Murder in Rocksprings: Four Arrested in 19-Year-Old Capital Murder
It was about 90 degrees in late summer when cars began appearing before the Edwards County Courthouse. Souli Shanklin, the county judge and a rancher by trade, came over to unlock the broad doors before lunchtime for a Sunday magistrate hearing. Shanklin doesn’t mind magistratin’ on a Sunday, he says, but never does so before church, only after.
Most of the Sunday magistrate hearings take place in the Edwards County Jail, but on July 26, 2015, Facebook demanded a more formal setting. At least Judge Shanklin supposed it was the gossip on social media that had caused so many cars to start circling the courthouse that Sunday morning. In any case, it was big news, and reporters from at least one San Antonio news station were already on scene, as were members of the victim’s and suspect’s family, people the judge knew and had grown up with.
Below: A map of where Rocksprings is:
“My part of the deal is—mine’s not a Judge Judy deal,” Shanklin said in a slight drawl. “I stick to the script and read off the magistrate warnings, and they sign, and that’s the end of it for me. When it’s a capital case, after I do my magistration of it, I’m out of there.”
Rocksprings is a small municipality on the western edge of the Texas Hill Country. With just over 1,000 inhabitants, the tiny town is located between Junction and Del Rio off of highway 377, south of Interstate 10 and west of Kerrville. It’s roughly an hour and 40 minutes from the border, a stone’s throw from the interstate and two and a half hours from San Antonio. It’s the type of town where everyone knows each other and families of natives work together over generations. While there is, like most small Texas towns, a slight racial divide, Souli Shanklin says the town’s really too tight knit to have any severe racial tears between the seams. The people are just too close for that.
Despite its size and its familial closeness, Rocksprings is home to a pair of horrific homicides, including what is reputed to be Texas’ oldest cold mass murder—which entailed the roadside slaying of a family of five bound for San Angelo—and a capital case that has haunted the community for nearly 20 years: the brutal assault, stabbing, alleged robbery and attempted arson of Patricia Torres Paz.
It was these two cases that kept outsiders and true crime junkies interested in Rocksprings over the years and, coupled with the attention of a major network television show, one of these cold case files would soon lead to the biggest break—and possibly the most questionable—the city had ever seen.
“It was either Unsolved Mysteries or Cold Case—one of them,” Judge Shanklin said over the telephone roughly two and a half months after that Sunday morning magistrate hearing. “They wanted to help. We’re a small town and don’t have a lot of money, so [we’ll take what help we can get].”
Beginning with a call to both Edwards County Sheriff Pamela Elliott and to Judge Shanklin, Unsolved Mysteries offered to lend a hand in the cold case of Patricia Torres Paz. In order to do so, the judge recounted, they’d need to get their hands on the original case files and sign an agreement with the county so the television folk could come down, investigate and film.
In the summer of 2014, Shanklin and Sheriff Elliott were trying to locate the files. Both cases—the Arellano family murder and the capital killing of Patricia Paz—had been handed off to the Texas Rangers, and Ranger turnover due to retirement over two decades meant that the boxes of files had been shuffled between desks at the cold case division over the past several years. Now, the judge found out, the files were being kept in Corpus Christi, and he’d told Sheriff Elliott to let the Rangers know he’d be down on “either Wednesday or Thursday, it don’t matter which one” to pick them up. And he did, on his own dime, duly noted.
Once the cases were back in Edwards County custody in June 2014, Judge Shanklin turned them over to the sheriff’s office so the investigation could continue. He can’t remember when Unsolved Mysteries showed up to do their interviews and reporting, but estimates it was either later that fall or the following spring when a two-minute short finally aired. The full-length video still hasn’t shown on television networks, and if website commenters hadn’t posted about the magistrate hearing at the end of July, there might not have been an update. Nonetheless, the TV’s interest had effectively resurrected the case of Patricia Torres Paz, and on July 7, 2014, Sheriff Elliott assigned Captain Darrell Volkmann to the investigation.
The New, Old Investigation
Darrell Volkmann is a former San Antonio Police Department officer with a total of 27 years’ experience in law enforcement as of summer 2015. When Paz’s murder case landed on his desk in July 2014, Volkmann began an “extensive review” of the evidence, photographs and statements obtained during the previous years of investigation.
Although it had sat on ice for nearly a fifth of a century without much movement, progress was made quickly this time around, as television interest and the support of the San Antonio and Kerrville Crime Stoppers drew attention to the case and pushed for closure.
“What really helped was that the local community understood that people were wanting to help…with that, when they saw that people really cared, that we wanted to help, then more information started coming out,” Judge Shanklin said. “More people started giving information. They saw that there was a care there, that we were concerned. Now that we had the sheriff in office that was really wanting to help the family, and Volkmann was really wanting to help the family, then people started coming forward and giving more information out.”
During his review, Volkmann identified several previously named suspects “as well as evidenced [sic] that named an actor through DNA…” he wrote in the probable cause affidavit he would use to secure warrants for four suspects. Pages and pages of notes detail phone calls and scheduled meetings between February 2015 and July, culminating in several meetings with an unnamed informant, whose account of the killing was so detailed many have said he or she had to have been present when the act was committed. It was this account that ultimately led to four arrests in late July and early August 2015, but it would soon be determined that not all of the facts really lined up.
Patricia Torres Paz was wearing a red dress with small, dark-colored squares and a pair of tan house shoes when she was found on Feb. 28, 1996. Underneath, someone had slipped on a pair of white men’s underwear, and she had been propped up in a chair to appear as if she’d just sat down like that in her living room, motionless and lacking life.
The TV was on, and some blood spatter was visible around the living room, but it wasn’t much: Someone had attempted to burn the residence down by placing a piece of clothing on top of an open flame propane heater. After that failed, Paz was bathed, dressed and set in the chair. Her neck had been cut open—possibly with half a pair of scissors detectives later located inside her home—and she had been stabbed multiple times. She had bruises, abrasions, cuts and scrapes on her arms, legs and head.
Multiple massive blood pools were found on the couch, whose cushions had been flipped upside down in a feeble attempt to conceal the mayhem. Bloodied clothes were found in the kitchen trashcan, and “party beers” were left in living room.
Patricia Torres Paz was 35 years old when she was murdered, and has been described as a tough woman with an intellectual disability who would never let anyone take advantage of her. It was evident she’d put up a fight in her living room, but ultimately she paid with her life and violently died on Monday, Feb. 26, 1996. Her body was found by a relative two days later.
Paz lived in the 700 block of N. Well St. and had family members and sisters living beside and across from her. When she died, a party hosted and attended by family and neighbors kicked off nearby. The second half of the scissors allegedly surfaced again in an altercation in the street that night, but for 19 years the murder remained unsolved, evidence forming only weak links to strong suspects who had a number of inconsistent stories and the opportunity to kill. Patricia Torres Paz was a specter.
“I think because it was in the commission of a robbery,” Judge Shanklin contemplated, trying to recall what made the murder a capital offense. “It was premeditated. It was done in the commission of a robbery; I’m sure that’s what it was. They went after her disability check. They knew that she’d cashed her disability check, and they wanted that cash.”
That robbery has been cited as motive for almost two decades now, but evidence of Paz cashing a check or of anyone stealing the money has never surfaced in public reports, according to former Edwards County Sheriff Donald Letsinger.
Sheriff Warren Guthrie was sitting at the head of the ECSO when the murder was committed in 1996. The following year, Donald Letsinger took over, acting as sheriff from 1997 to 2012. It had been 10 months since the murder when Letsinger was elected, and by then Texas Ranger Johnny Allen had been called in to assist with the case.
“Johnny Allen helped me with a little bit in ’97 with the investigation, but he was kind of of the opinion that Patricia had been killed by Frank Torres, who was her brother,” Letsinger recalled.
“The suspects that I believed were responsible was George Torres—“Poche” Torres,” Letsinger said. “His own statements put him at that house. His mother and his sister, they were suspects, and then there was another boy named Eddie Villanueva, who lived next door. And there was a man named Juan Flores and there was a couple of others that were suspected and, on the night of her murder, were all right there in that area. Of course, they were all suspects.”
Letsinger worked the case for years along with various detectives and Ranger Allen; however, they never got the break they needed to make any arrests. His account of the investigation and evidence largely mirrors what Volkmann printed in his probable cause affidavit, save for a few heavy-yet-subtle deviations and a highly informative—yet fatally flawed—report from a confidential informant. These new developments, however, were enough to catch—and release—a series of suspects who had been on the list since the investigation’s launch in 1996.
Judge Souli Shanklin didn’t just know the names of the first two suspects when they were scheduled for a magistrate hearing the day after their arrests on July 26. As a native of Rocksprings, the judge had known them well, had grown up, in fact, alongside their father and gone to school with their aunt.
The fact that it was Paz’s nephew and niece who were first arrested for the crime hadn’t shocked the family, Shanklin said, but several relatives did show up for that Sunday hearing, which he admits was a bit personal for him as well, given the history he had with the family in the community.
“One of the suspects in this, his dad and I were classmates all the way through school, from first grade on,” Shanklin said. "So that’s how close we are to everything. So you see in a community where everybody’s so closely knit…when you grow up playing with each other on the playground, then playing sports with them and working with them…you know each other intimately from being in the same classroom for 12 years…you have feelings for them, and then when one of their sons is accused of a crime like that, it’s how you deal with it. You feel just like they do.
“So you understand where I’m coming from when I go in there and do that magistration, you know," Shanklin made the round back to his role in scheme of things. "You knew that kid ever since before he was ever conceived, and remember growing up with his dad and his aunts and his uncles and everybody, so you don’t do a Broadway production when you do the magistration. You stick to the script because it’s still an emotional thing for you too. You’re right in the middle of the whole thing. It’s one of those things that you come from small town America and you don’t comprehend something like that.”
Shanklin repeated the "Broadway production" and "this ain't Judge Judy" bits a couple of times like someone had accused him of it, then protectively warned that one should always double-check their sources when reporting on Rocksprings. There had apparently been a lot of "political hay" made with regard to this particular case, which may or may not have impacted its less-than-favorable outcome. Regardless, four arrests were made, starting with two whose parents Shanklin had grown up with, and the current stand of the case remains a touchy subject for all in Rocksprings, not just Shanklin.
The first two arrested were 37-year-old George “Poche” Torres and his sister, 40-year-old Angelica Marie Torres, the nephew and niece of Patricia Torres Paz. Within a few days two more were in custody, including George’s ex-flame, Christina “Tina” Flores, and Neri Garcia, who incidentally had at one point had an affair and child with Tina Flores while she was dating George. Garcia is believed to be related to Patricia Torres via marriage—possibly his mother's marriage to a Torres—however the lineage is not clear given the number of family members involved or alleged to be involved in the murder and investigation.
With four accused killers behind bars, it wouldn't take long before someone would start questioning the grounds. According to the probable cause affidavit accompanying their arrest warrants, Tina Flores seemed to have been primarily guilty of developing a signature style of makeup application she employs when stoned; while Neri Garcia had been fingered as the primary aggressor by an informant who was obviously there when the crime was committed. Angelica Torres was the apparent subject of at least one jailhouse rumor, and also was reported to have hair that resembles a sample taken from her aunt’s house after the murder. George, however, had always been a favorite with his ever-shifting alibis and mounting hearsay confessions.
George had been on law enforcement’s watch list since Don Letsinger was around in ’97—maybe before—and there was plenty of questionable history with him. On Feb. 13, 2003, for example, George told Letsinger he had spent the night of the murder—presumed to be Monday, Feb. 26, 1996—out drinking, smoking pot and having sex with a girl and another couple at a “red gate” off of highway 377 N., as young folk in their teens and 20s are wont to do. Neither of the women present was his girlfriend at the time, Christina “Tina” Flores.
Tina’s recollection of the night, however, was a bit more damning, but it would take 19 years to get there. For the first seven, Tina Flores told police that she and George had spent the night of the murder in Camp Wood, roughly 30 miles southeast of Rocksprings. This account came in an interview conducted in June of 2003. She added to the story when she was arrested in May 2015 for delivery of methamphetamine, this time telling Sheriff Elliott and Captain Volkmann that she recalled George Torres coming home on the night of the murder with blood on his boots and right elbow, which he stated came from Tina pushing him into a fence, the affidavit states. She then continued to tell investigators that she had noticed George didn’t have a scratch on him the following morning, and said she felt as if he had been trying to convince her that the fence story was the truth when he told it.
“I interviewed an inmate in the Texas Department of Corrections,” Letsinger recalled. “The inmate told me that [George] Torres was bragging about killing Patricia. Whatever that information is worth, it is certainly not evidence in the case, but I guess it still points in the right direction. But he wouldn’t be the first inmate to go to the penitentiary and try to build himself up as a murderer for his own protection in the pen.”
In July 2015, a relative of George’s, Vincente Torres, showed up at the sheriff’s office to report a car crash and told Volkmann that he and George had spent the evening of the murder watching wrestling together, that Volkmann was “barking up the wrong tree”. Another relative reportedly told Volkmann in the jail's rec yard that he wanted to kill George and Angelica for killing their aunt, and stated that the siblings had committed the murder out of greed for Paz's money. The money, however, was a frequently-referenced motive that became more muddled the more it was investigated.
“George has four different alibis,” Letsinger said, recalling the “red gate” story and the account of Vincente Torres. Letsinger also noted that Tina claimed the two had been together that day and recalled mention of a party that he supposed was meant to serve as an alibi until the dates didn’t match up.
“Angel (Angelica Torres, George and Angelica’s mother) gave me a long story about how they barbecued over at her house, and he (George) and Vicente Torres got in a fight, and Angel fainted and passed out, and they had to call the EMS. Well, I checked that out, and it turns out that the EMS did go to where Angel lived, and Angel was having problems, but it was a year after the murder,” Letsinger said.
Letsinger said George also admitted to going over to a house right across the street from Paz's on the night of the murder, but there was never any DNA evidence to tie him or anyone else to the crime definitively. Shifting stories aren’t enough to book someone for murder, so for 19 years the case lay cold without a lead to go off of. That is, until one summer day, a person came forward who could put all the right names in all the right places, and who at the same time was deemed credible because of the details he (or she) knew.
*This story is continued here as part of a series titled Murder in Rocksprings due to the volume of information obtained in research for this article.