Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Border Patrol Agent guilty of engaging in organized criminal activity, acquitted of murder in Padre Island decapitation case.

Posted by DD from material at El Paso Proud  and Texas Tribune and Borderland Beat archives

contents of Joel Luna's big black safe

In the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas a Cameron County jury on Tuesday (today) found Border Patrol Agent Joel Luna guilty of engaging in organized criminal activity but acquitted him of the murder charge that could have put him in prison for life without the chance of parole. He is expected to be sentenced to 20 years in the state penitentiary.

His younger brother Eduardo, an alleged hitman for the Gulf Cartel, was convicted on all four counts, including capital murder. He was given a mandatory life sentence without parole. Prosecutors had already taken the death penalty off the table in the case.

Eduardo Luna

Both Luna men were on trial for the same four counts, which included engaging in drug trafficking and organized crime — and murdering a would-be snitch who threatened to rat them out. The body of the victim, Franky Palacios, was found naked and decapitated in the waters off South Padre Island almost two years ago.  

His common law widow, Martha Sanchez, gave a tearful statement  after the verdicts were announced.
"The violent assassination of my husband Franky changed my life forever," Sanchez said in Spanish. "I lost peace, tranquility and the feeling of purpose in my life.”
During the trial Sanchez was portrayed as hostile to her common law husband. The state’s star witness — the elder Luna brother, Fernando — testified that he had received text messages from Sanchez calling Franky a "fucking traitor" and warning that he was going to divulge the drug trafficking operation to law enforcement. 
Fernando said he forwarded her texts to Eduardo the day before the alleged hitman shot Franky in the head at an Edinburg tire shop, and prosecutors described the messages as a major catalyst for the murder.

Because it involved a U.S. Border Patrol agent, the case stoked concerns about federal law enforcement corruption along the U.S.-Mexico border. After the verdict was announced, Joel Luna waived his right to have the jury decide his punishment and agreed to a 20-year sentence. The sentencing is scheduled for March 2.
The federal agent, who had been on "indefinite suspension" at the U.S. Border Patrol before and during the trial, also waived his right to appeal as part of the agreement.

 “I think what comes out of this for the public is the evils of drugs and money and corruption," said Assistant District Attorney Gustavo Garza, who prosecuted the case. "Eventually this country is going to have to deal with its insatiable appetite for illegal drugs. It doesn't lead to anything good for the society.”
Asked if the verdict left the U.S. Border Patrol with a black eye, Garza said, "Any time that you have a peace officer who has sworn to uphold the law and protect the public and then goes rogue — that is not a good experience for the organization." 
Joel Luna's attorney, Carlos Garcia, said he was disappointed.
"I thought that through the state's witnesses we were able to pretty much establish uncontradicted that my client had been put in a bad spot by his delinquent brothers, and his brothers did everything they could to keep secret from my client their wrongdoing," Garcia said. He said Luna's family was "devastated."
"They were living the American dream," he said.
On November 7, 2015, Borderland Beat reported in a story posted by Texcoco De Mora  about the arrest and charges against Border Patrol Agent Joel Luna in connection with the beheading of a Honduran man in March.

On July 6, 2016, Borderland Beat republished a story from  Center for Investigative Reporting, this story focuses on law enforcement corruption and gives much more detail on the South Padre Island decapitation story.

These are excerpts from that reporting.


SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, Texas – It looked like a crab trap floating in the calm waters of Laguna Madre, just off South Padre Island. At least, that’s what the man who spotted it while boating with his two daughters would tell police.

But when he poked the floating mass with a pole, he discovered otherwise. He dialed 911 and told the South Padre Island Police Department what he’d found: “a headless body floating in the bay.”

Blood still was dripping from the neck when Cameron County Sheriff’s Deputy Ulises Martinez arrived, he later would report. It looked to him like the head “had been cut off with one swift motion with a fine, sharp cutting instrument.”

The grisly discovery came at a busy time on the island. It was March 16, 2015, the frenzied start of Texas Week, when thousands of spring-breaking college students descend on Padre to guzzle from beer bongs and get rowdy. Maybe one drank too much, fell in the water and collided with the wrong end of a propeller-driven barge?

That was an early theory, but Cameron County Sheriff Omar Lucio, with more than a half-century in law enforcement, sensed something more sinister.

“We’re just across the border from Matamoros,” he said. Investigators couldn’t find the man’s head, and there were other suspicious cuts on the body. Mexican drug cartel payback often comes at the end of a fine, sharp cutting instrument, Lucio observed.

“It’s just kind of the way that they handle people,” he said. “They take revenge that way.”
Luckily, the body still had hands. Using a portable fingerprint reader from U.S. Homeland Security Investigations, police quickly matched the prints to Jose Francisco Palacios Paz.

Before he was found naked and decapitated days after his 33rd birthday, Palacios – “Franky” to his friends – worked at Veteran’s Tire Shop in Edinburg, one county over. In no time, authorities came to suspect that tire repair wasn’t the only thing going on there. It’s where they think Franky – about to rat out a drug trafficking operation with links to the powerful Mexican Gulf Cartel – met his end.

Over the ensuing weeks, the investigation led authorities on a meandering journey through the Gulf Cartel’s internal bloodletting, featuring tales of a supposed double-crossing cartel hitman, a U.S.-born narco-turned-folk legend and a major mafia capo nicknamed “Commander Pussy” now locked up in a federal prison in Beaumont. And by last summer, they had arrested four of Franky’s tire shop associates on murder and drug trafficking charges.

With fall trials expected, authorities say they have turned up the familiar markings of mafia muscle and hardball tactics that experts have come to associate with 21st-century cartel warfare – complete with a severed head supposedly secreted off to Mexico to prove a snitch was dead.

All of which would sound familiar to anyone versed in Gulf Cartel etiquette, had it not been for one late-breaking and quite unexpected development: the alleged involvement and eventual arrest of a U.S. Border Patrol agent.

Dirty cops and dirty Border Patrol agents are nothing new. More than 130 officers employed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection have been caught in alleged acts of mission-compromising corruption – often by letting drugs, undocumented immigrants or both into the country – over the past decade. While that’s a tiny fraction of the total number of agents, report after report has suggested the known cases may be the tip of the iceberg.

Still, even hardened South Texas lawmen long accustomed to cartel violence were surprised by Luna’s indictment for murder — a cartel-inspired beheading no less. How did a decorated Iraq War veteran sworn to protect the U.S. border end up in an orange jumpsuit potentially facing life in prison?

For weeks, homicide detectives, including an investigator from the Texas Rangers, attempted to answer that question.

Even the circumstances of Joel Luna’s birth are a matter of dispute. He has a U.S. birth certificate indicating he was born in San Juan, Texas, on May 20, 1985, which would have been found during his initial vetting process with the Border Patrol. But authorities recently discovered a Mexican birth certificate for him, issued in Reynosa, Mexico, three years after his birth was reported in the United States. The discovery prompted authorities to place a detainer on Luna at the Cameron County jail, meaning if he is ever set to be released from custody, federal agents can hold him for possible deportation.

Joel is on the right
His lawyer and family members say that Joel was born in Texas and that — like many kids who grew up along the border — his parents later obtained a Mexican birth certificate to meet school admission requirements.
Joel mostly grew up in Reynosa, at least through elementary school — and after that on weekend visits. His cousin Maria Lepe called him a “very honest kid” who did his best to care for an ailing, diabetic father.

Joel was about 12 when his parents sent him to live with Palomo in Hidalgo County, where he stayed for less than two years before moving again with associates of his father, his aunt said.

Joel was drawn to ROTC, and in high school, commanders took him under their wings, giving him rides back and forth to class, Palomo recalled. It surprised no one in his family when he joined the Army after graduating from Pharr-San Juan-Alamo High School. He served in Iraq and earned a number of honors, including the coveted Expert Infantryman Badge.

Joel’s achievements were a source of pride for the extended family. He’d gone farther than his brothers in school. Honorably discharged from the Army in 2008, he entered on duty with the U.S. Border Patrol in 2009 and in a few years was working at a highway checkpoint an hour north of the border in Hebbronville. Joel never forgot about his family in Mexico, helping care for his father until he died in 2011.

According to court records, Sanchez’s 13-year-old son told investigators that he saw “stacks of dollars brought from Reynosa, Mexico” and had seen “marijuana inside (PlayStation) games at the tire shop.” The teenager also said Franky had told him “that he was a Gulf Cartel member and that they would chop off heads.” Another girlfriend said he had boasted of smuggling immigrants into Texas.

When investigators showed up at Veteran’s Tire Shop the day after the body was found, they identified at least three people who worked there: Aaron Rodriguez Medellin, 23, whom everyone called “El Guero;” Nestor Manuel Leal, 19; and Eduardo Luna, 25. The shop was co-owned by Fernando Luna, 35 – Eduardo Luna’s older brother.   The murder victim also worked there prior to his death.

Later DNA testing revealed the blood found on the walls of the tireshop was from the body of Franky Palacios, the Honduran whose headless body was pulled out of the shallow bay by South Padre Island. 

The Luna brothers’ cellphones yielded clues and mysteries that, over time, would help investigators flesh out the story of Franky’s murder.

Text messages in Spanish were sent the day before Franky went missing from Fernando’s phone to Eduardo’s phone, and they alerted police to a possible motive.

“This Franky is a fucking traitor,” one of them read. Another warned that “at any moment he is going to snitch on you,” court affidavits indicate. A third, possibly garbled and using improper syntax, said Franky “is going around saying and your brother sells drugs.” The identity of the brother isn’t specified.

.....when a Border Patrol agent winds up in jail on murder charges, it raises a few questions. Why didn’t federal authorities find his conflicting birth certificates? The nation’s largest federal law enforcement agency long has been dogged with questions about loose vetting procedures during and after hiring.

How did the agency allow one of its own to stay on the job months after his two brothers were arrested for murder and more than two years after he alerted them to a Gulf Cartel threat against his family? Why didn’t the $42,000 bank deposit by his wife’s half sister — now said to be drug money — set off any alarms?

The Border Patrol referred all questions about Luna’s case to the the U.S. attorney’s office in Houston, where spokeswoman Angela Dodge declined to comment.

 Generally speaking, the Border Patrol doesn’t include checks of any foreign databases, including criminal records or birth certificates, said agency spokesman Carlos Diaz. During the hiring process and every five years, the agency looks at financial information, such as “unexplained affluence,” but he didn’t say how deep into family members the checks go.

 Gus Garza, the lead prosecutor in Joel Luna's case said that as far as he is concerned, the alleged criminal act of one Border Patrol agent doesn’t tar the entire agency. But the fact that investigators are connecting a federal official sworn to secure the border to a Mexican cartel hit job – executed on U.S. soil – worries him a great deal.

“Of all the cases I’ve prosecuted, murder case, etc., this represents a step higher,” Garza said. “I’ve seen and I continue to see a move, an effort, to bring the culture of violence from across the river to South Texas. … The message is, ‘Don’t squeal. Don’t finger anyone. Don’t identify anyone, or you are going to get beheaded.’ “

DD;  Read the full story of the evidence accumulated against Joel Luna in the Borderland Beat story.  including the clincher that probably sealed his fate- the "big black safe" which Luna purchased at "Sams" that when opened contained drugs, his commemorative  Border Patrol badge, nearly $100,000 cash, and a gold plated engraved 1911-style .38-caliber Super pistol – a model frequently associated with cartel assassins
stamped with “Cartel del Golfo” on one side and the likeness of St. Judas on the other,  Embossed on the handle was the word .“Pajaro” ("Bird") .  Joel Luna's brother Eduardo was nicknamed "Pajaro".