidated, three-story house, abandoned for almost a decade. Things weren’t getting any better, and Church decided to burn it down.

He watched the flames from his bedroom window. They died out. He attempted to reignite the fire but went to sleep believing his plan had failed. A couple of hours later, Church and his landlord were awakened by emergency responders.

The blaze was ripping through the house. They took out lawn chairs and watched plumes of smoke billow skyward as firefighters worked to stop it, Church recalled.
“I didn’t tell anyone it was me,” he said. “It was my ticket to go back (to prison) if I wanted. I know it was wrong,
and I am sorry for it now.”

Three days later, he turned himself in by treating himself to a hamburger, French fries and two chocolate shakes at the Jim’s restaurant on Loop 410 and Perrin Beitel. He savored every taste, knowing he only had 31 cents in his pocket. Then he asked the waitress to call police, saying he did not want to cause a scene.

Her manager told Church he could leave if he never came back, so he told them he had committed a crime, Church recalled.

He should have sought more counseling or looked for a rehabilitation center, he said. But as flames engulfed the old house, he felt a sense of relief, a kind of excitement. When he was little, he used to play with matches.

“It was kind of like that,” Church said. “It was my Fourth of July.”

As published Sept. 25, 2011

Photo by Jerry Lara

 

Family remembers victim of fiery crash

By Jazmine Ulloa
San Antonio Express-News
 
When Francisco Perez wed his wife almost 25 years ago, she knew how to cook only one dish, he recalls.

“Arroz con pollo,” he said in Spanish with a faint chuckle. Rice and chicken. “Practically every day for the first two months of our marriage that is what she prepared for me: arroz con pollo. Arroz con pollo. Arroz con pollo.”

But Matilde Perez, 39, killed in a fiery crash on the South Side early last week, had mastered the culinary arts and had been working as a caterer in the months before her death, her husband said. A vivacious woman who loved to dance, laugh and work with her hands, she made some mean chiles rellenos and a mole no one in the family could duplicate.

The recipes seemed hers alone, though she shared them with everyone, her sister, Juanita Peña, 40, remembered.

“She was a giver and a creator. She had a talent,” Peña said. “She would see something, visualize it, and she would do it.”

That energy inspired others, recalled family members, still shocked and devastated by the collision that took her life and that of a friend, Alejandro Cervantes, 22.

That Sunday morning, Matilde and Francisco Perez, joined by Cervantes and another friend, Oscar Renteria, 34, were on their way to a lake when the SUV they were riding in crashed through a fence, rolled and burst into flames. San Antonio police said the driver appeared to have missed a curve at Southton and Center roads.
Arriving firefighters and EMS responders found the vehicle ablaze.

Francisco Perez, 44, and Renteria were ejected and have since been released from area hospitals.

Relatives said they wanted to remember Matilde Perez for her bright smile and her devotion to her three children and three grandchildren as she chauffeured, chaperoned and participated in their activities, whether it was ROTC, football or cheerleading.

“She would move the Earth and water to fulfill her children’s dreams,” Peña said. “She was a mother when she had to be a mother, but the child in her never left. She showed her kids she knew what it was like to be a kid.”

Her daughter, Sabrina Perez, 20, said she and her mother were inseparable. They would go running or shopping together. They would build crafts or cook or construct flower arrangements. An idea for their latest project, decorative boxes for diaper wipes, never saw fruition, Sabrina Perez lamented.

“It’s hard to wake up in the mornings,” she said. “My mother’s house was always full of music; all the neighbors could hear it.”

Other loved ones remembered Matilde Perez for her acts of kindness. She once organized a baby shower for a young woman she met at a store while browsing for clothes for her grandchildren. She threw a small quinceañera in her backyard for a girl who lived down the street and whose family could not afford the coming-of-age party.

When she would take lunch to her husband at the construction site where he worked, Matilde Perez would bring enough for his co-workers, too.

Francisco Perez said he met his wife when they were teenagers. It is hard now to be without her, he said in his South Side home.

“There will never be another woman like her,” he said. “She filled my life with happiness.”

As published July 27, 2011

 

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

 

Driver killed in fiery wreck on I-35

By Jazmine Ulloa
San Antonio Express-News
 
A woman died Friday evening in a fiery crash on Interstate 35 that left the northbound lanes of the freeway closed for hours.

Witnesses fought frantically to pull the woman and several passengers out of her vehicle, which was pinned under an 18-wheeler.

The driver of the big rig and the five passengers in the small car, ages 6 to 18 and all members of a family that was headed for Canyon Lake, escaped, authorities said.

Other members of the family were following in another car.

Trucker Edwin Trammell said he slammed on his brakes when he heard the clanking of metal. Looking in his side mirror, he saw the vehicle wedged underneath his trailer.

The 18-wheeler, carrying fireworks, mops and sponges, was already on fire when it came to a stop, and Trammell said he rushed out with a fire extinguisher.

Witnesses in other cars also scrambled to the family’s aid, authorities said.
“They did everything they could. I did everything I could,” he said, fighting back tears at the scene. “It wasn’t enough.”

Authorities initially shut down northbound Interstate 35 between the New Braunfels Avenue and Binz Engleman Road exits during the evening rush hour. Later, the closure was reduced to between Walters Street and Binz Engleman.

It remained closed late into the night as traffic investigators tried to piece together what happened, but officials expected it to be reopened early today.

After a preliminary investigation, San Antonio police said the truck and the car were traveling north shortly after 6 p.m. when one or possibly both drivers tried to merge into a lane.

The car became caught under the trailer and was dragged several yards before the 18-wheeler caught fire.

The car was left charred and almost unidentifiable, buried under the weight of the trailer.

Investigators said the blaze probably wasn’t caused by the fireworks, which had been stored near the front of the trailer, but by the friction of the car as it was dragged along the freeway, causing the trailer’s back tires to melt.
Trammell, 61, said he was heading to Fulton, Mo., from Laredo.

He vowed he’d never drive another truck.

“I’ve never had an accident like this in my life,” he said, breathing deeply. “I’m speechless.”

As published July 16, 2011