The hardest-hitting Defenders investigations of 2020

Regulatory agencies, criminal justice system, nursing homes in the crosshairs of KSAT investigations this year

Mathias Ometu (left) and ex-Constable Michelle Barrientes Vela (KSAT)

Editor’s note: This was a year unlike any other. Find more stories wrapping up 2020 here. You can also watch the investigative special, ‘The Defenders: Protecting You,’ here.

The KSAT Defenders pride themselves on investigating and holding accountable those who wield power and public office.

Reporters Dillon Collier and Tim Gerber, photographers Joshua Saunders and Dale Keller, and executive producer of investigations David Raziq work hard to shine a light on inequities and challenges faced by the vulnerable in our community.

And while COVID-19 forced most of the world to a screeching halt this year, there was no shortage of these instances worth investigating.

From an FBI raid of an elected constable’s office and allegations of cronyism in local government to questionable uses of force by law enforcement and accusations of sub-standard conditions at nursing homes that had deadly outbreaks, these are the hardest-hitting investigations of 2020 by the KSAT Defenders.

Ex-Constable Michelle Barrientes Vela’s indictment

The January 2020 indictment of former Bexar County Precinct 2 Constable Michelle Barrientes Vela was the culmination of an eight-month investigation by state and federal law enforcement.

Barrientes Vela, who had been removed from office months earlier after publicly declaring her intentions to run for Bexar County Sheriff, faces six criminal charges ranging from aggravated perjury to official oppression.

A former member of Vela’s administration, Captain Marc Garcia, was also indicted on one felony count of aggravated perjury and three counts of official oppression, after investigators said he and Barrientes Vela withheld records from a subpoena, fabricated charging documents and forced a clerk to shred records related to payments for security at a county park.

To date, the Defenders have done more than 50 stories detailing failures and possible lawbreaking during Barrientes Vela’s time in office. No trial date has been set for Barrientes Vela and Garcia.

Disturbed shooting victim did not point gun at officer before he shot, killed her

This August 2020 investigation from the Defenders took down the long-held San Antonio police narrative that a woman shot and killed by an SAPD sergeant in early 2019 had pointed a weapon at him prior to being shot.

Dashboard camera video obtained by the Defenders showed that Chief William McManus’ claim at the scene that Hannah Westall pulled out the weapon and pointed it at Sergeant David Perry was false. Days after the investigation aired, SAPD officials corrected Westall’s in-custody death report in a filing with the state. It was the third time in two years that McManus gave information on fatal shootings by SAPD officers that was later refuted.

State of Emergency: COVID outbreaks in area nursing homes

A series of stories from the Defenders revealed the mistakes made by officials at area nursing homes as the coronavirus overran the facilities and killed many patients inside.

Southeast Nursing and Rehabilitation Center allowed six staff members to return to work even after being exposed to the virus, while River City Care Center was hit with administrative penalties of at least $120,000 after the facility and staff provided a substandard quality of care. State investigators this summer said conditions inside the East Side facility put the health and safety of its residents in immediate jeopardy, including failing to notify a physician, a supervisor or family when a resident showed a decline in health. An HVAC system failure Fourth of July weekend caused medical issues for multiple residents, including one man who went into heat-induced convulsions and later died at a hospital, records show.

Group text messages sent between staff members at Waterside Nursing and Rehabilitation in Kerrville showed that employees who had COVID but were asymptomatic were still encouraged to come to work, and that staff assigned to the “COVID” wing were allowed to leave that floor and even the facility, as cases inside the facility surged.

Bexar County allegations of staff mistreatment and cronyism

This year-long series uncovered inequalities in punishment for Bexar County employees who run into conflict with senior management, including being reassigned after filing federal employment complaints. A follow-up investigation last month revealed that a county staffer was given a lucrative pay bump the same day a co-worker she had recently testified against in a disciplinary case was handed a proposed termination.

Black jogger Mathias Ometu was mistaken for a suspect by SAPD, then charged with felony assault on an officer

This series of stories shed light on the August arrest of Black jogger Mathias Ometu, who was taken into custody by San Antonio police after he refused to identify himself, his legal right. Officers claimed Ometu matched the physical description of a man involved in a nearby felony family violence case. Within a week of Ometu’s arrest, the criminal charges, including assault of a peace officer, had been rejected by the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office. The suspect SAPD officers were actually looking for, Darren Smith Jr., has never been charged for the domestic violence incident.

Deadly plane crash reveals past FAA issues with flight instructor

The flight instructor who was among three people killed in a plane crash near Stinson Municipal Airport this summer had twice been reprimanded by the Federal Aviation Administration but was allowed to keep flying and operating his flight school.

One of the FAA complaints, filed last year by a flight instructor based at Bulverde Airpark, accused Robert Perguson of taxiing his plane on the runway there as the instructor and a student were on final approach to land. A second, wider-reaching complaint was filed with the FAA against Perguson in November 2019. In that complaint, filed by a former student of his, Perguson was accused of training the woman to be a certified flight instructor (CFI) even though he had not held his own CFI certificate for at least two years, a federal requirement. The complaint also stated that Perguson told the instructee to train other students, even though she was not properly rated to do so.

’Crash tax’: Some San Antonio-area municipalities charging drivers to clean up accidents

This June 2020 investigation took a look at a little-known practice of cities charging drivers involved in accidents fees for the response by fire departments.

When a San Antonio woman was involved in a chain-reaction crash at a stoplight in Leon Valley, she got a bill from a company nearly a year later saying she owed hundreds of dollars for the fire department’s response.

Initially, the woman thought it was a scam but she soon learned it wasn’t. The invoice that was sent to her was a legitimate bill. She was being billed for the hour and 25 minutes the Leon Valley Fire Department spent at the scene cleaning up chemicals that spilled from her car.

The Defenders identified several local municipalities that use the same company to recover response costs. While critics call the practice a hidden tax, the cities say it’s a way to recoup costs associated with the cleanup, which in turn saves taxpayers money. Some insurance companies refuse to pay the fee so the driver gets stuck with the bill. Several states have banned the controversial practice but it remains perfectly legal in Texas.

State mistakenly tells San Antonio man to pay back unemployment benefits

San Antonio resident Kelvin Taylor lost his job in May when the coronavirus pandemic forced his company to lay off workers.

Taylor did what hundreds of thousands of Texans have done this year: he applied for and got unemployment benefits. But within months, he got something else from the state: a notice he had to pay a lot of that money back, amounting to thousands of dollars.

Taylor was convinced the state had made a mistake but it was impossible for him to get a hold of anyone at the Texas Workforce Commission to state his case. When the Defenders reached out to the TWC they began investigating Taylor’s claim and within a day they soon found he only owed $500 in overpayments.

The violent arrest, botched investigation of Zekee Rayford

In the aftermath of the controversial November arrest of Zekee Rayford, the Defenders have uncovered a number of problematic issues within the Schertz Police Department. One of the three officers involved in the arrest of Rayford, Frank Chavarria, had a history of disciplinary problems at multiple other law enforcement agencies he worked for. In March, a Schertz police detective used false information while writing a search warrant used to raid Rayford’s home.

Victim of near-fatal stabbing in San Antonio questions judge’s decision to let suspect out on bail

Ryan Shows was just dropping something off at work when he was viciously attacked and nearly killed earlier this year. Weeks later, he learned the man accused of repeatedly stabbing him was already out on bail for a previous alleged violent attack.

In fact, the Defenders learned the suspect, who ran away after the attack on Shows, had a history of being arrested for drugs, theft, deadly conduct, injury to the disabled and at the time of the attack he was out on bail for another violent assault from 2017.

Court documents reviewed by the Defenders showed the judge assigned to the 2017 case ordered a mental health assessment to see if the suspect was competent to stand trial and she reduced his bond to $50,000 with the condition he submit to monthly drug and alcohol screenings and not contact with the victims from the 2017 case. The suspect never complied with those orders but was still set free after the 2020 attack on Shows. Just days after this story aired the judge had the suspect arrested and he is now awaiting a trial.

Off-duty deputies caught on camera punching handcuffed teen

In the early morning hours of New Year’s Day 2020 two off-duty Bexar County Sheriff’s deputies began chasing some teens they allegedly caught breaking into vehicles in their far West Side neighborhood.

When an on-duty BCSO deputy arrived on the scene, they tracked down one of the teen suspects who was hiding between some cars parked in his parent’s driveway.

As the young man was taken into custody a security camera at the family’s home caught the on-duty deputy taking the handcuffed teen out of the patrol car where he was then confronted by the two off-duty deputies. One of those deputies appeared to punch the handcuffed teen in the face and slam his head against the patrol vehicle.

Following this Defenders investigation, the deputies involved in the incident were placed on administrative duty. Nearly a year later BCSO says they are still investigating the incident.

Broken Blue: Misconduct and discipline at the San Antonio Police Department

This January 2020 investigative special recently brought home a Lone Star Emmy Award.

The Defenders dug into misconduct and disciplinary procedures within SAPD, showing the high rate at which officers are reinstated after being fired or indefinitely suspended. The special told the stories of several suspended officers at the department and followed their cases through the arbitration system. It explained the intricacies of the disciplinary procedure at SAPD and compared the city’s contract with police to other major cities across the country.

Read also:

2020 in photos: AP images capture chaos, sorrow amid pandemic, protests, catastrophes

Gone too soon: Celebrities who died in 2020

About the Authors

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.

Dale Keller is senior news photographer at KSAT-12.

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