SAN ANTONIO – While in office, former Bexar County Precinct 2 Constable Michelle Barrientes Vela ordered deputies from her agency to search for a luxury sport utility vehicle stolen from her husband’s used car lot, according to text messages and multiple sources within her now former agency.
The SUV, a tan 2008 Mercedes-Benz ML 350, was reported stolen from Ruben's Auto Sales at 2607 S. Zarzamora St. on Nov. 26, 2018, at 9:27 a.m., according to a San Antonio Police Department incident report.
Text messages provided to the KSAT 12 Defenders show that less than two-and-a-half hours later, Barrientes Vela forwarded to her staff dealer tag information, a surveillance picture of a possible suspect, a picture of the stolen vehicle and its vehicle identification number (VIN).
A public records search confirms the lot is owned by Barrientes Vela's husband, Carlos Vela.
A source familiar with the subsequent investigation said Precinct 2's traffic unit, which consisted of four deputies, was told to look for the SUV for two days.
Deputies were then tasked with searching the general area the rest of the work week, the source said.
The five-day search ended on Saturday, Dec. 1, with the vehicle being found a quarter-mile from the lot, in the 800 block of Taft Boulevard.
A case description released by Bexar County officials confirms the SUV was recovered by "Pct 2 Constables."
A second source familiar with the investigation said Barrientes Vela and a second member of her administration at the time, Chief Deputy Anthony Castillo, responded to the scene where the vehicle was found, but had another supervisor write the report and formally book the suspect.
Officials provided the Defenders a Precinct 2 case number associated with the vehicle's recovery. However, to date, Barrientes Vela has refused to hand over a copy of it.
The used car lot and the street where the SUV was located are both outside the former constable's precinct, according to a Bexar County precinct map.
Court records indicate the suspect is 25-year-old Jacob Garza, whose lengthy criminal history includes felony convictions for theft from the elderly and drug possession.
Court records show in January Garza pleaded no contest to felony theft in connection with the stolen SUV and was given a one-year jail sentence.
Prosecutors dismissed four felony drug charges against Garza as part of the plea agreement, court records show.
Aside from being Barrientes Vela's husband, Carlos Vela was entwined with his wife's 2016 campaign for constable.
County contribution and expenditure records show that Vela served as his wife's campaign treasurer and beginning in December 2015, made contributions and paid bills for the campaign under his name and under the auto lot's name totaling more than $2,900.
Vela also provided more than $34,000 in loans, records show. He then received payments for loan paybacks on at least five occasions.
On Aug. 30, Barrientes Vela announced that she would seek another term as Precinct 2 constable.
On Sept. 23, however, as the FBI and Texas Rangers raided her Northwest Side offices, Barrientes Vela reversed course on her political future when she told KSAT's Deven Clarke that she would instead be running for Bexar County sheriff in 2020.
That recorded, public declaration, which she then repeated to other media outlets the following day, triggered the state's resign-to-run law.
The law stipulates that elected officials who announce plans for another office with more than 13 months left in their current term forfeit their seat.
Barrientes Vela, in a written statement, said her statement of running for sheriff was an "excited utterance" made while her offices were being raided and did not constitute a formal announcement.
Bexar County commissioners last week appointed longtime Bexar County Sheriff's Office Deputy Leticia Vasquez to replace Barrientes Vela and fulfill the final 15 months of her term.
Vasquez beat out close to 30 applicants for the appointment.
A district court judge on Wednesday tossed out a lawsuit filed by Barrientes Vela that attempted to block the appointment of her replacement.
Barrientes Vela then re-announced her intentions to run for sheriff in 2020.
Auditor working with DA on Pct. 2 skipped training
For the second time in six weeks, a Defenders investigation earlier this month revealed that Barrientes Vela used county funds to pay for law enforcement training that she and other members of her now former administration did not take part in.
Bexar County Auditor Leo Caldera declined a request to be interviewed about the Defenders' findings, but confirmed that each elected county official is responsible for monitoring budgets, seeking reimbursements of funding when appropriate and generally accounting for the proper expenditure of public funds allocated to their office.
"Currently, my office is working with the Bexar County Criminal District Attorney's Office to determine whether any further action is appropriate," Caldera said via email, referring to the 2017 training trip to Austin and the 2018 training trip to Corpus Christi.
Barrientes Vela did not respond to repeated requests to be interviewed for this story.