Man faces death penalty in killing of Border Patrol agent

BROWNSVILLE — A jury took less than two hours to convict a man who shot and killed a Border Patrol agent of capital murder.

Gustavo Tijerina-Sandoval, of La Villa, showed no emotion as state District Judge Migdalia Lopez read the jury’s verdict — guilty of capital murder and attempted capital murder.

The jury found that on Aug. 3, 2014, Tijerina-Sandoval shot and killed Border Patrol Agent Javier Vega Jr., of La Feria, and shot and injured Javier Vega Sr., the agent’s father, during a robbery attempt.

The sentencing phase begins at 1 p.m. today. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

Jurors are sequestered and not allowed to watch television, use phones or talk among themselves about the case until they return to the jury room to deliberate Tijerina-Sandoval’s fate.

Willacy County Assistant District Attorney Charles “Chuck” Mattingly told Lopez that the prosecution intends to present multiple witnesses during the sentencing phase. Defense attorney Nat Perez told the judge that he and his co-counsel, Alfredo Padilla, need to talk with Tijerina-Sandoval to determine how the defense will proceed during the sentencing phase.

Due to a gag order Lopez issued in the case, the prosecution, the defense and all of the witnesses are not allowed to speak to media at all or about the impact of the guilty verdeict because the sentencing phase has yet to conclude.

Tijerina-Sandoval’s co-defendant in the case, Ismael Hernandez-Vallejo, of Weslaco, has pleaded not guilty to charges of capital murder and attempted capital murder, and is being tried separately. His trial is scheduled for August.

On that fateful day in August 2014, three generations of Vegas were at the scene near Santa Monica where Tijerina-Sandoval and Hernandez-Vallejo attempted to rob the family, prosecutors said.

According to court testimony, Tijerina-Sandoval owed $3,500 to someone because he lost a vehicle engine and that person was threatening Tijerina-Sandoval, so he concocted a plan to steal a vehicle.

During closing arguments, Willacy County prosecutors said Aug. 3, 2014, started out as a day of family time, with some shooting practice in La Feria before the Vegas headed out to a fishing spot near Santa Monica.

Tijerina-Sandoval cased the family while driving around in a red Ford Expedition, following them down to where the family was fishing.

Javier Vega Sr., his wife, Javier Vega Jr.’s wife, two of their children and a friend of the kids were all at the scene that day. During testimony, the survivors all pointed out Tijerina as the man who pulled the trigger.

The prosecution brought 44 witnesses, including eye witnesses at the scene and corroborating witnesses, and presented the jury with 340 pieces of physical evidence, including scientific evidence such as DNA and fingerprints found in the red Ford Expedition, gun residue found on Tijerina-Sandoval’s hands, bullet casings and reconstructions of the crime scene.

The jury also saw a videotaped confession in which Tijerina-Sandoval said he did it, Mattingly said.

“I’m doomed. I must pay,” Mattingly said, quoting Tijerina-Sandoval’s confession during closing arguments.

Before the jury went into deliberation, Mattingly told them the evidence is clear and unequivocal.

“The only true verdict, in this case, is a verdict of guilty on both counts. Justice demands it. The law requires it. And, most importantly, the evidence proves it,” Mattingly said. “There can be no peace without justice. Give the Vegas, their loved ones, their family, peace. The defendant deserves justice.”

In closing arguments, defense attorneys Padilla and Perez told the jury the Willacy County District Attorney’s Office failed to prove that Tijerina-Sandoval fired the bullet that killed the Border Patrol agent.

Padilla and Perez also told jurors that the investigation was flawed and that Tijerina-Sandoval’s rights were violated after he was arrested.

Perez said Tijerina-Sandoval’s videotaped confession was not voluntary because he told investigators nine times that he either wanted to sleep or stop the interview. Eventually, the investigators let Tijerina-Sandoval, who was only dressed in shorts, sleep for two hours, Perez said.

“A public defender tried to interview him, but they stopped her,” Perez said, providing another example of how he believed Tijerina-Sandoval’s rights were violated.

Perez also said the Texas Rangers did not allow Tijerina-Sandoval to make any phone calls after his arrest and pointed to evidence being improperly stored at the Willacy County Sheriff’s Office that resulted in the demotion of the officer in charge of that evidence.

Perez also claimed there was an argument between Tijerina-Sandoval and Vega Jr., and said that the Border Patrol agent fired the first shot.

“It is my belief he fired first,” Perez said.

The defense attorney also argued that the Willacy County District Attorney’s Office did not prove that the bullet that killed the Border Patrol agent came from Tijerina-Sandoval’s gun, which he said had no fingerprints on it.

Perez and Padilla asked the jury to return not guilty verdicts on the charges of capital murder and attempted capital murder.