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Why a cop who seized tons of marijuana stole a handful -- and how Sullivan City handled it

Sullivan City sits on the western edge of Hidalgo County. (Dave Hendricks / KGBT-TV)

Officer Angel de la Mora squatted on the dirty floor, picking through stray bits of marijuana.

Sullivan City police stopped so many smugglers and seized so much marijuana that nobody bothered with the bits that littered the evidence room floor.

De la Mora grabbed a handful and stuffed the marijuana inside a bottle of rubbing alcohol.

"It was a stupid, dumb mistake," de la Mora said months later during an interview. "But there's more to it."

Police Chief Miguel Martinez stood by the door, watching de la Mora take handful after handful of marijuana. Police Inv. Reynaldo Cortes also stood nearby, occasionally chatting with the chief.

They weren't concerned about two security cameras that recorded the incident on May 21.

If a police sergeant hadn't tipped off the Texas Rangers, nobody would have missed the marijuana.

"For me, it was more of a Barney Fife deal," said attorney Ricardo Salinas, who represents de la Mora -- referencing the dimwitted but well-meaning deputy from "The Andy Griffith Show."

"I don't believe that him or the chief really meant to do anything wrong," Salinas said. "Ignorance of the law is no excuse, but I don't think it's really worth pursuing."

The Texas Rangers apparently didn't agree.

Nearly three weeks later, the Rangers raided the Sullivan City Police Department and seized the surveillance footage.

They also presented Sullivan City with a search warrant that placed the police department on notice: The Rangers believed the incident may have constituted theft by a public servant, a state jail felony, and abuse of official capacity, a Class A misdemeanor.

While the raid surprised Sullivan City administrators, problems with the police department aren't anything new.

The troubled police department went through five police chiefs during the past five years.

In June 2010, federal agents arrested Chief Hernan Guerra Jr., who pleaded guilty to drug trafficking. Frustrated with city politics, Interim Chief Carlos Lucio left just 14 months later. The City Commission fired Chief Jose Anaya for unprofessional conduct. And Chief Juan Alejandro resigned after Sullivan City administrators asked him to stop sleeping at the department.

That left Sullivan City with veteran patrolman Miguel Martinez, who got the top job primarily because the City Commission knew he would stick around.

Constant turnover allowed de la Mora and other officers with questionable records to avoid scrutiny for years.

"To me, it wasn't a police department per se," said Joe Cantu, a semi-retired Rio Grande Valley lawman who spent a year working for Sullivan City. "It was just a bunch of guys who carry guns and badges and aren't properly trained."

CASH AND CORRUPTION

Named for local rancher Ed W. Sullivan, what's now Sullivan City originally served as a stop on the Missouri Pacific Railroad.

The fledgling city gradually annexed more than a dozen nearby colonias during the past 40 years, bringing the population to nearly 4,200.

Narrow, bumpy roads cut through the town, which doesn't have streetlights or sidewalks. At night, headlights illuminate roads running south to the Rio Grande.

About 42 percent of working-age residents hold jobs, according to the most recent American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau. The median household income is about $25,000, less than half the national average.

Sullivan City's few businesses sit on U.S. 83, the Rio Grande Valley's major east-west highway and, by default, a key smuggling corridor.

Officers routinely stop drug traffickers and immigrant smugglers on the highway, seizing cars and cash.

Even with forfeiture funds, which subsidize the police department, Sullivan City can't afford to pay competitive wages.

Officers make $14 per hour, said City Manager Judy Davila -- $29,120 annually.

Though police have the opportunity to work overtime, they earn substantially less than counterparts at the Hidalgo County Sheriff's Office and the nearby Mission Police Department.

Mission pays new officers $44,133 annually, according to a salary survey conducted by a professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. The Sheriff's Office pays new deputies $39,140 annually.

Lousy pay leaves Sullivan City with high turnover and low standards at the nine-officer police department.

"Small departments with low pay seem to get the bottom of the barrel," said Cantu, the former Sullivan City police investigator. "And sometimes that extends all the way to the top."

Several local officers, including former police Chief Hernan Guerra Jr., have been caught working with smugglers.

In June 2010, federal agents arrested Guerra for working with a Tamaulipas-based drug trafficking organization.

Guerra helped the organization dodge Border Patrol agents and kept Sullivan City police away from drug shipments. He also rigged city vehicle auctions for drug traffickers.

In exchange, the smugglers paid him $500 to $2,000 every month, according to federal court records.

He pleaded guilty and received a 10-year prison sentence.

"You seemed to scoff, really, at getting caught," said U.S. District Judge Randy Crane, according to a transcript of the April 2011 sentencing hearing. "You didn't care. You were going to do it anyway. I remember being appalled listening to some of the things you were saying on wiretaps."

Afterward, the National Geographic Channel featured Sullivan City on "Border Wars."

Producers sent a cameraman on patrol with then-police Cpl. Angel de la Mora for an episode titled Cash and Corruption.

"People don't trust police officers here in Sullivan," de la Mora said during the ride-along. "They have no respect for us. And we're trying to fix that."

PAST PROBLEMS

Both Sullivan City and de la Mora wanted a do-over.

After crewing an M1 Abrams tank during Operation Iraqi Freedom, de la Mora submitted an application to the Hidalgo Police Department in February 2008.

"All my life, my dream is to become a police officer, help people and apply the law," de la Mora wrote, according to Hidalgo Police Department records.

Impressed by several U.S. Army commendations and recommendations from references who described the 24-year-old veteran as a hard worker, Hidalgo hired de la Mora.

He quickly joined the department SWAT team and patrolled the Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge, among other assignments.

While de la Mora received a warning for writing faulty traffic tickets, according to personnel records, serious problems didn't surface until April 14, 2009, when he misplaced a department-issued pistol.

Five days later, a woman called the Hidalgo Police Department and complained de la Mora had followed her home.

The woman said de la Mora approached her and began asking questions about a criminal case -- without approval from department investigators and informing dispatchers.

"As a probationary police officer, it is important that you understand that disciplinary actions play a crucial role in determining your continued employment with the department," then-Capt. Robert Vela wrote to de la Mora, according to a police department memo. "I suggest that you take the time to reflect on your employment with this department, as any future disciplinary actions could result in termination."

The department suspended de la Mora without pay for three days. He resigned fewer than two weeks later.

Hidalgo submitted paperwork to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement that listed de la Mora's separation as "Honorably Discharged: Resigned in good standing to pursue L.E. career."

The honorable discharge allowed de la Mora to start over with a new law enforcement agency: the Sullivan City Police Department.

THE COCAINE COP

In Sullivan City, de la Mora developed a reputation for aggressively chasing down drug smugglers.

"De la Mora is a good guy," said former police Chief Carlos Lucio, who hired him in July 2010. "He did more busts than anybody I ever knew."

After making an arrest, de la Mora and other Sullivan City cops routinely posed for tough-guy photos with the bundles of marijuana they seized. Sometimes they brandished assault weapons for dramatic effect.

"I couldn't pay them any more money, because the department didn't have any more money," Lucio said, adding that he started the photo wall to boost morale after the former chief's arrest. "It was something to be proud of."

Police hung the photos at the Sullivan City administration building, with the biggest busts hanging above the rest.

De la Mora topped them all.

"What makes him a good officer is the very thing that got him into trouble," said Salinas, de la Mora's attorney.

Unlike many by-the-book cops, de la Mora understands how smugglers think, Salinas said, adding that the insight allowed him to develop informants and take drugs off the street.

"Sometimes, if you're fighting the devil, you need to do it with someone more or less on his level," Salinas said.

Former Sullivan City police Officer Juan Sotelo said he witnessed de la Mora's dark side on March 10, 2012.

While working off-duty security at Jaguars -- an Edinburg strip club with nude dancers -- Sotelo said he spotted de la Mora.

"Officer Sotelo stated that Officer de la Mora was heavily intoxicated and appeared to be under the influence of an illegal substance, due to the fact that he observed a white substance on his nose," according to records from an internal investigation conducted by the Sullivan City Police Department.

Sotelo later filed a lawsuit against Sullivan City, claiming the department retaliated against him for reporting wrongdoing.

His attorney, Javier Pea, provided the confidential internal investigation to KGBT-TV, which independently verified the document's authenticity.

The police sergeant who investigated the incident confirmed Sotelo's story by contacting another officer who worked off-duty security at Jaguars that night, according to the report.

Afterward, the sergeant bought an off-the-shelf drug test from Walgreens and asked de la Mora to submit a urine sample.

De la Mora tested positive for cocaine, according to the internal investigation. He resigned effective immediately.

However, the Walgreens drug test wouldn't stand up to legal scrutiny. Sullivan City had botched the investigation.

SECOND CHANCE

Fewer than two months later, de la Mora reapplied to the Sullivan City Police Department.

He submitted the standard 13-page job application, which asked: Have you ever used marijuana or any other drug not prescribed by your physician?

"Yes," wrote de la Mora, according to a copy of the application obtained through a public information request. "Cocaine. The situation was an ordeal."

Sullivan City hired him back anyway.

Nearly all drug trafficking and immigrant smuggling cases involve cars, Lucio said, adding that the department would file civil forfeiture proceedings against the vehicles. Money from the vehicle auctions funded equipment and other police department expenditures.

"Sullivan City can't support itself on the citations," Lucio said, referencing traffic tickets. "It can't. The money is in forfeitures."

For the cash-strapped city, forfeiture funds have become so important the police chief talks with the City Commission about seized vehicles at monthly meetings.

"That's why they wouldn't let him go: Because the police department is a business," Lucio said. "And anyone who says otherwise is lying."

BACK IN UNIFORM

After returning to the department, de la Mora resumed chasing down drug smugglers.

On May 30, 2012, he attempted to stop a white 1998 Ford Crown Victoria for ignoring a stop sign, according to Hidalgo County court records.

The driver barreled down Cypress Street, turned onto Pinto Street, and stopped abruptly, according to an affidavit recounting the incident. The driver ran, leaving behind about 290 pounds of marijuana.

De la Mora had chalked up another bust, and the department impounded another vehicle.

Other than the occasional high-speed chase, he kept a relatively low profile at Sullivan City until the marijuana went missing.

MISSING MARIJUANA

Police Chief Miguel Martinez met de la Mora near the evidence room at about 1:15 p.m. on May 21.

Concerned about a relative with joint pain, de la Mora wanted permission to take a small amount of marijuana from the evidence room.

Some people believe mixing marijuana with wintergreen rubbing alcohol soothes joint pain, and de la Mora had a relative with bad knees.

"They had said it was a folk remedy for the bones," de la Mora said months later during an interview. "For the actual pain in the bones."

He uncapped a small bottle of rubbing alcohol and poured roughly half in a nearby garbage can.

While Martinez watched, de la Mora started scooping stray bits of marijuana from the evidence room floor and stuffing them inside the bottle.

Cortes, the police investigator, stood nearby.

Two surveillance cameras captured the incident, recording de la Mora both inside and outside the evidence room.

After taking the marijuana, de la Mora went back to work.

Five hours later, he stopped a gray Chevrolet Equinox driving east on U.S. 83, according to Hidalgo County court records. Two immigrants from El Salvador, still muddy from illegally crossing the Rio Grande, were hiding behind the passenger seats.

De la Mora called Border Patrol and impounded the Equinox.

The missing marijuana, though, hadn't escaped notice.

THE TEXAS RANGERS

Apparently suspicious about all the activity near the evidence room, police Sgt. Daniel Duran reviewed the recordings.

Stunned by what the surveillance footage showed, he called the Texas Rangers.

The Rangers raided the department on June 8. They removed the surveillance system's hard drive, confiscating the footage as evidence.

Investigators also presented city administrators with a search warrant listing two possible offenses: theft by a public servant, a state jail felony, and abuse of official capacity, a Class A misdemeanor.

The case remains under investigation, said Sgt. Johnny Hernandez, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, who declined to comment further.

THE FALLOUT

When the Rangers left, Sullivan City administrators swiftly punished everyone involved.

City Manager Judy Davila fired de la Mora, who admitted taking the marijuana but said he received permission from the police chief.

Martinez denied giving de la Mora permission, Davila said.

City Attorney Ricardo Gonzalez stopped Martinez from answering questions about what happened.

"I think you shouldn't answer that," Gonzalez said, interrupting Martinez during an interview with KGBT-TV. "It deals with a pending criminal charge, and it will interfere with the investigation."

Gonzalez said Sullivan City doesn't have a copy of the surveillance footage and can't independently verify what happened.

Without proof, city administrators took the chief's word.

Davila suspended Martinez and Cortes for three days without pay, punishing them for "unbecoming conduct."

Both still work for Sullivan City.

"Mainly because they haven't pressed any charges against them or anything," Davila said. "So they still deserve the benefit of the doubt."

Davila also punished Duran, the police sergeant who reported the incident to the Texas Rangers, suspending him without pay for three days.

"In your statement, you admit having delivered a police department video recording to the Texas Department of Public Safety-Texas Rangers Division," according to the suspension memo.

Along with violating city policy by providing confidential information to the Rangers, the memo accused Duran of tampering with evidence.

He refused to sign the document.

"Please note that any other dissemination of confidential information will lead to termination," the memo concluded.

Duran declined to comment.

Friends said they weren't surprised he called the Rangers.

"That's how he's always been," said Joey Puente, who met Duran during high school. "If something goes wrong, he just wants to make it right."

Duran still works for Sullivan City, patrolling alongside the police chief and investigator he reported to the Rangers.

REGRETS

Today, de la Mora works construction jobs to support himself.

Taking the marijuana was a mistake, but de la Mora said he left Sullivan City with a clean conscience, knowing he had permission from the police chief.

After all, de la Mora said, if he actually wanted marijuana, he could have stolen a bundle during a drug bust without anyone knowing -- rather than take a few handfuls while surveillance cameras recorded everything.

"I'm a law-abiding citizen," de la Mora said. "Mistakes have a price. I guess if God has another purpose for me, another reason, I just pray it will be the best for me. For my family."

His attorney suggested de la Mora might eventually seek another law enforcement job.

"At the end of the day, we need to balance out the mistakes he's made against the good he's done," Salinas said, adding that good cops aren't perfect. "The difference between him and other cops is that this guy got caught."

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