El Paso

Strange El Paso Politics: From Carpet Baggers To Bank Robbery

El Paso, like most cities, has its share of political characters. This last election was not any different in that it had its share of political sagas and characters. There was the carpet bagger that convincedly overwhelmed the incumbent to win the race. Then there was the Republican who decided to run as a Democrat, only to change her mind and run as a Republican, only to be forced into a runoff against an opponent accused of stealing money from a charity.

As if that was not enough to pique the interest of political observers, there was also the case of the candidate that marked the box indicating they had a criminal record that would prohibit them from running for office on the ballot application, only to later “correct” the mistake and then finish last, although with enough votes to force a runoff in that race.

Then there was also the motley crew of politicians who make voters wonder about the caliber of candidates in El Paso. For the second consecutive election, an incumbent was forced into a runoff by an opponent who believed using VAN to strategize which voters to target for votes required needed “to rent a van for the election”. NGP VAN is a database provider used by the Democratic Party to run campaigns on the Democratic Party ticket.

El Paso’s political history is littered with characters running for office who range from gadflies looking for publicity by challenging the status quo to outright criminals like Larry Medina who professed to be the only ethical candidate in the field only to go to jail for public corruption. As interesting and fun some of the examples above may be, the 1996 case of Arturo “Turry” Morales is likely one of the most interesting ones.

The Morales story has the all the basics necessary to make a movie. It includes a conspiracy of burning documents in the courthouse bathroom, to bank robbery and a slate of well-known political characters playing bit parts in the saga of an incumbent politician convicted of forging 20 signatures in a petition to avoid paying the filing fee. [10] This is the story of Arturo Morales.

The Conspiracy Of Politicos

The story of Arturo Morales is much more than the story of a constable who forged 20 signatures to avoid paying his filing fee. It involves a cast of politicos that most reader will recognize. It involves a bank robbery, late night document burning at the courthouse, and of course political intrigue. Arturo “Tury” Morales is the protagonist. The bit players include his campaign manager, Emma Hinojosa Amaro, the bank robber. It also includes politicos like Carlos Aguilar, Jaime Esparza, Marcos Lizarraga, Rick Melendrez, Leo Samaniego and Ken Sutherland, the El Paso County Democratic Party chairman who somehow lost the document proving the allegations of forgery.

It started quietly enough, like all made-for-TV conspiracies. A simple petition with signatures, 20 of which would be found to be forgeries. In February 1998, Constable Arturo “Tury” Morales was found guilty [4] on several counts for illegally getting on the ballot in the 1996 primary. To get on the ballot, Morales had illegally forged the names of his constituents on his petition. [1] According to the court documents, Morales used the forged petition to get on the ballot instead of paying the $800 fee. [4] In the end, Morales’ conviction was paved on a path littered with a stolen document from the El Paso Democratic Party headquarters, bank robbery and a paternity controversy that came to the public’s attention because of the forged signatures on the petition.

Morales first ran for his constable seat in 1992, challenging incumbent Tony Kosturakis who had held the seat since 1988. Kosturakis was facing criminal charges in 1992 for hiring a reserve deputy constable who was under criminal indictment at the time. Morales, who had been working as a medical research assistant before running for the constable’s job, saw Kosturakis’ criminal problems as an opportunity. Morales won the seat.

In 1996, Morales was facing three challengers for his Precinct 3 constable office. They were Hector Bernal, Alfonso Labrado, Stetson Reed and Joe Solis. In the end, although Joe Solis had forced Morales into a runoff, Morales was reelected on April 9, 1996, but not before being indicted.

Within weeks of filing to keep his seat, the police began investigating Morales for the signatures attached to his petition. [5] However, soon after the filing deadline for a place on the ballot, on January 2, 1996, someone stole Morales’ petition from the headquarters of the El Paso Democratic Party. [7] Who stole the petition is not known, nonetheless the missing documented helped to convict Morales.

The Bank Robber

On June 12, 1996, a Thursday, someone walked into two banks wearing a green cap and told the tellers they had an “explosive device” in a box. They demanded that the tellers hand over money. In all, the bank robber walked out of the Sunwest Bank and the Government Employees Credit Union (GECU) with a little less than $6,000. It was not enough because unknown to the federal investigators, the robber needed almost $20,000 to stay out of jail. [14]

The bank robber turned out to be a woman, Emma Hinojosa Amaro who had successfully helped Morales win his reelection as his campaign manager. At the time of the bank robbery, Amaro was under indictment, as well as Morales for the forged signatures in Morales’ petition to be on the ballot.

On July 10, 1996, a grand jury indicted Amaro on federal bank robbery charges. Amaro had been arrested on July 17, 1996, after robbing the two El Paso banks. Amaro had robbed $1,079 from Sunwest Bank and the $4,838 from GECU in June 1996. [2] Her bond was set at $35,000 on July 8, 1996 for the bank robbery charges, [17] but prosecutors prepared charges on embezzlement to keep her in jail. [14]

When FBI agents arrested Amaro, she told them that she robbed the banks because she was “experiencing serious financial difficulties”. What were the “difficulties”?

Amaro had stolen $19,000 from a former employer. The day after robbing GECU, Amaro was supposed to meet the owner of the place she had stolen the money from and pay him back. She never showed up. In June 1996, Amaro, who was already in jail for bank robbery was charged with forging $20,000 of her employer’s checks. [6]

On September 4, 1996, Amaro pleaded not guilty to the charges of forging the signatures on Morales’ petition. [9]

Amaro, who had started working for Morales starting in January 1996, [12] was now working for a heating company where she had embezzled close to $20,000 starting in April, before she was arrested in June, was now facing three criminal cases; embezzlement, bank robbery and forging 20 signatures on Morales’ petition.

The story would be simple if it had ended with a bank robber and forged signatures on a petition. But not in El Paso.

The Bit Players In The Conspiracy

The political novela not only involved the campaign manger turned bank robber and the incumbent politician who forged 20 signatures to avoid paying a filing fee but it also included others who played bit parts in the saga.

An unidentified woman called in to report seeing then County Commissioner Carlos Aguilar and another man burning papers in a courthouse bathroom. Aguilar denied the allegations calling them “ludicrous,” but the anonymous call set in motion the strange conspiracy. In this two-bit saga, there was the cleaning lady who found a note “suggesting” that a coverup at the El Paso Courthouse was underway. Calling the cleaning lady, a liar was one of Morales’ primary opponents, Hector Bernal who did not even make the runoff against Morales. [13]

The story only gets stranger from there.

Tom Rosas, a justice of the peace with 14 years of experience and who shared offices with Morales told investigators that the office had received “two threatening calls,” calling the calls one of the strangest things he had seen in his career. Then there was the precinct chair, Yolanda Clay who said she witnessed one of Morales’ opponents “rifling through stuff” at the El Paso Democratic Party headquarters two days after Morales had filed his petition to be on the ballot. [13]

Readers may be tempted to believe that proving the allegations of forgery would be simple enough, just call the people that signed the petition to check if they had, in fact, signed it. But things are not so simple in El Paso. In this political saga, a petition suddenly disappearing should not surprise anyone.

Ken Sutherland, the former El Paso County Democratic Party chairman told investigators that he “had no idea” what happened to the petition he was entrusted to keep safe. But Sutherland had somehow allowed “someone” to improperly photocopy the petition on the day it was turned in, before losing it. [13]

One would be tempted to believe that the saga would end here, with a missing document that no one knew how it got lost, but in this conspiracy story, that would be too simple.

In El Paso, like most cities with political intrigue, we suppose, includes shady characters like Rick Melendrez who did not like Morales. Melendrez allegedly offered to pay $15,000 to the bank robber, Amaro, so that she would testify against Morales. Melendrez, of course, said that was “totally false,” but of course it is not so simple. It turns out that Melendrez asked Jay J. Armes, El Paso intrepid private investigator to investigate Morales. As if that wasn’t enough, Melendrez also tried to have Morales removed from the ballot. Apparently, and as proved by his actions, Melendrez did not like Arturo Morales. [13] Readers are likely thinking, can this get any stranger. It’s El Paso, and we’re only at the middle of the novela.

No conspiracy story is complete without law enforcement characters, judges and prosecutors.

First up is the Assistant District Attorney Marco Lizarraga who told everyone that using a copy of incriminating evidence to convict someone of forgery isn’t a problem even though his boss, Jaime Esparza, had allegedly warned Morales that his political career “would be short lived if he (Morales) kept rocking the boat.” [13]

Let’s pause for a moment here and quickly catchup on the two-bit players in the story so far – Esparza and Lizarraga. Readers may remember the name Lizarraga making the news rounds lately. Lizarraga, who is now a judge, was accused of “scoffing at…rolling his eyes…yelling at…laughing at…and trying to embarrass” and “implying” women prosecutors “were dumb”. [15]

So far 21 complaints of misconduct have been filed against Lizarraga, all stemming from one case he presided over in November 2019. Among the complaints, include Lizarraga having an “improper relationship with and a bias toward the defense” and a “failure to cooperate with” the investigation into his conduct. [16]

Lizarraga could be forced off the bench by the investigation.

This brings us back to his former boss, Jaime Esparza. Esparza has a long history in El Paso with controversy intermixed. Esparza, in one the most egregious examples, kept Daniel Villegas in jail even after a judge declared Daniel Villegas “factually innocent”. It is now, that Esparza is out of office that more information about how Esparza applied the law in El Paso is starting to leak out. Most recently readers learned how a prosecutor in Esparza’s office suggested that she could influence the autopsy reports created by a lying medical examiner.

In the case of Arturo Morales, the constable who used forged signatures to get on the ballot, it was Esparza who is alleged to have told Morales his political career was ending because Morales insisted on “rocking the boat”. [13]

If readers thought the end had arrived, there is still much more to find in this novela. Fragments of burnt documents were delivered to the 171st State District Court. Most of the documents were not legible but the fragments that could be read painted even more conspiracy. Among the legible parts could be read, “Carlos, I think it would be better if we got rid…petitions…get Tury out of our way.” [13] Carlos is assumed to be then-county commissioner Carlos Aguilar. Some readers may remember that in 2001, Aguilar, who was still a county commissioner, crashed near Chihuahua along with Larry Medina and others, after their aircraft experienced an electrical failure. It was insinuated after the crash, that Aguilar was on the flight along with other elected officials and architects doing government business as part of improper gratuities for votes on government work.

The Signatures

The 20 forged signatures on the petition were not enough to make a difference. Morales had turned in 320 signatures, 45 more than were required to get on the ballot, on January 2, 1996. Two days later, Ken Sutherland called Morales and told him that Bernal was accusing Morales of turning in fraudulent signatures. Sutherland told Morales that Bernal had “noticed a succession of signatures all written in hot pink ink and all apparently in the same handwriting.” [13]

Sutherland had allowed Bernal to take Morales’ petition out of the headquarters of the El Paso Democrats, photocopy it, and return it to Sutherland later. Readers should remember that this point, Bernal was an opponent of Morales and his accuser. Although Bernal says he returned the original petition to Sutherland, neither Bernal nor Sutherland can remember what happened to the original. The only copy the existed and was used to convict Morales was the copy that Bernal made. [13]

But things only get even more strange. About two days after the filing deadline, then-precinct chairwoman Yolanda Clay says she saw “five men with briefcases” with then-constable Richard White rummaging through the files of the darkened Democratic Party headquarters. White denied he was in the office looking for files. [13]

Adding the proverbial fire to the conspiracy, Trini Rabe, a former bailiff in the 171st State District Court, then Peter Baca’s court, told investigators that she received a call from a woman she knew, but refused to identify, telling her that Carlos Aguilar and another man were burning documents in the courthouse men’s bathroom. The unidentified woman recovered the burnt pieces of paper and put them in the courtroom’s mailbox where Peter Baca found them later and turned them over to Rabe. Rabe, “a career law enforcement law enforcement officer who in 1980 became the first woman detective in the El Paso Sheriff’s Department,” later said that she received an anonymous telephone call telling her that she “better turn those papers over to Carlos or some people are going to get hurt.” [13]

Readers should not feel bad believing that we’ve come to the end of the story, but, sadly, we haven’t because, after all, this an El Paso political drama.

Morales argued that the whole issue of the forged signatures was simply because some El Paso Democrats wanted Hector Bernal in his seat. [13] But why did the El Paso Democratic Party apparatus allegedly want Morales out. If Morales is to be believed it is because of an arrest he made around 1994.

According to Morales, he arrested Horizon City Police Chief Bill Rutherford. Morales arrested Rutherford because Rutherford had arrested an El Pasoan without a complaint or a warrant. The arrestee was one of Morales’ constituents. Jaime Esparza dropped that case against Rutherford citing “insufficient evidence”. [13]

It is this arrest that led to the political vendetta orchestrated by then-Sheriff Leo Samaniego and Jaime Esparza, according to Morales. [13] The question then, is this a case of a political vendetta to oust someone from office that became a conspiracy?

Amaro and Rosales both said there was no forgery and that they were targeted with threats. Morales and Amaro sent letters to several politicians, including senators in 1996 alleging that there was a vast conspiracy against them in El Paso. [3] Among the evidence offered by them was a Hallmark card delivered to Tom Rosas at the Courthouse “just days before” the March 8 election. The card contained picture of his children and a note reading “it’s not too late for you to drop out of the race”. Rosas shared office space with Morales. Rosas, asked the sheriff’s department to investigate, including reviewing the video at the court house’s security desk where the card was found. [13]

Then-Sheriff Leo Samaniego told reporters that it didn’t matter if investigators found who wrote the message on the card because the reference to dropping out of the race with the attached pictures of the children “were hardly criminal intent”. Samaniego added that he “didn’t interpret any threat from the message” because Samaniego reasoned that the picture of the children was taken “close enough” for Rosales and others to “know who it was”. [13]

The Criminal Outcome

On January 16, 1996, the case was presented to the district attorney’s office. [5] Morales and his campaign manager, Amaro were indicted on May 29, 1996. [7] Morales and Amaro both pleaded not guilty to the forgery charges in September 1996. [9] But, of course there had to be more drama.

While Arturo Morales was waiting for his trial to begin over charges that he used forged signatures to get on the ballot, not only was he fighting a former girlfriend over a child born out of wedlock, who he denied being the father of, but was also fighting with his ex-wife over child support payments. [3]

In 1997, Morales was again facing controversy. On October 15, 1997, county commissioners voted to terminate Morales’ cellular phone service after Morales racked up $2,334.42 in charges during the first eight months of 1997. [8]

In 1998, Morales was sentenced to probation for trying to rig the election. A jury found Morales guilty of three state felonies of tempering with government records and six misdemeanors of forgery. The jury sentenced him to two years of probation and $1,800 fine. [1]

And A Final Twist

Of course, this strange saga would not be complete without a final twist to the story. In March 1988, Emma Amaro, the bank robber, was hailed a hero for rescuing a 15-year-old girl from drowning who was trying to commit suicide. The Kiwanis awarded Amaro the Kiwanis International Robert P. Connelly Medal for Heroism and the city gave her the City of El Paso Certificate of Merit. [13]

In late 1997, for the bank robbery, Amaro was sentenced to three years in jail, three years supervision, $3,230 in restitution and ordered to perform 200 hours of community service. [17]

Footnotes:

  1. Laura Smitherman, “Forgery case could cost constable job,” El Paso Times, February 20, 1998.
  2. Raul Hernandez, “Grand jury indicts ex-campaign aide,” El Paso Times, July 12, 1996.
  3. Gary Scharrer, “Forgery charges only beginning for El Paso pair,” El Paso Times, August 24, 1997.
  4. Laura Smitherman, “Jury finds Morales guilty of forgery,” El Paso Times, February 19, 1998.
  5. “Candidate investigation,” El Paso Times, January 18, 1996.
  6. Bernadette Self, “El Paso bank bandit,” El Paso Times, June 20, 1996.
  7. Gary Scharrer, “Constable indicted,” El Paso Times, May 30, 1996.
  8. Allison Gregor, “Constable exceeds cellular phone budget,” El Paso Times, October 16, 1997.
  9. Gary Scharrer, “Forgery charge contested,” El Paso Times, September 5, 1996.
  10. Raul Hernandez, “$35,000 bond set for bank robbery suspect,” El Paso Times, July 9, 1996.
  11. Gary Scharrer, “Campaign manager accused of robberies,” El Paso Times, June 18, 1996.
  12. Sito Negron, “Constable comments on arrest,” El Paso Times, June 19, 1996.
  13. Gary Scharrer, “The case of the indicted constable,” El Paso Times, September 15, 1996.
  14. Juan A. Lozano and Victor Venegas, “Robbery suspect faces new charge of forgery,” El Paso Herald Post, June 19, 1996.
  15. Aaron J Montes, “Judge Lizarraga denies allegations of wrongdoing in complaints to States Commission on Judicial Conduct,” January 19, 2022.
  16. Notice of Formal Proceedings Before The State Commission on Judicial Conduct, State of Texas, Inquiry Concerning Judge No. 104, December 29, 2021.
  17. Raul Hernandez, “Former campaign manager sentenced,” El Paso Herald Post, August 8, 1997.

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