Feature Stories from the Sheriff's Office

See below to read more on the following topics and others:

Email scam alert

Anadarko
gas plant scenario

Missing & exploited children

Human trafficking crimes

New phone scams

Oilfield disaster drill

"Support crime prevention..."

Sheriff encourages association membership

La Salle County Sheriff Miguel Rodriguez is summoning support this week from among area residents keen on becoming involved in ongoing crimefighting efforts and in helping promote law enforcement through membership in a statewide association.

The sheriff said he is responding to the increased number of citizens wanting to assist law enforcement officials and build a stronger partnership in the fight against crime.

An associate membership in the Sheriff’s Association of Texas helps fund critical training, technical resources and legislative support on key criminal justice issues to law enforcement officers across the state, according to the organization in a prepared statement this week.

In addition, membership dues will be used to support crime prevention and awareness programs, promote public safety, fight drug abuse, provide additional training for sheriffs and their deputies, and provide scholarships for children of law enforcement officers.

Contributions to the Sheriff’s Association of Texas are tax-deductible. Members receive the organization’s quarterly publication, “The Lawman,” which includes law enforcement news and crimefighting tips as well as feature stories; a weekly E-newsletter, a membership card and a window sticker. Membership dues are $25 for individuals and $40 for families. Members may also make their own donations to the organization in addition to their annual dues to help boost training and scholarship programs.

“This membership drive helps provide the funding which is vital to our mission of making our communities safer places to live, work and play,” Sheriff Rodriguez said. He added that he believes there is an increasing need for stronger partnerships between the public and law enforcement agencies, and that programs such as membership in the Sheriff’s Association of Texas are growing in importance.

“I encourage every citizen to consider joining forces with us by becoming an associate member in the organization,” the sheriff said. “It is a valuable investment in our future.”

Membership is available by contacting the association at 1601 South Interstate 35, Austin, Texas 78741 or online at txsheriffs.org.

Founded in 1874, the Sheriff’s Association of Texas is a nonprofit professional and educational organization dedicated to the preservation of peace and the protection of the lives and property of the citizens of Texas. Steve Westbrook serves as the organization’s executive director.

The association does not make solicitations for membership or donations by telephone. Anyone receiving a telephone call from someone using the name of the Sheriff’s Association of Texas should report the offense to the local sheriff’s office.   

La Salle welcomes new DPS sergeant

By Marc Robertson
Area law enforcement agency representatives met in the La Salle County Courthouse Monday, January 30, to celebrate the promotion of Texas Highway Patrol Sergeant JD Rodriguez, who has taken command of the Department of Public Safety’s Cotulla office.

(L-R) La Salle County Lt. Mike Bostwick, USBP Watch Cdr. Rey Enriquez, DPS Highway Patrol Sgt. JD Rodriguez,
La Salle County Sheriff Miguel Rodriguez and USBP Patrol Agent in Charge Sammy Posada
Rodriguez is a 2003 graduate of Dilley High School and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in criminal justice with an emphasis on law enforcement from Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi in 2007. He joined the Texas Department of Public Safety the following year by attending the law enforcement academy, from which he graduated in 2008. He was promptly assigned to patrol duties as a trooper headquartered in the Cotulla station and has remained there his entire service career. For the past three years, he has operated as a trooper for the Commercial Vehicle Enforcement branch of the Highway Patrol.

Sgt. Rodriguez’ principal duties in the DPS Cotulla office include supervising all of the troopers assigned there and overseeing their investigations as well as the day-to-day operations of the law enforcement department. His promotion became effective Wednesday, Jan. 25.

“I’m looking forward to working with the troopers here and with all of the law enforcement agencies in the area, including the sheriff’s office and the US Border Patrol,” the sergeant said. “I believe that we have a commitment to serve all of the people of the local community, the region and the state in law enforcement for the protection of lives and property and for the safety and wellbeing of the people who depend on us, both in their neighborhoods and on the highways and byways of Texas.”

Sgt. Rodriguez added that he expects to work in close collaboration with county, state and federal agencies. He was joined in a brief welcoming ceremony in the La Salle County district courtroom by La Salle County Sheriff Miguel Rodriguez and Lt. Mike Bostwick, and by US Border Patrol Cotulla Station Patrol Agent in Charge Sammy Posada and Watch Commander Rey Enriquez.

"We want to warn people of the dangers..."

Scam artists target victims through social media, prey on vulnerable internet users

Prize offers and income opportunities are fake, investigators say

By Marc Robertson
The La Salle County Sheriff’s Office is issuing an alert this week to area residents who may be contacted by callers or through social media with offers of prize money or opportunities to earn extra income.

A company calling itself Global International has contacted a number of La Salle County residents in recent days to announce that prize winnings of between $3 million and $10 million can be claimed immediately.

The story, according to La Salle Cpl. Anthony Zertuche, is entirely fictitious, and leads promptly to a request that the potential prize recipient send $500 to a distant address in order that “identity and address may be confirmed” and the prize money claimed.

Cpl. Zertuche said he investigated the apparent scam and contacted a number that he was given by a potential victim, to find that the call led to Calgary, Alberta, Canada. An internet search, he said, subsequently revealed that the number belongs to a company by the name of Distributel, which operates in Canada.

“The person reporting the attempted scam told me that the caller was very persistent and demanding,” Cpl. Zertuche said. “We want to warn people of the dangers of these scams. This is a trick to get you to give up your money. There is no prize waiting for you.”

The sheriff’s office is reiterating a reminder to all area residents never to give banking information, social security numbers, or any personal information to callers, by email or over social media, when those callers are not known personally.

“Do not fall for a trick like this,” the officer said. “No one should ever have to pay up front to claim a prize or to become eligible for an award of any kind.”

The Western Union money transfer organization repeatedly reminds its customers never to wire money to strangers and not to wire money in advance for products or merchandise that they have been promised. Funds sent by wire transfer cannot be reclaimed and are often untraceable.

In a further scheme, scam artists have been advertising income opportunities on social media sites, including the popular Facebook network, offering to pay for a program in which privately owned cars are wrapped in vinyl advertising. That program, according to the sheriff’s office and several nationwide media sources, is a money transfer trick that involves cashing one check and paying with a second.

Callers who respond to the advertisement are told in a congratulatory email, phone text or social media message that they have been approved for the special program and should shortly receive a check that they may deposit in their bank account.

One of the organizations advertising on Facebook goes by the name of Imflash Technology Company, whose representative uses the name of Collins Anderson.

“Please confirm that you did receive this message so that we can process funds that would be sent to you for the Wrap Program,” the company notes in its email to potential scam victims. That email is then followed by another approximately three days later, including the message “Your silence has been giving me hard time at work because my boss has been raising eye up on me. Please feed me back about the check you deposited, so we can get your vehicle wrap this week.”

The messages include faulty English grammar and spelling, and indicate an unfamiliarity with the language. References are made to opportunities for income of $500 a month with advertising for products such as Subway, Coca-Cola and Red Bull. There is no regard for the age or condition of the client’s vehicle. 

A check is mailed to potential victims in the amount of $1,850 or more, and recipients are encouraged to deposit the money in the bank, keep their portion of the funds as payment and then to make a withdrawal to pay a company that will place advertisements on cars.

The checks are mailed from out-of-state companies, including Aurveda Wellness Corp. in Boonton, New Jersey, and are written on non-existent accounts, among them JP Morgan Chase Bank. When recipients deposit the checks and make withdrawals, they are held responsible for the funds. The money they have drawn from their accounts cannot be retrieved.

In most cases, scam victims are lured by potential prizes, easy income, or calls for help, according to investigators. Persistent calls and messages add urgency and indicate that deadlines are approaching, that such offers may not be made again, or that the person managing the prize money or business deal is under pressure to complete the transaction.

“You have to be vigilant and you have to trust your instincts,” Cpl. Zertuche said. “Be aware of what kind of tricks are being pulled out there, and remember the rule that if it looks too good to be true, it probably isn’t true.”    

"No one should ever have to pay up front to claim a prize"

"The trick is to get you to give up your
money"

"If it
looks too good
to be
true, it probably isn't true"

LEPC hears updates on grants, disaster response

By Marc Robertson
La Salle Fire Rescue & EMS Chief Les Simmons presided over a meeting of the Local Emergency Planning Committee on Wednesday, February 22, with news on grant awards for technology, equipment and personnel.

The LEPC was created in La Salle County under the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA) to help in the development of an emergency response plan, and in La Salle County this means coordinating the resources of fire, ambulance, school, county and municipal government, energy industry, healthcare and law enforcement. Meetings are held quarterly and involve key players from each area offering assistance in the overall improvement of a response to a disaster, natural or man-made.

In a brief update on plans for upgrades to the Larry Griffin Emergency Operations Center and its adaptability as a central command post in the event of a disaster, Simmons said the county has received a grant for interactive tablets that may be used by emergency responders in communications and for access to online resources. The funds from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, he said, were awarded after an application was filed with help from Travis County Fire Chief Don Smith and Soteria Solutions consultant Michelle Joseph. The new tablets, Simmons said, will be assigned to officers in the field and will be linked to the command post, where a new interactive projector has been installed.

Simmons also noted that airborne assistance from ET Page at Cotulla Airport will be vital in the coordinated response to an emergency, notably in the event of a wildfire or flood, and that overhead communications will likewise be linked via live feed to the command post.

“We have also applied for a grant for a new ambulance,” the chief said, noting that the county is experiencing a disadvantage in the closure of Dilley Community General Hospital, with medical transports now having to travel at least 36 miles to Frio Regional Hospital, which means longer patient transfer and equipment turnaround times.

Other grants have been applied for in the development of a command and first response station at Encinal, where a fire and ambulance station is being completed.

“We want the Cotulla station to become a quick-attack response station with a full-time staff,” the fire chief said, noting that he believes La Salle County needs to be able to deploy its emergency response manpower and equipment at a moment’s notice in the event of an industrial mishap, wildfire or other disaster. “Resources in technology and personnel will help us to improve the county’s ISO rating.”

The rating, which determines the level of risk at which any property stands in a fire department’s coverage area, thereby dictating the cost of property insurance, has improved by three points in the past three years with the development of the La Salle Fire Rescue & EMS, the purchase of new equipment, development of a comprehensive emergency management plan, and upgrades to firefighting equipment. The rating applies to commercial as well as residential property insurance rates.

LEPC attendees also learned that La Salle County commissioners have given the green light to an emergency notification system by Alert Sense, whose representatives gave a demonstration at a recent meeting in the county courthouse. The countywide warning system will function in the same way as the reverse-911, whereby area residents are notified of an emergency by a telephone or website alert.

“This is a more effective alternative to a siren, or to the emergency dispatcher having to call everyone,” Simmons said.

In other business at their meeting, LEPC members appointed spokespersons from represented areas of county government, public and private services, healthcare, emergency response, utilities, schools, transportation, media relations, law enforcement, technology and the energy industry to serve on a committee that will meet in May, August, November and February to share updates and improve coordinated emergency response tactics. An ad hoc committee of representatives was likewise created to draft the LEPC bylaws for La Salle County.
La Salle Fire Rescue & EMS Chief Les Simmons outlines the details of grants that he hopes will help enhance the county's emergency response equipment.
Pete Cordova, La Salle County Chief Deputy Malcolm Watson and Travis County Fire Chief Don Smith discuss emergency response management after the quarterly LEPC meeting.

Commissioners budget $20K for volunteer organization...

La Salle boosts
child
advocacy group
with funds

By Marc Robertson
The Court-Appointed Special Advocates of South Texas will benefit again this year from a fund injection by the La Salle County Commissioners’ Court, which voted unanimously on Monday, January 30, to provide $20,000 to the group whose volunteer members come to the aid of abused and neglected children.
SPEAK FOR THE CHILDREN – CASA of South Texas outreach coordinator Francie Gasch meets La Salle County elected officials on Monday, January 30, for the official notification of funding for the children’s advocacy group. Pictured with Gasch are (L-R) Commissioners Erasmo Ramirez Jr. and Raul Ayala, County Judge Joel Rodriguez, and Commissioners Jack Alba and Noel Niavez.
(Courtesy photo)

CASA of South Texas covers several counties in the region and is made up of a team of children’s advocates who help address the youngsters’ concerns in court and speak to a judge on their behalf in cases that may result in decisions affecting the children’s short- and long-term housing. The county government had planned ahead for the financial contribution in its annual budget.

Children who are moved from the custody of their parents and who may be sent into foster homes or who may be subject to adoption will meet with advocates who help them voice their concerns and help document offenses that may have been committed against them.

In La Salle County, CASA of South Texas works closely with Child Protective Services, county law enforcement, the 81st Judicial District Attorney’s Office and the Children’s Alliance advocacy center in Cotulla. Volunteer members of the organization will review children’s cases and meet the youngsters in a safe and supervised environment in order to provide emotional support and to reassure the children that their needs will be met if they are properly addressed in court.

Representing CASA, outreach coordinator Francie Gasch said that she believes La Salle County’s contribution of $20,000 will go a long way towards supporting the volunteer advocates’ work and will enable the organization to reach more children in need of supportive services.

“We have cases in which parents or step-parents may have been responsible for physically abusing children, and that includes very young children, and these cases are heartbreaking,” Gasch said. “Every case we see deserves our full attention, and every child in need deserves to have his or her best interests addressed in court.

“For some of these children, life has been nothing but disappointment, fear and uncertainty,” she said. “We are here to put an end to that, to make sure these children know that they will find a loving home, a forever home.”

In some cases, the CASA volunteers will work on a child’s case for more than a year, attending court hearings, meeting the child at least once a month and continually reviewing and updating the case folder.

“Our number one concern will always be the child’s welfare,” Gasch said. “It’s the reason we are here, and we want to see that child moved to a place of love and safety.”

CASA of South Texas volunteer advocates work in La Salle, Frio, Atascosa, Karnes and Wilson counties. The organization is part of a nationwide network of volunteer advocacy groups comprising more than 150,000 members. The organization is extending its thanks to the county commissioners for their support of the advocates’ work.

"For some of these children, life has been nothing but disappointment, fear and uncertainty...

We are here to put an end to that"

- Francie Gasch
CASA of South Texas

La Salle County Sheriff begins second term...

"We will
be ready"

Rodriguez looks to lessons from past four years
i n preparedness for the future

By Marc Robertson
The retired Texas Highway Patrol corporal aimed at leading the La Salle County Sheriff’s Office into a time of growth and change when he was elected to the top law enforcement job in 2012.

He began serving his constituents at the peak of the Eagle Ford Shale energy industry’s economic boom and has been re-elected to serve them another four years.

At the same time as he worked to stay ahead of increasing demands for law enforcement in La Salle County, Sheriff Miguel Rodriguez was seeing his community transformed and worked with a team of administrators to meet the challenges that the future would hold.

Those challenges would strike the community and its government from all sides.
“We had to deal with a huge increase in the number of traffic accidents on the highway and on other roads when I took office,” the sheriff said a week after being sworn into office for his second elected term this month. “We were still dealing with a lot of local issues, like drug-related crime, but then we had new issues that this county had never seen before. It wasn’t all good news.”

Rodriguez ran unopposed for re-election in the Democratic Party primaries in March 2016 and faced a write-in candidate on the ballot in the November general election. He prevailed in large part, he says, because his department had developed a close rapport with La Salle County’s residents and had succeeded in meeting the demands of a faster-moving economy and population shifts brought on by the energy industry.

“The days when a sheriff could employ just a couple of deputies in that old-fashioned small-town way of life were history,” the sheriff said. “The people of La Salle County want to keep the small-town way of life, which is a positive thing, and we have to protect that while the world around us is changing. Families need to know that we are patrolling their streets to keep them safe, and kids need to know that we will make sure they are safe on their way to school.”

During Rodriguez’ first four years as La Salle County sheriff, the local population grew to exceed 6,000 in Cotulla alone; City Hall estimates at the peak of the oil boom indicated that as many as ten thousand workers could be found in the city on any given weekday. La Salle County welcomed the economic boost; multiple family members were finding work, contributing to their household income; oil revenues and elevated property values were feeding the county and city with funds that would help pave streets, improve utilities and provide for better law enforcement, emergency response and local government services. When Rodriguez took office, Cotulla city councilors had approved establishing a law enforcement partnership with the La Salle County Sheriff’s Office for a city police department at a rate of $375,000 per year. The Cotulla Patrol Division is supervised by a sheriff’s sergeant and maintains a law enforcement presence for rapid response within city limits where none had been previously guaranteed.

"We had new issues that
this county
had never
seen before...
It wasn't all good news"

"We had to
plan ahead
at the same time as we
were dealing with the changes"

“It was as if the county changed overnight,” the sheriff said. “We had new hotels and businesses being built along the interstate, which meant that we had to provide extra manpower to deal with all the new traffic. On the highway, we were seeing many more accidents. Out in the field, there was the constant danger of an industrial accident that would occupy all of our forces. We had to plan ahead at the same time as we were dealing with the changes.”

The sheriff’s office grew to include more than two dozen law enforcement officers, plus the county’s emergency dispatch and a new crew of certified correctional officers to staff the La Salle County Jail, which reopened during Rodriguez’ first term. At the same time, La Salle County assumed control of the Regional Detention Center at Encinal, a facility that houses federal detainees from the US Marshals Service. In order to earn sufficient revenues to pay for its construction costs and daily operating expenses, the detention center must hold a break-even minimum of 300 inmates and earn $20,000 per day for the county. As chief law enforcement officer for the county, the sheriff took control of the facility and oversaw the hiring of all its jailers and support staff. He also had to work closely with county commissioners to ensure that funds were made available for urgent repairs to the ten-year-old detention center whose fixtures and fittings had deteriorated. 

“When we knew what we were going to be dealing with, we were able to set a plan in motion to get the job done, and I’m very proud of the administrators and staff who have kept both of these detention facilities in top running condition,” the sheriff said. “Each one of these buildings needs constant maintenance and has to pass inspection by state and federal authorities. You can’t open a detention center that isn’t fully equipped or doesn’t meet standards. You can’t allow yourself to slip. Not once.”

An industrial accident at a remote site in eastern La Salle County helped increase public awareness of the need for a fully equipped county fire and rescue service and served to justify the county’s expenditure in creating the La Salle Fire & Rescue, which now operates out of a new station on the east side of Cotulla and will soon open a substation in Encinal. As the county developed its emergency response services, the sheriff’s office kept the pace with officer training and equipment upgrades.

“You don’t train all your guys just once and send them out,” the sheriff said of the need to stay ahead of the curve in emergency response. “You have to keep up with changes in the industry and you have to know what’s going on out there. We have to work very closely with the Fire & Rescue to make sure we are all working on the same page and that we are prepared to deal with any incident.”

La Salle County law enforcement officers routinely attend training seminars and industry update workshops with the county’s firefighters and medics. Sheriff Rodriguez said he believes a close working relationship between departments is critical.

“You’re not just going out there to block the road or direct traffic, if there is an emergency,” the sheriff said. “You’re going there to make sure anyone that needs to be evacuated is safe and that the firefighters can do their job. When it comes down to it, this is a matter of life and death in an emergency.”

An incident on IH-35 during the summer of 2015, in which a gunman threatened officers and other motorists for more than ten hours before he was shot by local deputies, brought attention to the need for a law enforcement department that could respond to simultaneous events.
“By the time we had the standoff on the highway, we were already fully staffed, and that emergency showed we were ready to tackle something that was totally new to La Salle County,” the sheriff said.

"When it comes down to it, this is a matter of life and death in an emergency"

"Protecting the residents, ready to respond to emergencies, prepared to handle disasters"

“These things that have happened in the past few years have really been a wake-up call to everyone, that times have changed,” the sheriff said. “We were able to deal with these incidents because we were ready. We had the manpower, the training and the equipment.”

The sheriff looks ahead to his second term with hopes that the regional economy will stabilize, that employment levels will rise, that developers will continue looking to La Salle County for their business sites, and that traffic flow will be safer. Each factor, he believes, will affect the lives of La Salle County’s residents.

“The most important issue for us as a law enforcement department is the safety of the people of our communities,” the sheriff said. “That means protecting families in their homes, children going to school, businesses operating without fear of crime.

“Where do we go from here? We will continue to keep a fully staffed law enforcement agency that is ready to grow,” the sheriff said. “We will continue to serve the community by protecting the residents, being ready to respond to emergencies, being prepared to handle disasters, and keeping our manpower trained.

“We maintain a very close working relationship with the school district and with the agencies that take care of the children’s special needs, handle cases of abuse and neglect, and offer shelter to the needy,” the sheriff added. “We work together with the DPS, the US Border Patrol, the FBI and the US Marshals, and we are in touch with every other law enforcement agency in the region. I believe that when we work together for the betterment of all the people, we will be ready to face whatever the future holds.”

La Salle County Fire & Rescue Chief Les Simmons addresses an assembly of energy industry, state agency, local government and law enforcement representatives at the Local Emergency Planning Committee meeting in the Larry Griffin Emergency Operations Center at Las Palmas in Cotulla on Tuesday, December 13, outlining his department's capabilities, fleet components, and the demands put on the fire brigade and ambulance service.

"We need
to know what's happened..."

274K active wells currently producing oil and gas in Texas...

Touching base:
Key players in energy field
share emergency management updates

By Marc Robertson
With a focus on open channels of communication and accessibility to services, representatives of the energy industry met with emergency responders and community leaders in Cotulla on Tuesday, December 13, to share updates in their planning committee.

The committee involves members of pipeline companies, oil and gas industry drilling and pumping companies, regional and state agencies responsible for natural resource oversight, advocates for the energy companies, state and local government representatives, firefighters, medics, law enforcement agencies, area schools and the residential community. Hosted by Soteria Solutions in conjunction with La Salle Fire & Rescue in the Larry Griffin Emergency Operations Center at Las Palmas, the meeting included presentations by Fire Chief Les Simmons, Gaye Greever McElwain of the Texas Railroad Commission, Jack Lunday of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Bo Blackmon of S&B Infrastructure Ltd., and Soteria representative Michelle Joseph. Additional updates were provided by representatives of the South Texas Energy & Economic Roundtable (STEER), EMS Captain Daniel Mendez, and the La Salle County Sheriff’s Office.

Under the Emergency Planning & Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA), a nationwide network of Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPCs) must each develop an emergency response plan, review the plan at least annually, and provide information about chemicals in the community to citizens, Michelle Joseph told meeting attendees on Dec. 13.

Plans are developed by LEPCs with stakeholder participation, and these must include representatives of state and local government and other public entities; law enforcement, firefighters, civil defense and public health professionals; environment, transportation and hospital officials; facility representatives, in this case for the energy industry; and representatives from community groups and the media.
Fire Chief Simmons outlined his department’s call volume and addressed response times, fleet components and capabilities, the fire brigade’s dispatch in the event of simultaneous incidents, and the capability of all the Fire & Rescue EMS ambulances to serve as mobile intensive care units that provide advanced life support.

Simmons noted that the majority of the fire brigade’s calls are related to vehicle accidents on IH-35 and other principal roadways in La Salle County. He also urged energy companies who maintain contact with medical evacuation helicopter services to call 911 despite already having summoned an emergency airlift.

“We need to know what’s happened, even if you already have AirLife on the way,” the chief said. “We are able to provide the supplemental services that you need. If you have a contract with an air service, call them, but also call us.”

Simmons also noted that he believes close cooperation between agencies and the energy industry will help protect the lives of emergency responders in the event of a commercial mishap, spill, leak or other disaster that threatens the community and the environment. Knowing what materials have been stored at industrial sites and what chemicals or other potentially hazardous materials are present, he said, will enable emergency responders to act with appropriate caution.

Since the recent closure of the Nix Community General Hospital at Dilley, the La Salle Fire & Rescue has been required to transport patients over longer distances, according to Simmons, with the nearest hospital to Cotulla now being Frio Regional at Pearsall, at a distance of at least 35 miles. To the south, the nearest facility is Doctors Hospital at Laredo, at a distance of at least 70 miles from Cotulla.

Simmons has been named to serve as one of La Salle County’s new emergency management coordinators.

McElwain, who serves in communications and outreach for the railroad commission, said her organization’s mission is one of stewardship of Texas’ natural resources as well as a concern for public and environmental safety. The agency, she said, works closely with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and with elected government across its jurisdiction to oversee the registry and movement of all chemicals and hazardous materials (although not those carried by rail), and the up-to-date and detailed inventory of all materials stored at energy industry sites. She added that special attention is given to all storage, use and movement of the potentially deadly hydrogen sulfide gas and the training that is required for its safe management. 

McElwain demonstrated a mapping program used by the railroad commission that indicates where each of Texas’ active and inactive wells is positioned, its name and permit numbers, its size and depth, its production numbers and the quantities and identities of all chemicals stored at each site. The information, she said, is vital to emergency responders in the event of an accident.

Out of nearly half a million oil and gas wells that exist in Texas, more than 274,000 are presently active, according to the Texas Railroad Commission. Present production levels in Texas alone stand at 2.4 million barrels of crude oil per day.

“This is on a par with the height of production in the 1980s,” McElwain said of the latest figures on Texas’ revenue-generating oil extraction,
adding that the majority of wells presently producing crude oil lie within the Barnet and the Eagle Ford shales. Both regions also produce natural gas.

The Texas Railroad Commission also oversees well safety measures, promotes training and safety measures for spill prevention, waste management and disposal, according to McElwain, “all for the safety of the environment and the public.” The commission’s safety division over sees pipelines and alternate fuels. An oil and gas division responds to all spills, she said, “including those outside the railroad commission’s oversight.”

McElwain ended her presentation to the LEPC by reminding all stakeholders to promote use of the 811 calling service that all those who plan to dig in Texas should use in order to determine whether they will strike a buried pipeline. The number of pipeline miles underneath Texas’ soil, she said, indicates that there is a likelihood of a strike if any company were to dig without calling the mapping and safety hotline first.

There are presently over 440,000 miles of pipeline in Texas, which is a distance almost equivalent to a round trip from the Earth to the Moon.

On behalf of the TCEQ, Lunday said he works closely with regional emergency response coordinator Jose Salinas to provide a strike team for deployment in the event of any accident or disaster. The agency’s responses in recent years have run the gamut from monitoring wildfires at Bastrop to handling equipment that may have been exposed to the Ebola virus. Other action by the TCEQ has included response to and monitoring of hazards such as a sewer leak, the explosion of a fertilizer plant in the city of West, hurricane and other storm damage, flash floods, and the sudden death of thousands of birds in Travis County.

Lunday said the TCEQ is ready to mobilize any of its 130 strike team members at any hour in response to threats against residents and the environment, and that the agency’s mission focuses on protecting public health and natural resources.

“Our goals are clean air, clean water, and the safe management of waste,” Lunday said at Tuesday’s meeting. He added that team members train continually in the use of modern technology and equipment, and carry out drills to practice for multiple contingencies. The agency also ensures compliance with registry and storage requirements applicable to all hazardous materials.

The TCEQ deployed its responders to 214 chemical spills during 2015, Lunday said, and the agency is capable of mobilizing any of its fleet of heavy-duty trucks equipped with mobile laboratories, monitoring stations, communication equipment and living quarters for its strike team members. Some of those trucks, he said, are sufficiently equipped to operate independently and to sustain crew members “off the grid” for up to 72 hours at a time. Potential failures in ground-level communications, downed power lines or damage to communications towers, he said, necessitate the use of military-grade satellite phones.

On behalf of S&B Infrastructure, Blackmon said an interactive website is continually being updated to list all of the sites in Texas where the energy industry is active in the drilling, pumping transport, storage and other handling of the state’s natural resources, chemicals and related materials. Satellite imagery, he said, enables emergency responders to know in advance what terrain to expect when they are dispatched to a disaster. Tier 2 information related to energy industry activity includes detailed data on all facilities in the region, also listing what chemicals are stored at a site and in what quantity.

Significant to the work by local responders in the event of a disaster, Blackmon said, is mapping information on all structures in the area, and a satellite map may be overlaid with a projected “plume” of material either drifting through the atmosphere from a spill or flowing at ground level. That information, he added, is readily available over the website and assists emergency responders in their decision making when a civilian evacuation is called for.

Meeting attendees acknowledged that immediate focus in the response to a disaster will be public safety. Proactive moves by all members of the planning committee and those on scene in the event of a natural or industrial emergency are made in keeping with the LEPC guidelines and with the county’s emergency management plan.

The LEPC will hold its next meeting at noon on February 22.
 

With the program

La Salle County Deputy and Chief Bailiff Eddie DeLeon is conducting training courses for all of the department's officers this week as well as county jailers on updated security measures and precautions to be taken in the handling and transfer of defendants before, during and after court appointments, and additional measures to be taken in managing the public as well as overseeing the safe conduct of an inmate. Focusing on the safety of judges and attorneys as well as the general public, the bailiff's training course addressed issues specific to the La Salle County Courthouse. Sheriff Miguel Rodriguez also spoke during the training course, discussing the county's long record of courtroom safety and the diligence of the officers responsible for ensuring smooth courtroom proceedings

Sheriff's Office supports safety program...

Smoke alarms for everyone who asks:
County fire brigade installs devices
under Red Cross campaign

By Joel Rodriguez, La Salle County Judge
La Salle County has partnered with the American Red Cross and launched the Home Fire Preparedness Campaign, which continues outreach efforts to the citizens.

The project is aimed at expanding the Safe Citizen Community Program adopted by La Salle County commissioners for 2016. Piloted in Encinal and Cotulla, the effort has been met with popular support, according to county officials. Informational flyers were distributed to citizens on August 13, offering free smoke alarm installation.

La Salle County Fire Rescue and the American Red Cross team conducted a neighborhood canvassing day in Cotulla on October 8. The teams were able to accomplish smoke alarm installations for residents and left flyers on the doors of citizens in the targeted neighborhood. Additional flyers are being handed out to citizens for future installations and canvassing days.

The campaign aims to educate citizens about home fires and the importance of prevention to save lives and avoid injuries. La Salle County Fire Rescue and the Red Cross are joining community volunteers countywide to canvass neighborhoods, hand out flyers and teach people about fire safety. Teams will be coming back to install additional smoke alarms in homes located in neighborhoods across the county. The Red Cross has committed to provide smoke alarms for all county citizens who will allow the installation team to place the safety devices in their homes.

La Salle County Fire Rescue Chief Les Simmons has taken a lead in guiding the fire department and is supported by the Cotulla Volunteer Fire Department, Sheriff Miguel Rodriguez and the La Salle County Sheriff’s Office and volunteers in the continued implementation of the safety program. Chief Simmons will also continue oversight of the Red Cross teams and installation of smoke alarms for citizens in La Salle County.

The canvassing teams will continue installations for citizens asking for smoke alarm installations, helping with the Home Fire Preparedness Campaign program. As part of the effort, La Salle County Fire Rescue and the Red Cross will ask citizens to do two simple things that can help save lives – allow the installation of the smoke alarms and develop an evacuation plan, practicing fire drills at home.

For more information on the campaign and safety measures that are now available to local residents, contact County Judge Joel Rodriguez at (830) 483-5183 or the city of Encinal at (956) 948-5226, or email Les.Simmons@co.la-salle.tx.us.

Up to three smoke alarms can be made available for each home, depending on the size of the building, according to the county fire department.
Members of the La Salle Fire Rescue and the La Salle County Sheriff's Office join forces in Cotulla and Encinal on October 8 to install life-saving smoke detectors in the homes of all area residents who asked for them (Photos this page). A home fire prevention campaign continues in cooperation with the American Red Cross.
(Photos courtesy of La Salle Fire Rescue)

"We do everything we can to prevent this from happening"

Gas plant staff, local responders
run emergency scenario 

By Marc Robertson
While the possibility of a hazardous leak at the Anadarko gas treatment and distribution plant on the outskirts of Cotulla is remote, administrators and staff highlighted the risk in a tabletop scenario on Thursday, September 22 in collaboration with local law enforcement and emergency responders.

In a brief outline of a possible event that would result in the declaration of an exclusion zone, local road closures and residential evacuation, Anadarko compliance officer and plant operator Jon Springer showed that a pipeline rupture near the facility’s perimeter would cause a leak that would include flammable gases.

“We do everything we can to prevent this from happening,” Springer told his audience in the Anadarko operations building on Thursday, adding that gas flares are the most recognizable elements of a plant. “The plant releases some gases from its stack, where they are burned, and your dispatchers probably get calls all the time from concerned citizens.”

The main stack – known as Big Bertha - at Anardarko’s Brasada Gas Plant beside the IH-35 west-side access road south of the Nueces River is 115 feet tall and can issue a flame twice as tall, Springer said, causing a bright light at night. The gas flame, however, contains a minimal amount of the black smoke typical of other flares, because the gases burned at the stack are low in the contaminants that cause heavy smoking, he said.
The Anadarko gas plant control room at the company's operations building on the outskirts of Cotulla, where computer screens will demonstrate where a malfunction has occurred, enabling operators to close valves and reduce the risk of a hazardous leak
“In the event of a controlled release, we use the flare in the daytime if possible,” the plant operator said, “but it is more noticeable at night.”
The Anadarko plant does not own or operate any of the other gas flares in the area, according to Springer, and is not accountable for what is being burned in them.

Company representatives noted that the Anadarko site close to IH-35 is convenient for employee and company-related traffic, and includes access driveways from the highway and from Cochina Ranch Road, but its location is not ideal in a situation in which a pipeline rupture could result in a gas leak near interstate traffic or residential areas of Cotulla, depending on wind direction.

In their tabletop scenario, the Anadarko spokesmen outlined what could happen if a 16-inch diameter underground pipe ruptured near the facility entrance and near the interstate. Initial indicators, they said, would be a frozen area on the ground caused by the low temperatures of the gases, and a light haze or fog in the area above the leak. Most of the gases sold by pipeline from the plant are colorless and odorless, according to Springer.

Anadarko’s facility does not receive or treat hydrogen sulfide (H2S) gas, which is recognized by its “rotten egg” smell. The plant records levels of H2S at or below four parts per million in its products. The gas is detectable by smell at levels of ten parts per million or above.

Springer was joined by plant foreman Brian Ankrum and supervisor Vincent Pavlu in outlining what events would occur in the event of a pipeline rupture, beginning with a call to the county’s emergency dispatcher and simultaneous activation of Anadarko’s own incident response system, which includes plant evacuation and shut-down of relevant pipelines to prevent further leakage.
In the case of the 16-inch pipe leaking through the soil, however, shut-off valves at the plant would only eliminate further supply, and the material within the pipe would continue leaking.

The pipeline – whose contents are owned by Enterprise Products – stretches approximately ten miles from the Anadarko facility before it reaches a shut-off valve. The welded pipe carries an estimated 31,000 barrels of gases and liquids per day – more than 1.3 million gallons – at pressures of over 1,000 pounds per square inch. 

According to Springer and Pavlu, Anadarko has learned lessons in emergency response from an explosion that occurred at a plant in Orla, Texas, an event that resulted from a leak and from which scores of company employees ran in multiple directions.

Anyone entering or leaving the facility is logged in a registry, enabling emergency responders to know who is at the site and who has been accounted for. In the event of a leak at the Brasada Plant, Springer said, Anadarko will know which employees are present and will be able to control who, if anyone, enters the facility after an emergency has been declared.

Springer could not, however, vouch for other facilities having the same control over personnel movement.
Anadarko gas plant superintendent Vincent Pavlu outlines an emergency scenario in which flammable gases have begun leaking from a ruptured pipe, an event that would result in a 9-1-1 call to mobilize emergncy responders and might warrant evacuation of business and homes in the area 
While Anadarko employs around 16 people at its Brasada Plant outside Cotulla, the facility is primarily staffed by a crew of only two. When supervisors or other staff are present, the facility may have a mere half dozen employees on site.

“We hope to work with EMS and other responders on what to expect from local services,” Springer said. “We want to learn what emergency responders’ protocols are, such as distances from the gas for safety during the response.”

The plant foreman said he believes a safe zone perimeter with a radius of at least half a mile from the site of the leak – 800 meters – would be established at first detection and that wind direction, volume and contents of the leak would be taken into consideration.

Texas DPS Highway Patrol Trooper Philip Crain said his agency will be responsible for controlling traffic on IH-35 and, if necessary, ordering closure of the interstate and its access roads if company spokespersons indicated the gas leak could be hazardous to motorists.

La Salle County Fire & Rescue Assistant Chief Les Simmons said his firefighters and paramedics would be among the first to reach the perimeter of an exclusion zone in order to extract injured persons and to consult with company representatives on stopping a leak and determining the likelihood and threat of an explosion.

La Salle County Chief Deputy Malcolm Watson and Sgt. Rickey Galvan said their resources would be divided between blocking roads in the area and, if called upon, assisting with evacuation of nearby residents.
Company spokespersons acknowledged that there are several residents in travel trailers and other temporary accommodations in the vicinity but that Anadarko does not monitor their movement or have a means of alerting them to danger.

A 9-1-1 call to the La Salle County dispatch office, Sgt. Galvan said, should be regarded as a “one stop” call, notifying all area responders at the same time. The fire and rescue service, Assistant Chief Simmons said, maintains a minimum of two paramedics on duty at all times.

“Toxicity is not as serious as flammability” Springer said of the products sold through pipelines by Anadarko. “It will find an ignition point.”

Representing Enterprise Products, Sabas Garza told those attending the workshop that Anadarko is one of several companies whose materials are pumped into the 16-inch line. At least four other suppliers, he said, may have connections to the line and will also need to be notified of a pipeline rupture in order to cut off supplies to the possible ignition point at the leak.

Garza and Pavlu confirmed that Enterprise and Anadarko will be able to provide emergency responders with an accurate list of materials in the pipeline, thereby enabling responders to take appropriate safety precautions when approaching the site.

They also said elevated levels of flammable gas in the area will play a significant part in determining whether vehicles may be driven anywhere near the site. While strict enforcement of limits on vehicle movement will be applied on the property, the same must also be applied to nearby residents leaving their homes, according to La Salle Sgt. Galvan.

Pavlu noted that there will also be limits on aircraft movement in the area, adding that a no-fly zone would affect access by helicopters undertaking emergency medical airlifts. He said Anadarko does not maintain a helipad on its property and cautioned against allowing helicopters to approach the site, as rotor blade downdraft would stir up gases in the atmosphere.  

“They can land on the highway, because it’s close by,” Sgt. Galvan said, “but they can’t do that if your toxic cloud is moving in that direction.”

Responders agreed that other agencies would be deployed if the need for added manpower and resources arose, including the US Border Patrol and the Texas Department of Transportation. 

Company representatives agreed to maintain close communication with local law enforcement, firefighters and medics in order to coordinate an effective response to a leak. The sheriff’s office has indicated it believes communication between energy companies and local residents should be improved to include warning indicators that would prompt safe evacuation.

"We hope to work with EMS and
other responders on what to expect from local services...

We want to learn what emergency responders'
protocols are..."

- Jon Springer
Anadarko compliance officer

New approaches toward cases of missing children...

"There is no delay"

By Marc Robertson
Returning from specialized training at Laredo on handling cases in which children are reported missing, La Salle County Sheriff’s Office Investigators Esmeralda Gonzalez and Homar Olivarez hosted workshops for local officers and constables Wednesday and Thursday, Sept. 21 and 22.

Armed with data from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, the investigators showed that the likelihood is high there will be incidents of missing children in La Salle County.

Nationwide, 460,000 children are reported missing every year, making the daily average 1,260.

“We cannot lose any time waiting to register a missing child,” Sgt. Gonzalez said. “We need to know immediately which people to contact, besides family members. We need to know who the child’s friends are, who the child has met lately, and where the child has gone in the past. That includes other peoples’ homes, public places and businesses.”

Gonzalez and Olivarez reiterated that La Salle County’s position on IH-35, its proximity to Laredo and the Mexican border, and the presence of highwayside businesses such as restaurants and truck stops make the community’s young residents vulnerable prey to predators.

Those predators, according to Sgt. Gonzalez, may include persons with sexual interests in children and may include members of criminal organizations involved in human trafficking.

"What would you do if one of your loved ones was missing?"
- Sgt. Investigator Esmeralda Gonzalez

Fast response, gathering valuable information and examining all possibilities in the disappearance of a child will be key to a successful investigation, the sergeant said. Officers will be trained in ways to address the issue with parents, to look for possible indicators of foul play, and to ask questions that will provide insight into a child’s decision to leave voluntarily or the likelihood that the child has been abducted.

Sgt. Gonzalez indicated there are connections between cases of family violence and child disappearances, noting that parents may not be blameless in the loss of a child, that young runaways may have motives based on domestic experiences for wanting to leave, and that there have been reported incidents of parents being directly responsible for the disappearance of a child. Some of those cases, she said, have involved parents “selling” their children into human trafficking or being the children’s handlers in the sex trade.

In alternate scenarios, children willing to leave home voluntarily may have been encouraged by predators or lured away from their parents by temptations of gifts, money, food, independent living, freedom of expression and freedom from house rules.
Children who have chosen to run away from home have been recovered in the past, according to the officers, although both reiterated that the ease with which a runaway could leave the area by hitching a ride at a local truck stop or boarding an intercity bus means that the missing person could have left Texas by the time parents report the disappearance.

“Some people choose to drop their children off at truck stops to meet their friends or to buy food, and some parents allow their children to go to truck stops and restaurants unaccompanied,” Sgt. Gonzalez said. “We strongly discourage it, but it’s a parent’s choice.”

Disappearance cases of children with special needs or with limited mental capacity will be handled with additional attention to the child’s needs, tendencies and attractions, Gonzalez said, adding that some children may be drawn to sites where they have been entertained in the past, such as festivals or parties, but may have put themselves in danger by attempting to return to them.  

In the majority of cases, however, child disappearances that cannot be immediately solved are the result of malicious abduction or the withholding of a child by a custodial parent. The scope of those cases, the sergeant said, may be determined at an earlier stage through accurate investigation by the first responding officer.

“Our officers need to know what questions to ask, and we need to recognize red flags,” Gonzalez said. We need to know how to deal with autistic children, because they respond to different things. Our officers should be fully trained in how to interview parents or guardians.”

There are presently at least 21 registered sex offenders living permanently in La Salle County. The state registry of offenders shows a higher number because it also includes those presently serving prison time at detention facilities in the county. While the county maintains close watch over registered offenders, law enforcement officers cannot know whether an offender from another county is traveling through La Salle or has stopped at a local business, a motel or a truck stop.

"There is no delay; there is no twenty-four-hour waiting period. The sooner we know, the sooner we can get the word out"
- Investigator Homar Olivarez

“As soon as we learn that a child is missing, we enter that child’s details into the national system,” Sgt. Gonzalez said. “We could be dealing with a non-family abduction, a family abduction, or a runaway.”

The investigator added that any missing person under the age of 18 is listed as a missing child and will be treated as such, regardless of whether that child is living independently or has filed paperwork as an emancipated individual, living separately from parents.

“There is no delay; there is no twenty-four-hour waiting period,” Investigator Olivarez said of the need for immediacy in reporting and registering a missing child. “The sooner we know, the sooner we can get the word out.”

The investigators said they believe any law enforcement agency handling a missing-child case should avail itself of all media resources, including print and broadcast as well as social media, to help disseminate information.
Both officers, however, noted that it may be through social media that a child has been drawn from the home or has become vulnerable to predators. While sites such as Facebook and Twitter may be useful to officers in spreading news about a missing person, a child’s access to those sites and others may have contributed to exposing the child to strangers and may have attracted him or her into communication by text, video and photo with persons who may not be who they appear on screen.

In one incident, Gonzalez said, parents discovered that a so-called friend with whom their child was exchanging messages was a 40-year-old stranger.

La Salle County Victims’ Advocate Rosario Morales also addressed officers during the day-long training sessions and said she believes more than one generation of family members may be unaware of the means by which children can make contact with each other and with strangers from their cellphones, tablets, laptops and home computers.

“A lot of parents and grandparents don’t know about social media, the different kinds that are out there, and how people can contact children on them,” Morales said. “Parents need to monitor the sites their children use; they should be able to check phones and computers.

“When children say, ‘we’re just texting,’ parents should be able to say, ‘let me see,’” the advocate said.

“Children sometimes vent to strangers online or by text,” Sgt. Gonzalez said. “They feel they can talk to someone about whatever is going on at home, because sometimes they just want someone to talk to.”

Such behavior puts children at risk of abduction because they may inadvertently give out personal information that enables a predator to find them or reveals domestic details that would be useful to strangers.

"We work with all agencies involved in a child's case"
- Mikey Betancourt
Executive Director,
Children's Alliance of South Texas

“Perpetrators can reel children in easily through conversations online, and this is the beginning of the grooming process,” Gonzalez said, “preparing the potential victim for abduction. The invitations are what follows. There will be temptation and opportunity.

“Even though it has its obvious benefits, social media actually makes the world a more dangerous place for kids these days,” the sergeant said.

Morales noted that there is evidence predators may lure children though advertisements or promotional material online, including opportunities for earning income or achieving celebrity.

“People have posed as modeling agents to lure children to them,” Morales said. “There are also people who advertise items for sale or who offer to buy things, and these are advertisements that potential victims will notice.”

Also attending the training workshop on both days were Executive Director Mikey Betancourt and staff members of the Children’s Alliance of South Texas, which operates the Children’s Advocacy Center in Cotulla, where youths and family members may be interviewed in the wake of incidents involving domestic violence. Forensic interviews with children and therapy sessions are held at the center and may be part of criminal investigations that lead to the arrest of those responsible for harming children.

“Our center brings people together in an investigation,” Betancourt said. “We work with all of the agencies involved in a child’s case, including law enforcement and Child Protective Services.”

Betancourt stressed the value of strong communication between the agencies as well as between investigators and victims in a coordinated approach to ending family violence, intervention in a cycle of harm to children, and identification and prosecution of those responsible.

“Are we prepared? I believe we have to be,” Sgt. Investigator Gonzalez said of the Sheriff’s Office part in handling cases of missing and exploited children. “We have the resources and we have the ability to promote public awareness of the dangers. What would you do if one of your loved ones was missing? What would you go through?”

Addressing new wave of criminal enterprise in South Texas...

"People are paying to rape that child again and again"

District attorney describes 'dark-world problem' of human trafficking, sex slavery

By Marc Robertson
Lessons learned in the wars on drug traffic and organized crime over the past 30 years have been put to use in new combative action by South Texas law enforcement, whose officers are now coming face to face with a horrifying reality that reaches beyond the urban centers and has begun affecting rural communities.

Thousands of children may presently be enslaved in the sex trade as victims of human trafficking, and at least 85 percent of them are Americans, according to 81st Judicial District Attorney Rene Pena in a presentation to school, county and municipal leaders Tuesday evening, September 6 in Cotulla.

Turning their attention to new opportunities for fast financial gain at moderately low risk, criminal enterprises across South Texas have begun dealing in human lives, adding the new venture to their roster and finding it lucrative because of a continual demand, the district attorney said. Pena was joined in the presentation by 81st Judicial District Human Trafficking Victims’ Advocate Laura Alaniz.

In his presentation on how local authorities can recognize indicators of the crimes, DA Pena said he believes any family, urban or rural, can become a victim, either immediately through being targeted by those who kidnap and sell children and young adults for sex or as the parents or grandparents of a child that has been targeted.

“Human trafficking is modern-day slavery and a severe form of child abuse”

81st Judicial District Attorney
Rene Pena

Authorities are faced with a lack of public awareness and new methods of concealment by the criminal networks, factors that combine to make investigating and prosecuting those responsible for human trafficking doubly difficult, according to the judicial district.

“It’s something you don’t see every day, but it’s there,” Alaniz said in her introduction to the topic. “It’s lurking.”

“It’s a dark-world problem,” the district attorney said of the underground network whose principal goal is to earn maximum profit from the sale of a child. “We are getting away from the old ways of doing business. They are changing the name of the game.”

A SHIFT IN CRIMINAL PRACTICES

Criminal organizations have turned their attention to oil and gas theft, murder for hire, kidnapping and human smuggling and trafficking, Pena said.

In the drug trade, Pena said, traffickers’ profits were earned at high risk. As law enforcement agencies began closing in on the narcotic trade, dealers found themselves likely to be caught and prosecuted. In the human trafficking trade, however, the risk of being caught is lessened because of traffickers’ ability to conceal themselves and to move their operations from one community to the next, advertising almost exclusively on social media.

In South Texas, principal thoroughfares such as IH-35 and intersecting state and county roads present human traffickers with ample opportunities to operate virtually anonymously, according to the district attorney, and evidence indicates that child victims are often moved by their handlers from one town to the next.

Human trafficking, however, does not imply that a victim has been transported anywhere.

“You can become a human trafficking victim in your own home town,” DA Pena said. “You don’t even have to leave the house.”

The crime of human trafficking – differing from human smuggling – is the marketing for profit of any person who is enslaved. Human smuggling is the transport of persons illegally across boundaries or for ultimate profit through their enslavement.
TEENAGERS AT GREAT RISK

“Human trafficking is modern-day slavery and a severe form of child abuse,” the district attorney said. “Traffickers in our area largely target children younger than 18 years of age by luring, persuading, deceiving or forcing them into the sex industry.”

While some victims may be drug users, Pena noted that those at highest risk of being targeted by traffickers are single teens who are disaffected, prone to truancy, looking for companionship, members of the LGBTQ community or those easily attracted by such temptations as adolescent parties and what the district attorney described as ‘the pimp lifestyle.’

“There are even internet sites, parties and events promising to teach teens how to ‘be a pimp’ or how to ‘be a hoe,’” Pena said. “There are gala events for this.”

The district attorney added that victims of the child sex industry are often advertised for sale on a social media website called Back Page. The site, he said, shows young people in provocative poses, sometimes partially nude and sometimes with their faces covered or obscured.

“These kinds of images, where we can’t see the person’s face, make it hard for us to distinguish whether this is a child,” Pena said. “But it’s a good indicator that someone doesn’t want us to see that face.”

A NEW FOCUS IN TRACKING CRIME

The district attorney said he began observing new relationships between drug cartels and criminal gangs in 2009, and noted that what he described as a network of organized crime derived from the drug trade “is already in place and ready to go.”

“It's something you don't see every day,
but it's there”

81st Judicial District
Human Trafficking Victims' Advocate
Laura Alaniz

“Human smuggling and trafficking is the next step,” Pena said. “I understood that we had to engage them right now. We needed to get the Texas Legislature to understand what was going to happen.”

The Border Protection Unit, a state-sponsored law enforcement effort at assessing criminal tendencies, tracking patterns of organized crime and bringing cases to prosecution, covers more than 1,200 miles of the Texas border with Mexico and was recently granted a further $4 million by the state to increase its efforts.

“We started looking at Bexar and Harris counties,” the DA said, because San Antonio and Houston are destinations for human smuggling.”

TARGETS, SUPPLY AND DEMAND

At the same time, investigators were discovering that a high percentage of sex trade victims had not been smuggled into the United States from Mexico and other countries but were, in fact, American citizens who had been lured away from home.

The district attorney gave several examples of cases his office has investigated in which teenagers had run away from home and were quickly lured into the sex trade. In one case, he said, a girl had taken her mother’s credit card and had made her way from a rural community to San Antonio. Sitting at the Greyhound bus station in the city, the girl was approached by a man who offered help. When she asked him for a ride to a relative’s home, he took her there and appeared caring and concerned, Pena said. Then, the man had given the girl a telephone number to call if she needed help.

“She called that number the next day,” the district attorney said. “Within two hours, she’s being held against her will, and within a few hours of that, she’s had sex with six men.”

The supply of child victims for the sex trade is high because the demand is high, Pena said.

“Without a demand, there would be no supply,” the district attorney said. “Someone is always going to supply it.”

The demand, according to the district attorney, is greatest at sites where people are largely anonymous. Those include truck stops and motels along the interstate corridor.

“If you see a girl at the local motel and you recognize her as being from this town, you’re going to know immediately that something isn’t right,” Pena said. “If you see a girl from your community in the company of other men at the truck stop, you’re going to recognize that something’s wrong. This is why child victims are often moved to another town.”
There are presently at least 80,000 registered sex offenders in Texas, and more than 60,000 of them have been convicted of having had sex with children. Those statistics, according to Pena, indicate that demand is high.

Profits from the sex trade are also high, Pena said, and traffickers are not above kidnapping children and putting them to work in the sex trade for revenues of approximately a thousand dollars a day, each.

“Some people are paying to rape that child again and again,” the district attorney said, “three hundred and sixty-five days a year.”

From the trafficking of a single child, Pena said, a handler may expect to earn an annual revenue of $365,000.

In another case, Pena cited an incident in which drug dealers encountered a girl whom they promptly kidnapped and restrained, and whom they then offered to their narcotics clients.

“Two brothers were petty drug dealers in San Antonio,” the district attorney said of the case. “A girl came to them and they locked her in the bathroom. Then they decided to sell her for sex. The girl was tied down and abused. She was lying in her own feces and urine.

“A drug buyer came to that place and he saw that it was wrong,” Pena said. “He broke her out of there.”

The suspects in the case were ultimately sent to prison to serve four life sentences for their crimes.

DEVELOPING INTERVENTION

Cases in which trafficking victims have been rescued and their handlers successfully prosecuted, however, remained rare in the early years of intervention, according to the district attorney, because many law enforcement officers and investigators were unfamiliar with the indicators that would reveal abuse.

“We were getting so good at intervention in the drug traffic, but we were leaving human traffic completely alone,” Pena said of the early stages in the region’s awareness of the crisis. “So we started training our officers. Within a few months, we got our first human smuggling case in Moore, because an investigator followed what he had learned.

“We indicted an individual in that case,” the DA said. “A fifteen-year-old child had been put into the trade. The children we are dealing with here have had horrific experiences.”

Pena currently serves as chairman of the Texas Violent Gang Task Force, a position that he describes as being valuable to him in assessing the scope of the human trafficking network and recognizing signs of involvement. In a recent case, he said, officers intercepted a suspect at a motel after determining that the man was on his way to a paid sexual encounter with a child. The suspect, Pena said, was identified as a convicted felon in possession of a handgun, was listed as a person of interest in an unrelated murder investigation, and bore tattoos that helped identify him as a gang member.

“I know where we are going now,” the district attorney said of the direction his office is taking in the intervention of human smuggling and trafficking networks. “So far, we have rescued seventeen little girls. Teenagers. The majority had been sold for sex. Only one of them was an immigrant.”

Investigating organized crime elsewhere in his jurisdiction, Pena said officers working in Floresville discovered a teenage girl who had been victimized by traffickers and who had been fed at least three different types of drugs. Again, he said, a suspect in the case bore tattoos that gang task force officers recognized.

“People are learning from the gangs, and they’re learning from the drug cartels,” the DA said. “People are learning that there are ways to make money.”

PUBLIC AWARENESS

It is after he and other law enforcement officers have addressed community groups and brought awareness of the crisis to community members and civic leaders that parents are able to recognize some of the warning signs that their children may be targets of human trafficking, Pena said.

“People come up to us, after we have talked about this, and – to take an example – will say ‘Now I know what happened to my daughter,’” Pena said, adding that parents in many cases were unaware of how their children had disappeared or how they had been victimized.

In other cases, he said, children may be trafficked by their own parents or other family members. Pena cited a case in which a teenage girl was sexually abused by her own father, a man who had spent years in prison for sexually assaulting an 80-year-old woman in a nursing home. On another occasion, investigators discovered that a handler had marketed his own four-year-old child for sex.

“Criminals are using threats against the family,” Pena said, adding that he believes such threats contribute to a reluctance among victims to step forward and identify their abusers.

The ease with which criminals are able to begin trafficking victims has also been a cause for alarm at the district attorney’s office as well as among audiences that Pena has addressed on the topic. Teenagers willing to go to parties with strangers, willing to meet people they have only previously known on social media, and those trying to escape from abusive domestic situations or who lack fulltime parenting are likely targets, Pena said, and handlers need little else with which to lure their victims.

“A smartphone is all you need to get involved in human trafficking,” the district attorney said, pointing to internet access, camera and telephone being the means of snaring potential victims, communication, marketing and networking.

“You can find escort services here in Cotulla,” Pena said. “There is a social media site that shows teens available for sex here.”

Pena takes credit for helping break a case in which the prime suspect, Juan Lopez Jr., was indicted along with 28 men and women accused of involvement in the transportation of undocumented immigrants and their eventual sale into the sex trade.

“When we took Lopez in, we found that he had been using all kinds of different vehicles to traffic his victims in Atascosa, Bexar and Wilson counties,” Pena said. “This group was bringing in about 250 people per month. These people are already paying five thousand dollars each to be brought into the country. Add to that the money that these handlers stood to earn from each child.”

The district attorney described human trafficking as a business worth an estimated $150 billion per year.

“But do we really know the extent of it?” Pena asked. “We need to be realists. The problem is primarily on this side of the border.”

A video presented by the 81st Judicial District demonstrates the apparent allure of an alternate life for teens and young adults, as described by a survivor who said she felt wanted and loved by the man who handled her, even though he sold her for sex and abused her physically. Traveling in his expensive car, she said, and being encouraged and rewarded with food at McDonald’s made her feel appreciated at a time when she found no such comforts at home.

“Every year, over three hundred thousand children are victims of sexual exploitation,” DA Pena said. “This is not only a local issue. It’s an issue of national security. If I’m a terrorist, I don’t need to put a dirty bomb over here. I just need to send people with communicable diseases into human trafficking. We could have a real epidemic in three weeks.”

A brochure published by the 81st Judicial District Attorney’s Office aims to alert school districts and parents to the threat that teens face today.

“Human trafficking is a crime against humanity,” Pena wrote in the brochure that lists warning signs and offers resources for assistance. “It is a crime against everything that we as humans find most sacred.

“We all have the right not to be abused, mentally or physically,” he added, “not to be tortured, killed or sexually assaulted; and not to be forced into a life of despair, pain and torment.”

“They locked her
in the bathroom.
Then they decided
to sell her for sex”

“People are
learning from
the gangs,
and they're
learning from
the drug
cartels”

“We all have
the right not
to be abused,
mentally or physically...
Not to be forced
into a life of
despair, pain
and torment

WARNING SIGNS

The National Human Trafficking Resource Center has published statistics indicating that the average ages in which children are most likely to be trafficked are 11 to 17 years. The center also reports that in 2014, Texas authorities received 1,876 calls regarding human trafficking, and 452 actual cases were reported. Out of those, 376 victims were female and 59 were male; 169 victims were United States citizens; the remaining 116 were foreign nationals.

“These numbers are grossly underestimated,” the district attorney said. “These innocent children who are trafficked for profit become the repeated victims of child sexual abuse.
“Many of these victims were attending school when they were first identified by the traffickers as potential victims,” he added. “Others are chronic runaways or truants who find themselves outside the normal routine of other children their age.”

The 81st Judicial District is hoping to form an alliance with school districts in South Texas to help identify those most at risk, to promote awareness of the indicators of criminal activity, to teach educators and parents how to recognize the warning signs that children are or have been victims, and to help combat the burgeoning crime wave.

“We have a legal and moral duty to confront human trafficking,” the district attorney said. “Criminal enterprises don’t care about anything other than money. These child victims are going to be the next generation of traffickers and smugglers. Why would they want to be a part of the American fabric of life when this other life is so available to them?”

The district attorney reiterated that many child victims are reluctant to report the offenses and are likely to oppose intervention by authorities. In some cases, he said, girls who had been victimized had failed to report the abuse because they feared retribution.
“Why didn’t you tell your parents? That’s what I wanted to know,” Pena said. “One girl told me that she couldn’t tell her dad what she had done.”

Common methods by which traffickers lure teens and young adults, according to the DA, include recruitment by peers who are already involved in the sex trade, contact or friendship by someone promising love or acceptance in a relationship, offers of cash and gifts or a place to stay, and social media contacts and messages on topics such as the “party of the year” or apparent modeling opportunities.

“Sex trafficking of children can be done in any means,” Pena told his audience in an alert that is duplicated in his brochure. “It does not have to include force, fraud or coercion.”
ADVICE FOR SCHOOLS, COMMUNITIES

Authorities examining cases of child sex trafficking have listed a number of “red flags” of which the district attorney believes all schools and parents should be aware. Those warning signs include unexplained school absences; abrupt changes in attire, behavior or relationships; the presence of an older “boyfriend” or “girlfriend”; the sudden appearance of expensive goods such as jewelry, accessories and gadgets; frequent running away from home or apparent homelessness; and signs of physical coercion, such as depression, anxiety and an overly submissive attitude. Further indicators may include signs of physical trauma, bruises, cuts, burns and scars as well as tattoos with gang-related symbols, names of lovers, slogans such as “Daddy’s girl” and even bar codes, according to the district attorney, who said in many cases the victims of sex trafficking are considered to be the possessions of their pimps.

Characteristics of victims include changes in vocabulary and demeanor, Pena said, with teens suddenly appearing to know the language of the streets or being familiar with a street lifestyle. Teens may also act and appear much older than their actual age and display what he described as adaptive street skills.

“Victims often put their complete trust in and loyalty to the trafficker,” Pena said, reminding his audience of the film he had shown in which a girl described trusting the man who abused her. “Often, they will think that the ‘adult life’ and what they perceive to be independence are the greatest values, regardless of the abuse required to maintain them.

“In many cases, they may even believe that their pimp is a legitimate boyfriend who loves and is protecting them,” he said. “There is no single definitive character trait you can document in all trafficked children. It is imperative we all stay diligent in helping protect our youths.”

IDENTIFYING, REPORTING ABUSE

School personnel should be trained to recognize and respond to signs of trafficking, Pena said, and school districts should develop a trafficking protocol, offer a prevention curriculum, host informational events for parents and students, and create an after-school club or organization to help raise awareness about trafficking.

“You may choose
to look
the other way,
but you can
never say again
that you
did not know

“If you believe a child is or has been a victim of sex trafficking, report it,” Pena told his audience. “Just like with other forms of abuse, you are required to report human trafficking to Child Protective Services or local law enforcement.”

Those who are caught and convicted of human trafficking may face 25 years to life in prison for their crimes. Sentences are enhanced when those crimes involve trafficking of children into the sex trade.

The district attorney said he believes those who are aware of criminal activity, including employees of highwayside travel centers, motels and other businesses, or those who enable the crimes to take place by providing lodging or other assistance, or who enable predators to target victims through internet advertising are equally guilty of crimes against humanity.

“You may choose to look the other way,” Pena said, “but you can never say again that you did not know.”

'Stop, Look & Listen' still one of the best rules...

Back-to-School traffic:
Sheriff's Office urges caution

By Marc Robertson
As students across South Texas prepare to return to class and many have already begun attending sports practice or band rehearsals, law enforcement officers are urging motorists to pay renewed attention to traffic signs, be aware of pedestrians and to slow down in school zones.

Also subject to enforcement during the new school year are cellphone restrictions on roads near all school campuses, according to the La Salle County Sheriff’s Office.

At Cotulla ISD, which has campuses on both the east and west sides of town and in Encinal, Deputy and School Resource Officer Jose Pedroza is urging motorists to exercise additional caution on roads at or near school property.

The caution, he says, is necessary because large numbers of children walk to school along sidewalks to the Ramirez/Burks, Frank Newman and Cotulla High School campuses.

Some of those children will be making the trek to school on foot for the first time at the start of the new school year and may be unaccustomed to traffic hazards. Others may be distracted by cellphones or could be wearing headphones or earbuds, preventing them from hearing the sound of oncoming traffic.

“This is a time of year when everybody needs to be especially careful around schools,” the deputy said. “Pedestrians are easily distracted, but the greatest danger comes from drivers who are not paying attention.”

Speed limits in all school zones will be strictly enforced and apply to the hours of heaviest traffic at the start and end of each school day, according to the sheriff’s office. Deputies and officers of the Cotulla City Patrol will be positioned at critical areas and will not hesitate to issue citations to those speeding or using cellphones while driving.

Citations are referred to Cotulla Municipal Court; violators are subject to fines. Those who fail to make court appearances are subject to arrest at home, at work, in public places or in the course of routine traffic stops and may face additional charges.
The municipal judge may impose a fine of up to $200 for using a cellphone while driving in a school zone in Cotulla.  

“There are many distractions that can contribute to accidents, and those distractions can easily be avoided,” Deputy Pedroza said.

La Salle County Chief Deputy Malcolm Watson added that he believes many dangers to children walking in school zones can be minimized with additional vigilance by drivers as well as by parents educating children in critical safety precautions.

"The Buddy System
is always a reliable
way to make sure kids
are safe from harm..."
- Chief Deputy Malcolm Watson

“’Stop, Look and Listen’ is still one of the best rules for any children walking to school,” the chief deputy said. “Children have to be reminded not to step off the curb until they know it’s safe, and that means looking both ways and listening for oncoming cars. Wearing headphones puts them in immediate danger because they just can’t hear if there’s a car coming.

“Children also have to be reminded that walking to school by themselves is not a good idea,” Watson added. “The ‘Buddy System’ is always a reliable way to make sure kids are safe from harm.”

Parents taking their children to school by car or collecting them at the end of the day should heed traffic flow systems implemented by the school district, affecting streets around the elementary and middle school campuses in Cotulla, according to the sheriff’s office.

“Children are walking out of buildings and between vehicles,” the chief deputy said. “The first thing on their minds is going to be getting to their parents’ car. They aren’t going to be watching if there’s another car moving into that space. That’s when accidents happen.

“The back-to-school season is always one of the most hazardous, and it’s up to all of us – officers and parents alike – to make sure the children are safe,” the chief deputy said. 

Human trafficking:
"More slaves today than in our history"

South Texas officers learn horrors of forced-labor crimes,
violations against children

By Marc Robertson
One fourth of all human trafficking victims in the United States are presently in Texas.

Up to 17,500 people are being transported illegally into the United States each year for the sole purpose of enslavement in labor or the sex trade. Thousands more are brought into the country and left to their own devices. Failing to survive on their own, many turn to prostitution or become victims of debt bondage with little hope of recovering.

The human trafficking industry has fast become one of unprecedented growth, drawing estimated profits of $32 billion a year in this country, divided among those who recruit, train, enslave and control their victims.

Many of those victims are children.

In the United States alone, aside from those being brought into the country from elsewhere, an estimated 300,000 children become victims of human trafficking and enslavement in the sex trade or in forced labor each year.

The average female victim of human trafficking for the sex trade is between 12 and 14 years of age.

There are presently 2.8 million runaway children in the United States. Law enforcement, health services and other agencies investigating the crisis have concluded that one third of those runaway children – more than 930,000 – are lured into a sex act within 48 hours of leaving home.

Statistics gathered over the past decade by the US Department of Health and Human Services, the US Department of State, the National Report on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the Office of the Attorney General and the House Committee on Human Services and other agencies have been assembled as part of an educational program for police officers across the country in an effort to help combat what many describe as a humanitarian crisis.

Sheriff’s deputies, investigators, police and victims’ advocates from La Salle, Frio and other South Texas counties gathered at the Talbert L Bar Ranch on Friday, June 24 for an intensive course on the current human trafficking situation, regionally and nationally, and examined ways in which to improve intervention and prosecution.

The Sexual Assault Family Violence Investigator Course (SAFVIC) is funded by the Criminal Justice Division of the Office of the Governor and was hosted in La Salle County by 81st Judicial District Attorney Rene Pena, who offered sobering facts by way of introduction for those in attendance.

“Breaking the cycle of violence is very difficult,” the district attorney said. “We already have 13-year-olds getting involved because it’s an easy way to make money.”

DA Pena said he is determined to increase law enforcement intervention in the crime cycle, a policy he says will be better achieved when officers are trained to recognize the signs of human smuggling, human trafficking, and forced labor or sex trade enslavement.

“There is a low risk of getting caught, especially when you are dealing with a segment of the population that is almost invisible to most people,” Pena said. “Parents are paying for their children to get across the border into the US, and handlers immediately have an opportunity for crime. They can extort more money, and the parents will pay up. Then the children can be put into the sex trade.

“A fourteen-year-old girl can earn a hundred dollars per customer,” Pena said. “She may earn that ten times a day. She is being forced to work every day. That child alone is generating $365,000 per year for her handler.”

The district attorney said he renewed his efforts to break South Texas crime organizations after a recent investigation resulted in the indictment of 29 defendants on charges of theft, money laundering, organized crime, human trafficking for the sex trade, and human smuggling.

The principal difference between smuggling and trafficking in humans is that smugglers primarily only help transport people illegally for profit across a national boundary or through a territory. Traffickers are those who deal in the trade of humans for enslavement, either in labor, the sex trade or other enterprise. While smugglers are defined as people who transport others over any distance, traffickers need not to have moved their victims in order to profit from them.

DA Pena and seminar presenters Tina Hartman, prosecutor for the 81st Judicial District, and Sgt. Bill Grayson, 26-year veteran of the San Antonio Police Department, concurred that victims of human smuggling may quickly become victims of human trafficking when they are taken advantage of for illegal profit, enslaved in debt bondage, forced to take part in prostitution or pornography, or otherwise abused.

The district attorney used as example a case in which his investigators were recently involved and which centered on South Texas. The crime ring, he said, is believed to be one of many operating in the region.

“I can tell you with confidence that there are over eighty people in this ring alone,” the district attorney said of the organization that was uncovered in a local investigation and for which prosecution has begun. “They are smuggling at least 250 people per month into the United States. The majority of those involved are US citizens.

“They are making millions,” Pena said of those running the smuggling organization. “It’s as much as the drug trade.”

Hartman prepped seminar attendees for the course by outlining what she described as the obstacles that stand in the way of successful investigation and prosecution.

“These are going to be the hardest cases you have dealt with,” the prosecutor told her audience. “None of these victims is going to tell you that they have been trafficked. Typically, your cases of abuse or neglect begin with an outcry, but how do you investigate a case where nobody is calling in to say they are trafficked?

“We have to look for the red flags,” Hartman said. “Those are the first pieces. You are going to investigate all the places where they hide, places they use, internet pages that they’re on.”

Hartman noted that while investigators may focus on pursuing those responsible for crimes in smuggling and trafficking, she believes it is also vitally important that victims be given attention in order to help prevent them being drawn back to an underworld life of danger and enslavement.

“Some are scared of their traffickers,” the prosecutor said of those who have fallen victim to enslavement. “Victims are the most street-smart people we have met. They will not give you consent [to look at their property]. You have to get warrants, subpoenas.

“Victims are usually drug-addicted and may be in love with their handlers,” Hartman said of other scenarios she has encountered. “They believe they are in love and that their handlers love them, which is how they begin to justify their actions.

“Many have sexually transmitted diseases,” she said of sex trade and forced-labor workers. “A lot are pregnant. Traffickers are recruiting girls from one district to work in another.”

Hartman said she believes officers investigating cases of human trafficking will find the task daunting but will also realize its benefits.

“It takes a lot of work,” the prosecutor said, “but it’s rewarding when you can get them off the streets and into a family home.”

“Nearly every country in the world is affected by human trafficking,” Sgt. Grayson said. “The US is probably the most popular destination because we are a nation with this much disposable income. There are more slaves today than in our history.

“Human trafficking is a growth industry for organized crime today,” the San Antonio officer said. “Traffickers are always adapting, and they are using the internet.”

Seminar attendees were shown examples of how pre-teens and teen children are marketed in the sex trade over the internet, many of them in obvious advertisements for sex services on popular trading pages. In many cases, the advertisements offer massages and other personal services but are illustrated with images of scantily clad or provocatively posed children.

“Think about some of the most horrific things that a man could do to a child,” District Attorney Pena said, drawing audience attention to the crisis on a personal level. “Now think about that being your child.”

The district attorney reported that Texas presently has approximately 80,000 registered sex offenders, more than 60,000 of whom have been convicted of having engaged in sex acts with children.

Eighty percent of sex trade victims are female, according to Sgt. Grayson.
In order to help identify victims of the sex and forced-labor trade, Sgt. Grayson said investigating officers should take note of typical vulnerabilities, among them histories of family dysfunction, records of child abuse and neglect, histories of drug abuse, long-standing distrust of authority and law enforcement, and an apparent break from the family unit, such as in the case of young runaways.

“Thirty percent of children who end up in shelters and seventy percent of street youths are controlled by a pimp,” the sergeant said. “There are millions of runaway kids in the streets of this country. How are they surviving out there? It’s called survival sex.”

The sergeant outlined typical scenarios in which the vulnerable are lured into enslavement, including illegal immigration by smuggling, desperate living conditions and an apparent need for new attachment. Traffickers are generally persuasive, he said, and are skilled in manipulating the inexperienced. In some cases, immigrants with little or no understanding of the English language and no understanding of the American culture or US law are pressured into working off debts they may have incurred through transport and accommodation. Later, they are charged high fees for food and supplies, thereby extending a debt they may never pay off, according to Sgt. Grayson.

In many cases, the San Antonio officer said, criminals who don’t want to be found in possession of contraband may pass guns and drugs to children, thereby avoiding responsibility, ensuring that others face charges for having the goods and that minors remain obedient to their handlers, pimps and traffickers.              
Victims of human trafficking for the labor and sex trades are often housed in substandard accommodation, are forced to live in crowded spaces such as small apartments and hotel rooms, are unable to take care of their essential medical needs, may be forced to take narcotics, may never be in possession of identifying documents, rarely if ever have any cash of their own and are often physically abused by their handlers and by their superiors in a primitive hierarchy.

Grayson said parents, school counselors, guardians, law enforcement officers and others taking note of “red flag” indicators that children may have become victims of trafficking or other forms of abuse or enslavement should note any injuries, bruising and ligature marks; pay attention to tattoos bearing telltale signs of enslavement, membership in an organization or possession by a handler, including forms of branding; and pay attention to indicators that children may display signs of apparent wealth by having expensive clothing or jewelry but never having any spending money of their own; and inappropriate dress for the time of day or season.

Victims also display an unusual or heightened sense of fear, undergo depression and anxiety, experiment with or become involved in drug use, give false names and addresses, may be runaways or homeless, and are not attending school when they appear to be of school age, according to Grayson. Further indicators may include assault, domestic violence and antisocial behavior, he said.     

For the most part, according to the sergeant, victims of human trafficking are “invisible to society.”

“Victims can be male or female, foreign or US nationals, and any age,” Grayson said. “Basically, they may be anyone who goes unrecognized by the public or by law enforcement. They have lost their identity.”

Those most likely to suffer the greatest at the hands of smugglers, handlers, pimps and others engaged in organized crime are children, the officer said, because the young have little understanding of the law and are unable to fend for themselves outside the controlled environment.

“At age twelve, you really don’t understand what resources, social services, are available to you,” Sgt. Grayson said. “If you are a foreign national, you may be unemployable in the US. You lack social mobility. You have been lured by false promises of employment.”

Traffickers and other handlers, including pimps, are likely to reinforce in their victims a distrust of police, thereby further ensuring that their illegal activity will go unreported.

“Traffickers exploit their victims based on their vulnerability,” Grayson said. “They will use threats, intimidation, if they have to. They are driven to this by the attraction of high profit at low risk.”

While likely candidates for involvement in crimes against humans may be members of street gangs or other brotherhoods, investigators have uncovered cases in which parents marketed their own children for sex. In one example, Grayson said officers uncovered the sexual marketing of a child under 12 months of age.

Human trafficking crimes are not limited to those who carry out offenses against the innocence and liberty of the enslaved but also include those who enable the crimes to occur. Facilitators may include employees at truck stops who are aware of sex trade or forced-labor pickup taking place at the businesses, hotel or motel clerks who are aware of or who permit sex traffic to occur on their premises, parents who profit from prostituting their children, and anyone who may profit from recruiting illegal laborers or sex traffic victims.

Both Grayson and Hartman noted that South Texas’ trade corridor is a magnet for human trafficking as well as a channel for human smuggling. Places most likely to attract organized crime along that route, they said, are truck stops and motels along IH-35. Online and social media advertising for child sex often attracts potential customers to motels at which they have agreed to meet their victims; truck stops are popular sites for impromptu encounters with “lot lizard” prostitutes who lie in wait for drivers and as sites where drivers may meet victims with whom they have made arrangements in advance.

Felony charges are filed against those who sell or purchase a child for sex or labor traffic, additionally if the victim is under 14 years of age; and felony charges are filed against anyone who causes a child under the age of 18 to commit prostitution, regardless of how old they may have believed the child was at the time.

First degree felony charges are filed against those who traffic a child for sex or labor, with sentencing of prison time between five and 99 years, and also if a person dies as a direct result of trafficking. The ‘3G’ marker on many felony charges against traffickers indicates that the offense is of such severity that a convicted person must serve at least half of the prison sentence before being able to apply for parole.

Second degree felony charges apply to those who traffic adult victims for sex or labor. Charges of aggravated sexual assault may be filed against anyone whose victim is over the age of 13 and has any mental or physical handicap or defect.
All convictions in sex-traffic offenses require national sex offender registry by the guilty.

The law also provides punishment for invasive recording of a person without consent and helps protect victims of so-called revenge pornography (distribution of another person’s private images or video as an act of malice) as well as for threatening to distribute pornography as a form of extortion.

Felony charges apply to anyone in possession of child pornography.

Protective orders are available to victims of sex or labor trafficking; parents may apply for protection of their underage children; and victims of all ages may apply to have their names altered in all case files to help protect their identity, although victims are often required to testify in court, according to Hartman.

Protective orders helping separate trafficking victims from their abusers may last a lifetime, the prosecutor said, and can be granted to victims of sex traffic as well as labor traffic. Medical examinations take priority when officers begin investigating cases of abuse; emergency medical treatment needs will be determined at the first opportunity by trained healthcare professionals. Victims are referred to counseling services and other agencies for help.

“Victims will resist telling officers anything, at first, because they have been led to believe by their handlers that they will go to jail,” Hartman said. “Sometimes, custody is the safest for them, while we move to take action against the organized crime, but the victims are not the ones who go to jail.

“We work hard to ensure that officers taking action against human smuggling and human trafficking are sensitive to other cultures,” the prosecutor said. “We have to understand that some victims are unfamiliar with the US system.”

“Our policy is to save the kids first, period,” District Attorney Pena said in summary at the close of the seminar, adding that he believes parents can be proactive in helping prevent children becoming vulnerable to trafficking by monitoring their use of the internet and their appearance on social media sites such as Facebook and Kik.

“A lot of victims have a really hard time getting out of their situations,” Hartman said. “They know that the offenders have friends on the street and may find them.

“It’s very hard to rehabilitate victims,” the prosecutor added. “Fifteen-year-olds don’t know what love is or what a healthy relationship is. They have been persuaded that they don’t need to go to school any more. They have been lured into a life that they may never escape.”

Attending the seminar from La Salle County were Sheriff Miguel Rodriguez, Chief Deputy Malcolm Watson, Lieutenant Joey Garcia, Investigator Homar Olivarez, Sgt. Investigator Esmeralda Gonzalez, Deputies Miguel Limon, Elvira Gonzales, Daniela Flores, Eddie De Leon and Jose Avila; Victims’ Advocate Rosario Morales, Constables Oscar Tellez, Guy Megliorino and Rene Maldonado; Texas Ranger Randy Garcia and Jail Administrator Cody Graham. US Border Patrol agents, sheriff’s deputies and police officers from Dimmit County, Frio County and Pearsall were also in attendance.

"Our policy is to save the kids first"
- District Attorney Rene Pena

"These are going to be the hardest cases you have dealt with"
- Prosecutor Tina Hartman

"Think about some of the most horrific things that a man could do to a child... Now think about that being your child"
- District Attorney Rene Pena

"Traffickers exploit their victims based on their vulnerability. 
They will use threats, intimidation, if they have to.
They are driven to this by the attraction of high profit at low risk."
- SAPD Sgt. Bill Grayson

Among those in attendance at the Sexual Assault Family Violence Investigator Course on Human Trafficking, held on June 24, were (upper photo, L-R) La Salle County Deputies Jose Avila, Daniela Flores, Elvira Gonzales, Miguel Limon and Sgt. Investigator Esmeralda Gonzalez; and (lower photo) Chief Deputy Malcolm Watson, Jail Administrator Cody Graham and Sheriff Miguel Rodriguez

Special proclamation for October...

La Salle supports domestic violence awareness efforts

Wintergarden Women's Shelter reaches out to victims of assault

BE AWARE, INTERVENE – (Photo above) La Salle County saw its annual proclamation of October as Domestic Violence Awareness Month this week, with those present including (L-R) County Commissioners Abel Gonzalez, Rene Benavidez, Raul Ayala and Jack Alba; Wintergarden Women’s shelter La Salle outreach coordinator Diana Gonzalez, shelter manager and program coordinator Zee Flores andcenter director Erica Bustamante; and County Judge Joel Rodriguez, Justice of the Peace Vicki Rodriguez and Sheriff Miguel Rodriguez.
(Photo: Marc Robertson)
By Marc Robertson
Shining new light on a recurring problem facing families across the community and of all socio-economic backgrounds, elected officials in La Salle County joined representatives of the Wintergarden Women’s Shelter this week in supporting a proclamation for October as Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

The annual proclamation that rallies support among civic leaders and service providers is aimed at promoting public awareness of the blight that affects multiple generations and contributes to a recurring cycle of abuse and neglect.

“Domestic violence is the systematic use of physical, emotional, sexual, psychological and economic control and abuse, including abuse of children and the elderly,” La Salle County Judge Joel Rodriguez read from the proclamation that he signed Monday, September 26. “Domestic violence violates an individual’s dignity, security and humanity.”

Representing the Wintergarden Women’s Shelter at Monday’s proclamation ceremony in the La Salle County Commissioners’ Court were outreach coordinator Diana Gonzalez, shelter manager and program coordinator Zee Flores, and center director Erica Bustamante, who affirmed that the facility continues offering safe refuge, resources for assistance and counseling, and works to intervene in cases of violence in the home, including battery and neglect of the defenseless and harm to children by abusive family members.

“Domestic violence is not confined to any one group of people,” the county judge read. “It is spread across all economic, racial and societal barriers, which are supported by societal indifferences.”

It is those indifferences, according to the judge and Wintergarden representatives, that contribute to the continuation of abuse against women and children because of an apparent lack of public awareness and an unwillingness to take action towards intervention.

The shelter will display a set of red-painted silhouettes in the La Salle County Courthouse during October, representing victims of domestic violence. One of those silhouettes is dedicated to Margo Davis Lann, a middle-aged mother who was shot to death by her abusive husband in front of a grocery store in downtown Cotulla on a Monday morning in May 1997. It was during the husband’s trial for murder that the public was made aware of his allegedly continual mental, physical, sexual and psychological abuse of his wife and stepdaughter. The husband was found guilty of murdering his wife by shooting her repeatedly in the head; he subsequently died in prison.

“The impact of domestic violence is wide ranging,” the county judge said, “directly affecting individuals and society as a whole, here in this community, throughout the United States and around the world.”

The Wintergarden Women’s Shelter provides informational brochures and other assistive literature that demonstrates the facility’s willingness and ability to provide services to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

“The survivors of domestic violence from the Wintergarden area have been at the forefront of efforts to bring peace and equality to their homes, neighborhoods and city,” facility representatives said. “The majority of Texans believe that they can make a difference in efforts to end domestic violence.”

“Abusive behavior is a learned behavior,” the proclamation for October read, “and children who live in domestic violent homes are at a higher risk of becoming abusers or victims.”

Present to witness the proclamation were county commissioners, law enforcement officers, elected officials and service providers.
WINTERGARDEN WOMEN'S SHELTER
Crisis Hotline: 1-800-363-9441
Carrizo Springs Shelter: (830) 876-9656 / 5676
Cotulla Outreach Office: (830) 694-2173

Improperly secured children have been killed in crashes...

TxDOT hosts safety seat inspections

Child Passenger Safety Week is Sept. 18-24

Nationwide statistics indicate that three out of every four child safety seats in cars and pickup trucks are improperly installed by their users, leaving youngsters in immediate danger of serious bodily injury or death in the event of a crash.

The Texas Department of Transportation is encouraging all parents and caregivers to make an appointment for a free inspection at the agency's 25 statewide district offices.

“Properly restraining children while they ride in vehicles is an everyday, year-round responsibility,” TxDOT noted in a prepared statement this month. “It's also the law.”
"We are determined to educate parents and caregivers in Texas about the importance of buckling their child into the correct car seat for their age and size," said TxDOT Executive Director James Bass. "It's not only the law, but we're also trying to save lives through proper use of safety seats."

As part of national Child Passenger Safety Week, September 18-24, TxDOT reminds drivers that Texas law requires all children under the age of 8 – unless they are taller than 4’9” – to be in a car seat whenever they ride in a passenger vehicle.

Failure to properly restrain a child can result in a ticket of up to $250.

In 2015, 83 children younger than 8 years old were killed in crashes in Texas. In 2014, that number was 81.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, three fourths of all child car seats are not properly installed. Common child safety seat errors include installing the seat too loosely; putting the harness straps through the wrong slots; leaving harness straps too loose; positioning the chest clip incorrectly; and placing the safety belt through the wrong channels in the seat.
"Bernard in the Backseat" is a children's book now available from TxDOT, telling the story of a teddy bear who learns to feel safe when properly buckled into a car seat.
Drivers should refer to their specific car seat manufacturer's manual for instructions on how to install the safety seat, according to TxDOT. The vehicle owner's manual also includes information on the proper placement of the car seat and proper use of the seat belt or latch system.

To schedule a free car seat check with a nearby TxDOT Traffic Safety Specialist, text the word "seat" and your ZIP code to 876526. Drivers may also visit SaveMeWithASeat.com to learn if a child should be in a rear-facing seat, forward-facing seat or in a booster seat.

During Child Passenger Safety Week, a TxDOT safety demonstration van will travel the state to show caregivers how to choose and install the correct car seat for their children. TxDOT is also conducting special local celebrity story times featuring the newly released children's book, "Bernard in the Backseat." The book features a teddy bear taking his first car ride. A free digital version of the book is available at SaveMeWithASeat.com.

Call TxDOT for a free child safety seat inspection:

Laredo - (965) 712-7408

San Antonio - (210) 731-5219

County opens new park,
sports center with fanfare, tributes

By Marc Robertson
Costing an estimated $14.6 million and including La Salle County’s first indoor swimming pool as well as new ballfields and recreation areas, the long-anticipated expansion of Martinez Park opened on the southeast side of Cotulla Thursday afternoon, July 21 with a dedication to its namesake.

Celebrated for his 40 years in public service, including tenure as La Salle County judge and as head of the Middle Rio Grande Development Council, Leodoro Martinez was the center of attention at Thursday’s ceremonies. Introduced by 81st Judicial District Attorney Rene Pena, guest speakers at the grand opening included County Judge Joel Rodriguez, State Representative Ryan Guillen, county commissioners, site construction contractors, Cotulla Mayor Javier Garcia, and Martinez himself, who acknowledged the work ethic and public service that his parents and grandparents instilled in him from an early age.

Mayor Garcia noted that the new park extension represents a revitalization of the portion of town it occupies and new opportunities for family-oriented activities.

Funded with county money and revenues from a bond sale of three years ago, the project has almost tripled the size of the original Martinez Park, which is jointly owned by the city and the county. The purchase of 50 acres from the Gilbert family of Laredo for development has also allowed for construction of Cotulla’s newest fire station, headquarters of the La Salle Fire & Rescue, a facility that opened earlier this year.

Designed by architect Killis Almond and overseen by project manager Frank Rodnofsky, the facilities built by Summit Construction include the indoor pool and recreation center, a multipurpose pavilion, four softball and baseball fields, a walking trail, picnic areas and parking space. Thursday’s ceremony was held at the entrance to the swimming pool building; food and refreshments were served in the pavilion to live music. The buildings and fields were open to public tours.

Plaques commemorating the occasion and the lengthy project and quantity of work required in reaching park completion were awarded to county commissioners and elected government officials at Thursday’s ceremony. A representative of Senator Judith Zaffirini’s office presented Martinez with a flag that was flown over the State Capitol in Austin.

Also attending with members of the public were representatives of other city and county governments, Encinal Mayor Sylvano Sanchez, justices of the peace, community leaders, Cotulla ISD, members of the La Salle Fire & Rescue and the Cotulla Volunteer Fire Department, the Texas Highway Patrol, Texas Rangers, the US Border Patrol, county constables and the La Salle County Sheriff’s Office.   

“I think what people will take away from this is that La Salle County has finally been able to make a reality of its dream of providing a true family facility,” the county judge said after the event. “Future generations of La Salle County children will look back on their lives with this park being at the center of many activities they were involved in.

“European cities are very accustomed to having park space, recreation facilities and open areas for family activities,” Judge Rodriguez said. “For a long time, it was something that the people of small South Texas communities could only wish for.”
(Photos this page) The $14.6 million Martinez Park Sports & Recreation Center includes La Salle County's first indoor public swimming pool; former County Judge Leodoro Martinez was the guest of honor at the grand opening ceremony Thursday, July 21; the official ribbon cutting for the facility was undertaken by (L-R) County Commissioners Rene Benavidez and Raul Ayala, County Judge Joel Rodriguez, Leodoro Martinez, County Commissioners Abel Gonzalez and Jack Alba, State Rep. Ryan Guillen and District Attorney Rene Pena.
For more images of the park grand opening, see 'PHOTOS'

Putting technology to work

Law enforcement officers from across the region met at La Salle County's Emergency Operations Center last week for a series of classes on the deployment of new body-worn cameras, which are being issued under a grant to La Salle deputies this month. The class taught by James Robert Armstrong covered camera use and policy, recording assets and limitations, data storage, documentation and camera evidence for criminal investigations.   

Statement from the La Salle County Sheriff's Office
in the wake of gun violence in the United States

It is with great sadness that we learn of the loss of so many lives in this country at the hands of so few whose evil intentions have brought violence and fear to our cities and towns.

We grieve over the loss of civilian lives and hope that investigations into their deaths will be exercised with fairness and that justice will prevail.

We are deeply saddened at the loss on Thursday night, July 7, of law enforcement officers’ lives, and even though it was through coordinated action by other officers and a specially trained response team that the firefight was brought to a swift and irreversible conclusion, it was officers protecting civilians engaged in a peaceful demonstration who found themselves in the crosshairs and who ended the day as victims in the line of duty.

At the La Salle County Sheriff’s Office, we offer our deep condolences to the families and loved ones of the fallen and hope that this nation’s collective grief and support will provide some measure of comfort to those who have been left behind by this terrible tragedy and who must face the rest of their lives without their loved ones and protectors by their side.

As officers of the law, sworn to protect and defend the people’s rights, safety and liberty, we are more aware today than at any time in our history that no amount of grief and no number of tears will ever bring back those we have lost but may, in the fullness of time, serve as a measure by which we conduct our daily lives, treat our fellow Americans, and teach today’s and future generations the sanctity of human life; a gauge by which we hold the value of community and the true weight of the sacrifice that our fallen comrades have made.

It can only be through continuing to uphold the law as it is written, to protect and to serve the people of our communities and to defend the rights of our citizens to live in peace and brotherhood as one nation that we can do justice to the fallen and ensure that their lives were not given in vain.  

Sheriff Miguel Rodriguez
and all of the law enforcement officers,
administration and staff
of the La Salle County Sheriff's Office

Several local residents have been targeted;
elderly at risk of being tricked out of their money, Rodriguez says

"Don't become a victim,"
Sheriff warns after new surge

in scam calls, letters

By Marc Robertson
A recent spike in the number of misleading phone calls and deceptive letters to La Salle County residents has prompted a caution by the sheriff’s office that many are at risk of having their savings stolen.

Among the tricks presently popular with Internet and mail thieves is a deception to persuade residents that they are due for a tax refund from the Internal Revenue Service from overpaid fees and that they will receive the money if they complete a form with their banking identification and Social Security numbers.

Also presently making the rounds through South Texas is a ploy by thieves to empty residents’ bank accounts by demanding payment of overdue taxes or to renew vehicle warranty coverage. Those calls and letters are false, Sheriff Miguel Rodriguez said this week, and recipients should hang up the phone or not answer the mail. Likewise, calls offering refunds from credit cards or for consumer products are fraudulent.

“We have known for a long time that there will always be people who are trying to steal money by asking for important information over the phone,” the sheriff said, “but the thieves are getting smarter and their tricks are getting more difficult to spot.

“One thing we always remind everyone is that the IRS, or any government agency, and any bank, will never ask someone for a complete Social Security number or a bank account number over the phone or by mail,” Sheriff Rodriguez said. “And no one should ever give out that kind of information to anyone. A bank already knows your account number, and the federal government already knows your Social Security number. They don’t need to ask for them.”

In some recent incidents, according to investigators at the sheriff’s office this week, callers have threatened local residents with police action if they do not pay as much as $3,000 towards an alleged debt or overdue tax account.

“Callers have been claiming to represent the IRS and have told people that they owe a lot of money in taxes,” the sheriff said. “They have said that the police will be involved and that anyone who does not pay will be arrested.

“This is a complete lie,” Rodriguez said. “The IRS cannot and does not order people to be arrested. It just doesn’t work that way. An arrest warrant would be required. There aren’t any.”

Those at greatest risk of becoming victims in the new surge in financial scams are the elderly, according to the sheriff and Chief Deputy Malcolm Watson, who both reiterated this week that the pressure on some potential victims may take the form of direct threats.

“People have been calling us, telling us they felt in danger,” Chief Deputy Watson said, “or at least felt that they were about to suffer some serious consequences if they did not pay. What is being done to these folks is a crime.”

In some cases, local residents have received letters containing refund checks that appear to come from a telephone company. When recipients cash those checks, they become victims because the checks are fraudulent, Sheriff Rodriguez said.

“Trying to deposit a check – even a fake one – creates a paper trail that includes your banking information,” the sheriff said. “Now the back of that check has your signature and your account number on it.”

Young adults unfamiliar with the tax system and eager to erase bad credit or to take advantage of financial offers are likewise at risk, the sheriff said, because they may be susceptible to cleverly worded scams.

“A lot of these letters look legitimate,” the sheriff said. “The phone calls sound serious. These scam artists are very persuasive. That’s why so many people are at risk, and judging by the number of calls we have received about this, it’s a problem that’s getting bigger.

“Don’t become a victim,” Rodriguez said. “Don’t give anyone your vital information, and always remember that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. If someone threatens you over the phone, they are trying to steal from you. Too many people have paid money to thieves and lost their savings. I hope that everyone stays aware, stays alert to potential tricks and takes action to protect their savings.”

Latest theft attempts include offers of
tax and phone bill refunds, claims for vehicle warranty extensions, payment demands, threats of police intervention

"These scam artists
are very persuasive. That's why so many people are at risk...
It's a problem that's getting bigger"

- Sheriff Miguel Rodriguez

Help us support Special Olympics Texas...

La Salle 'Tip-a-Cop' collects donations June 15

By Marc Robertson
The La Salle County Sheriff’s Office will join other agencies and emergency responders in collecting contributions for Special Olympics Texas through the ‘Tip-a-Cop’ program at El Charro Restaurant in Cotulla from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday, June 15.

All community members are invited to help support Special Olympics athletes in training and competition by making donations to the program on that day.

Officers, firefighters, agents and troopers will act as waiters in the restaurant, serving tea and other drinks to customers at their tables. In exchange, customers are invited to drop donations to Special Olympics in designated envelopes or leave them with event organizers.

The ‘Tip-a-Cop’ program is organized in conjunction with the annual Law Enforcement Torch Run, which was held through South Texas on Wednesday, March 25, as officers, jailers and emergency responders carried the Special Olympics torch from Laredo to San Antonio. Torch bearers passed through downtown Cotulla, Dilley and Pearsall before handing off to other participants for the trek through Medina, Atascosa and Bexar counties. High school students helped support the Special Olympics awareness effort by running alongside the officers through each town.

El Charro Restaurant at 656 North Baylor Street near the IH-35 access road in Cotulla has agreed to support the Special Olympics Texas program by hosting ‘Tip-a-Cop’ on the scheduled date.

“We are very grateful to the restaurant for allowing us to hold this very worthwhile fundraiser here,” La sale County Chief Deputy Malcolm Watson said this week. “But most importantly, we are thankful to all the folks who will help support these young athletes in Special Olympics by making donations during ‘Tip-a-Cop.’ This will be a fun event, and we look forward to seeing everyone there.

“After all, it’s not every day that you have a uniformed officer serve you iced tea, is it?” the chief deputy said. “We are happy to be a part of this and to help out in any way we can.”

Officers in the Dilley area will take part in 'Tip-a-Cop' at Millie's Mexican Restaurant on the IH-35 access road from 5 to 9 p.m. Friday, June 17. Officers in the Pearsall area will take part in the program from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, June 18 at Garcia's Bar & Grill, 205 South Oak Street, in downtown Pearsall.

All proceeds from the charitable fundraisers go to Special Olympics Texas, a year-round movement that provides sports training and athletic competition for children and adults with intellectual or physical disabilities.   

"We are thankful to all the folks who will help support these young athletes"
- Chief Deputy Malcolm Watson

Working through the 'What If' scenario...

PIPELINE SPILL AT COTULLA?
RESPONDERS MOBILIZE IN REAL-TIME DRILL

By Marc Robertson
The play-by-play may differ from one event to the next, but the threat remains at the back of anyone’s mind in the South Texas communities over the Eagle Ford Shale oil and gas drilling fields: What if a real-life emergency should happen?

Employees of the Plains All American pipeline company were given such a scenario on Friday afternoon, June 3, in a tabletop drill that involved cooperation from local emergency responders, coordinated work with teams addressing the immediate and long-term dangers to the community and to the environment, and the step-by-step process of ensuring the safety of anyone in or near a potential contamination zone.

Moments after 1 p.m. Friday, a pipe served by Plains All American on the southwest side of Cotulla ruptured, according to the tabletop emergency drill, causing an immediate loss of pressure that was monitored by the company’s headquarters, and resulting in the spill of at least 12,000 gallons of volatile chemicals into the Nueces River basin, flowing towards the interstate highway and Business IH-35 bridges.

The script for the drill called for a variety of additional features to the emergency, among them hazards to local residents and a fast-moving weather system that threatened to push toxic fumes over the city. At the same time as Plains crew members engaged in the drill were notified by their monitors in other cities that the pipeline system had registered a radical drop in pressure, the script showed emergency calls coming to the La Salle County dispatch office from residents on the south and southwest edges of Cotulla with complaints of an oily smell. Some callers noted that they were beginning to feel unwell, according to a report delivered to representatives of the La Salle County Sheriff’s Office.

Attending the event on behalf of the law enforcement agency was La Salle County Chief Deputy Malcolm Watson, who noted that his first concern would be the safety of those living in or near the contamination zone. He called for patrols by sheriff’s deputies who would be placed on standby in readiness for an evacuation of several residential neighborhoods.

The drill was scripted to take place on the last day of the school calendar, Friday actually being a workday for Cotulla ISD teachers, a day on which all of the children would be home or playing outdoors at the very start of their summer vacation.

“All of these children would normally be concentrated on one place, namely the school buildings,” the chief deputy said. “It turns out that on this very day, they are all over town. We can’t deploy buses to the schools to evacuate the entire student population if we don’t know where they all are.

“Those school buildings are not empty, though,” Watson added. “They are full of teachers who don’t even know they’re in immediate danger right now. The school buildings at Ramirez/Burks Elementary and Newman Middle School are directly in the path of a potentially deadly toxic cloud moving across the southern half of town, and the weather is getting worse.”

Chief Deputy Watson said the La Salle County Sheriff’s Office would activate its Emergency Response Management Plan in close coordination with La Salle County Fire & Rescue, with Emergency Management Coordinator George Trigo and with representatives of other law enforcement agencies, including the US Border Patrol, the Texas DPS Highway Patrol and the Texas Rangers, with neighboring agencies in Webb and Frio counties put on standby.

That standby call was put into action moments later when the emergency drill called for an evacuation of large portions of Cotulla, closure of the interstate highway and ancillary routes, roadblocks on state highways and county roads, and a “rolling roadblock” that would retreat through residential streets as residents fled their homes.

“One thing I can tell you right now is that we just don’t have the manpower to block all these streets at a moment’s notice,” the chief deputy said. “This is why we have to work with every resource available to us. If we call in every one of our officers, we are looking at 23 men and women in uniform, helping residents out of their homes into buses, ensuring that bilingual resources are available whenever needed, that there are ambulances on hand to evacuate the elderly and handicapped, and that we make sure everyone is accounted for.

“I think our greatest fear at this very hour is that there are children out there, in the contamination zone, possibly even fishing down by the river on their first day out of school, in this scenario,” Watson said. “This is a reminder to all of us, and I think it’s a wake-up call, that you can draw up every possible textbook emergency response but always know that there is no textbook scenario that will ever play out exactly as it was written. In this case, if the pipeline had ruptured the day before, we would have evacuated those kids from the schools according to plans drawn up years ago. As it turns out, the kids aren’t there.”

The chief deputy also noted that none of his officers is equipped with protective gear or masks for use in the event of a toxic spill.

“We defer to the La Salle Fire & Rescue for the containment beyond what the pipeline company is doing,” Watson said, “and the responders going into the danger zone are the ones equipped for that. What we will be doing is retreating with the citizens, after we have ensured everyone is safely removed, and setting up roadblocks to prevent trespass and looting.

“In a case like this, our men and women in uniform would be on the front line,” Watson said. “We are dealing with the human element. The safety of the people of La Salle County is our primary responsibility. We may be the last ones out of the area.”

Friday’s emergency drill concluded after five hours when Plains All American pipeline representatives illustrated the techniques they had used and the resources they had deployed to stop further leakage, contain the spill on the Nueces River, establish a containment zone that covered the river basin for a distance of nearly two miles, and began what was estimated to be a clean-up lasting two weeks.

The drill and educational elements included in the walk-through of a real-time emergency were provided by organizer and host Jerry Green of Midland, Crisis Management Group response manager for Plains All American; damage prevention specialist Andy Hoel of San Antonio for Plains’ South Texas Division; Gardendale Pipeline District Manager Tim Atkins; and Plains All American Pipeline District Manager Clyde Collins, headquartered in Dilley.

The scope of the emergency drill encompassed an evaluation of the volatility of the leak, notification of all area agencies and services – including City Hall and Cotulla ISD – and activation of the Incident Command System established by the pipeline company, which includes an incident commander, a liaison officer, a safety officer and a public information officer as well as a company representative responsible for assessing the financial impact of the spill and its resulting effect on the community. General staff officers for the Incident Command System included section chiefs for operations, planning, logistics and administration. Phases of the company’s response included the reactive, in which representatives from various divisions handled the immediate emergency and its dangers to personnel and civilians; and proactive, in which the company mobilized its response teams handling containment, long-term safety issues, clean-up and presenting appropriate warnings to the public and official statements to the media.

The tabletop drill was conducted in the AB Alexander Convention Center, where convention space was given to rows of operations desks at which representatives of each department in the Incident Command System and response team were seated in a “Ground Control” format, receiving updates by cell and internet communication, printed bulletins and by message runners. Meetings were held between groups; briefings and post-op command and general staff meetings were held around updated bulletin boards, maps and satellite photographs of the affected area.

Green noted at the conclusion of the exercise that he believes resources were deployed effectively, that contingencies were properly planned for, that channels of communication were used appropriately and effectively, and that response times were – in the tabletop drill – as swift as possible and involved relevant agencies operating in effective collaboration.

“Communication is always going to be one of the issues that is brought up at an event like this, and we know where we can make improvements,” the crisis response manager for Plains All American said Friday afternoon. “This has been a worthwhile exercise and gave us all valuable information that we can use in being better prepared in future.”

Green added that Plains All American appreciates the cooperation of and input provided by the La Salle County Sheriff’s Office and its information on available resources, logistics and emergency management.    
"We have to work with every resource available to us"
- Chief Deputy Malcolm Watson
"The safety of the people of
La Salle County is our primary responsibility"

- Chief Deputy Malcolm Watson
"Valuable information that we can use in being better prepared"

- Jerry Green
CMS Response Manager
Photos this Page: Employees of Plains All American work together in emergency response as part of  tabletop drill at the AB Alexander Convention Center in Cotulla on Friday, June 3, deploying their resources in response to a scenario in which thousands of gallons of volatile oilfield material leak into the Nueces River, threatening the safety of area residents and travelers.
(Photos: Marc Robertson)
No cure yet for disease that may leave infants
brain-damaged...


Local government urges precaution against
Zika virus

County judge, sheriff, encourage public awareness of dangers, preventive measures

By Marc Robertson
An alert issued by the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has helped increase awareness in local government and healthcare to the growing threat of the mosquito-borne Zika virus.

In a recent press release, the CDC noted that while the symptoms of a Zika infection may be similar to other diseases, there is no known effective treatment of the virus, and victims may initially be unaware they have contracted the disease.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that Zika is an emerging mosquito-borne virus that was first identified in Uganda in 1947 in rhesus monkeys through a monitoring network of sylvatic yellow fever. It was subsequently identified in humans in 1952 in Uganda and the United Republic of Tanzania. Outbreaks of Zika virus disease have been recorded in Africa, the Americas, Asia and the Pacific.

In 2016, healthcare providers and health service officials as well as government leaders are encouraging public awareness of the disease as it encroaches upon the United States, with South Texas being directly in the path of any migration from Mexico.

The virus is primarily spread by mosquitos, but once a person is infected by Zika, he or she is capable of transmitting the virus to another person, according to the CDC's research. Such transmission may be through a further moquito bite (when an infected person is bitten by a mosquito, the infection may be passed on to another person by that mosquito), through sexual contact (research continues at the CDC into the length of time in which a Zika-infected man may continue transmitting the virus), and through pregnancy.

La Salle County Judge Joel Rodriguez and Sheriff Miguel Rodriguez are putting their weight behind a new push for public awareness and are urging area residents to take steps to prevent mosquito infestations. Such measures may include protecting children outdoors with insect repellent and paying attention to all areas where mosquitos are likely to gather, such as pools of standing water, flooded plant containers, leaky garden hoses and areas of moisture around homes.

Those at greatest risk of longterm harm from the Zika virus are the unborn and very young, according to the CDC, and there is mounting evidence that a Zika infection may promote a serious form of brain damage known as microcephaly.

The CDC reports that the Zika virus may be transmitted by pregnant women to their unborn children at or near the time of birth. All preganant women planning to travel to areas where Zika infections have been reported should seek immediate advice from their healthcare oproviders before traveling and should consider changing their plans, according to the CDC.

The World Health Organization reports that there are several potential complications from the Zika virus.

During large outbreaks in French Polynesia and Brazil in 2013 and 2015 respectively, national health authorities reported potential neurological and auto-immune complications of Zika virus disease, the WHO stated, and recently in Brazil, local health authorities have observed an increase in Guillain-Barre syndrome that coincided with Zika virus infections in the general public, as well as an increase in babies born with microcephaly in northeast Brazil.

Agencies investigating the Zika outbreaks are finding an increasing body of evidence about the link between Zika virus and microcephaly, the WHO also stated, adding that it believes more investigation is needed to better understand the relationship between microcephaly in babies and the Zika virus.

ZIKA VIRUS SYMPTOMS
Most people infected with Zika virus won't even know they have the disease because they won't have symptoms, the CDC reports. The most common symptoms of Zika are fever, rash, joint pain, or conjunctivitis (red eyes).

Other common symptoms include muscle pain and headache. The incubation period (the time from exposure to symptoms) for Zika virus disease is not known, but is likely to be a few days to a week.

ZIKA VIRUS FACTS AND ADVICE
The CDC offers the following information on the Zika virus and its disease:
See your healthcare provider if you are pregnant and develop a fever, rash, joint pain or red eyes within two weeks of traveling to a place where Zika has been reported. Be sure to tell your healthcare provider where you traveled.

The illness is usually mild with symptoms lasting for several days to a week after a person is bitten by an infected mosquito. People usually don't become ill enough to go to the hospital with a Zika infection, and they very rarely die of Zika. For this reason, many people might not realize they have been infected.

Zika virus usually remains in the blood of an infected person for about a week but it can be found longer in some people.

Once a person has been infected, he or she is likely to be protected from future infections.

DIAGNOSIS
The symptoms of Zika are similar to those of dengue and chikungunya, diseases spread through the same mosquitoes that transmit Zika.

See your healthcare provider if you develop the symptoms described above and have visited an area where Zika is found.

If you have recently traveled, tell your healthcare provider when and where you traveled.
Your healthcare provider may order blood tests to look for Zika or other similar viruses like dengue or chikungunya.

TREATMENT
There is no vaccine to prevent or medicine to treat Zika infections.
Treat the symptoms:
- Get plenty of rest.
- Drink fluids to prevent dehydration.
- Take medicine such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or paracetamol to relieve fever and pain.
- Do not take aspirin and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.
- If you are taking medicine for another medical condition, talk to your healthcare provider before taking additional medication. If you have Zika, prevent mosquito bites for the first week of your illness by taking traditional precautions against mosquito bites, such as using an approved insect repellent, wearing long sleeves, and using a mosquito net over a bed or outdoor seating to reduce the likelihood of being bitten.
- During the first week of infection, Zika virus can be found in the blood and passed from an infected person to a mosquito through mosquito bites.
- An infected mosquito can then spread the virus to other people.

PREVENTION
The World Health Organization repeats many of the traditional measures for helping prevent Zika-bearing mosquito infestations:
It is extremely important to empty, clean or cover containers regularly that can store water, such as buckets, drums, pots etc.

Other mosquito breeding sites should be cleaned or removed including flower pots, used tires and roof gutters.

Communities must support the efforts of the local government to reduce the density of mosquitoes in their locality.

Repellents should contain DEET (N, N-diethyl-3-methylbenzamide), IR3535 (3-[N-acetyl-N-butyl]-aminopropionic acid ethyl ester) or icaridin (1-piperidinecarboxylic acid, 2-(2-hydroxyethyl)-1-methylpropylester). Product label instructions should be strictly followed. Special attention and help should be given to those who may not be able to protect themselves adequately, such as young children, the sick or elderly.

During outbreaks, health authorities may advise that spraying of insecticides be carried out. Insecticides recommended by the WHO Pesticide Evaluation Scheme may also be used as larvicides to treat relatively large water containers.

AREAS WITH ZIKA
The Zika virus has been confirmed in most South American and Central American countries, inluding Mexico but not including Uruguay, Argentina and Peru, some Pacific islands and a single area in West Africa, Cape Verde. Areas of confirmed infection include the Mexican border with the United States.

A number of countries in which the Zika virus has been confirmed are popular tourist and holiday destinations.

The CDC has posted an updated list of countries in which cases of Zika virus have been confirmed as of the beginning of March, as follows:

AMERICAS
Aruba, Barbados, Bolivia, Bonaire, Brazil, Colombia, Commonwealth of Puerto Rico (US territory), Costa Rica, Curacao, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Martinique, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Saint Martin, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, US Virgin Islands, Venezuela.
PACIFIC ISLANDS
American Samoa, Marshall Islands, Samoa, Tonga.

THE COMMON MOSQUITO is capable of transmitting the Zika virus from one person to the next. Local officials are encouraging residents to help eliminate an infestation by cleaning areas that are inviting to mosquitos, such as standing water, flooded pots and planters, and any areas of moisture around the home. Parents are urged to help porotect children by using approved insect repellents.
Symptoms include rash, muscle pain, headache and red eyes
Zika virus usually remains in the blood of an infected person for about a week

US President proclaims Police Week for May 15-21

Present at the La Salle County Courthouse for a staff meeting during Police Week were (L-R) Deputy Mike Hernandez, Sergeant Investigator Esmeralda Gonzalez, Deputy Israel Cantu, Deputy Juan Mirelez, Deputy Joe Pargas, Sergeant Richard Gonzales, Deputy Leo Martinez, Deputy Jose Avila, Deputy Elvira Gonzales, Lieutenant Joey Garcia, Deputy Daniela Flores, Sergeant Rickey Galvan, Deputy Miguel Limon, Sheriff Miguel Rodriguez, Corporal Anthony Zertuche, Deputy Eddie DeLeon, Deputy Jose Pedroza, Chief Deputy Malcolm Watson, Deputy Jose Cardenas III, Investigator Homar Olivarez and Deputy Enrique Velez.  
By Marc Robertson
Law enforcement representatives from sheriff’s offices, police departments, constabularies, state and federal agencies will meet this week for a candlelight vigil at the Laredo Energy Arena to commemorate Police Week and to pay respect to all those who have lost their lives in the line of duty.

US President Barack Obama has signed a proclamation marking May 15 as Peace Officers Memorial Day and dedicating the period through May 21 as Police Week.

“For generations, the brave women and men of our nation's law enforcement have answered the call to serve and protect our communities,” the President noted in his proclamation. “Enduring long shifts in dangerous and unpredictable circumstances, our nation's peace officers embody the courage and honor that represent the best of America.

“On Peace Officers Memorial Day and during Police Week, we express our gratitude for the selfless public servants who wear the badge and put themselves in harm's way to keep us safe, and we pay respect for those who lost their lives in the line of duty,” the President said.

The arena event will include law enforcement officers from across the region, with Laredo, Webb County, La Salle County and Texas Highway Patrol officers as well as elected officials, administrators and representatives of several other agencies in attendance. Guest speakers, a memorial candle lighting ceremony, and a phalanx of uniformed officers with their lighted patrol units will be highlights of the evening commemoration.

“In moments of danger and desperation, the first people we turn to are law enforcement officers,” President Obama said. “These often unsung heroes risk their lives and sacrifice precious time with loved ones so their fellow Americans can live in peace and security. But more than that, they are leaders in their communities, serving as mentors, coaches, friends, and neighbors - working tirelessly each day to ensure that the people they serve have the opportunities that should be afforded to all Americans. 
“In honor of all they do, we must give these dedicated professionals the support and appreciation they deserve,” the President said. “My administration continues to work to ensure police departments and other law enforcement agencies throughout our country have the resources required to hire, train and retain officers, provide officers with modern and necessary equipment, and utilize technology to enhance their communication networks. Our Federal law enforcement officers regularly partner with their state and local counterparts to address some of our nation's most difficult problems. 

“We know that strong community bonds are essential for law enforcement to do their jobs effectively,” President Obama said, adding that he established a Task Force on 21st Century Policing, “bringing together law enforcement, academia, youth, civil rights and community leaders to provide concrete recommendations to enhance public safety while building community trust.” 

“Law enforcement officials care deeply about their communities, and together with our partners in law enforcement, we must work to build up our neighborhoods, prevent crime before it happens, and put opportunity within reach for all our people,” the President’s proclamation read.

“Each fallen peace officer is one too many,” President Obama said of the loss of law enforcement officers in the line of duty and the principal purpose of the Police Week Commemoration. The President signed bipartisan legislation in 2015 to enact the Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu National ‘Blue Alert’ Act, establishing communications network to disseminate information about threats to officers. The legislation seeks to ensure that appropriate steps can be taken as quickly as possible to provide for an officer's safety. The President has also promoted what he describes as “common-sense gun safety reforms to help keep guns out of the wrong hands.”

“The already dangerous job of an officer is far more dangerous than it should be because it remains too easy for criminals and people who are a danger to others or themselves to have access to guns,” the President said.

“It takes a special kind of courage to be a peace officer,” President Obama’s proclamation for the week read. “Whether deputies or detectives, tribal police or forest service officers, beat cops or federal agents, we hold up those who wear the badge as heroes. Though they too often spend their days witnessing America at its worst, in their extraordinary examples, we see America at its best. On this day and throughout this week, let us celebrate those who nobly serve each day - and remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice - to move our world toward a more just and safe tomorrow. 

“May we carry forward their brave and selfless spirit as we keep working together to shape a future worthy of their commitment.”

Click It or Ticket...

La Salle receives TxDOT grant to support seatbelt campaign

By Marc Robertson
The La Salle County Sheriff’s Office has been awarded a grant that will pay for officers’ overtime hours in enforcing the state’s seatbelt laws, focusing on the weeks surrounding the Memorial Day holiday, a popular time for travel.

According to Texas Department of Transportation regional director Melisa Montemayor, speaking at the funding award ceremony in Laredo last week, a percentage of Texans continue to violate the state’s seatbelt laws despite continued enforcement by the Texas Highway Patrol, sheriff’s deputies and local police. Montemayor noted that while seatbelt law compliance has improved in recent years, those who do not wear seatbelts or who fail to secure their children properly in safety seats are endangering their own lives and the lives of their loved ones.

Montemayor was joined by Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz and leading law enforcement and emergency response personnel at the Laredo Energy Arena on Thursday, May 5 to announce the 2016 ‘Click it or Ticket’ enforcement campaign and to encourage all area agencies to promote compliance.

‘Click it or Ticket… or Worse’ was the theme of last week’s announcement attended by representatives of the Webb County Sheriff’s Office and constables, the Laredo Police Department, the La Salle County Sheriff’s Office and the Texas Department of Public Safety Highway Patrol; justices of the peace, firefighters and paramedics from the border area; and media representatives. Grants to law enforcement agencies were announced in front of a mock-up of a vehicle dashboard and shattered windshield, emphasizing the harmful and often fatal consequences of not wearing a seatbelt.

Representing the La Salle County Sheriff’s Office at the event was Lieutenant Joey Garcia, who said a strict enforcement policy will be enhanced by the TxDOT grant.

This year’s award marks the first time that TxDOT has made funds available to La Salle County to supplement officers’ salaries for overtime hours in seatbelt enforcement.

Under Texas law, all occupants of a vehicle are required to wear seatbelts at all times and all children must be properly secured in safety seats appropriate for their age and size. Shoulder- and lap-belts must be worn correctly by all vehicle occupants. Rear-facing child safety seats must not be used in the front seat of a vehicle. Information on proper child safety seat installation is available free of charge from the Texas Department of Transportation. Child safety seats are available free or at reduced cost for eligible applicants through the transportation department and are often distributed at public events.

“The number of times we meet drivers who aren’t wearing seatbelts or who allow their children to climb around on the seats in a moving vehicle is something of great concern to us,” Sheriff Miguel Rodriguez said of some drivers’ continued violation of the law. “It takes only a few seconds to put on a seatbelt, and those few seconds can save your life or the life of your child.”
Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz (Photos this page, from above) addresses law enforcement officers and emergency responders at the Texas Department of Transportation's grant award ceremony in front of Laredo Energy Arena on Thursday, May 5 for the statewide 'Click It or Ticket' seatbelt enforcement campaign. Reminding officers of the need for continued enforcement was Melisa Montemayor, TxDOT regional director. Laredo Police Chief Ray Garner spoke of the need for rigorous enforcement. (Photos at left) La Salle Sheriff's Office Lt. Joey Garcia was present to accept the grant on behalf of his officers; and Webb County Chief Deputy Fred Garza likewise discussed the importance of the seatbelt enforcement.    
 “Click It or Ticket.” It’s simple, it’s the law and it’s a reminder from the Texas Department of Transportation that seat belts save lives.

“With Memorial Day weekend and the summer vacation season approaching, we’re urging people to buckle their seat belts every time they get in their vehicle,” said TxDOT Executive Director James Bass. “Every person in a vehicle – front seat or back seat – needs to buckle up. Not only is it the law, but seat belts save lives.”

Last year in Texas, 2,370 vehicle crashes involving unrestrained occupants resulted in 889 fatalities and 1,854 serious injuries. Wearing a seat belt helps keep occupants from being ejected in a crash and increases the chances of surviving by 45 percent. In pickup trucks, that number jumps to 60 percent, as those vehicles are twice as likely as cars to roll over in a crash.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that since its inception, the “Click It or Ticket” campaign in Texas has resulted in 4,687 fewer traffic fatalities while preventing 79,578 serious injuries. When the “Click It or Ticket” campaign launched in 2002, only 76 percent of Texans used their seat belts. Today, 9 out of 10 Texans buckle up.

Along with TxDOT’s annual, statewide “Click It or Ticket” campaign and awareness tour, police departments across the nation will step up enforcement efforts from May 23 – June 5. In Texas, the law requires everyone in a vehicle to buckle up or face fines and court costs up to $200. Children younger than 8 years old must be in a child safety seat or booster seat unless they’re taller than 4 feet 9 inches.

A time to be wise

The Medina Electric Cooperative dispatched a demonstration team with instructor Derly Carrizales to Cotulla on Wednesday, May 4 to give a workshop on electrical safety to firefighters and paramedics in the La Salle Fire & Rescue as well as members of the sheriff's office (Photos this page). Special attention was given to accident and emergency cases, notably incidents in which electrical power lines may be brought down in an accident or as the result of a storm or other disaster, when responders are called upon to rescue trapped motorists or gain access to homes. Classroom instruction at the La Salle County Emergency Operations Center covered precautions and preventive measures; outdoor demonstrations included examples of ways in which power line safety may be compromised, such as by animals, reckless action by construction crews, and interference from objects such as mylar balloons, fire hoses and other objects likely to conduct electricity. Workshop attendees were shown educational films aimed at instructing the public on what steps to take and what action to avoid in the event of an accident; and reminded always to call 811 before digging, in order to determine whether any utility lines may lie under ground. Those attending from the sheriff's office included Sheriff Miguel Rodriguez, Chief Deputy Malcolm Watson, Sgt. Rickey Galvan and Public Information Officer Marc Robertson.  

Probation,
school resource staff, child advocates examine 'e-cig' threats to youths

A developing fashion for tobacco replacement products and their popularity among teens and young adults featured in a presentation to law enforcement and child advocate staff in Cotulla on February 17.

By Marc Robertson
Speaking at Jordan Hall, Prevention Specialist Becky Mueller of the Karnes / Wilson Juvenile Probation Department said she believes there are dangerous and untested products among the ingredients of fluids used in the manufacture of electronic cigarettes.

The devices, which have been on the market in the United States since 2004, take the form of refillable 'hookah pens' or several varieties of disposable or rechargeable 'e-cigs,' all of which are used in a manner known as vaping.

While their designs may vary, the products that were originally developed in China and marketed as a safe alternative to tobacco smoking function by heating small quantities of liquid that become a vapor for inhaling. While resembling cigarette smoke, the substance emitted by the e-cigarettes and hookah pens is a vaporized liquid that contains nicotine and assorted flavors.

In some non-commercial and illegal adaptations, the devices may be converted for use to inhale marijuana-laced vapor or alcohol, according to Mueller, who noted that the hazardous adaptations have been found potentially lethal because of their concentrated dosage.

Medically prescribed marijuana, which is low in the hallucinogenic THC ingredient, may be produced in liquid form for use in a hookah pen.

Among those present at Jordan Hall on Wednesday evening for Mueller's seminar on the drug hazards were Cotulla ISD Resource Officer and La Salle County Deputy Jose Pedroza; La Salle County Juvenile Probation Officer Nick Ayers; and Francie Gasch, community outreach and volunteer coordinator for the Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of South Texas. Others in the audience included community and church representatives.

"There are a lot of concerns over synthetic drugs," Mueller said, "and these affect young people in particular. What we need to address and be more informed about are the many ways in which products are being marketed to a younger consumer with no regard whatsoever for the hazards of their ingredients."

Mueller said there is a lack of data on the long-term risks and hazards associated with untested substances, including those used in the manufacture of e-cigarette liquids, and that she sides with healthcare industry professionals in cautioning young consumers over the use of the vapor devices.

"It's become a very common thing, what kids call vaping," Mueller said of the ten-year trend.

A film presented by the juvenile probation and substance abuse prevention specialist during the seminar demonstrated a list of common concerns over the availability of hookah pens. Mueller noted that she believes teens subjected to peer pressure may seek popularity by using e-cigarettes at parties and may progress to using hookah pens that have been filled with alcohol.

In such instances, she said, the concentrated dose from a single use of a hookah pen may deliver a sufficient quantity of the alcohol to be fatal.

"In the case of vaping, the liquid condenses in the lungs and is absorbed directly into the bloodstream and from there to the brain," Mueller said. "It's enough to kill."

Documentary footage screened at the seminar indicated that vials of flavored liquid used to refill hookah pens may contain enough concentrated nicotine to be fatal if swallowed.

"The liquids have nicotine in them, even if the label says they don't," Mueller said. "These e-cigs are a gateway to other products, including marijuana. I believe we need to increase public awareness of these hazards to our children, and that parents need to know that even though these products are sold in stores, they contain ingredients that I'm sure you wouldn't want in your lungs."

Mueller said liquids sold commercially for refilling hookah pens may contain small quantities of the chemical used in the manufacture of antifreeze.

"I think the message is clear here," Mueller said, reiterating a theme from her video presentation, "Don't put anything in your body that you wouldn't put in your body at the dinner table in front of your parents."

Deputy Pedroza spoke briefly on issues he has addressed at Cotulla ISD, where he said there have been few incidents of e-cigarette use by teens. In two cases, he said, students were found in possession of electronic cigarettes but discarded them when made aware that the products are not allowed on school premises.

"We have addressed this issue in presentations to students and parents over an extended period of time," Deputy Pedroza said. "These isolated cases have been handled very quickly. I can say that we have not had an issue with students vaping on campus."

The school resource officer noted that he believes a strong cooperative alliance between the county, the school and healthcare organizations plays a vital role in the intervention process.

"We have South Texas Rural Health Services, with counseling for at-risk students, and we work with the juvenile probation department," Deputy Pedroza said. "I believe we are staying up with what we have.

"We can always improve on parental support," the officer said. "Seldom does counseling involve the parent."

"There is a lack of responsibility," Gasch said on the topic of counseling parents and children alike. "Many of these children have parents and grandparents who behaved this way. We have a lot of issues to address there."

Mueller's presentations are offered in Karnes, Wilson, Atascosa, Frio and La Salle counties and cover a variety of topics including tobacco and alcohol abuse prevention, marijuana and other drugs, substance abuse in the workplace, drug awareness, and team-building activities.

"There are a lot of concerns over synthetic drugs...
And these affect young people in particular."


- Becky Mueller
Prevention Specialist


"We have addressed this issue in presentations to students and parents...
These isolated incidents have been handled very quickly."

- Deputy Jose Pedroza
Cotulla ISD Resource Officer