DA no show at Walmart mass shooting hearing, victim’s son and widow testify about alleged threats
EL PASO, Texas (KTEP) - District Attorney Yvonne Rosales failed to show up Wednesday in court for a status hearing on the Walmart mass shooting case involving her office’s alleged role in violating a gag order.
A frustrated District Court Judge Sam Medrano ordered Rosales to be in court Thursday, or possibly face arrest, saying it was something he “has never, ever had to do in all my time on the bench.”
It’s the third time in November that Rosales has not made a court appearance. Wednesday’s testimony included troubling allegations of witness intimidation, abuse of authority and chilling testimony from relatives of a victim killed during the Walmart shooting.
The hearing focused on an alleged gag order violation that involved a mysterious email sent to local media in August using the cell phone of one of the victim’s relatives. A family member of Alexander Gerhard Hoffman’s had told KTEP earlierthe email could not have been written by them.
Hoffman was one of the 23 killed in the Walmart mass shooting in 2019.
On Wednesday, his widow Rosa Maria Valdez Garcia and son Thomas Hoffman, who live in Ciudad Juárez, testified Rogelio “Roger” Rodriguez, who Rosales presented as a member of her team, was behind the email along with his wife Anne. Rodriguez, a municipal judge in Vinton, has been described as an associate of Rosales’ but is not part of the District Attorney’s staff.
Rodriguez was not in court, or available for comment.
Mother and son testified about feeling intimidated and threatenedby Rodriguez during several encounters including one meeting at a Village Inn restaurant where Thomas Hoffman recalled Rodriguez showed him the gun he carried.
“It made me feel as if he wanted to intimidate me.” Hoffman said in Spanish. “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. As if he were referring to me.”
Justin Underwood, a court appointed attorney representing the Hoffman family, called the alleged treatment of the Hoffman family "disgusting."
“Don’t forget he lost his father. His father was brutally murdered and now they have to deal with this,” said Justin Underwood, the court-appointed attorney for the family after the hearing.
The Hoffman family has provided the court with recorded conversations with a man they say is Rodriguez. The FBI’s El Paso office is investigating. The audio and transcripts filed with the court have been turned over to the FBI.
The Judge told the Hoffman’s they did not violate the gag order and released them from court.
Former senior member of the DA’s Office Curtis Cox arrived late. He also took the stand, three hours after the hearing began. He resigned from the DA’s office earlier this month.
Cox invoked the fifth amendment rather than answer questions about how Rodriguez treated the Hoffman family. He also did not reply to questions about why he did not respond to subpoenas to appear in court in recent weeks.
Cox said Underwood, the court appointed attorney, filed a complaint with the State Bar of Texas accusing him of multiple criminal offenses.
The email at the center of the alleged gag order violation criticized a former prosecutor who worked on the case before Rosales took office and also called for the removal of Judge Medrano.
After the hearing Underwood called Rosales, Rodriguez and Cox "cowards."
"That’s what they are. And they were bullies and there’s one way to deal with a bully. And, you let them know you’re coming straight at them," he said. "That’s what the Hoffman family did…”
A security guard told Judge Medrano Rosales had been in the courthouse an hour before the hearing started.
Rosales’ failure to appear in court is part of a pattern that culminated with her phoning in her resignation during another hearing Monday. In the final weeks of her term, the DA rarely visited the office, according to employees and defense lawyers.
She sent a letter of resignation to Texas Governor Greg Abbott. If he accepts, she will leave on December 14th, a day before a scheduled trial to remove her from office, ending one of the most tumultuous political tenures in El Paso.
The District Attorney’s office is responsible for prosecuting the largest mass shooting targeting Latinos in recent U.S. history. Accused gunman Patrick Crusius told investigators he drove more than 9 hours from his home in North Texas to “stop the Hispanic invasion of Texas,” killing 23 people at an El Paso Walmart.
Under Rosales, the case languished and nearly 1,000 other cases were dismissed this year after prosecutors failed to indict or file documentation with the district clerk’s office during the required 180 days deadline set by the state.
The petition to remove her from office filed by criminal defense attorney cited “incompetence” and “misconduct” as reasons. Along with the dismissal of hundreds of cases, more than 300 individuals were released from jail during Rosales term because of prosecutors’ inaction.
State Walmart case stalled
Rosales fired or lost several prosecutors. In the most recent hearing, it was not clear if there was a team in place to prosecute the case.
“To see the prosecution of this case just wither on the vine and basically die for so long, it’s got to hurt the community. For sure it hurts the victims’ families. They’re the ones that are doubly suffering,” veteran criminal defense attorney Dolph Quijano said.
Crusius remains in federal custody at the El Paso County Detention Facility. Federal prosecutors are still deciding whether to pursue the death penalty against Crusius but a trial is set for January 2024.
His defense attorneys are focused on saving their client from the death penalty, which Rosales and her predecessor said they would pursue in the state case.
“We have done everything we can to try and resolve this case,” defense attorney Joe Spencer said during a hearing on November 17th. “But the District Attorney’s Office and the politicians see fit that they think somehow it’s politically proper to say ‘we want the death penalty,’ and then use victims as pawns,” Spencer said.
“Every defense lawyer in the country knows that Patrick Crusius is not going to leave prison alive,” Spencer 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” Spencer said.
District Court Judge Medrano Jr. beratedRosales during an August hearing after she told KTEP and The Dallas Morning News she would seek the death penalty despite having not filing any motions or witness lists with the court.
She also provided a time frame for the trial. The judge sternly reminded Rosales that only the court can set a trial date.
Most attempts to seek comment from the District Attorney’s Office by KTEP prior to the gag order were declined. Afterward, a spokesman for the office said he could not answer any questions even those that did not pertain to the Walmart case including providing information about staffing and which prosecutors were fired, resigned or remained on the job.
In September, Rosales’ office requested assistance from the Texas Attorney General in prosecuting the case. A little less than a month later, the Attorney General’s office declined.
Kyle Vance, a newly hired attorney with no prior experience in the case, appeared in court Wednesday and on November 17th. He said he did not know Rosales’ whereabouts.
“It is incredible to me that a duly appointed officer of the court is nowhere to be found,” Spencer told the judge on November 17th. He said he told investigators,“‘We need to serve her a subpoena. Does she not come to work? Does she not go to the second floor? Does she not run that office?’”
Omar Carmona, the defense attorney who filed the petition to have Rosales removed in August, said trials and criminal cases have had to be postponed to give prosecutors in the DA’s office more time to prepare under Rosales’ leadership.
“It’s not like crime stops. You have a buildup of cases,” Carmona said. “Justice delayed is justice denied."
Legal experts are concerned the damage done during Rosales’ time in office could have a lasting impact.
“The problem that you have is that every member in El Paso who would like to sit on the jury or is called for jury duty, they’re all going to know about this,” said Quijano. “They’re going to know what happened in this case.”