WHERE’S ERNESTO?

HARLINGEN — A sister of Ernesto Gonzales was supposed to meet him at his law office early on a Tuesday morning, nearly two months ago.

His pickup truck was there. But the Harlingen attorney wasn’t.

Besides the truck, another part of the mystery involves Gonzales’ horses.

His son, Ernesto Gonzales Jr., says he hasn’t heard from his father and doesn’t know where he is or where he could be.

His father “disappeared without a trace. His whereabouts are unknown,” Gonzalez Jr. stated in court papers.

“On July 18, 2017, my father disappeared from his law office and has not been seen or heard from since,” the son stated.

“He left his pickup truck at the office. He went off without providing for the care of his horses.”

“It is not normal for him to do this.”

Harlingen attorney Curtis Bonner also wonders about the horses.

“I can’t imagine he ran off without providing for his horses, because his horses are really important to him,” Bonner said.

The search continues

Harlingen police have been searching for Gonzales since his sister reported him missing on July 18.

On July 19, police issued a press release asking the public for help in finding him.

Police issued an update on Friday, saying they continue to work with local, state and federal authorities.

“Investigators have followed up on numerous calls and tips provided by the community, but have not substantiated any viable leads as to his whereabouts,” the press release said.

As of this past week, police had not found any indication of foul play. So the case is still being treated as a missing person case.

“We haven’t uncovered anything that would indicate to us that any criminal act has occurred or that there is any crime committed against him,” Harlingen police Commander Carlos Cantu said.

“At this point, we’re still looking at it as a missing persons case because we don’t have anything to prove anything otherwise.”

The investigation

Police investigators have been looking at Gonzales’ current and past cases to see whether they provide any clue to his disappearance. But so far, his cases haven’t shed any new light.

“That’s definitely something that we’re investigating,” Cantu said of the cases.

“That’s still a work in progress. We haven’t come across anything yet that would indicate any wrongdoing or that would give us an indication of where he might be.”

Police will be trying to track his whereabouts through the use of credit card transaction records and telephone records. But as of last week, they did not yet have those records.

“To get that information, we have to submit subpoenas and the providers haven’t responded to the subpoenas yet. So that’s basically what we’re waiting on right now,” Cantu said.

He said the time it takes for a reply to a subpoena in these types of cases can vary, depending on the “provider” of the information.

Credit card transactions could potentially provide key information, including where and when purchases were made and what was bought.

But at this point, police cannot say whether his credit cards or any debit cards have been used since his disappearance.

As of late last week, Gonzales still had not been seen or heard from. All of the tips that have come into the police department were sightings that occurred before his disappearance, Cantu said.

Asked whether any family members had heard from Gonzales, Cantu said, “No sir. That’s the main question that we’ve focused on in talking to family members and none of them have heard from him since prior to the day that he went missing.”

He said family members are fully cooperating with the investigation.

So, what is happening now?

Police have already checked Gonzales’ home and office for clues. Now, they are concentrating on interviews with people who last had contact with him.

“At this point, we’re revisiting with family members, friends, coworkers,” Cantu said.

“We’re going to revisit them and see if maybe since the last time we spoke to them if they’ve come across new information or whether they recall any new details they didn’t have the first time.”

Liquidation of assets?

As the search continues, Gonzales Jr. says steps need to be taken now to provide for his father’s clients.

As of now, no one has access to his father’s assets or authority to manage his affairs, the son stated.

So Gonzales Jr. is asking a court to appoint him to liquidate the assets of his father’s law firm.

“Liquidation or partial liquidation” is needed to pay refunds to the clients and to pay utilities and mortgage payments, the son stated.

Gonzales Jr. has filed a court petition asking a judge to appoint him as a receiver of his father’s law firm. But he said he would not object if a judge chose to appoint “a third party” as receiver.

“There are clients whose fees are deposited in the firm trust account who are entitled to a refund or partial refund because Ernesto Gonzales is not available to fulfill his obligation to them,” the petition states.

“Further, a portion of the funds in the account have been earned and access is required in order to pay utilities and mortgage payments.”

Bonner, the Harlingen attorney representing Gonzales Jr. in the receivership petition, said Thursday something needs to be done to take care of the clients.

“Mr. Gonzales has clients that have deposited retainers with him and without him being around, we’ve got to do something for those folks,” Bonner said.

Asked whether Gonzales’ law office employees had been paid, Bonner said, “That’s why we’re doing this petition. We’re trying to take over management of the business so as to take care of those things.”

Bonner said Thursday that as far as he knows, Gonzales Jr. still has not heard from his father.

“He’s very concerned about him,” Bonner said.

Speaking of the father, Bonner said, “He’s a nice fella. I’d like to see Ernesto walk in the front door in the morning. But he’s been gone now, what, a month or two?”

Police said Gonzales’ law office is currently closed.

Gonzales Jr. filed the receivership petition in state District Court in Brownsville on Aug. 29. His father was reported missing in Harlingen on July 18.

The request for receivership is pending in the courts.

The protective order

Five days before his disappearance, Gonzales filed a court request for a protective order against five extended family members, saying in an affidavit that he feared for his life.

“I have had to carry an unloaded pistol in my truck hidden because I fear for my life,” he stated in an affidavit.

According to the affidavit, Gonzales had a confrontation with some family members on June 21, the day he learned his mother suffered two “mini strokes.”

He called a doctor, he said, and was advised to call EMS.

“My siblings kept yelling at me that our mother was not going to be taken to the hospital,” he stated in the affidavit.

He stated there was another confrontation on June 28, the day after his mother died. He said it occurred at the viewing for his mother at the funeral home.

He stated some family members “were apparently upset because of the complaints I had filed with the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (Adult Protective Service) and Medicaid fraud.”

But the affidavit does not explain those complaints.

He stated his older brother advised him not to enter the lounge at the funeral home because two male extended family members “had threaten (sic) to kick the living daylights out of me.” …“But my brother … prevented them from assaulting me,” he stated.

A judge granted a temporary protective order pending a formal hearing on the matter. The judge would go on to schedule three hearing dates, but Gonzales did not show up for any of them.

This past Tuesday, the judge lifted the temporary order.

“Protective Order is abated and is lifted until Plaintiff/Movant (Gonzales) is located or he makes an appearance. Matter can be reconsidered. Protective Order is set aside until then,” the judge ruled.

After one of the scheduled court hearings, his sister Mary Ann Villafana said she was concerned about Gonzales’ mental well-being prior to his disappearance.

“He was acting out of the ordinary. We were trying to get help for him,” Villafana said.

“And all we want to do now is find my brother, because we love him. We were born and raised in a Christian family, and I love my brother and I love my sister (Alice).”

Asked whether Gonzales’ failure to appear in court causes a heightened sense of urgency, Cantu said there is a sense of urgency in all missing person cases.

Regardless of whether Gonzales failed to appear, police would still be pursuing the search just as diligently, he said.

IF YOU KNOW

Anyone with information on

Ernesto Gonzales’ whereabouts is asked to call the Harlingen Police Department at 956-216-5401, Investigator S. Vega at 956-244-3165 or Harlingen Area Crime Stoppers at 956-425-TIPS (8477).

TIMELINE

July 13

Harlingen attorney Ernesto Gonzales files a court request for a protective order against five extended family members. Gonzales states, “I fear for my life.”

July 18

A sister reports Gonzales missing.

The same day, a judge in Brownsville grants a temporary protective order against the five family members and sets a hearing on the case for July 27.

July 27

Gonzales fails to appear for the hearing. Judge resets the case for Aug. 10.

Aug. 10

Gonzales fails to appear in court. Case is reset for Aug. 30.

Aug. 11

Protective order hearing is reset for Sept. 5.

Aug. 29

His son Ernesto Gonzales Jr. files a court petition to be appointed receiver of his father’s assets.

Sept. 5

For a third time, Gonzales fails to appear in court. Judge lifts the temporary protective order.