For too many, abuse at the hands of authority begins early. For Jimmy Aldana III, now at Bexar County Jail awaiting trial on charges of burglary and possession of marijuana, it started at Victory Field Correctional Academy in Vernon, Texas, where he was incarcerated for three years.
“Guards doing things to kids. Having the youth do things to other youth — or else,” Mary Jane Martinez, Aldana’s mother told the Current this week. “It was very hard for him to trust anyone. … A lot of things. Bad things.”
Last month, the U.S. Department of Justice identified Victory Field as having some of the highest levels of sexual abuse of children in the nation. With the abuse at Texas Youth Commission facilities around the state exposed a few years ago, TYC is supposedly in the midst of reformation, but it came too late for Aldama. As Grits for Breakfast reported in 2007, the TYC found that 83 percent of minors who were formerly incarcerated with TYC and who reported abuse and eventually received counseling were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
And yet Martinez has been stymied in her effort to get mental-health assistance for her son. On December 12, State Representative José Menéndez asked the Texas Rangers to look into Martinez’s allegations of abuse at the Bexar County Jail, and added that he had already contacted the Center for Health Care Services for a psychiatric evaluation of Aldana “at the earliest possible time.” Sheriff Amadeo Ortiz replied on December 16 that due to “ongoing litigation” with Martinez he had been advised by the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office not to discuss the issue. “I do want to thank you for your prompt action on behalf of Ms. Martinez and her son,” Ortiz wrote. “I can assure you that, as an elected official, I have the same obligations and concerns for the feelings of the citizens of San Antonio.”
No lawsuit has been filed in the case, Martinez said.
Aldana had a trial date last month, when Martinez and Aldana had hoped to request new legal counsel, but their court-appointed attorney, Therese Huntzinger, didn’t show for court. She had taken on the defense of 18-year-old Joe Estrada Jr., convicted this month of murdering Viola Barrios, owner of popular Los Barrios Mexican Restaurant, and successfully had the venue changed to Victoria. Huntzinger was flip about not showing up for Aldana.
“Remember the early part of this conversation?” she said. “I can’t be in court at Sharon Macrae’s for a trial setting for Jimmy; I’m down here.
“I kind of gave Judge Macrae the out and said, ‘Listen, I’m going to be busy for the next couple months’.”
On the topic of alleged abuse by guards, Huntzinger said, “His mother’s not real happy with me, so she probably didn’t tell me about that.”
During Aldana’s time with Bexar County, official grievances have cut both ways. Jail records cite Aldana for fighting with other inmates, flooding his jail cell repeatedly, and other acts of misconduct, including possible involvement in a 2009 cell fire. But Aldana has also been victimized. In one instance, a guard opened his cell door, allowing several inmates to swarm in and beat him and his cellmate. His mother also alleges that a jail guard beat Aldana and his cellmate, and that guards have threatened her son over the political waves she has been stirring up on his behalf.
Last week, Aldana was charged with setting a fire at the jail and got his mugshot on TV. Under double-doored “super-segregation,” Aldana has not been allowed to see his mother and is denied access to writing materials, Martinez said. However, he was able to get a message to her denying he set the fire. He said a hot-water heater caught fire and that he was one of two inmates sent to the hospital suffering from smoke inhalation.
Responding to a request for information from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, Sergeant Elisa Gonzalez wrote in November that neither Aldana nor his cellmate have filed any official grievances about abuse by guards, only about minor commissary disputes.
Adan Muñoz, executive director of the TCJS, responded to Martinez’s organization — the Judicial, Criminal and Social Justice Coalition — saying that the Bexar County Sheriff’s Department would determine if “officer error” led to Aldana’s assault and “will administer appropriate discipline.” In all other matters, the case was closed, he said.
“My fear now is a mother’s instinct,” Martinez said. “It’s the fear of that phone call.”
Jail Administrator Roger Dovalina referred our call to the jail’s new public-information officer, who failed to produce any information before press deadline Tuesday.
The updated tree ordinance — intended to close two major loopholes that have plagued San Antonio’s shade-producing and smog-reducing canopy — is making its final passes through the committee taffy-making machine as it heads to the City Council for an April date.
Today, residents living on tens of acres may still declare themselves exempt from tree laws under the “single-family exemption” and buzz their holdings to make way for box stores, but the proposed ordinance would limit that exemption to those living on a half-acre or less, said Development Services Director Rod Sanchez at last week’s public meeting.
City staff also plan to close the troubling agricultural exemptions that have allowed large tracts to be scraped clean for housing developments. Critics pointed out that not even the largest and most stately “heritage” tree will be secure from development under the proposed rules, but developers will pay double the price for each tree cut down and they’ll have to mitigate for tree loss. If a developer removes a so-called “heritage” tree — defined by size and by species, such as Texas persimmon and mountain laurel — they must plant three in its place elsewhere. Developers are currently allowed to shrink the amount of area fenced off for “root protection” on those larger heritage trees if they pay a little extra, but Sanchez said that provision could be eliminated under the language of the new ordinance.
Many types of árboles are not covered by the proposed protections (including destructive non-native trees such as Chinese pistache, chinaberry, Chinese tallow, salt cedar, and Japanese ligustrum), but the amount of tree canopy provided by desired species in the ordinance is currently set at 38 percent for single-family residential, 25 percent for multi-family, and 15 percent for downtown. These percentages are still in play and were likely revisited at Tuesday’s Technical Advisory Committee meeting as the QueQue went to press; check QueBlog at sacurrent.com for updates. The ordinance is currently scheduled to go before the planning commission March 10 and the infrastructure and growth committee March 16 before landing in the Council’s lap on April Fools’ Day.
The biggest hurdle in the collective-bargaining agreement between the City and the San Antonio Police Officers Association has been cleared: The officers’ health-care plan will remain untouched.
“We met `with the City` on February 12, and it went fairly well,” SAPOA president Michael Helle told the QueQue. “We took care of the health-care problems we talked about earlier, and now we’re just working on the length of the contract and what kind of pay raises we’ll be getting. But the health care will remain the same.” He added that the parties will meet again, “probably,” sometime in March.
Back in January, attorney Lowell F. Denton, the City’s chief negotiator, told the QueQue that talks were at a “temporary standstill,” and gave a description that suggested negotiations were tense, to say the least.
“Police officers have a very good `health-care` plan, they don’t want it to be reduced, and they don’t want to pay more money for it,” Denton said in January. “Everybody else in society is experiencing that their costs are going up, the deductibles are going up, the list of drugs are being reduced, but `policemen` don’t want to have changes that take away from anything that they’ve enjoyed for a long time.”
But in separate meetings held in December and February, the San Antonio Police Officers and Firefighters Benefit Trust agreed to four amendments that reduced their vision and dental-benefit plans.
How could the health issue be resolved so quickly?
“Miracles happen,” said Helle, with a subtle laugh. “I think a lot of it had to do with the Council; they wanted to get this done. We’ve been negotiating for `more than` a year now, they don’t want to keep dragging on and on with this. We had statistical data that supported our arguments, so I think basically they concluded, ‘If there’s nothing wrong with `the health plan`, leave it alone.”
The two main issues now are the length of the new contract and the amount of the officers’ pay raise, if any.
“We’re mindful of `the current economic situation`,” said Helle. “Our proposal is that we’re willing to give up a pay raise for the first year of our contract, which historically we’ve never done before. So, to help the city out we’re taking zero. Our organization is trying to create a win-win situation for our membership, the Police Department, and the community that we represent.”
But no matter how strong the goodwill on the part of the SAPOA leadership, it is the members who will have the last word.
“I have 2,200 policemen that must approve `the new contract`,” said Helle. “I have to find that balance between what the city can afford to pay our membership, and what the membership believe that `the City` can afford.”
Buried somewhere under health-care and money issues, are the remaining Police Executive Research Forum recommendations that the SAPD elected not to adopt after the PERF report was issued in 2008. In January, Denton said “four or five” PERF recommendations were being discussed in the contract talks, “all of which were proposals by the City, and all have not currently been accepted by the association” — an assertion denied by Helle. These proposals included increasing the number of civilians on the Chief’s Advisory Action Board, which is made up of police officers and community members who review and make recommendations about internal investigations, and the removal of the so-called veto provision that allows SAPOA to reject potential board members.
Helle was tight-lipped about the PERF provisions Monday, saying only, “I think the community will be very happy.”
Denton and Assistant City Manager Erik Walsh didn’t return calls from the QueQue before press deadline.
For a fleeting moment during a February 10 community meeting at El Progreso Hall, Esperanza Peace & Justice staffer Jessica Guerrero saw a ray of hope: Maybe the pink building at 1312 Guadalupe Street could be saved.
It’s currently scheduled to be demolished to make room for a new 15,600-square-foot home for the Promesa Project, which the building’s owner, Avenida Guadalupe, says will create jobs and revitalize the West Side’s economy. But Oscar Ramírez, president and CEO of Avenida Guadalupe, told the assembled crowd that they would look into the possibility of saving the building.
“It was the first time I heard him mention it in all of the meetings,” Guerrero told the QueQue. But she wanted more.
“We don’t want to just keep the façade intact,” she said. “We want to seriously look at different possibilities to preserving that building as closely as possible to the structure that it is right now, and incorporate it to the rest of the development plans that they have.
“It’s not just about the pink building,” she added. “Even a house where two or three families lived at has historic value as well.”
On the phone with the QueQue, Ramírez confirmed what Guerrero heard at the meeting.
“Avenida is committed to preservation and economic development, so we’re committed to ask the architects that will develop the new building that they will look at `1312 Guadalupe` and see if some things could be incorporated, if not made part of the new building,” Ramírez said on Friday.
But the longer Ramírez talked, the more it seemed clear: The pink building is going, going, gone. In 2008, Avenida received a $610,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and in 2009 another one from the Economic Development Administration for $1.75 million for the Promesa Project.
“We’ll use the $2.3 million to construct this new building, to create 43 new jobs, and to create a workforce development center that would help train 60-80 people a year on getting jobs in the community,” Ramírez said.
And the pink building, first sold to Albino Maldonado in 1909, is in the way. Located in the core of the City’s historic Mexican-American district, since the late ’30s it has been occupied by fruit sellers, El Progreso and Union bar, a grocery and meat market, a radio and TV service shop, Goodwill, and Speedy’s Food to Go.
“This particular building has no historical value to it in terms of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and those other entities which determine what is historic,” said Ramírez.
Graciela Sánchez, director of the Esperanza, takes offense at that verdict.
“Why are the city’s historical neighborhoods only in the wealthy districts?” she asked in an email. “Why are poor and working-class neighborhoods razed or gentrified?”
“`At the meetings` I heard someone sounding a bit annoyed at the idea of saving the building,” said former District 5 council member Patti Radle. “He said, ‘It’s not historic! George Washington didn’t sleep here!’ He’s right about George. But are famous people the only ones who make something historic? Some will see preservation as important only for those places where someone very famous visited or slept, or if it is a Victorian-style house with majestic porches and pillars.”
But Ramírez says that, intrinsic value aside, the building is a wreck. “Every time we had it assessed we were told it is not salvageable. The only reason it hasn’t deteriorated further is because we have a fence around it and nobody gets into it. But there’s a lot of mold, insect infestation. … Even working there would be bad.”
When the QueQue asked Ramírez to let us take a look at the building, he was adamant.
“We don’t let anybody in there because it’s very dangerous,” he said. “We can’t even get insurance on that building. We don’t want people getting in there and getting hurt or sick. The engineer who went through it was very clear: In his opinion … there’s infestation there. Droppings, bird stuff, asbestos ... ”
Sánchez says it was used as an office building in the ’90s, but Radle agreed that restoring it would be costly.
“I made an attempt to use this building as my field office when I served on Council, but changed my mind when I saw the cost to bring it to code,” Radle said. Nonetheless, she added, “I think there is a sensitive and sensible common ground that could be established in incorporating the present building into the plans of the new building. Not by destroying it and not by reducing it to the façade.
“This building is in an economically impoverished, yet culturally rich neighborhood,” she added. “Aspects of people’s history and culture should not be ignored because they seem ‘small’ or unimportant to society at large in some people’s eyes.” •