Mercedes woman fearful of police after being arrested when seeking help

When 58-year-old Nelda Ortega walked into the Mercedes Police Department on April 16 to file harassment charges, police there would end up arresting her instead.

On April 24, Mercedes police arrested the longtime resident and charged her with tampering with physical evidence, alleging she erased Facebook Messenger communications between her and the alleged harasser with the intent to impair evidence in the investigation she asked for.

In an interview with The Monitor, Ortega alleged the harassment began after she commented on a Facebook post by Mercedes mayoral candidate Israel Coronado. She discussed efforts to obtain the probable cause affidavit against her, which the city of Mercedes stifled and in doing so may have violated the Texas Public Information Act.

She also says she feels targeted for fighting back in court after Mercedes police ticketed her in a car accident that she said was not her fault. The person she says is at fault is a Mercedes police officer, who was on duty at the time of the crash.

Mercedes police Chief Dagoberto “Dago” Chavez does not comment to The Monitor on arrests his agency makes, instead claiming the newspaper needs to file public information requests for details that fall under his responsibility to divulge. Ortega’s efforts to obtain information about her arrest through the Texas Public Information Act with the city of Mercedes have also proven fruitless.

In remarks he made on Facebook on Wednesday, Chavez also called The Monitor “fake news,” a common attack by public officials who seek to discredit reporting.

What’s not fake is the charge against Ortega, which hasn’t been presented to a grand jury and is still sitting in intake at the Hidalgo County District Attorney’s Office.

THE CASE

Ortega says the person she filed charges against began harassing her on April 6, when she made a comment on a Facebook post made by Coronado, a Mercedes mayoral candidate.

The Monitor is not identifying her alleged harasser because the person has not been charged.

“I was on a page where it was one of our mayoral candidates that is running for mayor and he had posted about term limits and all the businesses closing down, and there was one particular business that had not closed down,” Ortega said. “I have some neighbors that are old and I said I think they should close that business down because those older people will get infected with the pandemic. That’s all I posted on the mayoral candidate’s post.”

Ortega says the individual took a screenshot of her comment and posted it on his Facebook account saying she was wrong. According to Ortega, she responded by saying to each his own.

“From then on he started bashing me and inboxing me and sending me voicemails that I was a (expletive) and that I was (expletive) stupid and ‘you (expletive)’ and no wonder your son killed himself,” Ortega says. “A mother never stops grieving.”

Soon, she says she went to the Mercedes Police Department to file charges, but, according to Ortega, an officer told her that because she responded to the man she could not file harassment charges.

“The officer … he says, ‘Ma’am, you’re going back-and-forth,’ and he says, ‘What you need to do is tell him all contact is unwanted,'” Ortega said. “And that is what I did and I did it on April 10th. And, well, from April 10th this way he wasn’t supposed to contact me and he still did and I didn’t reply and so I went to the police department and I said, ‘Here it is. I want to file charges on harassment. He’s gone too far.'”

Ortega filed the charges on April 16, according to a probable cause affidavit.

She provided the newspaper with screenshots from Facebook Messenger where she tells the man “Please stop contacting me” on April 10. The screenshots she provided shows that the man continued to contact her through messages and voice messages.

However, within two days of filing charges, it appears the Mercedes Police Department began investigating Ortega instead of the person she filed charges against.

“The investigator said ‘OK’ and I started showing him the messages and I said, ‘Wait, let me let you hear some of the voicemails.’ So I knew from before April 10th, those messages were not any good. Why? Because we were going back-and-forth so I couldn’t get him for harassment. So for April 10th this way is when I needed to file,” Ortega said. “So the investigator listened. Two days later he calls me and he says, ‘Ma’am, did you erase any messages?’ And I said, ‘No sir,’ and he says, ‘Thank you.’ And he calls me back two days later and he says, ‘Are you sure you didn’t erase any messages?’ And I said, ‘No.'”

Ortega believed the subject of the investigation concerned messages beginning on April 10, when she told the man to stop contacting her. She believes this because she says the officer told her she couldn’t file charges for harassment if she responded to the man, according to Ortega.

According to the probable cause affidavit, Mercedes police investigator Jose Hernandez spoke to the man Ortega accused of harassing her and said he “showed evidence” that Ortega erased messages from Facebook Messenger.

The probable cause affidavit makes no distinction of when the messages were erased but the document does say she received multiple Facebook Messenger messages, text messages and phone calls from the man after she told him to stop contacting her.

And it appears that Mercedes police told the man they were going to arrest Ortega, according to a screenshot of a Facebook post Ortega provided to The Monitor.

“For my beloved prima nelda whom last week went to go file chargers (sic) against me for harassment guess what case got closed because you tampered with evidence so don’t be surprise (sic) if you yourself get arrested soon. Nobody harassed you. You lied you (sic). You deleted all your messages and kept mine only. Like if I was the only one contacting you. Great job to Mercedes investigators,” the man wrote in the post.

The next day, Ortega said she went to the Mercedes Police Department seeking a meeting with Chavez, the chief, Hernandez, the investigator, and the city manager to say she thought the investigation concerned only messages beginning on April 10, based on the advice she says a Mercedes police officer provided to her.

“I was going to talk to them and tell them, ‘Sir, from April the 10th to now all contact is unwanted and this is what I’m filing for,’ and, ‘You all are telling this individual who is going to get arrested? How does he know I’m going to get arrested,'” Ortega said. “As soon as I get out of the meeting and walk out of the building, and I’m talking to them, all of a sudden I see two women officers tell me there’s a warrant for my arrest.”

Ortega was taken to Weslaco Municipal Court where she was arraigned and taken to the Hidalgo County Detention Center on April 24 where she was booked and released on a $2,000 personal recognizance bond that same day.

After her arrest, the person who she accused of harassing her posted her mug shot to Facebook and called her a prostitute.

SEEKING ANSWERS

A few days after her arrest, on April 27, Ortega printed out the city of Mercedes’ online PDF open records request form, which appears to be the only way the city accepts the requests.

Municipalities and governmental agencies throughout the Rio Grande Valley have implemented online portals or provided citizens with email addresses to file these requests.

In a letter dated May 5, City Secretary Joselynn Castillo responded: “Please be advised that Mercedes PD is unable to provide the documents requesting (sic). This is an ongoing criminal investigation that has been forwarded to the DA’s office. If you have any other questions or concerns your attorney may contact them at any time.”

Ortega said she never received a request for an opinion by the city of Mercedes to the Texas Attorney General and Castillo’s letter makes no mention of any effort to seek an opinion from the AG’s office.

The Texas Public Information Act requires that a governmental agency wishing to withhold public information from a requester seeks an attorney general’s opinion and send a copy of that request for an opinion, which would contain the exemptions the city seeks to invoke, to the requester.

A municipality may not unilaterally decide to withhold public information from a requester without a request for an opinion. A governmental agency may cite a previous attorney general’s ruling that allows it to withhold public information. However, if a municipality does this, the requester may refile, forcing that municipality to seek an opinion from the attorney general’s office.

If the city of Mercedes had sought an opinion seeking to withhold a probable cause affidavit because of an ongoing investigation, the city likely would have lost as probable cause affidavits are generally considered public information once the target of one is arrested and makes a first appearance.

The Monitor requests hundreds of these affidavits every year and typically the only time these affidavits cannot be obtained is when a minor is involved, which is not the case here.

The Monitor obtained a copy of Ortega’s probable cause affidavit Wednesday by filing a Texas Public Information Act request with the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office, which promptly provided The Monitor a copy of the affidavit less than an hour after it made the request — as required by law.

WHY HER?

During Ortega’s interview with The Monitor, it was clear she felt the Mercedes Police Department targeted her from the get-go.

When asked why, she said, “Back on Nov. 3 of 2019 I was in a car accident with an officer. She hit me and at that time I was very much struggling and working on an occupational license. So there was one ticket I didn’t pay in Houston and that’s why my license had been suspended.”

According to a Texas Department of Transportation crash report submitted by the Mercedes Police Department the accident occurred on Nov. 1, 2019. That document alleges that Ortega failed to yield the right-of-way while taking a left turn and hit the Mercedes police officer. That report also alleges that Ortega said she couldn’t see very well, possibly contributing to the crash.

Ortega disputes that narrative.

“She hit me. I didn’t hit her. When she hit me, Chief Dago pulls me to the side and tells me, ‘Well, here between you and I, I’m going to have to give you a ticket,'” Ortega said. “I said, ‘Why?’ She hit me and she was even telling me, ‘I’m sorry ma’am. I was on my phone. I was on a call.'”

It’s not immediately clear why a police executive would respond to a minor vehicle crash.

Ortega claims no one investigated the crash or took any videos or photos to document the incident. She says Chavez showed up on the scene after she and the officer pulled over to the side of the road.

“And one of the officers, he started messing with the video camera in the vehicle and I saw it and I told the chief and said, ‘What’s he doing?’ And the chief says he’s reviewing the video,” Ortega said.

The woman says Chavez threatened to arrest her for driving without a license and that she protested that. In the end, police wrote her a ticket.

Well, Ortega decided to fight the case in court, and won. The prosecutor dismissed the case in the interest of justice. Ortega provided The Monitor with a copy of the dismissal.

“And after that I went to court and I fought it and in court the prosecutor was so upset because they had requested the video footage of the cop car and they never presented anything,” Ortega said.

She said she posted about her victory over the ticket on Facebook.

“And sure enough, I get pulled over and (the officer) says aren’t you the one who ran into the officer,” Ortega said.

Ortega claims she has been pulled over three times for alleged minor traffic infractions since the crash case against her was dismissed, which she believes is retribution for winning that case.

She claimed that in one instance the officer was just going to let her go, until she says he got a phone call and changed his mind and ticketed her.

There is no evidence to suggest that the Mercedes Police Department is targeting her, but this is how she says she feels. She also believes this is why Mercedes police charged her with tampering with physical evidence as opposed to charging the man she says is harassing her.

Since that car accident and what she says is her ensuing trouble with Mercedes police, Ortega said she’s fearful to run errands.

“I’m scared to even go to the store thinking maybe I’ll miss a light or move a little bit outside the road and then they’ll stop me,” Ortega said.

As for her alleged harasser, she says she tried to get a restraining order from the city of Mercedes after she began feeling suicidal because of the alleged harassment.

“She said she would see what she could do and she calls back and says she can’t because you have a felony case pending,” Ortega said, referring to a city attorney she said she talked to.

She says she has lived in Mercedes for 57 years and has never had a conflict with law enforcement.

“I never had any issues,” Ortega said. “And then, oh wow, we have a new chief. Maybe he’ll do a good job but oh my God he thinks he’s the owner of Mercedes. He is a guy that he cannot be wrong. It’s his way or the highway.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated to clarify information about Ortega’s traffic ticket.