Hot water gets deeper for former Bexar County constable

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Michelle Barrientes Vela, a former Bexar County constable, and three of her deputies are being investigated for the felonies of evidence tampering, perjury, and official oppression, according to a search warrant affidavit released Tuesday.

Vela and the three high-ranking deputy constables —  former Capt. Marc Garcia, Chief Deputy Constable Anthony Castillo and Lt. Jeremy Miner — have been under investigation by the Texas Rangers since May 9. A raid of Vela’s home and office on Sept. 23 revealed that the FBI had joined in the investigation.

Vela, who left the constable’s office Oct. 10, told The Texas Monitor she is the victim of a conspiracy on the part of high-ranking law enforcement officials in Bexar County, including Sheriff Javier Salazar, whom Barrientes Vela said she intends to challenge for that office in 2020.

During her abbreviated term as constable, the outspoken Vela had run-ins with Salazar, District Attorney Joe Gonzales and County Judge Nelson Wolff. But it was her interactions with subordinates in her department — in particular, her former Chief Deputy Leonicio Moreno and former Deputy Chris De La Cerda — that prompted the investigation and raid.

The Rangers initiated their investigation after complaints from local police, county officials, and members of the public over Vela’s arrest of Moreno in April. The arrest was the culmination of a clash that began with Moreno alleging that Vela made sexual advances, which he said he rejected, in a hot tub during a work retreat in July 2017 in Galveston. 

According to the search warrant affidavit published Tuesday by KENS-TV in San Antonio, Vela and three of her deputies are suspected of committing felonies in the handling of Moreno and De La Cerda, whose lawsuits against Vela are pending.

After Moreno made his accusation, the affidavit says, Vela demoted him to lieutenant and ordered counseling for his failure to complete Texas Commission on Law Enforcement training. Vela also upbraided Moreno for gossiping on his lunch break, the affidavit says. 

Vela escalated her campaign against the two by firing Moreno and De La Cerda for falsifying training documents, the affidavit says. After a review, the Bexar County Civil Service Commission ordered both officers reinstated in June 2018.

The affidavit said Vela resumed punishing Moreno for disciplinary infractions that included failing to check a public restroom properly and failing to create a report acknowledging escorting someone from a district courtroom.

Days after Moreno filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Garcia got a warrant for his arrest, charging him with felony aggravated perjury on the grounds that his EEOC complaint was false, the affidavit says.

In April, after Vela was notified she was being sued by Moreno and De La Cerda, Lt. Miner ordered deputies to arrest him but to delay bringing Moreno to jail until local media could be notified, the affidavit says. Miner denied to Ranger investigators that he gave any such order. 

Additionally, the affidavit, which includes an inventory of evidence culled from the raids, said state and federal agencies are continuing to investigate how Vela and Castillo handled a park security issue on Easter Sunday.

A man who had reserved a pavilion at Rodriguez Park told investigators he paid $300 to Vela after she first told him she had reserved the pavilion herself and later returned with Castillo and then told the man he had to pay for security.

Rangers investigators subpoenaed records of the incident, including a complaint filed with the Sheriff’s Department by the man in the park.

According to the affidavit, Vela took constable records home and also ordered records changed and the names of all deputies involved in the park incident, including Castillo’s, to be removed. 

One of the constable’s clerks told investigators Vela several times charged for park security and kept the payments, the affidavit said.

Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].

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