Rosales left El Paso DA office in shambles after year of turmoil
EL PASO, Texas (KTEP) - The state case against the accused shooter in the Walmart massacre faced big obstacles created by the county’s district attorney.
Former district Attorney Yvonne Rosales agreed to resign by Dec. 15th to avoid possible suspension from office, rather than face a trial of alleged “misconduct” and “incompetence” as the county’s lead prosecutor. She faced a whirlwind of legal problems, including criminal allegations of tampering with witnesses and intimidation.
Also, Rosales and her office routinely denied in-person interviews despite pledges to be available to the press during her campaign for elections.
Over two years, more than 300 individuals arrested on misdemeanor and felony charges were released from jail due to inaction by prosecutors. Nearly 1,000 criminal cases were dismissed as a result.
But a main objective for Rosales was finding justice for victims and families of the largest massacre targeting Hispanics in recent history. The tragic events of August 3rd, 2019 were overshadowed by the missteps of Rosales and her team.
The events stunned a binational community still grieving the mass killing of people shopping at the so-called Mexican Walmart - the nickname given to the super store because of its proximity to Ciudad Juárez across the border.
Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott formally accepted Rosales’ resignation and replaced her with a member of his own party. Abbott’s appointee Bill Hicks will stay in office until 2024 when elections are held.
Hicks has begun the difficult job of rebuilding the office left in shambles.
“I’m not here to serve the interest of a political party,” he told KTEP. “I’m here in the interests of our communities, of our families, to work for a better community, to work for a better criminal justice system.”
State representative Joe Moody, a potential candidate for DA and high-ranking Democrat in the state, said “one of the worst things” about Rosales’ resignation and Abbott’s move “is that it deprives El Paso voters of a choice.”
The accused shooter, Patrick Crusius of North Texas, faces state and federal charges for allegedly killing 23 people and injuring dozens more in what authorities say was a racially motivated shooting.
Crusius initially confessed to targeting Mexicans in order to “stop the Hispanic invasion of Texas” after driving 10 hours from Allen, Texas, to El Paso to carry out the shooting, according to police.
He remains in federal custody inside the El Paso County Detention Facility. A Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman says it costs about $101 in taxpayer money a day to keep Crusius jailed.
“Every defense lawyer in the country knows that Patrick Crusius is not going to leave prison alive,” Joe Spencer, one of Crusius' attorneys said during a hearing. “He’s going to leave prison in a coffin. It’s only a question whether it’s going to be on God’s time or man’s time.”
Yet, pointing to all the allegations against the DA and her associates, Spencer questioned whether “Patrick Crusius will be harmed by his denial to a right of a fair trial” He added: “Mr. Crusius would be denied the right to effective assistance of counsel under the 6th and 14th amendment of the United States Constitution.”
Spencer has said his team intends on having the trial in El Paso, a largely Catholic community that may be more may be more tolerant than others on capital punishment.
Rosales invoked the 5th amendment during a Walmart shooting case hearing, shielding herself from any potential criminal testimony. Rosales’ appearance on Dec. 1 was just one of an array of stunning developments that riveted the city.
The bizarre ordeal originated last summer when District Court Judge Medrano Jr. berated Rosales in a hearing after she told KTEP and The Dallas Morning News she hoped to see the case go to trial in the summer of 2023.
The judge sternly reminded Rosales that only the court can schedule hearings after pointing out her team had not taken prior action on the case. The judge then imposed a gag order on all involved in the trial.
After, the DA’s office and a controversial associate of Rosales, Roger Rodriguez, a municipal judge in nearby Vinton, allegedly tried to oust Medrano. The alleged plan included sending an email to the media using a victim’s relative’s cell phone.
The family are the Hoffmans from Ciudad Juárez. The patron of the family, Alexander Gerhard Hoffman, was one of the 23 shot and killed in the attack at the superstore.
Why the family was picked isn’t entirely clear. But during testimony, Hoffman’s son Thomas said Rodriguez was behind the email sent from his mother’s account with his brother’s signature to the media. The message criticized the judge and circumvented his gag order on discussions related to the trial.
KTEP questioned the authenticity of the email when a member of the Hoffman family said it could not have come from them.
Alexander Gerhard Hoffman's widow, Rosa Maria Valdez Garcia and son, Thomas, provided recorded conversations with a man they say is Rodriguez to the court. Rodriguez allegedly told the family he had “snipers everywhere,” according to court documents.
In tearful testimony on Nov. 30, Thomas Hoffman alleged Rodriguez showed him his gun at a Village Inn restaurant in El Paso to intimidate him.
“He said you see me using this weapon because I use it to protect myself from my enemies. He said it as if he were saying that I was one of them,” Hoffman said. “As if he were referring to me.”
Rosales’ appearance in court the next day came as a surprise after missing three other hearings in November. Medrano limited questions toward Rosales, who looked tired and haggard, after she and her attorney invoked the 5th amendment repeatedly during a December 1st hearing.
Justin Underwood, an attorney appointed to represent the Hoffman family, said Rosales, Rodriguez and Curtis Cox, a senior member of the DA’s staff, should be held accountable for how the Hoffman family was allegedly treated. He’s given the Hoffman’s recordings to the FBI’s El Paso office to investigate.
“You make a plea to law enforcement, and you say, if nothing is done here because of what happened to these people, what is to deter someone later from doing something similar to somebody else,” said Underwood, calling them “cowards.”
A federal jury trial is scheduled for January 2024. Federal prosecutors have until Jan. 17 to decide on wether to pursue the death penalty.
And, the U.S. Senate confirmed Rosales’ predecessor, former El Paso DA Jaime Esparza, as the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Texas.
Esparza, a Democrat, had the backing of Republicans John Cornyn and Ted Cruz. He will serve for four years.
The federal district serves more than 7 million people in the cities of San Antonio, Austin and El Paso – a region beset by some of the grimmest tragedies, including the mass shootings in El Paso and Uvalde to the death of 53 migrants, just outside San Antonio.
“Having lived and worked in El Paso for most of his life, Mr. Esparza will no doubt bring a valuable local and regional perspective to this prestigious role,” U.S. Rep Veronica Escobar said of Esparza’s appointment to the position.
This story is a collaboration between Dallas Morning News Mexico border correspondent Alfredo Corchado and reporter Aaron J. Montes of KTEP public radio in El Paso.