South Texas sheriff resigns under a cloud

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Associated Press

Posted on March 29, 2014 at 11:02 AM

EDINBURG, Texas (AP) — A South Texas sheriff whose office had attracted the attention of federal investigators suddenly announced his resignation Friday, only slightly more than a year into a new elected term.

Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Trevino cited "internal and external pressures placed on me since December 12, 2012," in a letter to the county judge. The letter first referred to his retirement, but Trevino issued a new letter later at the county judge's request changing the language to resignation.

County Judge Ramon Garcia said the wording made a difference for the process to fill the position.

Hidalgo County's location on the Texas-Mexico border brought Trevino national attention in recent years as he became an outspoken counterweight to claims from the state's Republican leadership that the border was being overrun and its communities falling prey to spillover violence from the drug war in Mexico.

The 2012 date referenced by Trevino in his letter was significant, coming only weeks after his overwhelming re-election victory.

But on Dec. 13, 2012, federal prosecutors announced the arrests of one of Trevino's sons — a local police officer — and two of Trevino's deputies. They were members of a joint task force targeting the street-level drug trade. Within months they pleaded guilty to participating in a conspiracy to steal drug loads and resell them to another trafficker.

Trevino has maintained that he had no knowledge of the rogue unit's activities, including the role of his son, who was living in his home at the time.

During the trial of one of his deputies, Trevino took the stand to testify in federal court.

The sheriff, who had spent 12 years commanding the local High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force, detailed the events of Dec. 12, 2012, when he was among the first from his department to arrive on the scene of what turned out to be the federal sting operation that took down his son.

Trevino testified that "it was pretty obvious to me what the deal was" — that it was a federal sting. He and officers from his department had found drug packages carrying tracking devices.

Trevino said he either cut the wires on the tracking devices himself or told his sergeant to do so. He instructed his deputies to pack everything up and return to the sheriff's office for safety. Trevino then called the FBI and DEA to see if the devices were theirs, he said.

In December 2013, federal authorities arrested Trevino's No. 2 at the department, Cmdr. Jose "Joe" Padilla, on money laundering and drug conspiracy charges.

Throughout the past year, Trevino has faced additional criticism from former employees who alleged improprieties in his re-election campaign and said they had been forced out for not supporting him. On Tuesday, Trevino's chief of staff and campaign manager Patricia Medina resigned for personal reasons.

Trevino has not been charged with any wrongdoing.

"The Hidalgo County Sheriff's Office, being the eighth-largest sheriff's office in the state, deserves dedicated and focused attention which I have not been able to give it," Trevino wrote in his letter. His office issued a brief statement saying Trevino would not grant interviews.

Trevino, who began serving as sheriff in 2005, started his career as a local police officer in the 1970s. He spent 14 years as an officer in the Austin Police department before returning to South Texas to work as an investigator in the district attorney's office.

But Trevino has watched sheriffs in neighboring counties and even his own go down before.

Former Starr County Sheriff Rey Guerra was sentenced to federal prison in 2009 for his role in a drug smuggling conspiracy. Former Cameron County Sheriff Conrado Cantu was sentenced to federal prison in 2005 for running a criminal enterprise. And former Hidalgo County Sheriff Brig Marmolejo was sentenced to prison for taking bribes in 1994.

The department will be run by four commanders until county commissioners vote Wednesday for a sheriff to fill the position until another is elected in November.

"I find it to be a very unfortunate situation," Garcia said at news conference Friday. Garcia said he thought Trevino had been doing a good job for the county.

"A member of his family got arrested and the pressures began," Garcia said.

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