Takeaways from AP’s investigation of a Texas sheriff’s history of alleged corruption and dysfunction
Jul 8, 2023, 9:27 PM
(Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle via AP, File)
COLDSPRING, Texas (AP) — Sheriff Greg Capers was the classic picture of a Texas lawman as he announced the capture of a suspected mass killer: white cowboy hat on his head, gold star pinned to his chest, white cross on his belt and a large pistol emblazoned with his name on his hip.
Capers addressed television cameras in May at the end the search for Francisco Oropeza, who had evaded hundreds of officers for four days after allegedly killing five neighbors when they complained his late-night shooting was keeping their baby awake.
But an Associated Press investigation found the sheriff’s turn in the national spotlight belied years of complaints about corruption and dysfunction that were previously unknown outside the piney woods of San Jacinto County.
Capers did not directly respond to requests for comment, but his second-in-command dismissed the accusations as “straight-up lies.”
Here are the key takeaways from the AP investigation:
UNDERSTATED RESPONSE TIME
During the search for Oropeza, Capers said his deputies arrived in 11 minutes and the suspect was already gone. The sheriff’s office now acknowledges deputies took nearly four times that long to get to the shooting outside of Cleveland, 46 miles (74 kilometers) northwest of Houston.
In response to questions, officials with Capers’ office shared a detailed timeline based on call logs and radio traffic.
The first of many 911 calls about Oropeza’s gunfire came at 11:34 p.m. on April 28.
Wilson Garcia later recalled telling his wife to “get inside” as he watched Oropeza run toward their home, reloading his rifle.
At 12:11 a.m., a dispatcher heard gunfire over the open phone line.
Deputies arrived on the street five minutes later, which was 42 minutes after the first call. Garcia’s wife, his 9-year-old son and three others were dead.
Chief Deputy Tim Kean and another official said the initial calls came in as harassment complaints about Oropeza shooting on his own property and that some calls required a Spanish translator. They said the three deputies on duty were working on an aggravated robbery and the time it took them to respond was “average” given the county’s size and the area’s rough roads.
Kean said the sheriff’s initial timeline was his “best guestimation.”
Deputies were called to Oropeza’s home at least three times in the two prior years, according to call logs. One came last June, when his wife reported he punched and kicked her and “pounded” her head on the “driveway gravel,” according to court records. The logs show a deputy arrived 46 minutes later; Oropeza was gone.
An arrest warrant for Oropeza was dropped late the next month after his wife said she didn’t want to press charges, according to Kean. She is accused of hindering his apprehension in the mass shooting.
Experts say Oropeza’s immigration record barred him from having a firearm. The 38-year-old Mexican national was deported four times before 2016 and illegally reentered the county, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
His lawyer, Anthony Osso, declined to comment on his client’s immigration status and said Oropeza will plead not guilty to capital murder.
Kean said deputies can’t check immigration records themselves and did not contact ICE because they don’t find the agency responsive.
The year before the shooting, county leaders hired a police consulting firm to examine the sheriff’s office but disregarded his recommendation to have the Texas Rangers’ public corruption squad investigate.
The LION Institute found evidence that Capers fostered a “fear-based” culture and oversaw the improper seizure of tens of thousands of dollars of property. The group also found deputies failed to follow up on reports of 4,000 crimes, including alleged sexual and child abuse. The report, obtained by the AP, also said Capers dismissed concerns about an affair between a deputy and an informant.
Kean denied deputies neglected investigations, largely blaming an “admin screw-up” in the department’s computer system and saying some victims could not identify their attackers. He also said LION CEO Mike Alexander never interviewed him or Capers.
Two county commissioners told the AP they deferred to the district attorney on how to handle the report. The other two dismissed the inquiry as “a witch hunt” that rehashed a disgruntled former deputy’s lawsuit.
EX-DEPUTIES ALLEGE CORRUPTION
Several former deputies said Capers’ office has long neglected basic police work while pursuing asset seizures boosting its $3.5 million budget but don’t always hold up in court.
The one who sued was Michael Flynt, a retired Houston-area officer whom Capers recruited to run an undercover drug unit in early 2017. The sheriff’s office had fired him by June 2018, charging Flynt with forging government documents by allegedly lying on his job application.
In his whistleblower lawsuit, Flynt accused the sheriff’s office of retaliating after he raised concerns about Capers’ conduct. Judges eventually dismissed and expunged the charges. Flynt unsuccessfully ran for sheriff against Capers in 2020.
That year, Capers acknowledged in a deposition that he told a former deputy to scrub Facebook of information about the deputy’s romantic relationship with a confidential informant in a series of gambling cases. The county settled Flynt’s lawsuit two months later.
The county settled the whistleblower suit to avoid a costly trial, Kean said. ___
Associated Press videojournalist Lekan Oyekanmi contributed to this report.