916.695.6882; jazmineulloa@gmail.com

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.

What the killer took, Yvonne says, with a solemn gaze out of round, dark eyes, was her most trusted friend, her deepest supporter, and the man whom she had built a house and a life with on the rolling hills of northern Spring Branch.

On Memorial Day, the anniversary of his death, craft supplies spill across Yvonne’s kitchen table—paper, scissors, labels, ribbons and plastic flowers, all in red, white and blue. Three large wreaths sit on thin metal stands before the bright disarray. They are covered in patriotic insignia and the colors and crest of the U.S. Marines. She was up past midnight cutting and pasting, arranging and rearranging their display. Kenneth, contemplative and stern in his deputy uniform, gazes out of blown-up photographs attached to the middle of each crown. “It’s true: if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself,” she says. A smile spreads across her face, copper blonde hair falling at her shoulders.

Yvonne, 45, gets things done. She began her 20 years in law enforcement as a detention officer on the overnight shift at the Bexar County Jail and worked her way up to the patrol division and later the investigative unit. Today she is dressed in jeans and a navy blue T-shirt, ready to run errands in preparation for the small ceremony she has organized, where about three dozen friends and relatives will gather in the sweltering summer evening to share their memories of her husband. This is the reason for the service, she says, pointing to the lettering on a garland: “A hero remembered never dies.”

On her first stop of the day, Yvonne rolls her red Ford Explorer into a parking lot beside the towering, dusty brown complex of the Bexar County Jail in downtown San Antonio. Behind her, 16-year-old Kenneth Vann Jr. and a teenage friend pull up in another SUV and carry one of the wreaths from the trunk to a small outdoor courtyard.

Rectangular plaques, slender and silver, are fixed in a brick ledge commemorating sheriff officers and officials killed in the line of duty over the decades. The first was Joseph Hood, Yvonne explains to her husband’s youngest son, who is looking over the fallen sheriff’s inscription, dated 1840. He was slain in a battle against Comanche chiefs.

She walks over to the black tablet where her husband’s name is engraved in thin, gold letters. Kenneth was the 17th deputy to die on duty and the last in almost a decade. At 2:12 a.m., dispatchers held a moment of silence in his honor over the radio. Officers who had worked with him on the night shift decorated the scene of his death with flowers and placards. “They were sitting out there reminiscing and eating gummy bears,” she says, “just like he always used to do.”

When she thinks of the senselessness of it all—of a crime without reason—she becomes angry and her voice trails away.

At the memorial, the hum of cicadas and birds fills the silence as friends and relatives make their way to Kenneth’s grave behind St. Joseph Catholic Church in Spring Branch. Kenny was a troublemaker as a child, they recall, and trade smiles. He straightened up when he joined the military and became a loving husband and devoted father.

He was a lot smarter than he looked, a childhood friend jokes, and he dreamed of having a family. No one fit that plan better than Yvonne. Drying her eyes, she finally stands before the cluster of loved ones to speak. “I just wanted us to share memories of Kenneth,” she says, a slight tremble in her words. “Thank you all for all of your support.”

Kenneth was married when they first met in 1994 responding to a report of a burglary in action. She was training to become a sergeant. He was a traffic officer. While he attempted to bust down the door, Yvonne entered the house with other deputies through a sliding door in the rear. She caught one of the burglars, too—the “Maytag Kid” who hid in the dryer. “We made three good arrests that day,” she recalls.

The timing wouldn’t be right for more than two years after his divorce. In 2004, at the prodding of friends, Kenneth finally built up the courage to ask Yvonne on a date. Fellow deputies knew they were in love. She was the missing piece in his puzzle, they say. Outgoing and sweet, she softened him up and pulled him out of his shell.

They moved into their new home on his birthday, Nov. 2, 2004, with his three children: Kenneth Jr.; Justin, now 20; and Rachel, now 26. Like any couple, they had their troubles and their fights about bills, credit scores and retirement. But they were an all-American family and shared all the responsibilities. She worked by day and he worked by night. “Kenny would tell me we were two ships passing in the night,” she says.

Yvonne would take Kenny Jr. to school. Kenneth would come home and sleep, then pick his son up and sometimes surprise her with dinner.
A skilled mechanic, he would work on their renovated green RV for hours, and they would take it out on weekend vacations and cross-country road trips—first with the kids, and later as they grew older, on their own. She would drive by day and he would drive by night. They were happy.

Courtesy photo

They had plans to retire, to travel to California and Florida and maybe Colorado, and to someday renew their vows on a Jamaican beach. But despite what Yvonne has lost, she still has her strength. “I am a fighter,” she says. “I have always been a fighter.”

She had been asleep in the dark morning hours when she heard the knock. Through the glass doors of her home, she could see flashing lights behind several deputies and her mother. She knew what a visit like this meant. She and Kenneth had often discussed the dangers of the job and the fear crossed her mind that he could be seriously wounded. But the pain that coursed through her in those moments as she learned of her husband’s death was unbelievable.

They had been days away from celebrating their third marriage anniversary. For the first time, she felt the push and pull of her two worlds collide and did not know which role to play—deputy or wife, wife or deputy.

She was infuriated by the lack of details. She wanted to rush to the site herself, to interrogate every person within miles, to put together the evidence like she had in hundreds of investigations throughout her career.

Now, however, she was the victim. There were rules to follow, and a crime scene that could not be jeopardized. Sheriff department protocol dictated she could not visit the area. She had to surrender her gun, a policy of which she reminded her colleagues; in retrospect, probably more for her own good, she says. She waited until sunrise to tell the children and finally broke down when she was alone.

Before authorities had any information, there were theories the killer could have been someone she or Kenneth knew or had arrested in the past.

Then a man came forward and told authorities he and Gonzales had planned to meet at a nearby Denny’s. According to court documents, less than an hour after the shooting Gonzales called the man and said, “I killed a cop. Don’t tell no one, not even your wife.” When investigators arrested Gonzales a week after the incident, they said he had no connection to the Vanns and they had found no motive. An arrest warrant affidavit states the suspect had been drinking all day and taking medication before the slaying.

Jury selection for Gonzales’ capital murder trial was previously set to start in July, but a district judge granted a motion filed by the defendant’s attorneys to postpone the trial. A new date has not been selected. Yvonne is prepared, she says a couple of days after the memorial. She has not forgiven her husband’s shooter and does not believe she ever will, but she has found ways to heal.

She took a three-month leave of absence after Kenneth’s death but came back to the job because she believes she has so much left to contribute. She patrolled southwestern Bexar County upon her return, which was tough and made her family and coworkers uneasy for her safety. When a position opened up with the mental health unit, she took it. She assists the courts, serves warrants and helps transport inmates considered criminally insane to treatment facilities. It is more of a desk job, she says, but mental health is an area often neglected, and she finds the responsibilities rewarding. With her bachelor’s degree in public justice and a master’s in management, she plans to pursue a career as a lieutenant.

She keeps busy as a volunteer, as well, working with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, an organization focused on promoting new legislation and enforcement of federal and state gun control laws, regulations and public policies. She shares her story at local and national events and lobbies to keep weapons out of the hands of convicted felons, like the man accused of killing her husband.

She hopes some good emerges from the tragedy. And she wants to do more for victims. Her husband’s death thrust her into a new world. “I had never been on that side,” she says. “It always happens to someone else. It never happens to you.”

What moves her forward every day, she says, are Kenneth’s children, whom she considers her own. Especially in the boys, one can see their father’s handsome features, a strong jaw and serious eyes. Their daughter is about to be a mother, their eldest son is majoring in biomedical engineering at Texas A&M University, and the youngest is a junior at Smithson Valley High School. After his father died, he chose to continue living with Yvonne, rather than his biological mother.

Yvonne didn’t think they would ever marry. He didn’t seem to want to after a difficult divorce. She just wanted to be near him. But on Christmas Day in 2006, she found a little box with a ring hidden in the pine tree in their living room. In that romantic side he rarely revealed, he knelt down on one knee and popped the question.
She doesn’t know if she will ever marry again. But she does know she will never love someone as much as she does Kenny.

As published September 2012

Photo by Josh Huskin

 

The Working Life: Jason Macias, 40

Macias has served as a patrolman with the San Antonio Police Department for the past seven years. He works the shift that runs from 10:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. (known as the “dog watch”) and is based out of the Central Substation, which oversees downtown and
its surrounding area.

 
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.

As published in the July 2011 issue

Photo by Sarah Sudhoff

 

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

 

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.

It could have been a scene out of “The Hangover.”

Officers surrounded the building and arrested all five, but early speculation about a possible terrorist plot gave way to head-shaking acknowledgement that the men were probably just drunk — security cameras caught Hichan Ajjaid, 25, and Mehdi Ajjaid, 21, wandering the halls with a gavel lifted from a judge’s bench, decked in sombreros they found in a closet.

The brothers remain jailed.

The other three, released Thursday after a federal check determined they were in the country legally, stood outside Bexar County Jail the next day, still stunned by what happened and making calls from a pay phone to family and friends overseas.

“We’re out of money and ready to go home,” said one, though they added they were concerned about the two who would be left behind.

They were interviewed in Spanish, which some of them speak as well as French. Their English is somewhat broken.

“We are all like brothers,” said Camille Huet, 25. “(The jailed brothers) are good people. They have never been in jail or in trouble like this. Their families are very worried. But we can’t do anything for them while we are here. We are going to have to go back and help them from France.”

The Ajjaid brothers were charged with burglary of a building with intent to commit a theft and criminal mischief between $50 and $500.

“It is incredible,” said Meissa Mithra, 24. Leaning against a wall, Huet asked a reporter, “Are we famous?”
More like notorious, some might say.

Mithra recalled he was awakened by officers as he slept in the RV, parked near the courthouse. Huet and another Ajjaid brother, Adil, said they had been walking back from a downtown bar when authorities corralled them.

They had no idea what the others had done, they said, and told investigators they just wanted to sleep.

“We were puzzled and confused and didn’t know what was going on,” Mithra said. “They interrogated us for two days, the first at Bexar County Jail and the next at an immigration office.”

“We were in handcuffs. We were scared,” Huet added.
Across the world, their mug shots went, with the video footage making international headlines and sparking online jokes. On Twitter, some dubbed them the “Moroccan Five.”

They’re of Moroccan descent, but actually live in Bordeaux, a city near the southwestern coast of France, where

Mithra is a retail salesman, Huet is a cook and Adil Ajjaid studies translation.
Back home, the close-knit group of five spends free time breakdancing in street shows and throwing parties, they said.

They landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport in September, rented the RV for $10,000 in New Jersey, then took it to Miami. They arrived in the Alamo City on Tuesday night, parking the RV at the courthouse because it seemed like a safe place, they said.

They said they planned to be back on the road and out of Texas by Friday night.

“We know how serious and dangerous a terrorist threat is and understand why officers were threatened by us,” Mithra said. “It has still been a good, fun trip. There are lots of good people in this country.”

As published Oct. 23, 2011

 

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

 

Mexican citizens looking for sanctuary

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald
 
A middle-aged woman was driving along a busy street in Matamoros on her way to visit family, when she passed a Soriana grocery store barricaded by a throng of Mexican soldiers and vehicles. Gunshots cracked in the distance.

She kept her eyes on the road and pressed on the gas, following what many Mexican citizens consider unspoken policy: Look away. Mind your own business. Keep your mouth shut.

“These things don’t come out in the newspapers,” said the woman, who works as a housemaid in Brownsville and asked her name not be used out of concern for her family’s safety.

In recent months, she and other residents say, sporadic shootouts in broad daylight, like this one, seem to have become more common in Matamoros, once one of the quieter cities along the Texas-Mexico border.

With little trust in authorities and few reports from the media, it is difficult for Mexican residents to discern what is fact from hearsay. But to be caught in the crossfire is a legitimate fear, families say — even more distressing, is constantly seeing their schools shut down, their news outlets silenced and their streets blockaded by Mexican soldiers and military trucks.

Such concerns are driving Matamoros families away from the border city and into the Rio Grande Valley, residential and commercial real estate agents said. The migration follows a steady stream of Mexican nationals, including journalists, officials and business leaders, who have relocated to the United States since Mexican President Felipe Calderón launched a sweeping battle against drug cartels in 2006.

But families from Matamoros have only been moving to the Valley in higher numbers since last year, real estate agents said. And some brokers noted calls from Mexican nationals had become even more frequent in the last six months.

“They call and tell me, ‘I need (a home) fast. I want to take my children out of school. There is too much danger here,’ ” said Sandy Lee Galvan, a real estate agent with Century 21 Johnston Company in Brownsville. “Many want to pay cash upfront.”

‘Violence escalates, migration escalates’

Drug war violence along the Mexican side of the lower Texas borderline began to intensify in late February, first after a bloody turf battle erupted between the Gulf Cartel and its former armed wing, the Zetas, and now has amplified as drug cartel men increase their assaults against the Mexican army.

“As the violence escalates, the migration escalates,” said Mary McGowan, broker and owner of All Star Realty in Brownsville.

Real estate agents are taking inquiries from Matamoros, Monterrey, Victoria and Valle Hermoso, and even from families living farther in the interior of Mexico. Many Mexican nationals are not stopping in the Valley but choosing to go farther north, to San Antonio or Austin, and even into other states, agents said.

But those who do stay prefer gated communities and condos throughout Brownsville and Rancho Viejo. Near McAllen, the sweetest deals are in the Sharyland community, said Leanne Richards, broker for Trendsetters Realty in McAllen.

“Everyone wants to get their children into the Sharyland school district,” said Richards, who has worked in real estate in the Valley since 1994. In the past, Richards recalls few Mexican families calling in to inquire about homes in the area. When they did buy, it took time and they purchased expensive $500,000 homes, she said.

Now people are buying properties costing between $80,000 to $120,000 because they want to move out soon. Many also choose to rent.

“They tell me, ‘We are not going back to Mexico, we are afraid,’” Richards said.

The high number of asylum applications from Mexico in part shows this increase in migration. The number of people applying for asylum under “credible fear of persecution,” jumped from 179 in 2007 to 312 in 2008, and increased again slightly to 338 in 2009. These figures were based on people who pleaded for asylum at the nation’s southern ports of entry, according to U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Separate statistics collected from U.S. immigration courts showed an increase in the number of asylum petitions from Mexico in the first two years since Calderón initiated the drug war offensive, from 2,793 applications in 2006 to 3,459 in 2008, according to the Executive Office for Immigration Review under the U.S. Department of Justice. But the number of petitions dropped to 2,816 in 2009.

Hard to keep count

Nonetheless, tracking the number of people coming into the Valley, Texas or the United States from Mexico out of fear is difficult, experts said. No agency seems to be keeping count.

Part of the reason is because the way Mexican families are moving into the country runs the gamut. Some Mexican nationals have double citizenship, others apply for investor visas or asylum, and some come in illegally.

To judge the economic impact, thus, is much tougher. But Howard Campbell, professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at El Paso points to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, as an example.

Between 30,000 to 500,000 people have fled from Juarez to the United States, according to estimates based on the number of abandoned homes and the assumed number of people per household, he said. The number may be exaggerated, and it is uncertain how many of these people reside in the bordering city of El Paso, “but the impact is tangible. You can see it,” Campbell said.

“It is very sad and tragic but the suffering in Juarez is contributing to the economic stimulus of El Paso,” he said. “There is also a cultural side. There is a sort of rejuvenation and reincarnation of Mexican culture in the United States.”

Many of the people fleeing Juarez are some of the wealthiest in the city and have injected a lot of money into El Paso’s economy, the professor added.

Business boom

Real estate agents in the Valley said Mexican nationals moving in are helping keep the housing market afloat. Richards, for instance, estimated Mexican nationals to make up between 40 to 50 percent of Trendsetters’ clientele in Hidalgo county.

Many families also are “realizing it is a great time to make investments in the United States,” said Norma Rasco, a real estate agent with Rancho Viejo Realty.

“Mexican nationals are cash buyers, and in this economy, cash is king,” she said.

The stimulus is true of business in the Valley as well, financial leaders said. Larry Jokl, a commercial real estate agent with Brownsville Real Estate Management Company, said he helped six Mexican clients move their businesses to the Valley last year.

“In the first three months of this year, I have had a dozen clientele from Mexico who have looked to locate their businesses here, two of whom already have,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Brownsville Economic Development Council has hosted about half a dozen prospects, or companies serious to relocate in Brownsville, from Mexico since January. On any given year, that number would have been about two, said Gilbert Salinas, spokesman for the city’s development council.

“A recurring theme has been that due to security issues in their country, they are now putting their plans on a fast track to break into the U.S. markets,” he said. “Business men and women always have that — breaking into the U.S. market — in the back of their mind. Now they are making it a priority.”

As published April 3, 2010