A look back at crime in 2019

Jose Luis Garcia Jr. waits for his sentencing hearing outside the 389th state District Court on Nov. 8 in Edinburg. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

In the last 365 days, Hidalgo County has seen its share of crime.

With the close of 2019, here’s a look back at two high-profile crimes, a jury trial and a brief examination of violent incidents ending in murder.

DEADLY TWO MONTHS

As of August last year, Hidalgo County had just 10 murders.

However, November and December would drastically change that statistic.

In the last two months of the year, authorities here investigated the deaths of 10 people as murders. Those cases involved a double homicide in Alton and a triple homicide in Edinburg, bringing the total amount of murders in Hidalgo County in 2019 to 20.

Among the victims this year are Texas Department of Public Safety Trooper Moises Sanchez and Mission police Cpl. “Speedy” Espericueta.

The Edinburg Police Department investigated the murder of seven people this year, the most of any municipality in Hidalgo County followed by the Weslaco Police Department, which investigated two murders.

In all of these cases, except for four, authorities have made arrests.

Of those four, the cities of Weslaco, Progreso and Palmview had not made an arrest while the suspect in the Edinburg triple homicide is believed to have taken his own life.

‘A DARK DAY’

2019’s most shocking crime became public after Edinburg police responded to an apartment at 305 W. Kuhn St. early on the morning of Dec. 11.

Inside Apt. 5, authorities discovered 19-year-old Rebecca Lee Cantu at the bottom of a stairwell with a gunshot wound to her head. Rebecca’s neck had also been cut. Police found 30-year-old home healthcare worker Aaron Cortez dead in the upstairs bathroom from gunshot wounds to his neck and his head. Authorities discovered 57-year-old Saul Ramon Avila in a bedroom on the second story with a gunshot wound to his chest. They also found an unharmed toddler in another bedroom.

Hours after discovering Rebecca Lee, Cortez and Avila, police found 48-year-old Magdalena Cantu dead from knife wounds to her neck in a laundry room adjacent to the apartment.

The investigation would reveal that Magdalena was Rebecca Lee’s mother and that she was dating Avila. Nine days after the murders, Chief Cesar Torres said that on Dec. 6, four days before the murder, Rebecca Lee went to the police department to complain that Avila had been sexually molesting her for five years. Authorities believe the toddler is the offspring of Rebecca Lee and Avila. Authorities also believe Magdalena knew of Avila’s abuse and allowed it.

Cortez was at the home to take care of the toddler, who needed 24-hour care.

Police believe Avila somehow found out about Rebecca Lee going to the police department and then went to the apartment and murdered them all.

NOT GUILTY

A jury spent 13 hours between Nov. 7 and 8 deliberating on the fate of 19-year-old Starr County resident Jose Luis Garcia, who was accused of orchestrating the murder and dismemberment of 17-year-old Chayse Olivarez in August 2017.

During the trial, the Starr County District Attorney’s Office showed jurors a video where Garcia walked Texas Ranger Eric Lopez through the crime scene at an abandoned property in Roma. In the video, Garcia explains how his co-defendant lured Olivarez to the property where he was hiding. When Olivarez arrived, Garcia told the Ranger that he came out of hiding and shot Olivarez two to three times. After walking the Ranger through the crime scene, Garcia then led Lopez to the bank of the Rio Grande 5 miles away from the crime scene where he disposed of the murder weapon, which a DPS ballistics expert determined was the gun used to kill Olivarez.

The trial also included defense accusations that Garcia and Olivarez’s families were rival drug traffickers and that Olivarez had repeatedly threatened to kill Garcia.

Case closed?

Not by a long shot. Garcia’s attorneys argued Lopez coerced a confession from Garcia and that the officer who pulled Garcia over before taking the man to the sheriff’s office where he was interrogated did so illegally.

Before the jury went into deliberations, visiting state District Judge Rogelio Valdez instructed them to disregard the traffic stop and any evidence obtained from the stop if they determined that stop lacked probable cause. Valdez also instructed the jury to disregard the confession if they found it was coerced.

At 1:30 a.m. Nov. 8, the jury shuffled back into a tense courtroom and declared Garcia not guilty of murder. They did, however, decide he was guilty of tampering with evidence and sentenced him to eight years in prison later that day.

Garcia has filed a notice of appeal and is seeking to expunge the murder charge from his record based on his acquittal.

BETRAYING THE BADGE?

In early March, the Edinburg Police Department responded to a hectic crime scene. A 34-year-old woman had been shot twice and told authorities she believed the man who shot her had taken their 1-year-old child.

Police found that child unharmed and abandoned in a residence by where the shooting took place.

Investigators eventually arrested former Border Patrol agent Ricardo Cepeda Jr., who they say held the child while shooting at the woman who was his ex-girlfriend.

During a Dec. 9 court hearing, a prosecutor revealed that the violent incident happened during the first court-ordered custody drop-off, as well as saying that Cepeda had been under investigation by Border Patrol for incidents involving alcohol.

Cepeda is charged with attempted murder and abandoning a child.

He has entered not guilty pleas and remains jailed.

mreagan@themonitor.com