Total Chaos: The Story of a Botched Sting, a Dead Informant and Friendly Fire
It is 1:33 p.m. on November 21, 2011, and Lawrence Chapa has a few more minutes left to live. The burly truck driver is sitting in the cluttered cabin of his red Kenworth T600, an 18-wheeler parked at the dead end of Hollister Street in suburban northwest Houston. There is a newspaper propped open before his worn and wrinkled face, a pair of cell phones tucked in his jeans, and 31 black bags stuffed with marijuana stacked in the sleeper compartment behind him. It has been a long trip for Chapa, to the Mexican border and back. Now he is near the end.
The silence is suddenly broken when three SUVs barrel down the street toward the blinking red hazard lights on the back of Chapa’s truck. One parks behind the tractor-trailer, another pulls around in front and the third arrives just outside the cabin’s driver side door. Three men emerge from the SUVs. One of them is Fernando Tavera. A black hoodie is draped over the 19-year-old’s five-foot six-inch and 130-pound frame. His smooth, round face and dark doe eyes clash with the clean chrome pistol weighing heavy in his right hand.
Rosenberg police officer Bryan Leach watches the truck from the backyard of an abandoned home abutting Hollister, peering through a hole in a rickety wooden fence. He’s assigned to a joint drug trafficking task force, a multi-agency squad supervised by the DEA that has been tailing Chapa’s truck since it left the Rio Grande Valley early that morning. The group called in officers from the Harris County Sheriff’s narcotics division for backup once the truck reached Houston, and now they are fanned out in the quiet circular subdivision just off Hollister, about a dozen of them, all in unmarked cars and trucks, eager to see who arrives to pick up the drugs Chapa was sent to deliver.
They are careful to keep their distance. Chapa, 53, is a hard-drug user with a hot temper. He has a long rap sheet: possession of cocaine, DWI, resisting arrest and assault. Earlier that year, Chapa was arrested after he picked up a truck tire and hurled it at a mechanic in the lobby of a Goodyear in the Midtown area because he felt he was being overcharged for a part for his truck. His nickname is “Señor Smoke.”
Lawrence Chapa is a dangerous man with a dark past — which is precisely why the DEA is paying him to be a confidential informant.
Tavera climbs up the first step outside the driver side door and holds his handgun up to Chapa, who quickly puts his newspaper down. “Just calm down, just sit down,” Tavera tells Chapa. “I just want you to relax.” But Chapa does not relax. Terrified, he squirms out of his seat and flees back to the sleeper.
“Please, please!” Chapa begs. “I have a family!”
“Just calm down, all right?” Tavera says, watching Chapa’s face contort with fear. “I just want the truck; I’m not trying to do anything to you. I just want you off the trailer.”
Chapa crumples onto the sleeper’s small bed.
“No, please! Please don’t do this!”
The other two men enter from the passenger side as Tavera moves toward Chapa. But he slips on the last step to the cabin. Falling backward off the truck, Tavera grazes the trigger of his gun ever so slightly, sending a single bullet whizzing through the cabin, where it lodges in the ceiling safely above Chapa’s head. Tavera hits the ground outside the truck, and the back of his head bounces off the concrete.
He hears a cluster of rapid gunshots on the other side of the truck.
“Shots fired!” Leach screams over his handheld radio. No longer concerned with remaining clandestine, Leach leaps onto a short transformer and pokes his head over the fence. He sees three men scrambling around the front of the truck, and realizes the drug deal has gone horribly wrong. “Shots fired! It’s a rip, a robbery!” He sprints to his car and whips around the block toward the truck.
Tavera has no idea who fired the gunshots he just heard. He’s having a hard enough time understanding how his own weapon could have fired — he carried the gun because he thought it would help speed things along, but he never intended to actually use it. Tavera sees one of the other armed men inside, kneeling on the passenger seat, pointing a gun back toward Chapa. “Why?” Tavera screams at the gunman, incensed that the rip has gone so awry. “How could you do that?”
But the man doesn’t move. He is frozen, gun aimed at the back of the cabin. Tavera runs back around the rig just as the three SUVs that dropped him off peel away, splitting off in different directions through the caravan of unmarked cars from the task force speeding down the street toward the truck. Tavera hears the 18-wheeler release its brakes and looks up to see one of his fellow robbers in the driver’s seat, trying to finish the job and escape with the truck. But there is nowhere to go — the dead end is straight ahead, and a three-point turn is impossible for the 18-wheeler on this four-lane street split by an esplanade.
Abandoned by his gang, Tavera has nowhere to hide and tries to run across the street. Before he reaches even the grassy median in the middle of the road, a DEA agent drives straight into him. Tavera bounces off the windshield and somehow sticks the landing — but another DEA agent quickly accelerates toward Tavera, and the trim teenager is no match for a Ford F-150. The impact throws Tavera over two lanes and sends his handgun flying even further before he passes out.
Leach arrives and parks ahead of Chapa’s truck. As agents swarm toward the subdued Tavera, Leach sees the 18-wheeler inching along at no more than ten miles per hour. There is no one in the driver’s seat. The truck rolls toward the dead end and rumbles off the road before it crashes into a fence alongside the street. Leach sees two men leap from the passenger side and run toward the fence, so he grabs his rifle and takes off in pursuit of the two runners, but he makes it only about 50 feet before he hears loud shouting from behind.
“FREEZE, MOTHERFUCKER! DROP YOUR WEAPON!”
Leach recognizes the voice of Greg Haselberger, a Houston police officer also assigned to the task force. Thinking Haselberger is shouting at the two men running up ahead, Leach keeps going. He hears several gunshots behind him, stops, turns around and sees Haselberger pointing his gun at a young black man wearing a T-shirt and a baseball cap, who is sitting slumped in a pool of blood outside the open door of an unmarked white Chevy Malibu. Leach runs back to help Haselberger and gives up his chase of the two runners up ahead, who hop a fence and disappear behind the tree line. Haselberger has clearly just shot someone — but who is it?
“My badge is in the trunk,” the man shouts. “I’m a policeman!” The man Haselberger shot is a deputy in the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, one of the narcotics officers assisting with the operation. Somehow, neither Haselberger nor Leach had ever seen him before. As Leach applies pressure to the gaping wound in the deputy’s lower left leg, the chaotic scene around him comes into focus. Dozens of police cars surround the truck, and many of the task force’s unmarked vehicles have sped off to chase the three SUVs. Frantic shouting is drowned out by sirens and helicopters hovering overhead. Tavera is flat on his face in the middle of the street, unconscious and in handcuffs.
Across the bed in the back of the sleeper compartment in the red 18-wheeler lies Lawrence Chapa’s lifeless body, curled into a fetal position and riddled with bullets, reading glasses still clasped in his right hand, with a single black bundle of weed strewn across his lower left leg.
The badly botched sting was hardly out of character for the DEA. In the past few years, the agency has come under fire for failing to discipline its agents and allowing confidential sources to operate without oversight. Years after Chapa’s death, it remains unclear whether anyone in the DEA was held accountable in the Hollister Street fiasco, while many of the suspects involved walked free.
Chapa was shot ten times. Bullets struck his arms, his hands and his legs, sliced through his aorta and split into his spine. He died on a sunny afternoon less than a week before Thanksgiving, across the street from a playground and around the corner from an elementary school. That night’s local news broadcasts claimed there had been a “gun battle,” and two days later the Houston Chronicle, citing anonymous sources, reported that Chapa was killed by “Zeta cartel soldiers” in a “Mexico-style attack.”
But that is not true, according to interviews with attorneys and thousands of court documents examined by the Houston Press. There was no “shootout” between a brutal cartel squad and a top-rate DEA task force. Every shot fired was likely done so by mistake. Rather, this was a poorly planned operation led by a bumbling federal agency and stumped by a small-time crook looking for a big payday, until both sides’ plans were sent to shambles by a band of dimwitted robbers. Think “Keystone Cops” meets “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.” Lawrence Chapa was simply stuck in the middle.
“This was a tragic comedy of errors,” former Harris County assistant district attorney Shannon Davis said in a recent interview. “Everything that could have gone wrong, for all parties involved, did go wrong.”
Twelve hours before Chapa was shot dead, at 2 a.m. on November 21, 2011, DEA special agent Keith Jones, acting group supervisor for the drug trafficking task force, awoke in his Houston home to a phone call from Fernando Villasana, a veteran Houston Police officer assigned to the task force who had been Chapa’s handler for nearly a decade. Villasana told Jones to get ready — Villasana was running a sting.
Villasana called from the Rio Grande Valley, where he was waiting with three other task force members, including Leach. A few days earlier, Chapa had contacted Villasana and said he had been asked by someone named Mauro to transport 1,800 pounds of marijuana to Houston.
Chapa drove to the Mexican border, stayed at a Holiday Inn and left his keys in the truck overnight, while someone took it to a secret location and loaded the marijuana. The next morning, the truck was back in the parking lot, and Chapa drove off in it. He told Villasana that a man named “Pepe,” working for Mauro, was driving another truck up ahead to make sure Chapa made it through the Falfurrias checkpoint, a border patrol station in south central Texas. Shortly after Chapa made it past the checkpoint, Pepe called and told him there was a slight change of plans — the truck was not carrying 1,800 pounds of marijuana. Apparently, not all the drugs made it over the river the night before, so the truck’s load was much lighter (after the shooting, investigators found only 268 pounds of marijuana on board). Pepe said Chapa would have to come back and get the rest later. Chapa was told to continue on his own to Houston and await further directions to the drop spot.
Villasana tailed the truck as it left the Valley. The plan was for the task force to observe the exchange of drugs, track the new targets as they departed the scene and conduct a simple traffic stop before making the arrest. Chapa would be safely distanced from the arrest, and his cover would not be blown. Despite the news that the load was much smaller than they first thought, Villasana never considered aborting the operation.
At 8 a.m., Villasana called Jones and said they had just passed the Falfurrias checkpoint. Jones started to get ready. Jones had been with the DEA for more than 20 years, and spent five years with the FBI before that, but he was only filling in as group supervisor because the usual supervisor was on vacation. At the time, the whole Houston bureau of the DEA was in flux at the top; November 21, 2011, was Javier Peña’s first day as new director of the agency’s Houston bureau. In a short phone interview, Peña, who has since retired, said he was not aware at the time that the sting operation was happening, and declined to talk more about the agency’s policies and procedures for operations using confidential informants.
Later that morning, Jones contacted some other DEA agents and the Harris County Sheriff’s Office for surveillance help once the truck reached Houston. He set up a briefing for 12:30 p.m. at a Walmart parking lot in southwest Houston, where he met four county narcotics officers, including deputy Anthony Thompson. Not everyone knew each other or had worked with the task force before, and all but one of the officers were in plain clothes and driving unmarked cars. Jones handed out radios tuned to the task force’s frequency so everyone could communicate with everyone else. But he didn’t bring enough for everyone, and Thompson was left without a radio.
At least one narcotics officer present at the briefing felt that it was not especially thorough. After the shooting, he told investigators that there was no written or photographic documentation handed out at the meeting. “It was my impression that this operation had been planned with a shorter notice, which has occurred in the past,” the officer told investigators, according to court records. Jones, who has since left the DEA and works as an analyst in risk management at an insurance agency based in Virginia, declined requests for an interview.
The briefing lasted about 20 minutes before Villasana radioed Jones and said the truck had just passed Walmart. Jones and the narcotics officers jumped in their cars to catch up. Thompson, still without the right radio, took off in his unmarked car, a white Chevy Malibu.
That same morning, Fernando Tavera got a call from his neighborhood friend, Eric DeLuna, a chubby and tattooed 23-year-old nicknamed “Laredo” after his birthplace, Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. DeLuna fled cartel violence in his dangerous hometown with his mother and brother as a young child, but struggled to find solid footing in America. DeLuna later told police that he dropped out of school after 11th grade and worked various jobs in construction, selling drugs on the side.
Tavera himself was two years removed from serving a short stint in prison for selling marijuana. Tavera was born in Texas, but his family moved often — he told police he attended three or four different schools before finally settling in DeLuna’s neighborhood in northwest Houston. After he got out of prison, he promised himself he would stop selling dope. He bounced from job to job over the next few years, bussing tables at a Tex-Mex restaurant, working in construction and cleaning homes, but nothing stuck. Needing money to support his baby daughter, Tavera befriended DeLuna, and instead of selling drugs themselves, the pair hatched schemes to rob drug houses in dangerous operations they called “licks.”
On the phone early that morning, DeLuna told Tavera to get ready — he was running another lick. He told Tavera to head over to his house, where he would explain the plan. Tavera later testified that he found his friend Alfredo Gomez and drove to DeLuna’s house, where they were joined by DeLuna, three other men Tavera recognized from the neighborhood, and a man he had never seen before who said his name was Miguel.
No one knew much about Miguel. Even DeLuna had only met him once before, a month earlier at a northwest Houston nightclub. There, Miguel introduced himself and told him he had a job for him — “a small drug job,” DeLuna later told police. The night before the shooting, Miguel called DeLuna and told him to get a crew ready for the next day. DeLuna desperately needed money — he had been detained less than a week earlier by Pasadena police after he was spotted leaving a drug house and, after a search, the police seized $5,600 DeLuna was carrying, though he was not charged with a crime. DeLuna owed about that much to his defense attorney following an earlier arrest for assault less than a month before. Now he was probably in the hole.
Miguel’s job sounded simple enough. There was a truck coming, and Miguel wanted them to take it. All DeLuna’s crew had to do was stop the truck at a red light, remove the driver, drive away with the 18-wheeler and wait for directions to a drop spot. They’d earn about $1,000 each. At DeLuna’s house that morning, Miguel assured the crew that the truck driver would not put up a fight. Still, according to Tavera, DeLuna handed out two guns — one to Tavera, and one to his friend Gomez. Miguel told DeLuna he would call when the truck was nearby and direct them from there.
Miguel left and called DeLuna around 1 p.m., and DeLuna and his crew jumped in their SUVs and sped off toward State Highway 249, where Miguel told them the truck was rumbling along — completely unaware that a caravan of undercover police was following close behind.
Aided by Miguel’s directions, the SUVs quickly caught up to the truck. The task force team noticed them right away. The SUVs swerved in and out of the task force vehicles tailing the truck, and got close enough to some of the unmarked cars that the officers inside were able to make out descriptions of the drivers and license plates, before calling them out over the special radio frequency. They suspected the SUVs were countersurveillance set up by the drug traffickers. They also noticed a fourth suspicious car tailing the truck, the white Chevy Malibu. One of the officers radioed a description, and asked if anyone recognized the white car. No one responded.
Meanwhile, Chapa’s 18-wheeler was driving erratically. Chapa was being directed to the drop spot over the phone by a man he had never met before named Martin Hernandez, who Chapa believed was working for Mauro. But Hernandez kept changing the location, and Chapa was struggling to stay on the right route while keeping his handler informed. Villasana was worried — he couldn’t find the new drop spot on the map. Suddenly, Chapa cut across two highway lanes to an exit, and headed toward Hollister.
When Tavera saw the truck was already parked, he became nervous, and his stomach started to hurt. This was not part of the plan. In their previous enterprises, Tavera and DeLuna typically had more information on their target. “We usually do our homework on the situation,” Tavera later told investigators. “Usually we know what’s going to happen. This one was just out of the blue. On this lick, we didn’t know anything. We were pretty much blinded.”
Tavera called DeLuna and told him something wasn’t right. DeLuna said that if Tavera didn’t want to do it, they could always just go home and leave it alone. Tavera took a second to think about it. He talked to Gomez and asked him what he thought. “Pretty much, we all decided, well, we’re already here, we might as well do it,” Tavera later told investigators. “So, that’s what we did.”
Villasana stopped his car further down Hollister so he could still see the truck and the SUVs. He later testified that the scene did not appear out of the ordinary. “I’m thinking there’s just vehicles there, and then they say on the radio, ‘Hey, there’s some vehicles there.’ Next thing I know, I see a guy on the cab, on the driver’s side of the cab, standing with something. I see Chapa, and I hear a gunshot.”
DeLuna sped off in his black Lincoln Navigator, nearly clipping one of the agent’s unmarked cars as he drove the wrong way on Hollister to escape. Villasana turned around in pursuit, followed the Navigator to an apartment complex nearby and called for backup.
DeLuna was running wildly around the complex’s courtyard outside, banging on doors and begging people to hide him. The task force team found him hiding behind an outdoor air-conditioning unit. DeLuna again tried to run, but when he turned around, he smacked straight into a DEA agent, knocking both men over. When DeLuna was finally apprehended, he was hysterical — screaming, drooling and sweating profusely through his white tank top and plaid shorts that exposed large skull tattoos on his right arm and a big crucifix on his left. Tears streamed down his chubby cheeks.
DeLuna and Tavera had been quickly arrested near the scene of the shooting, along with Ricardo Ramirez, the man who had tried to drive away in Chapa’s truck. Rolando Resendiz, the driver of one of the SUVs, was arrested at his home the next day. All four men were questioned by police. Not long after the shooting, a worried DeLuna admitted to a friend who visited him in jail: “These boys ain’t meant for this stuff.”
Ricardo Ramirez was arrested near the crime scene shortly after the shooting. His hands tested positive for gunshot residue.
Courtesy of Harris County Sheriff’s Office
The members of DeLuna’s amateur crew flipped on each other remarkably quickly. DeLuna, Tavera, Ramirez and Resendiz all readily spun tall tales to police without waiting for an attorney. DeLuna, likely more than a little woozy after his rough arrest, told a confusing story that included coyotes, unpaid debts and cartel strongmen. He never told investigators the same story twice, but he did name the rest of his crew, including Miguel.
“None of these guys would exactly bleed for the other,” Pat McCann, one of DeLuna’s attorneys, said in an interview in September. In a statement to a homicide investigator with the Harris County Sheriff’s office the evening of the shooting, Tavera also identified the other robbers: DeLuna, Gomez, Ramirez, Resendiz and “Cherro” — the driver of the third SUV, who was never charged and remains at large (investigators believe he fled to Mexico shortly after the shooting).
Tavera admitted that his gun discharged once when he slipped and fell, but he said he wasn’t the one who fired the fatal gunshots. That man, Tavera told investigators, was his friend, Alfredo Gomez.
A few weeks later, Tavera gave a second interview to the lead homicide detective working the case, Sgt. Mark Reynolds with the Harris County Sheriff’s office. Tavera again pegged Gomez as the shooter.
“It astonished me when I heard all the gunshots,” Tavera told Reynolds. He called Gomez his “wing man,” and said they’d sometimes steal radios from cars and commit other small crimes, but he had never known Gomez to be violent. “[Alfredo] is the type of dude that’s really, like, softhearted, I guess you could say. I don’t know if [Chapa] went to the back to grab something. I don’t know if he went back because he was scared. I mean, I knew he was scared but I didn’t know if he was trying to hide back there or what he was trying to do. I don’t know. That’s probably why Alfredo shot him. I think every day, you know, why would [Alfredo] make that decision? The only thing I could really think of is that he panicked, that’s it. Because even when I screamed his name and started, you know, getting on his ass like, he didn’t even turn around to look at me. He just stayed stiff, you know? His hand was still out and just frozen.
“I’m the kind of guy who only does something like this when I need to,” Tavera said of the robbery to Reynolds. “I don’t like doing it. If I had money in my pockets, even if it’s just a dollar or whatever, I’m good. You know, my baby daughter’s birthday is this Saturday, the 24th of December. Christmas Eve. And my intention was just to make a big party for her first-year birthday, you know? I never knew I was going to be in a big mess like this. I own up to what I did, you know? But I feel like Alfredo’s decision of shooting him was ridiculous and it’s affecting my life as it is everybody else’s, you know?”
During the interview, a Harris County assistant district attorney advised Tavera to be careful and keep his eyes open in prison, “because whenever you have this many people involved, somebody is going to want you to stop saying something, especially if you’ve been friends, if Gomez was your wingman, and now you’re—”
“Pretty much snitching on him,” Tavera cut her off. “Yeah. I understand that.”
Gomez was arrested soon after. He pled not guilty to capital murder, and the case went to trial in February 2014.
The district attorney’s office surely thought it had nabbed the trigger man, but investigators were still unclear exactly how DeLuna and Tavera’s crew had inserted themselves into a covert DEA drug bust in the first place. How had they known the truck was carrying a load of marijuana, and how did they know exactly where to find it? Reynolds wanted to know more about Miguel, the man who DeLuna and Tavera said planned the robbery. But neither of them was very helpful.
“So, Miguel is the mystery man?” Reynolds said to Tavera in an interview.
“Yeah, mystery man,” Tavera said. “I guess the only person who could tell you more about him is him.”
Reynolds and Shannon Davis, the assistant district attorney who was the lead prosecutor in Chapa’s case, combed through phone records for Chapa’s two cells and DeLuna’s phones, trying to find any links. There was one phone number that was stored in both men’s phones. Davis found that same number written on a bail bond paper for a drunk driving arrest in August 2011. He printed out the man’s drunk driving mug shot, placed it in a photo spread, showed it to DeLuna and Tavera, and asked them if they recognized the man who had them rob the truck.
Separately, they each pointed to the mug shot of the same dazed-looking, dark-haired man: Martin Hernandez.
On January 6, 2014, Martin Hernandez sat alone under the buzzing fluorescent lights in an interview room at the Harris County Sheriff’s office, picking his nose. Hernandez had nestled deep in his nostrils one finger, at times two, sometimes using the collar of his dark green screen-printed shirt. He flicked the boogers across the room, wiped the remnants on the bottom of his chair and onto the thick thighs of his blue jeans. Hernandez kept digging for a good three minutes, until detective Mark Reynolds walked in and sat down in the chair across from him.
This man, Reynolds thought for sure, was behind the attempt to steal the truck and rip off the high-level broker of the drug deal, and it was this botched robbery that left Chapa dead. But whether Hernandez was bright enough to be a successful criminal mastermind was another matter.
“Martin, Martin, Martin,” Reynolds said, making his deep Texas drawl slowly echo as he leaned back and twirled a pair of glasses around his left thumb. Reynolds told Hernandez that he was linked to the crime through phone records, in addition to the photo identification from DeLuna and Tavera. “You were talking to DeLuna, you were talking to Chapa, you were talking to Mauro,” Reynolds told Hernandez. “The phone comes back to you. It’s pretty evident that DeLuna got this group of guys together to do this job for you.”
Hernandez shook his head.
“It’s not that I’m just taking DeLuna’s word or one of his crash dummies’ word for it,” Reynolds continued. “I’m not basing my case against you just on what those guys say. I had your name on here before I had all of their names. Now is when we find out what kind of guy you really are. We find out if you can sit here and look me in the eye and tell me lies. I know how everything has tied you in with everything else. I also know you’re not where this stops. You’re not the big fish. My only question for you is if the plan was to kill the driver and take the truck, or just to take the dope and send the driver on his way, but some little trigger-happy fruitball started shooting.”
Hernandez didn’t budge. “I had nothing to do with what happened,” he said. “Maybe there is someone bigger, but I wouldn’t know.”
Hernandez did admit to having some involvement in the drug delivery, though in a much smaller role. He told Reynolds that two drug-dealing friends of his from the neighborhood asked him if they could use his father-in-law’s warehouse to off-load a delivery — he agreed, and merely helped give directions to the driver of the truck. But there was no evidence whatsoever to back that story up, and it still didn’t explain why Hernandez was in contact with Chapa, DeLuna and Mauro.
Reynolds didn’t buy the story, and Hernandez was charged with engaging in organized criminal activity. Authorities believed Hernandez was hired by Mauro to be the middleman for the drug deal, but Hernandez saw a chance for a bigger payday — all he had to do was make it look as if someone else had robbed the truck, and then take the dope for himself. He hired DeLuna, a known robber of drug houses, for the job. To Reynolds, it was the only story that made sense.
While Hernandez’s case was just starting, the cases for DeLuna’s crew were wrapping up. The day after Hernandez was arrested, Ramirez pled guilty to murder on the eve of his trial. Tavera pled guilty to aggravated robbery two months later, and DeLuna was heading toward a guilty plea, too. But the district attorney’s office had trouble making a case against Rolando Resendiz, and his capital murder charge was dismissed (Resendiz maintained through statements to police that all he had done was go to DeLuna’s house to fix a speaker, and just went along for the ride). Then there was Gomez, the man Tavera said shot Chapa. Gomez was eventually found not guilty, in large part because of Haselberger’s friendly-fire mishap.
At Gomez’s trial, Leach testified that he was in pursuit of the two men fleeing from the 18-wheeler when he heard Haselberger fire two shots behind him. He was forced to make a decision: Turn around to help Haselberger, or continue to chase the suspects. He turned around, and both men escaped from sight. Ramirez was caught near the scene shortly after, and Leach was able to identify him as one of the men he had chased from the truck by the bright blue shirt he was wearing. Ramirez’s hands tested positive for gunshot residue. Leach never got a good enough look at the second runner to glean a description, and since Gomez was not arrested near the crime scene, the prosecution had a difficult road ahead to prove that the unidentified runner was him.
There was no usable DNA evidence collected from the scene, and nothing linked Gomez to the shooting, other than the word of his co-defendant, Tavera; DeLuna’s brother Edgar, who claimed Gomez had come into his Santeria store the next day and confessed; and Gomez’s friend George Macedo, who told an investigator that Gomez told him he had shot Chapa and hid in the woods overnight until police left. Macedo also said Gomez told him he heard several gunshots as he was running away from the truck, which matches up with the moment Haselberger mistakenly shot the sheriff’s deputy, information that would have been nearly impossible for someone like Macedo to get on his own (unless, of course, he was there when it happened).
DeLuna named Gomez in statements to police and prosecutors, but was not called to testify during the trial — his attorneys maintain that he was badly beaten during his arrest (medical records and his mug shot at the time of his arrest appear to support this) and suffered permanent damage that has hindered his cognitive abilities.
The three witnesses were less than solid. Tavera was an admitted accomplice, Macedo had a lengthy criminal history and a tight friendship with the DeLuna family, and Edgar is a witchcraft-practicing cross-dresser, which may have been an issue for some of the Harris County jurors. Gomez’s lawyers argued that the men had all fabricated their stories.
Gomez’s lead attorney, Dan Gerson, said he believes Tavera and DeLuna colluded behind bars to pin the murder on Gomez to protect Ramirez. “This was a total accomplice witness case,” Gerson said in an interview at his spacious downtown office. “It was a frame-up, plain and simple, by hardened criminals.”
The case was hardly plain and far from simple. Gomez’s strongest defense was the state’s unreliable witnesses, and his defense team could not provide proof of actual innocence, save for a shaky alibi.
Gerson argued that Gomez was at a meeting with his probation officer that ended a little after 1 p.m. the day of the shooting. If that were true, Gomez wouldn’t have been able to leave the meeting and arrive at DeLuna’s house in time to catch the crew before they left to pursue Chapa’s truck. However, a family friend of Gomez testified that she picked up Gomez to drive him to his appointment about 11:40 a.m. that day, and dropped him off at the office about 20 minutes later, which would have left him more than enough time to attend the meeting and travel the short distance to DeLuna’s house (the woman who drove Gomez testified that he told her he would not need a ride back after the meeting).
A sign-in sheet from the probation office had Gomez’s signature squeezed in at the very bottom of the page, in the blank white space after the time-slot chart ended. Gomez wrote down his arrival time as 12:55 p.m. — more than 90 minutes following the signature in front of him, and 15 minutes after the next person to sign in. It is unclear whether Gomez simply made a coincidental typo or if he actually arrived well before 12:55 p.m. and intentionally crafted his signature on the time sheet to bolster a potential alibi (attempts to reach Gomez for comment through Gerson were unsuccessful).
Gomez’s probation officer, Suzanne Carmona, testified that Gomez arrived at the probation meeting and met with her at around 12:15 p.m., and after he left she went to lunch. She had a receipt showing that she bought her lunch at 1:23 p.m., and testified that it would have been impossible for Gomez to have actually arrived at 12:55 p.m., because she would have left for lunch just minutes into their meeting.
In the end, it didn’t matter where else Gomez might have been during the shooting, so long as there existed reasonable doubt that he was ever on the passenger side of the truck pointing a gun at Lawrence Chapa. On February 19, 2014, Gomez was found not guilty.
“We didn’t really have the best evidence going forward pointing to guilt,” Davis said recently. “I can’t say that I’m surprised by the verdict on the thing.” Still, a capital murder trial resulting in a not guilty verdict is extremely rare in Texas. Gomez’s trial was the first big blow to the prosecution in Chapa’s case. The next blow came from Hernandez’s case, which never even made it to trial.
About midway through Hernandez’s interview with Reynolds in January 2014, they took a break for a polygraph test. When Hernandez came back to the interview room, he began to cry. Reynolds walked in with the results.
“Okay, Martin,” Reynolds said while chewing a snack. “That was really just for entertainment purposes. I already told you how you were going to do on that. I don’t know where to go with you, Martin. You’re a nice young man, you’re educated, you talk good. You’d probably have been a really good salesman if you had gone into sales.”
The polygraph examiner had asked Hernandez three questions: Did you plan with DeLuna to rob Lawrence Chapa? Did you have any involvement in the death of Lawrence Chapa? Did you know DeLuna was going to rob Lawrence Chapa? Hernandez answered no, no and no. The results of the polygraph showed Hernandez’s answers were all “untruthful.”
“We have you and Mauro and the truck driver all talking to each other,” Reynolds said. “Now think about the odds. What are the chances? The chances are impossible. You’ve got a better chance at winning the lotto twice in a row. What do you three have in common other than dope coming from the border? You’re all talking leading up to November 21. Then all of a sudden, y’all don’t want to talk no more.”
Immediately after the shooting, Hernandez destroyed his cell phone and changed his phone number. Hernandez said he did it because he saw the shooting on the news and got scared. According to court records, that same cell phone number showed up in a money laundering investigation in 2009. He was nearly ten hours into the interview and, even after failing the polygraph, a tearful Hernandez didn’t crack.
“I have nothing to do with this,” Hernandez told Reynolds.
“You have everything to do with this, Martin,” Reynolds said.“I don’t know if you were trying to screw somebody out of a lick or what, but the bottom line is, somebody died. A man was shot [ten] times in cold blood in his own truck while he was trying to do the right thing for the government. You are the biggest fish and the common denominator at this point. You were talking to him, you were talking to DeLuna, then DeLuna and his little rats jumped the truck and shot the shit out of him, and still didn’t get the dope. That’s what happened. This is the most serious day of your entire life. When you walk out of here tonight, you have to remember that if you ever say anything different, I’m going to show up and say that’s not what you told me. You’re locked into the story. You’re locked in.”
But without a confession, the case against Hernandez quickly began to crack. Investigators may have had a complicated web of phone records connecting Hernandez to the crime, but those records alone fell short of pinpointing his exact role.
In June 2014, Davis, the lead prosecutor working Chapa’s homicide case, left the district attorney’s office. With the other cases coming to a close, and after the failure to convict Gomez, momentum in Hernandez’s case slowed. By May 2015, the state still did not have enough evidence to take Hernandez to trial, and the case was dismissed.
“At the end of the day, Hernandez just got lucky,” a source with extensive knowledge of the inner workings of Hernandez’s case said in an interview. “These guys in DeLuna’s crew are lowlifes. They are not high-ranking drug dealers, not hardened criminals. They didn’t know what the fuck they were doing.
“They had him dead to right on a lesser included charge,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about the case. “They could’ve gotten a conviction on his ass. Maybe they wanted him for the homicide and thought if they didn’t get that, the feds would come in for the drug stuff, but the DEA never talked to him. Maybe they were too embarrassed and didn’t want more news to come out about what happened. But at the end of the day, they should’ve had [him].”
Today, Hernandez appears to be living a normal life. His Facebook profile photo is a well-lit shot of a clean-shaven man in a maroon dress shirt, holding in the cradle of his arm his baby daughter, who is wearing a bright-blue dress with a matching bow tucked in her hair. He plays fantasy football and likes soccer, and in April started working as a drafter at Houston Pipe Benders, a metalworking company in north Houston by Beltway 8. There, in mid-October, he sat down with the Houston Press for an interview.
Hernandez again said he had nothing to do with the robbery, and only provided directions to Chapa over the phone. Throughout the interview, Hernandez’s voice shook and he had a hard time sitting still. He said his case was dismissed mostly because the same witnesses who identified him as the man who planned the robbery were discredited after Gomez was found not guilty. He also said prosecutors could not prove that the phone they said he used to contact DeLuna during the robbery was his, even though it was registered in his name (it was a push-to-talk phone, which did not require documented identification to create an account). He claimed he never knew Mauro, even though his personal cell phone records showed he called Mauro 121 times between August and November 19, 2011.
“This thing could be painted a lot of different ways, and it has,” Hernandez said. “Chapa just made a wrong turn, and I was on the phone with him telling him where to go when it happened. I didn’t know any details about why the truck was coming in. Sometimes the less you know, the better. Whatever [DeLuna’s crew] did, was on their own. If it would have gone right for DeLuna, then nothing would’ve happened to me as far as consequences. Obviously I feel bad about what happened to the driver, but as far as the charges that were brought against me, that just wasn’t the case. I feel bad that stuff went down the way it did, but I don’t feel responsible for that part. There’s a lot missing from this puzzle…but I didn’t tell nobody to do nothing.”
In his interview with Reynolds, Hernandez said he had tried to come forward before his January 2014 arrest. Hoping to get a better deal in an upcoming drunk driving case, Hernandez said he met with an undercover DEA agent about a year after the shooting and told him he had information about some marijuana grow houses in the area. But Hernandez said the agent told him he couldn’t help with his drunk driving case, and wasn’t especially interested in what Hernandez had given him anyway. There Hernandez was, the “mystery man” police believed to be behind the robbery that killed Chapa, now offering himself as a confidential informant. And the DEA turned him away.
The DEA never formally spoke to or questioned either Hernandez, DeLuna or Tavera. It is unclear if any agents were disciplined after the sting went wrong. The agency has suffered a number of major scandals since, the highest-profile happening in March of this year, when a Department of Justice report revealed that a number of DEA agents went largely unpunished after they were caught partying with cartel-funded prostitutes in Colombia. A month later, the DEA’s top administrator, Michele Leonhart, resigned. In July, the Department of Justice released another report critical of the agency, this time focusing on its confidential informant program.
According to the report, the program lacked sufficient oversight. Confidential informants and their handlers were running operations without seeking proper approval from higher-ups, and informants were often involved in unauthorized illegal activity. The report also said that long-term sources were not being appropriately reviewed, as is required by Department of Justice rules adopted by the DEA. Chapa’s handler, Villasana, testified in Gomez’s trial that Chapa had been a documented confidential source with the DEA since 2008, though the DEA has not yet released documents that would confirm that.
The only party attempting to hold the DEA accountable for the blunder in Houston is the owner of Chapa’s truck, who is suing the federal agency for damages after his truck was shot during the sting. That case was recently dismissed and is on appeal. According to the judge’s decision, in a sealed deposition, Villasana said that the DEA’s decision “to proceed with such an operation is entirely discretionary, and not mandated by any statute, rule or policy.”
Of the nine people known or suspected to be directly involved in the drug delivery, the robbery gone wrong and the fatal shooting of Lawrence Chapa, three are in prison (DeLuna, Tavera and Ramirez), and six walk free, including the suspected architects (Mauro and Hernandez) and one of the suspected shooters (Gomez).
Mauro was never arrested or charged, and neither was Pepe, the truck driver who escorted Chapa to the Falfurrias checkpoint. It is unclear if the DEA was able to identify Mauro beyond his first name and phone number (which has since been disconnected). But the cell phone number for Pepe leads to a trucking company in south Texas owned by a Jose Solis. In a phone interview, Solis denied knowing Mauro or Chapa, denied that he was “Pepe” and said he didn’t know anything about the crime. Solis did say that he has had drivers named “Pepe” in the past, and that he once had a driver who was caught at the Falfurrias checkpoint with marijuana in his truck. “Here in the Valley, we get all kinds of stuff like that,” Solis said. “That’s something that you just can’t control. They get the truck, go and load up and do whatever they want. You can’t be with them all the time.”
According to Texas Department of Safety documents and court records, at least one of Solis’s drivers had been arrested for transporting drugs across the border (though he wasn’t driving a truck at the time). Since 2011, a few of Solis’s drivers have been cited for not keeping accurate logs. One of the drivers told an investigator that he had to lie on his log or be fired. That driver had written in his log that he was asleep in his truck in Italy, Texas — but at that same time, he was spotted somewhere else: passing the Falfurrias checkpoint.
Little is known about Chapa. He left behind a brother, a wife and children, but his surviving family members either did not respond to interview requests or declined to talk. Chapa’s nephew, speaking on behalf of his side of the family, said they are reluctant to share their story because they fear facing retribution from Mexican drug cartels — even though, as it turns out, there was no evidence of cartel involvement in Chapa’s death. “We’re all hurt about it,” Chapa’s nephew said during a short phone interview. “We just want this to disappear.”
Chapa’s wife, Paula, briefly took the stand as a witness for the prosecution toward the end of Gomez’s trial. Paula said she and Lawrence Chapa had been together for 15 years and married for 13. He had been driving trucks for almost 30 years and was often on the road. When assistant district attorney Davis asked Paula if she knew Chapa was working as a confidential informant, she said she did not. The couple had no children together, but Chapa had three kids from a previous relationship and Paula had two. Paula said Chapa was a great stepfather. Then, in front of the jury, Paula viewed photos from the crime scene, and identified her husband’s bullet-torn body.
“Lawrence Chapa did not deserve to die,” Davis said in an interview this past August. “He was trapped. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. He didn’t have anywhere to go, and he was just riddled with bullets. It was very sad. I’m not quite sure what possessed him to want to be an informant. It certainly wasn’t for the money, which wasn’t very much. Maybe he felt it was his way of giving back to his fellow man; I don’t know. I didn’t know the guy. All I was able to do was try and speak for him.”
In the absence of a more detailed backstory, Chapa’s cell phone records provide perhaps the most obvious example of his double life, and the confusion and mystery that surrounded his death. At 4:09 p.m. on November 21, Chapa’s cell received a single-character text from a number saved in his phone as Mauro:
Six hours later, long after Chapa was shot and killed, his cell received an incoming text from Paula’s phone, forever left unread:
“where r u? R u almost home?”