Year in Review: City of San Benito

Ricardo Treviño and his mother, April Flores Courtesy: Facebook

SAN BENITO — This year, the area’s first resaca-side development began rising along the banks in a multimillion-dollar project at the same time that the city saw Market Days helping to revive Robertson Street, the original town site that’s home to some of the city’s most historic landmarks.

Meanwhile, from the police department to the school board, San Benito grabbed other big headlines during 2019.

After a nine-month Texas Ranger investigation, a Cameron County grand jury cleared two San Benito police officers, including former Chief Michael Galvan, and two Precinct 5 deputy constables, in the fatal shooting of 21-year-old Ricardo Treviño, who was unarmed when he was killed Dec. 7, 2018.

Then, in what’s being called a precedent-setting case, school board President Michael Vargas resigned last week after a judge ordered him suspended on the grounds of intoxication nearly six months after his arrest on a driving while intoxicated charge.

In one of the city’s most tragic events, police officers’ shooting of Treviño rattled City Hall through 2019.

In late March, city officials launched an internal affairs investigation to determine whether officers involved in the shooting violated policy and procedures during the events leading to Treviño’s death.

As they opened the investigation, officials reassigned Galvan to the position of assistant chief, appointing Assistant City Manager Fred Bell to serve as interim chief.

Then after a nine-month Texas Ranger criminal investigation, a Cameron County grand jury found Galvan, officer David Rebolledo and two Precinct 5 deputy constables justified in using deadly force to shoot Treviño, who was shot after a 22-mile car chase ended in El Ranchito.

During a press conference Sept. 19, District Attorney Luis Saenz, whose lead prosecutor presented the case to grand jurors, said the investigation found Treviño’s use of his car posed an imminent danger to police officers after the chase ended on a cul-de-sac off Ranch Park Road.

“An officer may use deadly force when the officer reasonably believes there is a substantial risk the suspect could cause the death or serious bodily injury to the officer or some other person if the force is not used and the arrest is consequently delayed,” Saenz said after the grand jury’s decision, reciting the law governing police officers’ use of deadly force.

The pursuit began at a San Benito church, after Treviño’s cousin called the police department because Treviño had taken as much as half a bottle of Tylenol, Saenz said.

In an interview, Saenz described Treviño as “not all there.”

“He’s talking hopelessness,” he said. “The young man is troubled. He had suicidal tendencies.”

But April Flores, Treviño’s mother, described her son as a former San Benito High School special education student “with the heart of a child.”

When Treviño saw a police officer approach his car, he drove away from the church at “normal speed,” Saenz said.

As the officer followed the red Nissan Sentra, Treviño began recording the pursuit.

Meanwhile, Art Flores, Treviño’s stepfather who works as a police supervisor, was calling dispatchers, telling them officers were chasing his stepson.

Saenz said speeds ranged from 40, 60 to 104 mph during the 22-minute chase along Interstate 69, FM 732 and U.S. 281.

During the chase from San Benito to El Ranchito, officers tried to stop Treviño’s car, setting up roadblocks and trying to shoot the car’s tires, he said.

Saenz said an officer even tried to use pepper spray to stop Treviño.

On U.S. 281, Galvan spoke through his public address radio.

“‘Stop, stop. We can work this out,’” Saenz said, echoing Galvan’s orders.

The shooting

More than 10 law enforcement units followed Trevino’s car to a cul-de-sac off Ranch Park Road, where the chase ended.

“He puts his car in forward and collides with Chief Galvan’s car, I mean forceful and he’s like trying to push it back, his tires are spinning and spinning. He can’t,” Saenz said. “Then he puts it in reverse and goes all the way back and that’s where there are officers behind and that’s when the shooting breaks out.”

Flores said his stepson’s Nissan shows only a dent.

Meanwhile, a photograph of the shooting scene shows the car’s front end in a ditch.

Treviño’s video appears to show him parking his car.

Moments later, the video shows Treviño sitting in his car amid a barrage of gunfire at about 3:30 p.m.

Officers fired 31 rounds, Saenz said.

Vargas case divides school board

At the San Benito school district, Vargas’ case divided much of the school board.

Nearly six months after Vargas’ arrest on a driving while intoxicated charge, a judge ordered him suspended on the grounds of intoxication.

On Monday, board members accepted Vargas’ resignation, appointing retired law enforcement officer Baldemar Olivarez Jr. to replace him.

Board’s majority supports Vargas

In August, board members Angel Mendez and Mary Lou Garcia called on the board’s majority to remove Vargas as president, arguing his arrest sent students the wrong message.

However, the board’s majority voted to keep him as president.

Then on Oct. 2, San Benito residents Janie Lopez, Rosalinda Garcia, Ramon Santos and Oscar Medrano, a former school board member, filed a petition calling on a court to remove Vargas on the grounds of intoxication.

Under Texas Government Code Chapter 87, the rarely applied law allows residents to petition the court to remove elected officials from office on such grounds as intoxication.

The hearing

On Dec. 13 in 107th state District Court, visiting Judge Manuel Bañales ordered Vargas suspended pending the judge’s appointment of a replacement.

“Here we have a school board member who’s supposed to look after the welfare of students,” Bañales said after a two-hour hearing. “Students who see this school board member walked away think they have a license to drink.”

During the hearing, Jose Caso, an attorney representing Vargas, said he believed the case sets a state precedent.

“When we elect officials, we have to hold them accountable,” Lopez, the school district’s former Guidance and Counseling coordinator who spearheaded the petition drive, said after Vargas’ suspension. “We need to speak up.”

As the board’s president, Vargas served as the school board’s leader and the district’s spokesman.

Elected to the board’s Place 1 seat in May 2015, Vargas had served as its president since May 2017.

Last year, he won re-election to the term which was to expire in May 2021.

Attorneys’ arguments

During the hearing, Caso claimed the law was unconstitutional, arguing it undermines the electoral process and violates the sanctity of the vote.

Caso also argued the petitioners targeted Vargas with the law which he claimed “discriminates against elected officials.”

“There have been countless county officials who have been intoxicated,” he said. “There’s an overly broad definition of intoxication. It’s got to be habitual. In this case, the petitioners are presenting one incident of drunkenness. In this case, there’s no habitual problem demonstrated.”

Meanwhile, Dan Sanchez, the former Cameron County commissioner representing Vargas in the criminal case charging him with driving while intoxicated, argued the petitioners aimed to remove his client to shift power from the school board’s majority which supports him.

“It’s political,” Sanchez told Bañales. “It’s about control of the school board.”

Bañales overruled the attorneys’ arguments. He ordered Vargas suspended pending the judge’s appointment of a replacement.

Vargas would have remained suspended until an April 13 civil trial, when a jury was expected to decide whether to remove him from the school board.

However, Vargas’ resignation allowed school board members to appoint his replacement.

Board members reviewed about six candidates before appointing Olivarez to serve in the Place 1 seat until May, when voters will elect a trustee, Orlando Lopez, the board’s new president, said after the special meeting.

“He’s a staple of the community,” Lopez said of Olivarez after the meeting.

Resignation letter

In his resignation letter, Vargas cited the board’s accomplishments including a staff pay raise, improved student standardized test scores and passage of a $40 million bond issue aimed at building a performing arts center, an aquatics center and an indoor practice field.

“When I first embarked on this elected journey, it was my goal to turn this district around relative to its dysfunction, financial incompetence and leadership instability,” Vargas wrote in his letter dated Dec. 20.

“We have done exactly that — we have turned the district around in all facets — operationally, financially, leadership, etc. We are indeed a gold-standard district and I am proud of my tenure.”

“As I have done before my tenure as an elected school board member, I will continue to fight the good fight along the periphery, especially fighting those mental models and individuals that seek to destroy the growth and positivity our district has achieved.”

The arrest

On the witness stand, Harlingen Police Officer Arnoldo Maldonado testified Vargas was incoherent when he was arrested for drunken driving at about 2 a.m. July 5 at a Taco Bell restaurant at 1518 N. Ed Carey Drive in Harlingen.

Maldonado testified he found Vargas sleeping in his vehicle, whose engine was running while it stalled in the fast-food restaurant’s drive-through lane.

Pending DWI charge

Despite the civil case’s closure, Vargas continues to face a criminal charge of driving while intoxicated.

Last month in Cameron County Court at Law No. 5, visiting Judge Leonel Alejandro set a Feb. 6 jury trial during an arraignment hearing stemming from Saenz’s decision to upgrade Vargas’ DWI charge from a Class B to a Class A misdemeanor based on his 0.256 blood-alcohol level at the time of his arrest.

As a result, prosecutors are counting what records show as Vargas’ first drunken driving charge as his second DWI charge, Saenz said during an interview last month.

The upgraded charge boosts the offense’s potential penalty from six months in jail and a $2,000 fine to one year in jail and a $4,000 fine.

During the hearing, Alejandro upheld a previous court order requiring Vargas to equip his vehicle with a breath alcohol ignition interlock device featuring a camera.

During an Oct. 1 hearing, Judge Estella Chavez Vazquez ordered Vargas to install the devise, which does not allow a vehicle’s engine to start if the motorist’s breath contains a blood-alcohol level higher than the legal limit of 0.08 percent.

According to a court document, Chavez Vasquez also prohibited Vargas from drinking alcohol or taking drugs before driving.

Resaca Village

In about two months, VARCO Real Estate expects to complete the first phase of the multimillion-dollar project to feature shops and restaurants off Business 77 across from the Heavin Resaca Trail, Lupe Zuniga, the company’s business development officer, said.

“It’s going to be a multi-use plaza with retail shops and dining,” he said. “It’s going to bring some economic development and job opportunities for the community.”

A Texas Regional Bank branch will anchor the Resaca Village development to include five other buildings on about nine acres at the site of the once-sprawling Guinzy’s Resaca Motel, razed more than 10 years ago.

According to a leasehold deed of trust finalized last month, the bank will finance the project for VARCO and developer Carlos Varela, who’s a bank director.

The deed shows VARCO has borrowed $2.5 million to fund the project.

For decades, city leaders have dreamed of developing commercial property along the resaca.

The project’s first phase, to feature the bank’s branch along with 12 spaces planned for shops and restaurants, is projected to be completed by the end of February, Zuniga said.

“Shortly after,” he said, the developer plans to launch the project’s second phase, expected to feature a similar number of retail shops and restaurants.

The project’s resaca-side boardwalk will include restaurants such as Tropical Smoothies.

“By the resaca’s where you see more of your dining,” Zuniga said. “There’ll be nice outdoor dining. It’s going to be a nice atmosphere. We want to capture the beauty of the resaca. We want the architecture to flow with the beauty of the resaca. That’s why the buildings will have an open view of the resaca.”

At the city’s EDC offices, Executive Director Rebeca Castillo projects the development will boost the city’s annual $5 million sales tax collection by as much as 30 percent within one or two years.

“It will have a big impact,” she said. “We’re coming a long way.”

Market Days

For four years, Iris Garcia pushed to launch Market Days along the resaca-side stretch flanked by the iconic Aztec Building and the majestic San Benito Bank & Trust building, whose glistening golden domes stand at the corner of Sam Houston Boulevard.

“We saw Robertson Street just fading away,” Garcia, owner of the Shop with a Little Bit of Everything, said yesterday. “Robertson is a jewel of the city. There’s so much history. If we didn’t do something, we’re going to lose this area.”

Now, since September, Robertson Street’s been bustling on the third Saturday of the month, when hundreds of shoppers descend on La Villita, the legendary dance hall where organizers are holding Market Days

“It’s different — it’s held indoors in an iconic dance hall,” Garcia said of the city’s revamped version of Market Days.

On Market Days, as many as 500 shoppers are spilling out of the dance hall.

“Before we knew it, we had a full house — 25 vendors in La Villita,” Garcia said. “It’s turning out to be something bigger than we anticipated.”

City leaders are counting on the wave of customers to help revive the area’s business district.

“I’m excited. Hopefully it will continue to grow to bring more business to San Benito,” Megan Treviño, executive director of the San Benito Chamber of Commerce, said.

“It’s downtown so that helps downtown businesses. It can kind of revive that because there are still some empty stores,” she said. “It is the historic town site. It goes hand in hand with the history.”

It’s the dance hall that helps drive shoppers into down, Garcia said.

In the mid 20th Century, La Villita helped turn Robertson’s five-block stretch into one of the Rio Grande Valley’s most popular night stops, drawing fans to dance to the hits of conjunto music’s pioneers.

“La Villita is an historic dance hall so people have their memories,” Garcia said.

Garcia said vendors are coming from the across the Valley to the city’s new Market Days.

Inside La Villita, vendors are showing off everything from homemade crafts to organic skin care products.

“We have vendors from the Upper Valley, Port Isabel and Los Fresnos,” she said. “We see a lot coming from McAllen.”

Business is booming.

“It’s going strong,” Garcia said. “According to our vendors, their sales have gone up. They’re very, very happy.”

fdelvalle@valleystar.com