RAYMONDVILLE — Nearly one century has passed since a person convicted and sentenced to death in Willacy County has been executed by the state of Texas.
This week, one of two men accused of shooting and killing an off-duty Border Patrol agent and injuring the man’s father in rural Willacy County will stand trial in the 197th state District Court.
The Willacy County District Attorney’s Office is seeking the death penalty for both men, who are being tried separately and have pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Gustavo Tijerina-Sandoval, a La Villa man, is charged with capital murder and attempted capital murder for allegedly shooting and killing Javier Vega Jr. of Kingsville and injuring the agent’s father, Javier Vega Sr. of La Feria, in August 2014. Ismael Hernandez-Vallejo of Weslaco faces the same charges.
Authorities have said the murder took place while the suspects robbed the Vegas, who were on a fishing excursion with their family.
While 86 years have gone by since the last convicted murderer in Willacy County was executed, another eight decades have passed since the Willacy County District Attorney’s Office has secured a death sentence after a murder conviction.
According to Texas Department of Criminal Justice online death row records, which date back to 1923, just two people from Willacy County have been sentenced to die in Huntsville. Both of those cases date back to the 1930s.
Those stories have largely been forgotten, until now.
The third floor of the Willacy County Courthouse, which was built in 1922, used to be a jail. Nowadays, the physical memories of that jail remain. There are bars and jail doors, and memories of inmates told through jailhouse graffiti. But these days, instead of prisoners, the jail cells hold court records.
In one of those cells, off in a corner of the jail, is a large black file cabinet. That’s where staff from the Willacy County District Clerk’s Office found the case files for Estanislado Lopez and Pio Quesada. Lopez and Quesada were held on the very same floor and sentenced to death in the courthouse that holds the only records of the cases against the men.
Lopez pleaded guilty to murdering Jesus Villareal on Aug. 24, 1931, and was electrocuted less than one year later on June 10, 1932. Quesada pleaded guilty Jan. 22, 1937, to killing Fernando Ramirez on Nov. 27, 1936. Unlike Lopez, Quesada’s sentence was commuted and he was never executed. Efforts to discover why Quesada’s sentence was commuted were not successful.
Unlike modern day death penalty cases that can take years to work their way through the courts, Lopez and Quesada were charged, tried and sentenced within one week of their arrests. The appeals process was just months-long. And for Lopez, his sentence was carried out less than one year after he pleaded guilty.
However, the case files for the men still contain all of the documentation and are in excellent condition. There are indictments, arrest warrants, handwritten notes, Western Union receipts, and even appeals and notices of court-appointed attorneys; all neatly folded handbills reminiscent of the shape and size of a warrant that a proverbial western lawman would pull out of the pocket of their duster.
In July of 1930, Lopez, a San Antonio man who lived at a residence just northeast of downtown in the Alamo City for eight years, traveled to Raymondville to pick cotton.
The details of what transpired next are held in handwritten notes taken by authorities at the Harris County jail from an account given to them by a man named Francisco Moreno and a confession they took from Lopez, which still bears the man’s signature.
In a coincidence, Moreno was arrested in Houston and placed in a cell with Lopez. Unfortunately for Lopez, Moreno was one of the seven farm workers staying in a house about four miles east of Raymondville, along with Lopez, when the murder occurred.
“When I was put in the cell … Lopez covered up his face and would not let me see him. I told Lopez to take his hands down from his face I want to see who you are,” Moreno told authorities in Houston according to the records.
Moreno stated that he never saw the murder because they were all asleep, but when they woke up to a dog barking at sunrise and discovered the body, Lopez was long gone. While sharing a cell, Moreno asked Lopez where he went after the killing.
“Lopez said he stayed in the brush 3 or 4 days and then went some place around Ft. Worth and then to Waco and then to Bryan, then Lopez said to me not to tell any one about the killing at Raymondville Texas for they will put me in the electric chair, he did not tell me how he killed this man,” Moreno said, according to the records.
Lopez killed the man by striking him with an axe while he slept. Lopez gave his account of the murder and signed it in the handwritten letter.
The night of the murder was July 15, 1930, and everyone in the house had been drinking. Lopez said he was scared of the victim, so he chopped him in the head one time while he was sleeping. According to Lopez, the victim had urinated in his face and, along with several other men, had tried to have sex with him. It’s hard to tell from the document whether Lopez is alleging the men tried to rape him or proposition him for sex, and the wording in the document is profane.
“After I hit him in the head he did not have a chance to say a word,” Lopez is accounted as saying.
After the sentence, Lopez appealed it. His attorneys argued that the death penalty should not have been assigned because Willacy County prosecutors failed to show he murdered the man with malice. A little more than six months after his appeal, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed his sentence.
Just shy of three months later, Lopez was taken to the electric chair.
“In accordance with the judgment of the District Court of Willacy County, the said Estanislado Lopez was duly executed on the 10th day of June, A.D. 1932, at the hour of 12:03 A.M., by Warden W.W. Waid, by causing to pass through his body a current of electricity of sufficient intensity to cause his death. And the said Estanislado Lopez was pronounced dead by Dr. V.G. Isvekov, eight (8) minutes after the application of the electric current,” the warden’s return after execution states.
That document also shows that Lopez stayed in the Willacy County Courthouse jail up until May 11, 1932, one month before his execution. Lopez is buried in the prison cemetery.
On Nov. 27, 1936, Pio Quesada freely admitted to Texas Rangers and U.S. Customs officers that he murdered Fernando Ramirez. He even led the authorities to the shotgun he used but, according to the documentation, he never provided authorities with a motive.
The indictment states that Quesada stabbed Ramirez multiple times and then shot him to death.
Quesada pleaded guilty Jan. 20, 1937, and two days later he was sentenced to death. Quesada immediately appealed. His attorneys argued that the 197th state District Court should not have allowed his confession because it was not voluntary.
According to appeals documentation, the court allowed testimony from Texas Ranger Power Fenner; U.S. Customs Patrol officers Bland Durham and Capt. Kilbourn; Texas Ranger Joe Bridges and Willacy County Deputy Sheriff Larry Gomez.
The law enforcement officers apparently told him, “‘You must go and show us these things,’ meaning a gun and a knife. And further, ‘Why do you want to fool around about showing us this gun? You might as well go on and show it to us and not lose so much time.’ Such testimony that such confession, if made by defendant, was made under the force and threats of the said officers, and not voluntarily made, as required by the law, reduced to writing and signed by the defendant, after having been previously duly warned.”
Transcripts of that testimony are included in the case file and paint a picture of what happened Nov. 27, 1936 in Raymondville.
Fenner testified that when the Texas Rangers received notice of the killing, they proceeded to the scene of the crime, which is where Quesada lived. Fenner said the body had nine or 10 knife wounds and a shotgun wound.
“Pio told us of sitting in the car with Fernando and going in the house and getting water with Fernando, and the last time he entered the house with him to get the water, he took the shot gun out and then he drove up to where he shot Fernando,” Fenner testified. “He said Fernando drove the car. He went with us to this point where the car was. He told us that after they got out to where the car was, he pulled Fernando out of the car and shot him.”
Durham, the U.S. Customs Patrol officer, testified he personally knew Quesada and asked him to take them to where the gun was, which he did. Durham’s testimony, however, is different than that of Fenner.
“Pio said when they got out of the car, Fernando had the gun in his hand, and he took it from his hand and walked him ahead of the car fifty feet and stood him up and killed him,” Durham testified. “He did not say anything about what Fernando said to him.”
Joe Bridges, a Texas Ranger from Hebbronville, who came to Raymondville with Fenner to investigate the killing, also testified that Quesada agreed to show them where the gun was and admitted to killing the man.
“And he said he was ready to go. He spoke Spanish. I can’t say it as he said it, but I can repeat the substance of it. (which the witness does, in English.) ‘I don’t deny it. I am the one that did it. There is nothing further to do about it,’” Bridges said during testimony.
On June 4, 1937, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals tossed out the appeal. Quesada was scheduled to be executed an hour before sunrise July 23, 1937.
However, the governor at the time commuted his death sentence to life in prison.
MODERN DAY DEATH PENALTY
Unlike the 1930s, when Quesada and Lopez were arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced in less than two weeks, death penalty trials can take years.
Tijerina-Sandoval and Hernandez-Vallejo have been in jail since 2014. Their lawyers have filed numerous motions in preparing for the trial and earlier this month announced that both suspects are ready for trial.
Tijerina-Sandoval is expected to go to trial first, followed by Hernandez-Vallejo. If convicted and sentenced to death, it will be the first time that has happened in Willacy County in 81 years.
The first trial is scheduled for Tuesday in the 197th state District Court.