Murder in Rocksprings: The Suspects Walk
Crack is supposed to be cheaper than powdered cocaine, but also more addictive. Once that rock is gone, users will spend themselves broke trying to re-up on the supply. When the money’s gone, though, there aren’t many options, and the few of them that remain are seldom legal. In a tiny Texas town in 1996, three boys—ranging from their teens to their 20s—had just run out of both. And someone was going to die for it.
This story is the third part of a three-part series entitled Murder in Rocksprings, which covers the evidence, investigation and arrest of four suspects in a 19-year-old cold case. Several of the incidents mentioned or referenced in this story are explained in full in other parts. Click here to read part one, "Four Arrested in 19-Year-Old Capital Murder". Click here to read part two, "Confidential Informant Breaks Case".
Above: Patricia Torres Paz, the murder victim. (Screen grab, YouTube)
Patricia Torres Paz wasn’t the type to let people take advantage of her. At 35-years-old, the intellectually disabled woman lived with her common-law husband in a house in Rocksprings. She didn’t work, but collected disability, and that check came in the first of each month. Paz was close to her family and had frequent visitors, many of whom lived within a house or two of her own in the 700 block of N. Well St. Her circumstances were known, as were her habits, so when Paz turned up dead on Feb. 28, 1996, there were plenty of people who had plenty to say about her.
It was a Monday—the last Monday of the month—when Angel Torres* and her daughter Angelica met up with Patricia to take her to the store. There, they told former Edwards County Sheriff Don Letsinger, Paz had bought herself some cigarettes and beer and had also cashed a $300 check. It was the last time either—or anyone else for that matter—saw the woman alive.
*According to Don Letsinger, both the mother and daughter are named Angelica Torres. For clarity, we refer to the mother as Angel and the daughter as Angelica, as Letsinger did during conversations about this case.
The check wasn’t Patricia’s, Letsinger said, who had worked the case for years prior to retiring from the ECSO. Paz’s partner worked in a shearing camp and was a good 135 miles away shearing in Sheffield when the murder occurred. But, according to the tale told by the Angelicas, Paz had somehow managed to persuade the man who owned the camp to take her a $300 check the previous weekend. That was what the killers had been after when they beat and stabbed the woman on Feb. 26, and it had been cashed right there in Rocksprings, or so the Angelicas told the ex-sheriff.
But 19 years later the story was a little different. This time, a confidential informant claimed that Paz’s nephew, Juan “Carlos” Martinez, had taken Paz to cash the check, and he, George “Poche” Torres and Neri Garcia had gone over to the house steal it in order to buy some crack. George “Poche” Torres and Angelica Torres are siblings; they are the niece and nephew of Patricia Paz. Regardless of who was being fingered as the one who took Paz to cash the check, the truth was it didn’t really matter.
“She (Paz) didn’t work and she didn’t cash a check that day. I can assure you that no $300 check went through the bank in Rocksprings,” Letsinger said, recalling the case over the telephone. “That supposedly was the motive, was to steal that money. We just have one bank. If it was cashed at any business here in Rocksprings, it would have gone through the People’s State Bank, and it didn’t go through the People’s State Bank. There was no check came in that was that amount.”
Letsinger insisted that even if the check had been cashed elsewhere, it would have had to go through the shearing crew guy’s local bank account, and it never showed.
“The president of the bank spent many hours going through every check that came in during that period of time,” Letsinger said. The check never came through.
Letsinger also pointed out that Paz’s disability check shows up the first of the month, but she was killed on the 26th. When that check finally did come through, Letsinger said, he tracked it down and it went to the funeral home.
“If she got any money, it was in cash, not in a check,” the former sheriff said. “I can’t rule out that somebody didn’t bring her some money, but I talked to the owner of the shearing crew, and he said he didn’t bring her any money.”
Despite Letsinger’s investigation, the current Edwards County Sheriff, Pamela Elliott, still holds that robbery was the motive behind the murder. In an interview with the television show Unsolved Mysteries, Elliott stated that Paz had cashed the disability check Letsinger couldn’t find. Sheriff Elliott also told the TV show that Paz had requested money from her common-law spouse and was last seen after she cashed the check. Sheriff Elliott did not mention whether or not her office had verified the existence of the check since Letsinger ruled it out.
The only mention of that check in Edwards County SO Captain Darrell Volkmann’s probable cause affidavit is in the informant’s narrative about Carlos and the crack job. The 21-page document, which includes various details and accounts of individuals from both Volkmann’s and past investigations, was used to secure arrest warrants and detain four suspects accused of capital murder. But not every murder is by default a capital offense.
In order for a murder to be enhanced to capital, it must meet certain criteria. Some examples include the murder of a child under the age of 10, or any murder-for-hire scheme. Another qualifier is that the murder is committed in the commission of another qualifying felony offense, such as robbery.
Usually, when a capital offense is alleged, the qualifying criteria are explained in the probable cause affidavit filed with the warrant. In this case there is no such explanatory statement; however, the alleged robbery has been so frequently referenced by those close to the case that it has been adopted by means of assumption. The problem is Letsinger has flat out said there is no evidence of a robbery. Further, no probable cause to believe that a robbery took place—aside from the word of a confidential informant whose testimony has been thoroughly punched with holes—was ever noted in the probable cause affidavit. If that robbery wasn’t committed, the charge drops down to murder one, punishable by five to 99 years’ imprisonment. A capital offense, by comparison, carries a mandatory sentence of life without parole or death. The elements of the capital offense—in this case whether a robbery was committed—must be proven at trial in order to secure a capital conviction.
The Murder Quilt
There comes a time in every homicide when truth becomes stranger than fiction. In the case of Patricia Paz, we may never know where the countless details fall with regard to that line. The crack, the money, the countless alibis and the family who, for 19 years, has kept secrets silent—all form an intricately woven fabric of fact and fiction so complex the weavers may not even be able to separate the threads. But there is one material hope, one that seems too far-fetched to be true but too bizarre to be made up, and that is the tale of the murder quilt.
The confidential informant was getting cozy with the details after replaying the murder scene for Detective Volkmann. It isn’t clear whether there were additional meetings or if all the information came out at once sometime during or after the third meeting on July 7, 2015, but there were a variety of methods used: recorded visual and audio interview, “formal” statements. In any case, what she told the captain next was every bit as odd as the Sear’s Best boy’s underwear Paz had been found in.
On Feb. 26, at roughly 3:45 a.m., Carlos, George and Neri showed up at Carlos’ house covered in blood. The trio, the informant said, relayed that they had just shot a deer, but that it wasn’t good to eat, hence all the blood. All three then changed their clothes, George and Neri placing theirs in plastic bags they later took with them, and Carlos washing his at home.
Juan “Carlos” Martinez is the son of Lucille “Lucy” Martinez, Paz’s sister who the informant believed had found her body two days after the murder. Lucy outlived her son, and when he died of an ATV accident—apparently out with others involved in the murder, per Volkmann’s affidavit—she rummaged through some of his things and made a quilt. According to the informant, one of the quilt’s patches was made from the shirt Carlos had been wearing on the night of the murder. The informant said that Lucy had found it, cut it up and sewn it into the blanket that was possibly passed onto other family when she died in 2010. Whether or not that quilt exists, was ever made or includes pieces of evidence in the murder of Patricia Paz has not been confirmed by anyone close to the investigation.
“I would say that Lucy Martinez, if Carlos was involved, she did not know it,” Letsinger pondered. “I think she would have had to tell somebody that had to tell somebody that it would have got out. However, it wouldn’t be the first time that a mother covered up for her son.”
Prior to June 25, 2015, no arrests had ever been made in the murder of Patricia Paz. Armed almost solely with the testimony of a confidential informant who knows way too much to be innocent, but whose account really does not jive with at least 17 of the 19 years of investigation, George “Poche” Torres, his sister Angelica Marie Torres, his ex-girlfriend Christina “Tina” Flores, and Tina’s former lover (also believed to be somehow related to the Torreses) Neri Garcia, were all arrested within a week of one another.
The makeup account and boy’s ranch conflict regarding Tina and Neri’s cases were already suspect, but they had been arrested third and fourth. The first two to go down were George and Angelica, and while George had been a suspect for nearly two decades and had supplied a litany of alibis, Angelica had hardly been mentioned at all—either by the informant or in conversations the informant allegedly overheard.
The full and complete details of an investigation are not usually provided in a probable cause affidavit. Rather, an abbreviated version with just enough information to show a reasonable cause to believe that a person committed the crime is included, and that information is reviewed by a magistrate, who issues an arrest warrant.
Angelica Torres comes up exactly twice in the 21-page document used to secure her arrest warrant. One of those times noted was during a jailhouse interview conducted on March 20 between Volkmann and Ignacio Torres, a nephew of Paz, who claimed Angelica told her brother George of Paz’s money and accused the two of killing her. Ignacio Torres was 13 years old at the time of the murder and, during the interview, named a few others he believed were complicit in the crime; however, Volkmann noted that there was “not enough evidence or statements to arrest all the subjects as so listed by Iggy Torres”.
The second reference to Angelica Torres was more ambiguous than the first, given what Don Letsinger revealed of the investigation.
“Most of our investigation was done by trying to figure out DNA evidence that would be placed at the murder scene when she was murdered,” Letsinger said. “That piece of evidence that we had back in ’97 was a Bud Light beer can that was open. It had been placed in the refrigerator and had Patricia’s blood on it, the victim’s blood. It also had five pieces of hair—head hair—and in ’97—in fact in those days—they did not have mitochondrial DNA developed where you could identify head hair unless it had a follicle.”
The use of hair as DNA evidence isn’t what it’s made out to be on television, Letsinger explained. The reality is that even today, hair collected without a follicle cannot identify a person exclusively, but rather a family of individuals in the same maternal line. This will include every family member throughout generations born down that maternal line, both male and female; however the mitochondrial DNA is only passed onto the next generation through women. Nuclear DNA is contained in the root of a hair, and is still no guarantee to provide identification of a genetic profile due to the limited amounts of DNA present.
In 1996, DNA technology had not yet progressed to the point where scientists could determine familial lines through mitochondrial DNA, Letsinger said. So while they had collected five pieces of hair, there was no widely used means of testing them for anything really indicative of who the killers were, other than by making suppositions based on structure and appearance. It wasn’t until Texas Ranger Brooks Long began working a cold highway mass murder in 2003 that the Edwards County Sheriff’s Office finally got a shot to test the mitochondrial DNA in their five hair pieces, and they then sent their evidence off to a lab at North Texas State, Letsinger said.
“In 2004, we got a test on those hairs from North Texas. Three of the hairs found of the five are identified as either Patricia’s or a family member. Two are not identified as Patricia or a family member. So it would be nice to identify somebody that’s outside that,” Letsinger said. “The big drawback for me in the investigation that came about that kept me from being able to just say, ‘alright, I can really go after this particular suspect’ was that there’s too many family members, and they cannot, from mitochondrial (DNA), say it’s male or female or which family member it was. They can only say that those hairs came from family members.”
That admission is also noted in Captain Darrell Volkmann’s probable cause affidavit, albeit somewhat vaguely. In the only other mention of Angelica Torres—aside from the statement from Ignacio about how she had told her brother of the money—Volkmann writes about DNA evidence taken from the crime scene and compared with three samples provided by Angelica Torres.
“Evidence #9, tested with known sample and resulted in ‘Body hair resembles Angelica M. Torres…” the entry reads.
Naming off at least 10 family members whose names had come up in the investigation and were considered possible suspects, Letsinger described the use of the hair samples as evidence as beyond weak.
“That would be very thin in that she was probably in Patricia’s house on numerous occasions,” the former sheriff said. “She was related to her. They went over there all the time. In fact, Patricia had a telephone and Angelica and them didn’t have a telephone. So, when they wanted to use the telephone, they went to Patricia’s house and used it. So anything like that (hair) found in that house could be explained or it wouldn’t carry enough weight for a conviction.”
Catch and Release
“Standing room only” is how one San Antonio news anchor described the setting at the Edwards County Courthouse on July 26, the date of George and Angelica Torres’ magistrate hearings. It was a Sunday after church, and as the camera panned, packed seats and teary eyes were captured among those waiting for the charges to be read. Relief was the emotion of the day; relief that the killers had finally been caught, relief that Patricia Paz could now rest in peace. But amid the roomful of family members, law enforcement and the Edwards County Judge, the prosecutor was missing. It turns out, she didn’t even know about it.
“Neither I, nor anyone in the 452nd District Attorney's Office, was consulted or informed about the ongoing Edwards County Sheriff's Office investigation of the Paz case prior to the July and August 2015 arrests of the alleged suspects,” said 452nd DA Tonya Ahlschwede. “I found about the arrests after they had occurred. The District Attorney's Office did not participate in the investigation of the Paz case prior to the arrests.”
The normal process—especially in a murder case—is for investigators to immediately contact the prosecuting attorney and discuss the elements of that case, explained Patrick O’Fiel, Neri Garcia’s court-appointed defense counsel. “Law enforcement would normally run it by the DA’s office, who would tell them, ‘look, maybe you need to investigate this, or probably, ‘put this probable cause affidavit in some comprehensible form.’ You know, [the DA] would help them with that.”
The reason for that is that the DA is ultimately responsible for proving each element alleged by the state in order to secure a conviction. As the one trained to understand the law and the requirements it places on evidence submitted at trial, the DA aids the investigation by providing guidance as to what will be needed in court.
Aside from the questionable accusations made by the informant in her testimony, the state now had another problem in that all four attorneys for the defense had filed for an examining trial. George “Poche” Torres had been arrested on the basis of the confidential informant’s (CI) testimony and because he and others had provided for him several different alibis for the night of the murder, none of which were proven or disproven. Angelica Torres had been arrested on the basis of DNA evidence that is not scientifically possible to obtain. Christina “Tina” Flores had been arrested because the CI stated that Paz was wearing makeup that looked like Tina’s when she’s stoned; but no makeup was seen on the body in pictures. Neri Garcia was picked up and extradited based on the CI’s statement that he was the primary aggressor; but he had been found to be in custody at a Kerrville boy’s ranch during the killing.
Above: Edwards County Sheriff Pamela Elliott took office on Jan. 1, 2013. (Photo/Edwards County)
To compound the issue, two of the attorneys said their clients had relayed that Sheriff Elliott and Captain Volkmann had repeatedly tried to interview them in custody although they had asked for attorneys, and all of the lawyers expressed a lack of cooperation from the sheriff’s office in general, including an attempt to deny Angelica’s attorney, Steve Pickell, the right to visitation.
“I did [have difficulty obtaining information] in the beginning,” said Harold Danford, attorney for George Torres. “The first thing that we asked for was a probable cause affidavit, and we were kind of told, ‘you ain’t getting nothing’ by the sheriff’s department. We contacted the DA’s office and they were like, ‘what do you mean?’”
Danford said that after a couple of days he was able to obtain the probable cause affidavit, but, like the others, immediately had objections.
“They didn’t have any evidence to arrest him,” he said. “They didn’t have any probable cause to arrest him. It was totally [crap].”
The lack of evidence prompted each of the four defense attorneys to file for an examining trial within two weeks of the arrests, during which Danford also hoped to address why his client—and the others—had never been given a bond. The examining trial was never scheduled on the court’s docket, likely because of what it would have required of the state.
“The state (by the district attorney prosecuting the case) has to show what probable cause they had to convince the magistrate that there was enough to arrest these people and hold them in jail,” Danford explained how an examining trial functions. “They have to bring witnesses and show, ‘ok, here’s the information we had that led us to believe that we needed to get a warrant….’ That’s why you usually talk to the DA before you go and arrest somebody.”
Having not been involved, it would have been difficult for the 452nd District Attorney to present that information. She would not comment on how viable she believes the evidence against the suspects to be or any matters regarding the investigation, but did note that she has asked the AG’s office for assistance in the prosecution and investigation. The case, however, still remains hers to prosecute and Elliott’s to investigate, she clarified.
“Prior to the arrests made in the Paz case, I had requested assistance from investigators of the Texas Attorney General's Office on several cold cases in Edwards County, including the Paz case,” Ahlschwede said. “The Paz case, however, has not been ‘turned over’ to the Attorney General's Office. My office will be working in conjunction with the Attorney General’s Office.”
On Sept. 17, just over seven weeks after the arrests were made, a motion to dismiss all charges pending further investigation was filed with the court. That order was signed on Sept. 20. Since then, all four of the defendants have been released from custody and are facing no further charges at this time. At least three of the four are considering pursuing relief for alleged civil rights violations; the fourth attorney could not be reached for comment prior to publication.
Exact booking and release dates, aside from those noted in this series, could not be obtained prior to publication due to a refusal to cooperate by Edwards County Sheriff Pamela Elliott. Elliott did state at one point that she saw no reason why she could not provide the information as it had been released previously, but declined to do so after an interview. Booking sheets, mugshots and probable cause affidavits are public record. A complaint will be filed with the Texas Attorney General’s Office.
One of the attorneys, who deals frequently with Edwards County, stated that practices like those in this case are becoming more and more frequent down there. Another attorney simply stated, “Something needs to be done about Edwards County. It’s scary down there.”
This story is the conclusion of a three-part series entitled Murder in Rocksprings, which covers the evidence, investigation and arrest of four suspects in a 19-year-old cold case. Several of the incidents mentioned or referenced in this story are explained in full in other parts. To read those other two sections, follow the links below:
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