The drug conspiracy trial of a former lawman took a dramatic turn when allegations shifted from the defendant to Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño, who took the stand and countered allegations of corruption lodged by former deputies and a drug trafficker.
After four days of testimony in the trial of former deputy Jorge Garza, defense attorney Lilly Ann Gutierrez subpoenaed Treviño as a witness for the defense.
On Friday morning, the county’s top cop approached the bench of U.S. District Judge Randy Crane and said he wanted to testify.
Crane told Treviño that based on the testimony from other witnesses, there have been allegations of criminal activity and asked if the sheriff had consulted with an attorney. The judge added that he didn’t know if Treviño was the target of an investigation or not.
“You might be,” Crane told the sheriff.
The judge asked Treviño if he wished to invoke the Fifth Amendment, which protects him again self-incrimination.
But unlike one of his top leaders, the sheriff sat down and agreed to talk, saying he has no lawyer but knows his rights.
“As an elected official I believe the people have a right to hear my testimony,” Treviño said. “I have nothing to hide.”
Garza, the deputy on trial is accused of doing fake traffic stops so convicted drug dealers could dupe other drug dealers into thinking their loads were seized when in fact they were stolen.
Once he took the stand, Gutierrez began asking dozens of question about the command structure of the department and his role in fundraising.
During the trial, former deputy and convicted drug trafficker James Phil “J.P.” Flores said that deputies were subjected to a reign of terror under Cmdr. Jose “Joe” Padilla and were forced to participate in fundraisers for the sheriff’s political campaigns.
During his testimony, Treviño described Padilla as an “old school cop from the 70’s” who posed and authoritative figure.
“What you are describing Miss Gutierrez is a bully,” Treviño said.
The sheriff said that he has spoken with Padilla about his demeanor after two other deputies complained about his harsh personality.
“If Flores was being mistreated I see no reason why he would not have gone to my office to complain about treatment or mistreatment,” Treviño said.
Padilla was subpoenaed on Thursday, but pleaded the Fifth Amendment after being told that he was the target of a federal investigation. In addition to Padilla, Hidalgo County District Attorney’s investigator Charlie Vela also pleaded the Fifth Amendment. Vela had been implicated by convicted drug trafficker Fernando Guerra in the theft of cash from drug traffickers as well as scaring off angry drug dealers that the Guerra’s group had ripped off.
Gutierrez asked the sheriff why he hadn’t done the same as District Attorney Rene Guerra, who fired Vela that afternoon and terminated Padilla after his refusal to testify.
Treviño said that Vela had been implicated in felonious acts while Padilla had only been mentioned in administrative matters and not criminal acts of a felonious nature. Treviño said that if the U.S. Attorney’s Office or the FBI would call him about the investigation against Padilla, he would open an internal affairs case.
The sheriff said that if the witnesses who made the allegations went to his office and filled an affidavit he would also open an investigation.
“What would I investigate him for, pleading the fifth?” Treviño said. I’m not going to be impulsive and jump the gun.”
“You are protecting him,” Gutierrez said.
“That is absurd, I can’t believe you said that” Treviño retorted. “My concern is about not violating his civil rights; I have enough lawsuits already.”
Gutierrez asked the sheriff about the Flores collecting money from the Guerra’s toward buying him a boat. Guerra’s son testified that he had given Flores $5,000, while Flores testified that he had collected $1,000.
“If anyone did, they used my name to collect the money and kept it,” Treviño said, adding that he had never heard about those allegations until he saw news and tweets about the testimony regarding the boat and a reporter who called, seeking comment. The sheriff said he does own a fishing boat that is valued at $25,000 — purchased with a check.
The sheriff denied having any knowledge of the Guerra’s criminal activity and claimed he was not active in the fundraising drives for his campaign rather letting committees handle that.
“The only money I received from the Guerra’s was a $1,000 check from Astro Trucking, which back then I didn’t know it was the Guerra’s or who they were for that matter,” Treviño said. “I don’t believe I ever received cash from the Guerra’s.”
The sheriff is expected to continue his testimony on Monday morning. As he walked out of the courthouse, Treviño mumbled “who’s the one on trial?”
Prior to Treviño taking the stand, jurors heard testimony from former deputy and convicted drug trafficker Fabian Rodriguez, who testified that he worked closely with the Panama Unit and eventually became a member. The Panama Unit was a street level drug task force made up by sheriff’s deputies and Mission police. Their arrests garnered have media attention since one of the members, Jonathan Trevino, is the sheriff’s son, while Alexis Espinoza, son of Hidalgo Police Chief Rudy Espinoza, was not officially on the unit, but frequently associated himself with its members, Rodriguez said.
According to Rodriguez, the unit was outside of the chain of command, with Jonathan Treviño handing down orders with an iron fist to the extent that the group’s leader, Sgt. Roy Mendez, had to check in with Jonathan before making any decisions.
“I went from one monster to another — from Padilla to Jonathan,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez testified that to the best of his knowledge, the sheriff never saw any money stolen by the Panama Unit.
But the corrupt lawman said Jonathan Treviño always wanted a bigger cut of the drug proceeds and would skim off the top from some of the deals.