Man may have stolen $1.2 million in fajitas over nine years

BROWNSVILLE — The Cameron County District Attorney’s Office has a beef with one Juvenile Justice Department employee, alleging he stole $1.2 million worth of fajitas during the past nine years.

The Cameron County Juvenile Justice Department does not serve fajitas.

“If it wasn’t so serious, you’d think it was a Saturday Night Live skit. But this is the real thing,” District Attorney Luis V. Saenz said.

On Aug. 7, Gilberto Escamilla took a day off to go to a medical appointment. A driver from Labatt Food Service in Harlingen — the Juvenile Justice Department’s meat vendor — called the kitchen to inform it of an 800-pound delivery of fajitas.

The woman who answered the phone said the driver was mistaken, and that the kitchen did not serve fajitas. That was when the driver told her he had been delivering fajitas to the Juvenile Justice Department for the past nine years, Saenz said.

“The receiver of the call rushes off to the supervisor and conveys to her the discussion that had been had, and that breaks the case,” Saenz said.

“When Mr. Escamilla reports to work the next day, he is confronted with the discussion and he admits he had been stealing fajitas for nine years.”

He was fired Aug. 8 and arrested Aug. 9 after the DA’s Office Special Investigations Unit obtained a search warrant. When officers searched Escamilla’s house, they found packets of fajitas in his refrigerator.

At the time, the value of the order had been between $2,500 and $30,000, a state jail felony. Escamilla was booked into jail and made bond. But the DA’s Office kept digging.

After gathering documents from Labatt Food Service and the County Auditor’s Office, which included invoices, vouchers and purchase orders, the investigations unit concluded that Escamilla had stolen $1,251,578 worth of fajitas, according to authorities.

“He would literally, on the day he ordered them, deliver them to customers he had already lined up,” Saenz said. “We’ve been able to uncover two of his purchasers, and they are cooperating with the investigation.”

Escamilla was arrested Tuesday on a first-degree felony theft charge.

All county juvenile justice departments are given a menu by the state. The Cameron County Juvenile Justice Department’s menu mirrors the San Benito Consolidated Independent School District’s menu. The county services about 100 detainees each year, Saenz said.

In a statement, Chief Juvenile Probation Officer Rose Gomez of the Cameron County Juvenile Justice Department said Escamilla’s actions have led to a review of department policy.

“The Juvenile Justice Department is working closely with the Auditor’s Office to institute procedures, controls and safeguards to avoid a recurrence of this type of situation. The Department expects that wrongdoers will be punished and assures that procedures and protocols have been established,” Gomez said.

“The Department will continue to strive to provide necessary and appropriate care, custody and protection of those juveniles in its custody as well as protection of public moneys (sic).”

The investigation showed a “total failure” of the chain of authority, especially since the Juvenile Justice Department had been exceeding its line item budget consistently, Saenz said.

“Up and down the chain of authority, people were signing off on these things,” Saenz said. “It’s upsetting because the auditor gets a detailed invoice where it states the breakdown of what’s delivered, so they should’ve seen it.”

Cameron County Auditor Martha Galarza declined to comment because the investigation was ongoing.

“What do you tell the taxpayers? What do you tell the housewife and the blue collar worker that pay their county taxes, when paying their taxes takes a big bite out of their paycheck? How do you explain that? They’ve got the right to be upset. It is upsetting,” Saenz said.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article misspelled Gilberto Escamilla’s name. The Herald regrets the error.

What happened?

Aug. 7

County Juvenile Justice Department employee Gilberto Escamilla takes a day off to go to a medical appointment.

Aug. 7

A driver from Labatt Food Service in Harlingen calls the Juvenile Justice Department’s kitchen to inform them of an 800-pound delivery of fajitas.

The woman who answers the phone says the driver is mistaken — the kitchen does not serve fajitas.

Investigation begins

Aug. 8

Escamilla is fired.

Aug. 9

He is arrested after the DA’s Office Special Investigations Unit obtains a search warrant.

When officers search Escamilla’s house, they find packets of fajitas in his refrigerator.

The probe broadens as investigators begin to look at invoices, vouchers and purchase orders.

Investigators conclude that $1,251,578 worth of fajitas had been stolen over the past nine years.

Tuesday

Escamilla is arrested on a first-degree felony theft charge.