SAN ANTONIO – New details that could play a significant role in the upcoming public corruption trial of ex-constable Michelle Barrientes Vela are revealed in videotaped depositions obtained by the KSAT 12 Defenders.
For the first time, specifics about the working conditions and alleged retaliation faced by Bexar County Precinct 2 deputies Leonicio Moreno and Christopher De La Cerda are made public in more than 8 hours of recorded testimony.
The footage, recorded in September 2020, was released by Bexar County earlier this year after officials settled multiple lawsuits with the two deputies for a combined $347,000.
Barrientes Vela’s rocky 33-month tenure ended with her removal from office in late 2019, followed by a multiple-count indictment months later. She is tentatively scheduled to go to trial at the end of September for two felony charges of tampering with evidence, but that date will likely be postponed due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“The wonderful thing about the law is that there are always two sides. But the depositions standing by themselves are compelling,” said Donna Coltharp, an adjunct professor at St. Mary’s University School of Law and an assistant federal public defender.
Coltharp reviewed the civil deposition footage and analyzed its potential impact on the criminal charges Barrientes still faces, nearly two years after Barrientes Vela and Captain Marc D. Garcia were indicted by a Bexar County grand jury.
“You can bet the facts are coming in. They will have witnesses to testify. They’re going to be able to bring in circumstantial evidence that helps the jury think about what she knew and what she intended, which means the nets are going to go a little bit wider than the facts supporting the specific charges. Because knowledge and intent, what’s in a person’s mind, that’s hard to prove,” said Coltharp.
De La Cerda and Moreno were reinstated to leadership roles by current Precinct 2 Constable Leticia Vazquez after Barrientes Vela vacated office in late 2019.
The pair was deposed separately on September 23, 2020, at a downtown conference room.
More details on hot tub incident
De La Cerda and Moreno, part of Barrientes Vela’s original command staff, each testified that they got sideways with the first-term constable beginning with an incident in July 2017 during a work conference in Galveston.
Both deputies testified that Barrientes Vela approached Moreno while he was talking to another woman in a hot tub at the San Luis Resort, put her arms around him and began to tell the other woman that Moreno was her husband.
Members of the group had been drinking alcohol but not an excessive amount, the deputies testified.
“I said, ‘I’m not your husband, you need to step back,’” Moreno testified, recalling the hot tub incident.
“Leo is looking at her like ‘what the hell are you talking about?’” said De La Cerda, who went on to describe how Moreno pushed Barrientes Vela off of him using his foot. “So she kind of stands up and says, ‘Hey, don’t be touching me.’ And he goes, ‘well don’t be touching me,’” recalled De La Cerda.
Moreno testified that the incident shocked him, even after Barrientes Vela the following day tried to downplay what had happened.
De La Cerda said the incident had lasting ramifications for him and Moreno.
“The men of her command staff were instructed by her to lie to her husband about where we stayed,” said De La Cerda.
‘She wants y’all fired’
After returning to work from the trip, De La Cerda testified that he and Moreno were treated as outcasts, detailing how Barrientes Vela began having meetings with another member of the command staff in the parking lot, without De La Cerda or Moreno present.
Both deputies testified that following a Thanksgiving luncheon in 2017, a former member of the command staff, Elizabeth Duquette, told them Barrientes Vela was searching for a way to terminate them.
“’Y’all just have to watch your backs. She wants y’all gone. She wants y’all fired,’” said De La Cerda, recalling a phone call he received from Duquette after the luncheon.
Moreno filed a lawsuit regarding the hot tub incident against Barrientes Vela in December 2018, accusing her of sex discrimination and retaliation.
In March 2018, Barrientes Vela terminated both Moreno and De La Cerda amid allegations that they had inflated and falsified their state training hours.
Both deputies were reinstated months later with no back pay and no break in service.
Moreno’s reinstatement followed a nearly-day-long hearing before the Bexar County Civil Service Commission.
There, Moreno testified he had been set up to fail as Precinct 2′s training coordinator, in part, because Barrientes Vela forbid him from talking to the agency’s previous training coordinator, Deputy Raymond Ford.
Moreno expanded on that claim during his civil deposition, testifying that Barrientes Vela forced him to pull out of attending a state agency-run training course shortly after he was assigned to the position.
“Had I gone, I probably would have known better,” said Moreno, describing the challenge of maintaining the training files of him and the other deputies without formal direction.
De La Cerda was returned to duty shortly after Moreno, after signing a settlement agreement with Barrientes Vela.
‘We just weren’t treated like police officers’
Both deputies testified that upon returning to work, they were given only limited police duties.
These limitations included not being issued stun guns, having no access to Precinct 2 patrol vehicles, no credentials to enter the building and not being allowed to access secure areas of the Precinct 2 offices.
“We just weren’t treated like police officers,” testified De La Cerda, who also described how they were barred from talking to other deputies and were not even permitted to have restroom breaks while working security for the building.
De La Cerda at times got emotional while discussing his treatment, and had to pause multiple times to regain his composure.
“I think at points you could just really see signs of trauma, their self-image, their image in front of their peers. It seemed as though it was just a long period of trying to bring them down to the lowest possible stair that they could be brought down to,” said Coltharp.
One of Barrientes Vela’s defense attorneys, Nico LaHood, downplayed the contents of the tapes following a hearing in her criminal case last month.
“We just always caution people to pause whenever someone makes, as you classified, new allegations, when it’s convenient for them or opportunistic. So let’s find out. We’ll make an assessment once we review everything,” said LaHood, who claimed his firm was aware of the tapes but still looking into their contents.
Moreno and De La Cerda’s treatment at work after being reinstated came under public scrutiny in 2019, after Moreno filed to run against Barrientes Vela in the 2020 election.
Weeks after filing the formal paperwork to enter the race, Moreno’s home was surrounded by fellow deputies, who ordered him to hand over his service weapon.
Captain Garcia, who was indicted along with Barrientes Vela in 2019, separately called in a welfare check for Moreno with the sheriff’s office, labeling Moreno a “distraught employee,” the depositions revealed.
Moreno subsequently filed Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaints regarding his treatment.
Two months later, in late April 2019, Garcia wrote a warrant accusing Moreno of providing false statements in those complaints.
After a judge signed the aggravated perjury warrant, Moreno was taken into custody while working out at a gym.
“I’m looking out a window like this and it’s flooded with deputies. And I’m like ‘okay, I guess this is the day,’” said Moreno, recalling details of his arrest.
After his fellow deputies delayed booking Moreno until media cameras could capture footage of him being walked into jail, Moreno said he spent 12 hours in shackles.
“I was so upset and embarrassed. I think I paced that cell all night,” said Moreno, whose felony charge was tossed out by the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office the following day.
Moreno’s arrest later became the focal point of a separate federal civil rights lawsuit filed by him and De La Cerda against Barrientes Vela, Garcia and Bexar County.
She faces three misdemeanor counts of official oppression. Prosecutors earlier this year dismissed the most serious criminal charge against Barrientes Vela, aggravated perjury.
Garcia still faces his aggravated perjury charge as well as three counts of official oppression, court records show.
Garcia has a tentative trial date set for early December.
The civil attorney representing the two deputies did not respond to requests for comment for this story. A civil attorney who represented Barrientes Vela and Garcia in the federal lawsuit declined to comment.