Feature Stories from the Sheriff's Office

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gas plant scenario



Human trafficking

"Be our eyes and ears..."

USBP invites support
from landowners, energy companies

Local Emergency Planning Committee meets Feb. 21
for updates on communications, disaster response

By Marc Robertson
“If you see something, say something” has become a mantra applicable to a wide range of situations, including suspicious activity in the South Texas Brush Country.

A presentation by the US Border Patrol to members of the La Salle County Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) in Cotulla on Wednesday, February 21, included a reminder that it is assistance from landowners and energy industry operators that may enable law enforcement to identify and intercept criminal activity.

USBP Ranch Liaison Agent Gilbert Avilez told his audience in the county’s Emergency Operations Center that he believes increased awareness of potential threats and indicators of illegal activity as well as stronger communication between civilians and officers will do much to enhance regional and border security, reduce crime and help in the apprehension of trespassers, property thieves, and human smugglers.

Something as often ignored as the discovery of empty water bottles along trails in the brush may be significant and may help identify routes that smugglers and other criminals have taken across private land in the past and where they are likely to repeat their journey, Avilez said, citing a recent incident that led to the apprehension of several undocumented immigrants.
US Border Patrol Ranch Liaison Agent Gilbert Avilez of the USBP Cotulla Station addresses members of the La Salle County Local Emergency Planning Committee at a meeting in the Emergency Operations Center in Cotulla on Wednesday, Feb. 21.
Although Avilez’ presentation and an accompanying government-made promotional film were geared towards ranchers and property owners in the border region, many of the elements and pieces of advice contained in them were applicable to the energy industry, the agent said. Oilfield workers and supervisors traveling to remote jobsites are likely to discover signs of criminal activity well in advance of law enforcement, he said, and should take immediate action in reporting the discoveries.

Footpaths where none should be, tire tracks that don’t relate to the energy industry or to ranch use, gates left unlocked, abandoned clothes and food wrappers, and the presence of improperly marked vehicles or signs of trespassing are all indicators that private land may be used by smugglers and by individuals looking to make use of private property or commercial goods at remote sites, Avilez said. In some cases, workers and ranch owners have been approached by strangers and asked to leave gates unlocked at specific locations or have been quizzed about law enforcement patrols, surveillance and security systems, the officer said. In other incidents, vehicles have been “cloned” to resemble oil company trucks in order to appear inconspicuous in South Texas traffic while transporting undocumented immigrants and large quantities of narcotics.

In each case, anyone noting suspicious activity or anomalies should make a report immediately, either to local law enforcement or to the US Border Patrol at its Cotulla Station by calling (210) 242-1646 or by calling the ranch liaison officer directly at (956) 285-4093. The toll-free regional number for reporting criminal activity to the US Border Patrol at the US Department of Homeland Security is 1-855-553-7902.

“We want you to be our eyes and ears across the region,” Avilez said. “Report seeing suspicious vehicles, and make a note of the type of vehicle, the make and color, the license plate, the occupants, and in what direction the vehicle was traveling, and report the location and ranch or company name, with GPS coordinates if possible.”

Avilez distributed a USBP flyer that includes the agency’s plea to the general public for assistance in intercepting criminal activity, adding a caution that smugglers and other trespassers have shown an increasing tendency to violence.

“There is an increase in activity by as much as eighteen percent,” Avilez said. “We are detecting a lot more than normal, when it comes to criminal activity, human smuggling. This includes foot traffic and persons traveling in stolen vehicles.

“The situation has changed,” the ranch liaison agent said. “The mentality has changed. The people we encounter are more prone to violence. You have to be extra cautious with anyone you encounter. They are more likely to become violent when there is any disruption to their business.”

Avilez cited a recent incident in which a truck driver was assaulted by smugglers at a remote site and, although the driver escaped serious injury, law enforcement agents were unable to find those responsible.

“Don’t take it for granted that you won’t encounter them,” Avilez said. “They’re out there. From now until May is regarded as the busy season, before it slows down again due to the heat. We are getting reports of vehicles cutting through ranches, and of break-ins at houses and other structures. They’re looking for food, but they are also stealing weapons.”

The USBP is reporting that while the majority of undocumented immigrants apprehended in South Texas are Mexican nationals, agents have identified increasing numbers of other nationalities among those entering the United States illegally, including citizens of South American, Asian and Arab countries.

The USBP Cotulla Station oversees a patrol area of 6,000 square miles of South Texas Brush Country.

“Whatever help you can give us is appreciated,” the agent said. “We can check it out. Even if you just want to report finding water bottles out there, it’s a great help for you to reach out to us.”

In other business at their quarterly meeting, members of the LEPC heard updates from law enforcement, emergency responders, the energy industry and the Department of Public Safety as well as from local representatives responsible for medical services, emergency shelter, transportation and other components involved in disaster response. The La Salle County Fire Rescue & EMS reported that its call volume has increased but that its local response time is under five minutes, less than the national average, and that a new ladder truck has been put into service. The county department is looking into obtaining an additional ambulance for improved coverage of the county, which includes stations in Cotulla and Encinal.

In a separate presentation, Texas DPS representative Fernando Diaz outlined the US Environmental Protection Agency’s new computer software program for emergency operations management, CAMEO, which combines several resources to aid in disaster preparedness, including accurate mapping, plotting toxic material or fire spreading in different climactic conditions and under specific wind directions, and complete listing of hazardous materials and their effects as well as their potential threat when mixed. The LEPC will receive a more detailed presentation on the CAMEO system at a future meeting.

Energy industry representatives were again reminded by LEPC President Dr. Jack Seals that it is vital all telephone numbers and related contact information be updated and posted on gates, pipelines and industry site fencing in order to facilitate proper notification in the event of an accident. Dr. Seals also noted that the Cotulla ISD Transportation Department’s vehicles are available for emergency evacuation of schools or residential neighborhoods in the event of a disaster.

The next meeting of the La Salle County LEPC will be at noon on Wednesday, May 9, in the EOC on Mars Drive in the Las Palmas development beside IH-35 in Cotulla. A luncheon is made available at 11:30 a.m.

"Cold weather raised
a red flag for us..."

Local residents benefit from federal surplus program

By Marc Robertson
Hundreds of elderly or needy La Salle County residents have been supplied with wool blankets, sheets and pillowcases this month to help overcome persistent cold weather, following a charitable donation from the Federal Surplus Property Program.

At least two hundred blankets were delivered Thursday, January 25, to the county’s Elderly Nutrition Center and distributed to the facility’s home-delivery clients as well as to those who visit the dining hall and activity building in downtown Cotulla each day. Director Rosie Sauceda
Clients at the La Salle County Elderly Nutrition Center in Cotulla are supplied with blankets to help fend off the winter chill
said she believes all those who receive the donations will appreciate the additional warmth during some of the coldest nights of the year. Sheets and pillowcases were also delivered to those who needed them. When all of the center’s clients had been provided for, additional blankets and linens were delivered to elderly or needy families in La Salle County.

The estimated value of the donation to La Salle County from the federal program is in excess of $4,000, Sauceda said.

“We were helped very much by the county judge, who wrote a letter to the Texas Facilities Commission with a plea that La Salle County’s needy residents be considered,” Sauceda said. “We provide as much as we can for our elderly clients, but we knew that they were going to suffer in the cold weather, which affects them very badly.”

“The recent cold weather raised a red flag for us, since the increased cost of utilities needed to keep warm will impact their low-income budget,” County Judge Joel Rodriguez wrote in early January to Courtney Jackson at the federal program office in Austin. “We would like to participate in the blanket donation program […] so that we can help our senior citizens cope with the cold weather, which is expected to continue through winter.”

Sauceda said she was not expecting to receive more blankets than she had initially asked for, or that she would also be provided with sheets and pillowcases, adding that she believes the additional delivery is a blessing to those with limited means.

“These are soft wool blankets that will bring much-needed warmth to our elderly residents of La Salle County, but they will also bring real comfort to those who dread the harsh effects of winter weather,” the facility director said. “This has come as a great relief.”

The La Salle County Elderly Nutrition Center serves at least 150 elderly and low-income clients in Cotulla, Encinal and outlying areas with hot meals at its downtown facility and a ‘meals on wheels’ food delivery program to those unable to leave their homes. The program is sponsored by the county government.  
La Salle Fire Rescue & EMS Chief Daniel Mendez, Cotulla ISD Superintendent Dr. Jack Seals and Texas Highway Patrol Sgt. JD Rodriguez are heads of the La Salle County Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC)

Approving bylaws, establishing committees...

Emergency planners cover response times, training, communication

By Marc Robertson
Members of the La Salle County Local Emergency Planning Committee met at noon Wednesday, November 17 in the Larry Griffin Emergency Operations Center to agree on new meeting groups, receive updates on training and reinforce communications between responders and the energy industry.

The LEPC has been meeting quarterly for the past year to establish stronger ties between the oil and gas industries and local government, fire and law enforcement, medical and community services, to coordinate efforts in the event of a disaster or an incident affecting the health and safety of South Texas residents, infrastructure and environment. The organization’s chairman is Cotulla ISD Superintendent Dr. Jack Seals; vice chairman is Texas Highway Patrol Sgt. JD Rodriguez. La Salle County Fire Rescue & EMS Chief Daniel Mendez is the secretary/treasurer. Reporting and scheduling is handled by Jeanette Ramirez for Supt. Seals at Cotulla ISD Central Office.

In a brief presentation to the committee at its recent meeting, Soteria Solutions representative Michelle Joseph said she believes continuing education is vital to the organization’s development and success, and reiterated that those who attend LEPC meetings will garner “nuggets of information” that will contribute to a greater understanding of the purpose of the organization and its capabilities.
Attendees were reminded of the reasons for the establishment of emergency planning committees and the organizations that led to the creation of incident management systems, namely the 1984 leak at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, which resulted in the deaths of thousands living in a community downwind of the facility. The Bhopal incident and others in the same decade, Joseph said, threw light on a need for improved communication between industries and emergency responders, and the drafting of comprehensive plans for response in any incident, particularly those involving hazardous chemicals.

Creation of LEPCs across the country has been mandated by law; La Salle County falls within its eponymous district and is part of a regional emergency response organization. Each committee receives updates on technology, communication systems, training, grant funding for new equipment used by responders, and word from the schools and communities that will be affected in the event of a disaster or other form of emergency. Mass evacuation, monitoring of conditions, accurate reporting to the media, public advisories, safe response and preparedness for hazardous materials, and identification of all threats are key topics of discussion by LEPC members while separate committees specializing in specific areas of expertise focus on pinpointing assets and capabilities.

All members of an LEPC should encourage their agencies to attend training courses on hazardous materials, Joseph said; education opportunities are being coordinated by Fire Chief Mendez. Tabletop drills and mock scenarios, she added, are often vital in promoting a better understanding of an emergency response on a minute-by-minute basis.

An emergency plan reviewed by the LEPC should include critical information on how to respond to specific hazards, Joseph said, and may be the plan already established by a city or county if it meets the guidelines laid down by the state. All emergency plans, she added, should also include identification of evacuation and supply routes – road, rail and air – and designate an emergency coordinator. Identification of all equipment available to responders in the event of an

"You have to prepare for all hazards...
A good example of that was Hurricane Harvey, which was definitely a threat to pipelines and chemicals"
- Michelle Joseph
Soteria Solutions

emergency will be critical, she said, as well as communication with other jurisdictions whose
responders may assist and must be adequately trained in hazardous materials and other threats.

“You have to prepare for all hazards,” Joseph said. “A good example of that was Hurricane Harvey, which was definitely a threat to pipelines and chemicals.”

“Six thousand people came to La Salle County from the coast at that time,” Chief Mendez said of the storm that swept the Gulf Coast at the end of August, coincidentally within days of the quarterly LEPC meeting. “They should have gone to San Antonio, but they came here. Companies immediately stepped up to the call by freeing up rooms they had booked at local hotels, so a lot of evacuees were accommodated.

“We also have to keep the roads clear in the event of an emergency, and that includes an incident like Hurricane Harvey,” the fire chief added. “We were able to do this as a direct result of having coordinated our resources and discussed this type of response at these LEPC meetings.”

Committee members went on to approve the creation of state-mandated standing committees encompassing the various branches of an emergency response network and incorporating the former locally developed committees that represented government, law enforcement, industry, technology, healthcare, the media, and community groups. Only four committees are required for an LEPC but include key players from a range of industry, responder, government and community groups. Committees approved by the membership on Nov. 15 include right to know, public education and information, hazardous materials facility liaison, and emergency response and resources.

Those attending on Nov. 15 also approved the LEPCs bylaws, which were drafted based on state standards.

Local committee reports were submitted to the organization, covering the period from August to November, and included comments by Fire Chief Mendez on the number of calls his firefighters and medics have responded to in recent weeks as well as the accomplishment of a goal he had set for the department, namely to log a response time of less than five minutes. Mendez also noted that the department has taken delivery of a new ladder truck that will give responders access to all structures in the county – including multistory hotels – and that the vehicle’s deployment is expected to help lower the county’s ISO rating, meaning a decrease in property insurance rates for home and business owners because of the fire department’s increased capability.

Mendez noted that a small number of seats remain available in a four-day training course on advanced-level incident command, December 19-22.

The La Salle County LEPC will hold its next meeting in the Emergency Operations Center at noon on February 21. Lunch was provided at the Nov. 15 meeting courtesy of Orozco's Crane & Towing.  

Honoring our Veterans

La Salle County Sheriff's Office salutes its personnel
who served their country in the armed forces

By Marc Robertson
In advance of Veterans Day this year, the La Salle County Sheriff’s Office is recognizing its law enforcement personnel who served the United States in the armed forces, including active duty in conflicts overseas and in peacetime.

The following sheriff’s officers are US armed forces veterans:

Deputy Jose Avila – Lance Corporal, US Marine Corps; two years of service.

Lieutenant Michael Lynn Bostwick – Master Sergeant, US Army Special Forces, Army Rangers; 21 years of service; Vietnam (three tours), Dominican Republic, Grenada.

Deputy & Court Bailiff Eddie DeLeon - Specialist E4, US Army; three years of service; Korean border Demilitarized Zone.

Deputy Rolando Flores - Staff Sergeant, US Army; 15 years of service; Korean border Demilitarized Zone (two tours), Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq (two tours), Afghanistan.

Sgt. Rickey Galvan – Master Sergeant, US Marine Corps; 21 years on active duty, Pacific Islands; nine years in reserves.

Capt. Jose D. Garcia Jr. – Specialist E4, US Army; four years of service; West Germany.

Deputy Julian Lopez – Specialist, US Army; four years of service, currently in US National Guard; US Army paratrooper, Alaska.

“We are grateful to all those who have served their country in times of war and peace and who have helped defend the liberties we enjoy as Americans,” Sheriff Rodriguez said. “As a law enforcement community, we are proud of the discipline, high standards of duty and dedication to service that our officers have demonstrated in their careers, and as a community we are indebted to those who have answered the call to stand in the face of danger and protect our American values from all enemies, for the sake of their homeland and for the American people.”

MRGDC magazine features
dispatch supervisor

The Middle Rio Grande Development Council has selected La Salle County Dispatch Office Supervisor Sandi Ibarra for a spotlight feature in the second issue of its ‘Homeland Monthly’ magazine.

Ibarra has served as an emergency response telecommunicator in the dispatch office for the county for 20 years, having joined the service in 1997.

The magazine feature story includes her description of the challenges she faces on the job and her belief in the value of the emergency dispatch to the community.

The magazine can be found online at www.mrgdc.org and includes stories on communications systems upgrades, technology, recent events, upcoming festivals and family-oriented functions, education and grant resources, and emergency management updates.

The Middle Rio Grande Development Council is headquartered at 307 West Nopal Street in Carrizo Springs and is active in several South Texas counties, serving the public through workforce assistance, access to vital resources, promoting economic development, training and grant work.

It's been a pink month...

Emergency responders promote cancer awareness with color

La Salle County firefighters, medics and other emergency responders have made a visible statement of support for this year’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October by wearing bright pink shirts on the job each day.

The project was funded by the county and approved by the commissioners’ court as part of the nationwide ‘Real Men Wear Pink’ awareness campaign for the American Cancer Society. La Salle County’s shirts this year featured the fire and rescue service’s logo and distinctive cobra-themed ‘strike back against breast cancer’ artwork.

The brightly colored shirts are designed to attract attention to the need for increased awareness of cancer intervention and the need for a cure; American Cancer Society representatives have pushed for increased publicity in 2017 and accomplished it by garnering the support of local governments, law enforcement, firefighters, medics, schools, and community groups.

"I'm proud of our fire department for taking part in the ‘Real Men Wear Pink’ campaign and excited to see so many leaders across the country do the same," La Salle County Judge Joel Rodriguez said. “Our county commissioners’ court was happy the county could purchase the pink t-shirts to allow the Fire Rescue & EMS team to promote breast cancer awareness.”

The American Cancer Society reports that an estimated 252,710 people across the country will have been diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017 alone. In addition, 2,407 men will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer this year. The society also reports that it believes huge strides have been made towards better treatment and finding a cure. Breast cancer death rates have declined by 38 percent from a peak in 1989 to 2014, representing 297,300 fewer breast cancer deaths today.

In addition to community and business leaders who support the American Cancer Society in its efforts to diminish the pain and suffering of breast cancer, communities across the country united in ‘Making Strides Against Breast Cancer’ events during October.

The American Cancer Society is a global grassroots force of nearly two million volunteers dedicated to saving lives, celebrating lives, and leading the fight for a world without cancer. From breakthrough research, to free lodging near treatment, a 24/7/365 live helpline, free rides to treatment, and convening powerful activists to create awareness and impact, the society reports that it is the only organization attacking cancer from every angle. For more information, go to www.cancer.org.

La Salle County, 81st & 218th Districts
and Justices of the Peace Courts
Code of Conduct for all proceedings 

The following code of conduct and rules for the courts of La Salle County are applicable and enforced as per the Texas Government Code and the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, and the constitutional, statutory and inherent powers of the courts to regulate proceedings before them and to provide for the orderly and efficient dispatch of litigation.

All persons entering courts in La Salle County are subject to the following
code of conduct, including members of the public visiting the courtroom:

DRESS - All persons shall be appropriately attired for court proceedings. All persons entering the courtroom shall be dressed in clothing reasonably befitting the dignity and solemnity of court proceedings. Tank-tops, shorts, thongs, and clothing that is tattered or soiled are among those items of clothing not considered appropriate courtroom attire. No hats, caps or sunglasses shall be worn in the courtroom.

PROPERTY – No person shall bring packages, suitcases, boxes, backpacks, duffel bags, shopping bags or containers into the courtroom without the prior approval of the bailiff; and no person shall bring into the courtroom any radios, tape recorders, cameras, cellular telephones, pagers, or any other recording equipment unless the devices are turned off, or unless they are required for the court proceedings and prior approval has been given by the bailiff or the court.

TOBACCO – No tobacco products are to be used in the courtroom in any form, including chewing and smoking.

FOOD & DRINK – No gum chewing is allowed in the courtroom at any time. No bottles, beverage containers, paper cups, or any edible items are allowed in the courtroom, except as permitted by the court.

SEATING – No one may prop their feet on desks, tables, benches, chairs or other furnishings at any time in the courtroom.

NOISE – No talking or unnecessary noise which interferes with court proceedings is permitted in the courtroom.

COMMUNICATION – No one is permitted to express approval or disapproval of any testimony, statement, or transaction in the courtroom by any facial expression, shaking or nodding of the head, or by any other conduct or gesture; and no person shall be permitted to make any verbal or physical contact with a prisoner without the prior approval of the bailiff.

ETIQUETTE – All persons shall rise when summoned to do so by the bailiff when the judge or jury enter or leave the courtroom, and at any other times as the bailiff may direct.

The code of conduct for the courts of La Salle County and for the 81st and 218th Judicial Districts is enforced by the bailiff of the court, who is a peace officer of the state of Texas, and by the court itself.

Those who violate the code of conduct are subject to immediate removal from the court and may face prosecution.