SAPD ignored federal agent's request to help in human smuggling investigation, report says

AG investigating whether SAPD chief violated SB4

SAN ANTONIO – An investigative report released by the United States Department of Homeland Security claims that requests from one of its agents to have 12 people suspected of entering the country illegally turned over to federal authorities for questioning during a human smuggling incident in east San Antonio late last year were denied.

The four-page report, submitted nearly two months after the Dec. 23 incident in the 3500 block of Copeland Drive, provides for the first time a federal agent's version of what happened during the controversial case.

Federal officials released the report Tuesday, months after a Freedom of Information Act request from the KSAT 12 Defenders.

RELATED: 'Here are the facts': SAPD chief responds to questions in smuggling case involving 12 immigrants 

The HSI agent assigned to the case, who said he was contacted at home around 1:30 p.m. by an  Enforcement and Removal Operations officer with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, at first responded to San Antonio Police Department headquarters then to the scene, where 12 people were found in a semitractor-trailer.

"(Special agent) was approached by a plain clothes SAPD officer who advised him that the (redacted) wanted to speak with him," the report states.

The HSI agent assigned to the case wore a jacket to cover his badge after being told by an SAPD official that the department did not want the agent's "appearance to scare people," the report states.

RELATED: What to know about the recent feud between SAPD's Chief McManus and the police union

It remains unclear whether it was McManus himself who asked the agent to cover his badge, since the names of law enforcement personnel involved in the case were redacted throughout the report.

A source familiar with the investigation said Tuesday that suggesting an HSI agent cover his or her badge is an odd request.

SAPD Chief William McManus was at the scene, according to previous media reports.

The agent offered to assist SAPD investigators after learning that the 12 individuals would be taken to headquarters, only to be told "no" by an SAPD official, the report states.

McManus is referenced without redaction in page three of the report, as the HSI agent recalled seeing him at the offices of SAPD's Special Victims Unit as SAPD personnel were preparing to interview the suspected undocumented immigrants.

RELATED: Police union president wants SAPD Chief McManus placed on administrative leave 

The HSI agent, who a source said is fluent in Spanish, again offered to help interview the suspected immigrants after hearing that SAPD only had one detective available to conduct interviews in Spanish, the report states.

An SAPD official ignored the agent's offer of assistance, according to the report.

SAPD's decision to release the people suspected of being in the country illegally from headquarters, without handing them over to federal authorities, has become a lightning rod for criticism of McManus.

An SAPD spokesperson referred KSAT 12 Defenders' request to interview McManus Tuesday to the city's Government and Public Affairs Department.

RELATED: SAPD, not Feds, to handle city's latest human smuggling case 

McManus remains under investigation by the Texas Attorney General's Office, which is attempting to determine if he violated Senate Bill 4, a state law that requires heads of law enforcement agencies to cooperate with immigration officials in many instances.

While the law states that law enforcement agencies must abide by ICE detainer requests, the HSI report does not mention this type of request being made.

RELATED: 31 complaints made to Texas AG about allegations that McManus violated SB4

Instead, the report states that the HSI agent told SAPD officials he had arranged for the 12 people to be taken to an HSI office on Jackson-Keller in an Enforcement Removal and Operations vehicle for further questioning.

Those requests were denied, according to the report, which states that the agent was told by an SAPD sergeant "that he had to follow (redacted) orders."

City officials have previously said the San Antonio Police Officers Association is behind a continued push to have the chief investigated, pointing out that multiple complaints sent to the AG's office originated from the same email address.

Andy Segovia, the city attorney, released the following statement to KSAT 12 Tuesday afternoon:

“The report, even if taken at face value, continues to demonstrate SAPD’s compliance with SB4. HSI was contacted, present at the scene and present at SAPD headquarters while the individuals from the truck were being interviewed. The HSI agent, by his own account, was provided unfettered access into police headquarters and at no time did he exercise his authority to detain the individuals. SAPD had no authority to hold the individuals once the interviews were completed. To the extent there were misunderstandings or communication gaps during the incident, which this report suggests, SAPD and HSI subsequently met to strengthen communication protocols. SAPD continues to cooperate and work effectively with Homeland Security.”

Homeland Security Investigations report for December 23, 2017 human smuggling case

The semitrailer's driver, Herbert Nichols, was taken into custody at the scene and later charged, police said.

A Bexar County Jail official confirmed Tuesday that Nichols was released on a personal recognizance bond April 3, but said that the felony charge of smuggling persons remains pending.

The report states that the HSI agent was told by a supervisor to leave headquarters after being repeatedly told that his assistance with interviews was not needed.

The agent was called 40 minutes after leaving headquarters and told by an SAPD official that the suspected immigrants were released, the report states.

The official "did not elaborate on their whereabouts," according to the report.

The 12 people suspected of living in the country illegally were released to multiple local charities, according to previous reports.

A source familiar with the human smuggling investigation said McManus' handling of the incident was problematic, in part, because there is no indication that the immigrants were properly vetted before they were released from SAPD headquarters.

The source pointed out that one of the immigrants was a female under the age of 18.

An ICE-HSI spokeswoman said via email Tuesday, "Homeland Security Investigations has no comment on this matter."

About the Author:

Emmy-award winning reporter Dillon Collier joined KSAT Investigates in September 2016. Dillon's investigative stories air weeknights on the Nightbeat and on the Six O'Clock News. Dillon is a two-time Houston Press Club Journalist of the Year and a Texas Associated Press Broadcasters Reporter of the Year.