Trial of former BP agent in headless body case begins

BROWNSVILLE — Testimony will begin today in the capital murder trial of former U.S. Border Patrol agent Joel Luna and his brother, Eduardo, who are accused of participating in the killing of a Honduran native and dumping his headless body in the Laguna Madre.

Wearing glasses and smiling slightly as his attorney stood behind him knotting a tie around his neck, Luna and his brother appeared in court Tuesday as both the defense attorneys and state prosecutors prepared to select a jury.

Authorities believe Jose Francisco Palacios Paz of Honduras was killed at a tire shop in Edinburg, and that the Lunas and two others transported Palacios Paz’s remains to the Laguna Madre area, where they dumped his body into the waters in March 2015.

Prior to jury selection, attorneys addressed some final motions before 107th state district court Judge Benjamin Euresti Jr.

The brothers are facing charges of capital murder in connection with the death of Palacios Paz for retaliation, murder and engaging in organized criminal activity. A third brother, Fernando Luna, pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and will be testifying against his brothers in court.

As the motions were being addressed, Joel Luna took the stand and testified about what he was doing on the day the search warrant — looking for evidence of the three brothers’ criminal enterprise of drug trafficking and weapons smuggling — was executed.

It is unclear what agency requested the search warrant and exactly when it was issued.

“I was outside working on my vehicle, and I heard my mother-in-law calling my name. I looked toward the streets, and it was full of cops starting to come into the property,” Joel Luna testified. “I told them I had a 2-year old boy sleeping in the house, but they kept me at the gate.”

An officer with a rifle eventually escorted him into the house to check on the child, then told him to go back outside and wait.

“I felt I wasn’t free to leave, like I was under guard,” Joel Luna said.

Assistant Cameron County District Attorney Gustavo Garza questioned Joel Luna, saying he knew his mother-in-law had been served with the warrant, and that since Luna, as a Border Patrol agent, was authorized to carry weapons, that’s why the Ranger with the rifle accompanied him into the house, to make certain he didn’t try and grab the weapon.

Authorities said Joel Luna signed a consent form for a weapons safe, but denied having any knowledge of the safe that was eventually removed from the home and contained evidence, including nearly $90,000 in cash and a kilo of cocaine.

Garza also said to Joel Luna that, as seen on the DVD of the search proceedings, he (Joel Luna) was walking around his yard, moving about freely and not detained.

Garza pointed out that Luna went to work the next day in Hebbronville, as a Border Patrol agent, more than 100 miles away in another county, noting that if he’d been under arrest or been detained, he would have been taken into custody and not allowed to go to work.

In other motions, Eduardo’s attorney, Gabriela Garcia, asked the judge to strike an expert witness, Jennifer Smith from Lab Corp, claiming the witness was not disclosed in time for the proceedings. Euresti denied that motion.

Smith is the technician who drew blood from the corpse of Palacios Paz.

Authorities said that blood was used to compare to blood found in the Lunas’ tire shop and is believed to be a match for Palacios Paz.

Joel’s attorney, Carlos A. Garcia, also put Texas Ranger Samuel Cody Langford on the stand, peppering him with questions as to the course of events on the day that search warrants were served at Luna’s and his mother-in-laws’ house, adjacent to Luna’s home.

“Have you watched the video of that search?” Garcia said. “On that recording, you get a statement from Joel Luna, is that correct? And at the time you got that statement from him, Joel Luna was detained, correct?”

Langford replied, “I did not detain him, sir, no.”

Langford said that detention, to him, meant when you actually take hold of somebody and put them in custody in handcuffs; being asked to not move simply means not to move, it does not mean someone has been detained.

Garcia countered, “But to be clear, there were no less than eight officers there. You want to show authority when you arrive at a certain location, correct? In this case you had no less than two officers in riot gear and bulletproof vests and carrying rifles. At that point, after finding the safe, he’s a target of your investigation, correct?” to which Langford responded in the affirmative.