El Paso County District Attorney Yvonne Rosales, who’s prosecuting one of the largest mass shooting cases in the state’s history, is facing a petition to remove her from office amid allegations of “official misconduct” and “incompetence.”
The petition was filed Wednesday by a private criminal defense attorney Omar Carmona, who alleges that Rosales, among other misdeeds, is misusing civil forfeiture funds. mishandling hundreds of criminal cases now dismissed, and an inability to retain and fully staff her office.
The latest drama is playing out against the backdrop of the biggest case facing the border region, the trial against Patrick Crusius, the accused shooter who authorities say drove more than 9 hours from his home in North Texas to “stop the Hispanic invasion.” He’s charged with killing 23 people from both sides of the border shopping inside a Walmart.
“We still have a lot of healing to do,” said Carmona, referring to the shooting. “The fact that our top law enforcement officer in this community is in way over her head, understaffed and having these types of problems in her office, we don’t feel safe … El Paso has come a long way… but we still have a long way to go.”
Critics question whether Rosales’ office is competent enough to deliver a successful capital murder trial against Crusius, who is scheduled to face a federal trial in January 2024.
Rosales’ office called the recall petition “merely” “a political tactic,” a “political stunt” and a “frivolous attempt by an attorney who has actively been attacking the administration for many months now in regard to a case which is pending on appeal.”
“These types of attacks have taken place since the first day the first female District Attorney in the history of El Paso took office,” according to a statement. “Never has there been so much hateful rhetoric or tactics used against any predecessor.”
Carmona pushed back, saying “I think Hispanic women should be offended that that’s her go-to” excuse.
Rosales has been in office since January 2021. She replaced Jaime Esparza, who retired after his term ended in 2020. He served as the DA for nearly 30 years.
Key prosecutor fired
Underscoring the uncertainty is the departure of two key prosecutors in the state case against Crusius. Assistant District Attorney John Briggs and Special Prosecutor Monica Barron-Auger were forced out of their positions Monday.
Barron-Auger had just started her position July 11 under funding by a state grant designed to secure special prosecutors on the case. She confirmed her removal was effective Monday.
Asked to comment, Briggs, a 27-year career prosecutor and native of El Paso described his jobs as “what I love doing,” calling it as “worthwhile” and “important … but obviously, they felt my services were no longer necessary and I don’t know why they made the decision.”
Briggs was escorted out of the building Monday by three DA investigators.
“Following recent events, a change was necessary. We wish Mr. Briggs the best,” the district attorney’s office told the local ABC affiliate, KVIA Channel 7, in a statement on Monday.
The ouster of Briggs is troubling for Amanda Enriquez, who had worked for Esparza and was immediately assigned to the case. She worked alongside Briggs.
“It’s extremely concerning,” she said. “John Briggs is a very experienced and competent prosecutor. … It is very troubling that with multiple pending death penalty cases, including the worst crime in the history of El Paso, she fired the only lawyer who handled them before.”
Enriquez worked for eight years as a prosecutor for the DA office, six of them assigned to the homicide unit. Upon Esparza’s retirement, Enriquez said she reapplied for the job under Rosales, given the pending case against Crusius, but was not rehired.
The drama heightened earlier this month when District Court Judge Sam Medrano Jr. berated Rosales for publicly providing The Dallas Morning News and KTEP public radio a trial time frame against the accused Walmart gunman, sternly reminding Rosales that only the court can set a trial day. Medrano also ordered a gag order in the case, restricting anyone involved from speaking openly about the trial.
Weeks later a mystery email was received by members of the media, allegedly sent by the son of Alexander Hoffman, one of the victims of the Walmart shooting. The email attacked Enriquez after she discussed the Walmart case on a local television program. Enriquez, a potential opponent of Rosales in 2024, was accused of “using the (Walmart) case for political purposes” and threatened to file a complaint against Enriquez with the State Bar.
A member of the Hoffman family, which resides in both El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, denied her brother, Alexander Whelm Hoffman, or her mother, were behind the email.
“The district attorney in El Paso, FBI and other authorities, from the get-go were nothing but supportive and outstanding. I am appalled by this email, and I … do not believe this was written by … any of my family members,” Elise Hoffman wrote in a statement. “Not only is Alexander Hoffmann not fluent and eloquent in the English language, but he lacks the capabilities of writing such emails.”
Last week, Medrano, the district court judge, appointed El Paso attorney Justin Underwood to represent the Hoffman family. The district attorney’s office asked for more time to prepare for a hearing with judge Sam Medrano and defense attorneys for Crusius.
The State Bar of Texas and Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct did not comment on whether a complaint was filed against Enriquez.
Enriquez said she has “not received any complaints, or grievances from the bar since I have been licensed.”
Asked whether she plans to mount a political campaign against Rosales, Enriquez, who is currently a deputy public defender, said she had “no comment, for the moment.”
Another potential opponent against Rosales is El Paso state representative Joe Moody, who said he’s been approached to run again for the position in the 2024 Democratic primary. He did not say whether he’d run.
“I care very much about criminal justice and criminal justice reform and our community and how they intersect,” Moody said.
In a statement Moody said “ I’m always leery about” petitions. “We have a removal system, and that’s an election in 2024.
“That said,” Moody added, “I’ve never witnessed such gross incompetence —it’s not only embarrassing, it’s dangerous and disgraceful. A lot of El Pasoans are going to be hurt before 2024 by the very person they should most be able to rely on.”
Rosales is also facing scrutiny after a judge dismissed nearly 400 cases in a week. That number may reach well over 1,000 in the coming days.
She acknowledged the dismissals were “unprecedented, but not unique, as the same actions are being taken by defense attorneys across the State of Texas as District Attorney Offices both throughout the State and across the nation face personnel shortages and COVID backlog issues.”
But in interviews with various public defenders’ offices throughout Texas, including Dallas and Hidalgo, officials said that while they too face backlogs on misdemeanor and felony cases, none are experiencing mass criminal case dismissals.
This story is a collaboration between investigative journalist for KTEP Aaron Montes and Mexico Border Correspondent for the Dallas Morning News Alfredo Corchado.