Jury finds RGC teen not guilty of murder of Chayse Olivarez

Jose Luis Garcia Jr., center, walks into the 389th state District Court on Thursday, Oct. 31, 2019 to face trial for the murder of 17-year-old Chayse Olivarez. Dina Arévalo | darevalo@mvtcnews.com

Updated at 8:14 a.m.

EDINBURG — Despite a video-taped confession and crime scene walk-through where Jose Luis Garcia Jr. gave investigators a step-by-step description of the murder of Rio Grande City teen Chayse Olivarez, as well as leading authorities to the place where the murder weapon was dumped and found in the Rio Grande about 5 miles away, a jury of 10 women and two men found Garcia not guilty of the crime early Friday morning.

The verdict followed nearly 13 hours of deliberation and was handed down at approximately 1:30 a.m., prompting cries from the family of Olivarez, who was 17 at the time of his death and whose burned and dismembered body was found in three trash bags near an abandoned property in Roma on Aug. 12, 2017.

The Starr County District Attorney’s Office accused Jose Luis Garcia Jr. of paying then 16-year-old Phillip Severa $10,000 to lure Olivarez to the property where Garcia, who was 17 years old at the time, lay in hiding, waiting for a signal before he emerged and shot Olivarez two to three times, according to the confession.

Before deliberations, visiting state District Judge Rogelio Valdez instructed jurors that if they found the traffic stop conducted by former Rio Grande City police officer Ryan Rosa, who now works with the Mission Police Department, to lack probable cause, to not consider any evidence obtained from that traffic stop, which would include the video-taped confession and crime-scene walk-through.

Rosa pulled Garcia over for speeding and driving on an improved shoulder on Aug. 11, 2017. After that traffic stop, which included several units from the Starr County Sheriff’s Office, Garcia agreed to be transported, in handcuffs, to the sheriff’s office because the Texas Rangers wanted to talk to him.

He was not informed why the Rangers wanted to speak with him, but Texas Ranger Eric Lopez was investigating Olivarez’s disappearance, who was last seen on July 30, 2017, four days after Garcia’s 17th birthday.

The jury charge also instructed the jurors to disregard any evidence obtained from Lopez if they determined that he coerced a confession from Garcia, who is seen in the video asking for a lawyer while Lopez assures him he is not under arrest and that he is free to leave at any time.

Lopez testified during the trial that he was not going to let Garcia, who was read his Miranda rights before the interview, leave.

After walking Lopez through the crime scene and leading him to the murder weapon, which a ballistics expert with the Texas Department of Public Safety Crime Lab in Weslaco determined was the gun used in the murder based on a shell found at that abandoned property in Roma, where Chayse Olivarez’s burned and dismembered body was recovered, Garcia asked if he could go home.

Only then did Lopez tell Garcia that he was under arrest, hours after that traffic stop conducted by Rosa, which a Starr County sheriff’s deputy testified was not in Rio Grande City city limits.

It is not immediately clear whether the jury disregarded this evidence as it wasn’t said in open court. However, a not guilty verdict on the murder charge indicates the jury indeed disregarded the evidence either because the jurors believed the traffic stop lacked probable cause or because Lopez coerced the confession, or both.

The jury also found Garcia not guilty of tampering with evidence, a human corpse. Jurors, however, did find him guilty of one count of tampering with evidence.

Garcia faces two to 10 years in prison on that charge. Early Friday morning, his defense attorney, Ricardo L. Salinas, told the judge that his client is eligible for probation.

Sentencing is scheduled for 1 p.m. Friday and is estimated to take two to three hours.

The week-long trial also featured allegations that the defendant’s father, Jose Luis Garcia Sr., and victim’s father, Casimiro Olivarez Sr., are rival drug traffickers.

Those allegations come from Lopez, the Texas Ranger who interrogated Jose Luis Garcia Jr.

Salinas also painted Casimiro Olivarez Sr. as a drug trafficker who was a person of interest, along with his alleged cohort, a man named Ignacio Garza, in the murders of two Rio Grande City women who were found naked, bound and shot in the head in 2016. That case remains unsolved.

Lopez testified that Garza was questioned in that case.

The defense attorney also alleged during the trial that Casimiro Olivarez Sr. was a person of interest in the 2016 shooting death of 3-year-old Julian and his 41-year-old father Hector Garcia.

A man named Jesus Angel Rebollar was convicted in that case in September and sentenced to two life sentences.

This narrative was part of a defense strategy that alleged Jose Luis Garcia Jr. was afraid of the Olivarez family, which he and his mother, Sandy Garcia, believed had infiltrated the Rio Grande City Police Department and the Starr County District Attorney’s Office.

No evidence to corroborate this allegation was introduced during the trial.

Salinas, the defense attorney, also called witnesses who testified that Chayse Olivarez threatened Jose Luis Garcia Jr. and the lives of his family in the months leading up to the murder through the phone app Kik. These alleged messages were not introduced during the trial.

The defense also alleged that Chayse Olivarez robbed Jose Luis Garcia Jr. at gunpoint sometime in early 2016 over $67 worth of marijuana brownies and Xanax.

The Monitor was unable to ask Starr County District Attorney Omar Escobar for comment after the verdict as he and his team had left the courtroom before the audience was allowed to leave.

Jurors were escorted out of the courthouse before the audience was allowed to leave and authorities had Jose Luis Garcia Jr.’s family leave first, followed by Olivarez’s family.

As Jose Luis Garcia Jr. left the Hidalgo County Courthouse early Friday morning, he declined to comment through another one of his attorneys, O. Rene Flores.