Barrientes Vela, former captain plan aggressive defense at abuse of office trial

Former constable, member of her administration indicted on combined 10 counts in Jan. 2020; trial delayed by virus

Attorneys for Michelle Barrientes Vela and Marc D. Garcia said they plan an aggressive defense at trial. (Joshua Saunders, KSAT)

Editor’s note: This story is part of an investigative series about the criminal case against ex-Constable Michelle Barrientes Vela. The series culminates with “Downfall,” an hourlong special report that airs on KSAT 12 on March 25 at 9 p.m.

With COVID-19 restrictions still in place that have halted a majority of criminal proceedings in Bexar County, it is difficult to tell when Michelle Barrientes Vela and Marc D. Garcia will actually go on trial.

The former Precinct 2 constable and captain have tentative trial dates of April 7, which will undoubtedly be postponed as in-person jury trials remain delayed.

Barrientes Vela, who was removed from office months before her Jan. 2020 indictment, and Garcia each made a court appearance early last year, before the coronavirus pushed those types of hearings to a virtual setting.

Last month, a state district judge granted a motion to sever the offenses against Barrientes Vela and Garcia, meaning the duo will be first tried on the most serious offense against each of them — aggravated perjury — instead of all the charges at once.

Barrientes Vela faces one felony count of aggravated perjury, two felony counts of tampering with evidence and three misdemeanor counts of official oppression, all related to her nearly three-year tenure as constable.

Garcia, a Precinct 2 deputy constable since 2010 who rose to the rank of captain while Barrientes Vela was in office, faces one felony count of aggravated perjury and three counts of official oppression, a Class A misdemeanor.

Nico LaHood, the former Bexar County district attorney whose high-profile law firm was brought on board by Barrientes Vela shortly after her arrest, said the granting of the motion gives his team clarity on what evidence to prepare for at trial.

“When you have a number of cases that you’re dealing with in one opportunity before a jury, obviously that makes it more challenging for a defense team. And so from our perspective, and for any citizen that’s accused of multiple allegations, you want to know exactly what the state is going to go on first. And that’s what the judge agreed to do,” LaHood said during an interview at his office last month.

Donna Coltharp, assistant professor at St. Mary’s University School of Law, said of the criminal cases against Barrientes Vela and Garcia: “I think it’s really messy and I think it indicates some serious problems in that office that have probably been ongoing.”

Coltharp said Barrientes Vela’s decision to largely remove herself from public view the past 14 months was a wise one.

For her own good, she should stay away from microphones and she should follow the advice of her attorneys,” said Coltharp.

Barrientes Vela appeared in person for an interview with the KSAT 12 Defenders last month, but allowed her attorneys to answer questions on her behalf and in a prepared statement said: “Well I’m proud of my team over at the Constable’s Office Precinct 2. And I still maintain my innocence like from the beginning, like I said, and I look forward to my day in court.”

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Perjury will be hard to prove

Both Coltharp and Patrick Ballantyne, a former Bexar County prosecutor who now serves as one of Barrientes Vela’s criminal defense attorneys, said the aggravated perjury charges against the former constable and Garcia will be the hardest to prove.

“You have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that whatever the alleged false statement was, was actually false. You have to prove that the person making it knew it was false at the time they were making it. And you have to show it was in connection with an official proceeding. Those are a lot of elements and it’s a lot of what’s going on in the defendant’s head at the time and what she knew. That’s always very difficult to prove,” said Ballantyne.

For one thing, he has to have a good faith belief in the veracity of those statements. And so, yeah, getting in his head or her head and trying to figure out whether they did will be difficult,” said Coltharp.

Ballantyne pushed back on the two charges of tampering with evidence filed against Barrientes Vela, claiming during the interview that records related to Barrientes Vela working security at Rodriguez Park were not tampered with.

The indictment claims Barrientes Vela knowingly altered cash logs in June 2019 after being accused of shaking down a San Antonio family for several hundred dollars on Easter 2019, during a gathering at the park.

The warrant used by Texas Rangers and the FBI to raid Barrientes Vela’s office in September 2019 indicates that the man who paid Barrientes Vela for Easter security was cooperating with the state investigation of Barrientes Vela.

Additionally, a former civilian clerk for Precinct 2 told Rangers in June 2019 that Barrientes Vela did not hand over all the documents from Rodriguez Park requested in a subpoena and later took home records related to the park and altered the cash logs.

Two other then-Precinct 2 supervisors prominently named in the warrant, Chief Deputy Anthony Castillo and Lieutenant Jeremy Miner, were never criminally charged.

Garcia was not charged for the Rodriguez Park incident and by all indications was not present during it, so his attorney Mark Anthony Sanchez declined to comment on that portion of the criminal case.

Garcia’s four criminal charges stem from writing a 2019 affidavit later signed by a magistrate judge, which was then used to arrest Moreno for aggravated perjury, as well as for Garcia’s alleged treatment of both Moreno and De La Cerda.

Prosecutors claim that Garcia, while writing the affidavit, repeatedly used false statements in order to get a judge to sign off on it.

Since the alleged false, sworn statements were made as part of an official proceeding, a felony charge against Garcia and Barrientes Vela was warranted, according to prosecutors.

Sanchez represents Garcia in the criminal case, as well as Garcia and Barrientes Vela in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by deputy constables Leonicio Moreno and Chris De La Cerda.

Sanchez said Garcia was tasked with performing the investigation and was taking part in regular police work when he wrote the 2019 arrest affidavit for Moreno that later morphed into an aggravated perjury charge against his client.

Sanchez said Garcia, a military veteran, has been unfairly saddled with being labeled as a liar since his arrest 14 months ago.

Garcia was fired by Precinct 2 in February 2020, weeks after his indictment, for conduct unbecoming an officer and violations of the law, according to his termination paperwork.

“I’m going to do everything I can in my power to fix that by showing that the work that he did was according to the letter of the law, by the book,” said Sanchez.

Coltharp said a defense that Garcia was simply following orders when he wrote the affidavit would not likely be enough to win an acquittal.

“It’s all going to come down to whether he knowingly made a false statement. If he knew it was false, then it’s perjury,” said Coltharp.

‘The DA has it dead wrong’

Both Barrientes Vela and Garcia face three counts of official oppression related to their treatment of Moreno and De La Cerda, both of whom currently work as supervisors at Precinct 2.

The indictment states Barrientes Vela and Garcia knowingly subjected Moreno to mistreatment during his April 2019 arrest.

The arrest included a lengthy delay in booking Moreno, allegedly because the media was not yet in place when fellow Precinct 2 deputies arrived at the Bexar County Jail with Moreno in custody.

LaHood declined to comment on the booking of Moreno and said questions surrounding the high-profile arrest will be answered during Barrientes Vela’s trial.

Sanchez also declined to comment on the circumstances of Moreno’s booking, but claimed he has evidence to present at trial which will back up all statements made by Garcia in the affidavit, including that Precinct 2 personnel were subjected to online and in-person threats after Moreno filed Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints against the office.

“The DA has it dead wrong,” said Sanchez, referring to Garcia’s four-count indictment.

The indictment of Barrientes Vela and Garcia states that they harassed, retaliated or discriminated against both Moreno and De La Cerda at work as far back as August 2017, or directed other employees of the office to do so.

Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales declined to comment for this investigative special.

His prosecutors in April 2019 dismissed the aggravated perjury case against Moreno within hours of his arrest.

Gonzales later told the Defenders he didn’t believe Moreno committed any criminal violation.

READ MORE ON THE DOWNFALL PAGE:

A timeline of Michelle Barrientes Vela’s controversial time in office ahead of March 25 special ‘Downfall’ on KSAT

Downfall: The story of ex-Constable Michelle Barrientes Vela airs March 25 at 9 pm on KSAT

10 takeaways from the explosive search warrant for ex-Pct. 2 Constable Barrientes Vela

10 controversies surrounding embattled Precinct 2 Constable Michelle Barrientes Vela

5 high-profile trials that could happen in San Antonio in 2021


About the Authors:

Emmy-award winning reporter Dillon Collier joined the KSAT 12 Defenders in 2016. Dillon's investigative stories air weeknights on the Nightbeat. He provides restaurant health reports for KSAT's "Behind the Kitchen Door." Dillon is a two-time Houston Press Club Journalist of the Year and a Texas Associated Press Broadcasters Reporter of the Year.

Joshua Saunders is an Emmy award-winning photographer/editor who has worked in the San Antonio market for the past 20 years. Joshua works in the Defenders unit, covering crime and corruption throughout the city.