On February 9, a quiet Sunday evening in San Antonio, Texas, 14-year-old Ashley Villarreal washed the family car in the driveway of the well-kept house where she lived with her 73-year-old grandmother, Nelly Villarreal.
Ashley celebrated her 14th birthday in January. She was an unusually tall and beautiful Hispanic girl whose luminous skin, sense of humor, and generosity endeared her to everyone she met. In her bedroom, pictures of John F Kennedy and paintings of Christ and the Virgin Mary adorned the walls. She was younger than her years, as yet untroubled by adolescence.
Her plans for the future were to continue doing well in school, become a model and singer, and play for a volleyball team.
Assisting Ashley as she groomed the car was 44-year-old Danny Robles, a long-time family friend who describes himself as a caretaker for Nelly, who had recently been hospitalized with heart problems.
As Ashley tended to the family’s black Mitsubishi Eclipse, Danny put four garbage cans out on the streetside curb for the next day’s pick-up.
Ashley and Danny were happy and relaxed; they didn’t see what a neighbor had already seen ? a white male, approximately 29 years old, and another individual, watching from an unmarked car directly across the street from the Villarreal home.
“It’s unusual to see an Anglo man sitting for a long time in a car around here,” said a witness, alluding to the fact that Ashley’s home is in the heart of San Antonio’s predominantly Hispanic “West Side” neighborhood. “I was suspicious. I went out and asked what he’s doing. He says he is waiting for his girlfriend. But it looked to me like they were watching my neighbors.”
After Ashley had expertly washed and dried the car, she decided to move it around the block to a covered area in the rear of her grandmother’s property.
Danny moved a car that was parked behind the Eclipse, backing it into the street. Then Ashley backed the Eclipse into the street, and waited with her headlights on for Danny to re-park the other car and get into the passenger side of the Eclipse. She was eager to show him her short-distance driving skills, even though she didn’t yet have a license.
After Danny was in the car, Ashley slowly began to drive around the block. As she drove near the home of her best friends Kayla and Pamela Hernandez, a few houses from where her grandmother lived, Ashley noticed she was being too closely followed by a large unmarked vehicle that did not have its lights on.
“Ashley didn’t know what was going on,” Danny Robles told me. “She put on her right turn signal to go onto Motes street. She just wanted to get out of their way.”
Suddenly, several unmarked vehicles converged on the Eclipse from all sides, forcing the car to a halt near the intersection of Motes and San Joaquin, within sight of Ashley’s home.
“They sandwiched the car so we had to stop,” Robles said. “Then they started shooting. I thought we were getting attacked by gang members. I tried to shield Ashley but I could tell right away she had been hit. She whispered my name. I felt her shaking and could see she had a hole in her head. Look what they did to poor Ashley. And then these men get out of their cars and come at us, and we are out of the car and on the ground, and she is moaning and crying. I see chunks of her head; her face had turned purple and blue. I was covered in her blood. She was dying and wanted me to hold her. I said to one of the men, ‘Please let me hold her, she’s going.’ He stomped his foot hard on my back and said, ‘Don’t move.'”
Pamela and Kayla Hernandez live with their parents in a home across from the intersection of Motes and San Joaquin streets. Pamela, 15, and Kayla, 14, say they were “like sisters” to Ashley.
“We did everything together. She was like a member of our family,” explained Kayla, a soft-spoken girl whose gentle voice shook when she talked of Ashley.
On the night Ashley was shot dead, Kayla and Pamela were in their bedroom in the front of the house.
“It was a real quiet Sunday night,” Pamela recalls. “Around 11:15, we heard a car braking and then a crashing sound, so we looked out. There were a bunch of different kinds of cars and trucks coming from everywhere toward the corner. One of them drove over the grass. They looked like regular cars; there was no way to know it was police – I thought it was a gang. They just rammed this other car that they had trapped. From one car behind the trapped car a man in the passenger side of his car opened his door and pointed something at the car.
“Then we heard shots, and as soon as the shots, somebody screaming, ‘Open the fucking door, get out of the fucking car!’ And then we heard a man crying and screaming.”
The sisters left their bedroom, went out their front door, and ran out onto San Joaquin Street.
“We had seen a man from one of the cars put his vest on, and it said ‘DEA’ on it,” Kayla remembers. “I thought, ‘Uh oh, the DEA has been after Ashley’s dad, Joey.’ One of the men was banging on something. Another man said, ‘We shot a young girl; call an ambulance.’ A bunch of SUVs, police cars and fire trucks showed up. A city cop asked Pamela about Ashley, what she looked like. Then Danny saw us. He said, ‘They shot Ashley. Tell her grandma.’ My mom tried to go to her grandma’s house, but the police wouldn’t let her.”
By now, the neighborhood was in an uproar. Ashley’s Eclipse was caged inside a circle of unmarked cars. Federal and local police officers were running in circles. The crime scene was being altered. Danny was in handcuffs, sobbing. Kayla and Pamela were trying to get to the car, cursing the police.
“When I found out it was Ashley for sure, it was like a knife being put inside me,” Kayla lamented. “We went to Wilford Hall Medical Center where they had taken her. It didn’t even look like her.
“She was a girl who never had a scratch on her; she was so beautiful. It was terrible to see her like that. Her face was all swollen black and blue. I was thinking, ‘Any people who did this to my Ashley are monsters who need to be punished the rest of their lives.'”
The DEA operation that resulted in Ashley’s death was allegedly centered on 37-year-old Joey Villarreal, Ashley’s father. Joey is a Tex-Mex musician and businessman with a criminal history of minor cocaine offenses, all of which resulted in probation rather than jail time.
According to DEA records, drug agents had been conducting a months-long “historical” drug investigation involving a Mexico-US cocaine marketing cadre that used to operate in San Antonio. The investigation involved federal wire-taps, surveillance, and the arrest of several of Villarreal’s associates.
On February 7, 2003, DEA agents and local authorities rousted Villarreal and his girlfriend, 29-year-old Teresa Ortega, from a hotel room in Kerrville (45 minutes from San Antonio) at 5:30 in the morning.
“The local cops came with the DEA,” explained Ortega. “There was like 10 DEA agents wearing masks. They put a gun to my face when I opened the door, pulled me out of the room, and put me up against a wall. Joey was in the shower, and even though it was snowing, they pulled him outside, naked. They told me I was not under arrest, but somebody from the DEA wanted to talk to me. I told them I wasn’t going anywhere with them, so they arrested me for possession of marijuana. They went into the room and found some confectioner’s sugar from a donut. They scraped that up and said it was cocaine. Then they arrested Joey.”
After spending about 24 hours in jail, Joey was released from jail on bond, on February 8. The DEA says it decided to re-arrest Joey again, the very next day, because agents thought he was going to “flee to Mexico.”
A posse of DEA agents staked out his mother’s San Antonio home, planning to arrest him Sunday night, even though they had no indictment, no criminal complaint, and no arrest warrant. The same agents who participated in the Kerrville bust were present outside Ashley’s house; they claim to have seen Joey there in the late afternoon and unsuccessfully attempted to follow his car to arrest him.
I interviewed the principals and witnesses about the circumstances of Ashley’s killing, studied the site of her death during the day and at night, and examined case documents. I did not interview DEA agents, but only because they refused to talk to me.
The DEA’s explanation of events totally defies logic and believability. The DEA claims its agents somehow confused Danny Robles for Joey Villarreal. Agents allege that Ashley was involved in some car trick scheme to decoy agents away from some other vehicle containing Joey, or to herself drive Joey away from the house so he could flee to Mexico.
These assertions are contradicted by obvious facts: Joey was not in the car or the neighborhood, and Danny Robles doesn’t look like Joey Villarreal.
When agents in unmarked cars accelerated toward Ashley’s car, they must have known that Joey Villarreal, later arrested on minor drug conspiracy offenses, was not in the car. Yet a DEA agent driving a large truck rammed the Eclipse from the front, and other DEA vehicles closed in on the car as well. Agents in the front vehicle opened fire on Ashley’s car, prompting agents in the other vehicles to also shoot.
Young Ashley Villarreal, a friendly girl whose favorite recording artist was Nelly and who had just had a portfolio of photos taken as a first step toward a modeling career, was fatally wounded by DEA crossfire.
A grandmother’s grief
As soon as DEA agents realized they had killed an innocent Hispanic girl, they began a vigorous damage control effort. They closed the crime scene neighborhood and sent a team of agents to Nelly Villarreal’s house.
Speaking through an interpreter a week after her granddaughter’s death, Nelly described the horror of that night. “They came to my front door with their guns out, with no search warrant, and demanded to enter my home,” Nelly said. “They said they would break open the door if I didn’t open it right away, but I am sick, and it is hard for me to find the key for the locks, so they went around to the back and they went into the house without my permission, they just kept threatening me, while they kept me outside.”
Several agents harassed and interrogated Nelly; she kept asking what happened to Ashley.
“I only knew she was going to move the car with Danny and did not come back,” Nelly said. “I kept asking where is she. They said, ‘She’s fine, don’t worry.’ They were going through everything in my house. Just taking things out of there, including the deed to the house, jewelry, our safe, other personal possessions and important papers. They spent five hours doing this. They brought dogs in to search. I kept telling them I don’t want them in the house, but they laughed at me and made fun of me. The phone rang but they wouldn’t let me answer it. They would pick it up and hang up, or they would tell people I was not there. I was terrified.”
Even though they ransacked Nelly’s home for hours, agents found absolutely no trace of illegal drugs, weapons, or evidence of drug trafficking. They also found no evidence, in the home or in the Eclipse, to back up their theory that Joey Villarreal was using his mother’s house or car as a means for his purported escape to Mexico.
There was no packed luggage or other indications that Joey had visited the house recently, or that he was planning to flee.
“The DEA people were very angry, because they found nothing,” Nelly said. “They have come back, every time taking things from my house, like thieves. Even if they come back a thousand times, with a pack of dogs each time, they will find nothing illegal. We are innocent people. My chica Ashley was an angel; they murdered her.”
The 73-year-old grandmother and widow, who has lived in her home since 1962, broke down in tears many times during our interview sessions. The way agents harassed her on the night of her granddaughter’s death, as well as the killing itself, sent her to the hospital soon thereafter.
She clutched a picture of Ashley to her chest and bowed her head in prayer, asking God why He had allowed the DEA to take Ashley from her.
Nelly’s sadness and anger are of course understandable based solely on Ashley’s death, but the way DEA agents treated her added to her bitterness.
“When they were done here, Ashley had still not come home. They told me not to worry about her, she was alright,” Nelly recalls. At the time agents said this, Ashley was on life support at Wilford Hall Medical Center. “They gave me back my driver’s license and said to me, ‘Oh look, it’s your birthday today. Happy birthday. Just go on back to sleep now. Lock your doors. Have a good day.’ As soon as they left, my neighbors came to tell me Ashley had been shot.”
At Wilford Hall, Ashley’s shocked friends and family gathered in tears around her bed.
“The doctors told us she was not there anymore, that her brain had been too badly damaged,” remembers Debbie Villarreal, Ashley’s mother. “Adrianna [Ashley’s 18-year-old sister] had already been to the neighborhood before they brought Ashley in, telling police Ashley was her sister, but they shoved her back.”
Danny Robles was held illegally all night by police and relentlessly questioned by DEA agents about drug trafficking and Joey’s whereabouts, even though he was covered in Ashley’s blood and brain tissue.
“I can’t get it out of my head ? I should have protected her better,” says Robles. “When the police had me, and I asked about Ashley, all they would say is, ‘She has a fucking hole in her head.’ These DEA are professionals. Ashley didn’t try to harm them in any way. They never warned us who they were or what they were doing. They did just what they wanted to do. It was an intentional killing. It was an execution.”
As the hospital vigil continued into daytime Monday, Joey Villarreal went to the downtown office of his lawyer, Alan Brown, to turn himself in.
Brown, who describes himself as a “Libertarian, Christian fundamentalist, conservative long-time Texas attorney,” says police sent a combat-ready SWAT team to his office to arrest Villarreal.
“Joey was crying and sobbing about Ashley,” Brown says. “They put him in solitary confinement in a private prison in a bare cell without any furniture, bedding or shower ? just a hole in the floor. They wouldn’t let family members talk to him. They gave him 10 minutes at his daughter’s side to say goodbye to her. They wouldn’t let him go to the funeral.”
While Villarreal was being held naked and alone in a bare cell on relatively minor cocaine charges, Ashley was being described as “beyond hope” by physicians.
“I talked to Joey on the phone about stopping the life support,” Debbie Villarreal says. “He was falling apart, crying over Ashley. We agreed to put it in God’s hands. It was the hardest thing I have ever done. To lose my little girl because of these crazy, vicious DEA men ? I will never get over this. We agreed to take her off life support. We prayed and told her we loved her. She died 20 minutes later. My baby was gone forever.”
With the little girl lost and the community in an uproar, the DEA’s spin machine kicked into high gear. DEA spin doctors alleged Ashley had driven a darkened car without its headlights on, had accelerated toward agents, then backed up to try to hit them, and that agents shot at the car only in self-defense. Other sources floated ludicrous stories implying that Ashley, Danny, and Nelly were fronts for Joey’s alleged coke sales. Pro-DEA sources said Ashley “caused her own death” because she was “driving a car without a driver’s license.”
The San Antonio Police Department (SAPD) Homicide Unit, Bexar County District Attorney’s office, and a team of DEA investigators from Washington, DC, began looking into the incident, but lawyers for the Villarreal family, along with journalists and civil liberties groups, say the investigation is being mishandled and carried out with an unreasonable degree of secrecy.
The DEA refuses to comment on the case, other than to disparage Ashley and her family while staunchly defending its agents’ actions.
District Attorney spokesperson Michael Bernard told me he was confident San Antonio police were conducting a professional, unbiased investigation of the incident. Yet, statements from police officials indicate that SAPD believes the DEA’s cover story, which alleges that agents saw Joey Villarreal enter Ashley’s car, that Ashley’s car “sped away from her house with the lights off at a high rate of speed,” and that Ashley aimed her car at clearly-identifiable DEA agents.
The only police report publicly available, written by Officer Edward Miller, is full of errors and unproven assumptions. It lists Ashley as the “suspect,” and a DEA agent “Bill Swiertc” as the “complainant,” even though newspaper reports name the agent as “Bill Swierc.” Miller’s report parrots the DEA’s version of events without question.
Family members, Hispanic rights groups, attorneys and witnesses have credibly challenged the DEA’s story, as well as the intent and conduct of investigators.
“They are lying about Ashley,” Danny Robles said. “She didn’t try to run them over. She didn’t back up. She had her headlights on. She didn’t do anything except try to get out of their way. They never identified who they were; they started shooting without warning. They moved the car after they shot her, and they messed with the whole scene. They keep changing their story, trying to find some story that justifies what they did.”
Other witnesses say they saw DEA agents hitting DEA vehicles with their batons just after the shooting, in an apparent attempt to make it look like Ashley had deliberately rammed them.
“They got out of their cars, and after they shot her, they put their vests on real fast,” Kayla Hernandez recalls. “They say that she was speeding away from her house, but the Eclipse had a loud muffler and we would have heard it coming if she was speeding. They are liars.”
On Valentine’s Day, hundreds of mourners watched as Ashley was buried at a cemetery a few miles from where she was killed.
Police officers tried to infiltrate the funeral. They had been harassing Ashley’s sister Adrianna, trying to get her to agree to leave the funeral with an officer so she could be questioned.
“You will never understand what a mother thinks when she sees her precious baby put in the ground,” Debbie Villarreal said. “Ashley used to joke with me saying, ‘Mom, I’m gonna be a famous singer or model someday, do you want my autograph?’ Now I’m thinking, ‘Ashley, girl, you’re famous now, but for what reason? Because some bad man killed you.'”
The killing of Ashley caused anger among many San Antonio residents, especially Hispanics, who claim that the DEA and other police agencies are prejudiced against minority groups.
Such claims gain credibility from persistent reports of institutional discrimination against black and Hispanic DEA agents by DEA supervisors and bureaucracy.
Hispanic civil rights groups routinely criticized former DEA Chief Asa Hutchinson, who recently took a new and powerful job as the nation’s first Homeland Security undersecretary of border and aviation security, alleging that he was anti-Hispanic and anti-immigrant.
The Hispanic American Police Command Officers Association (HAPCOA), a group of some 1,100 command-level Hispanic law enforcement officers from across the country and Puerto Rico who work on the local, state and federal levels, sent a letter to the White House last year, stating that Hutchinson has “been a party to continuing an insidious ‘good old boy’ network [in the DEA]thus perpetuating an atmosphere of distrust, reprisal and retaliation against minority employees for exercising their rights.”
The DEA’s record of dealing with minorities and others during investigations and arrests supports the assertion of Villarreal criminal defense attorney Alan Brown, who says that “the drug war is a real war, with some of these police agents acting as bullies, or even worse, as executioners.”
According to First Assistant District Attorney Michael Bernard, whose office is in charge of assisting the San Antonio police investigation of Ashley’s death and prosecuting those responsible, DEA agents and other law enforcement officers are treated differently than regular Americans.
“My boss, District Attorney Susan Reed, clearly stated that a 14-year-old girl should not have been killed,” he commented. “But the law is not always on our side. In Texas, self-defense is an important standard, and we would have to prove that the shooter was not acting in self-defense. It is also true that federal agents have all the due process rights in defending their innocence that any of us do, but that the law treats them differently, by granting them immunity in some situations ? immunity that is not granted to you or me.”
If past history is any indication, DEA agents will not face criminal charges in this case. If there is any justice at all for Ashley, it will come from a massive civil lawsuit filed by Austin attorney Bill Reid on behalf of Nelly, Danny, and Joey.
For the Villarreals and others who loved Ashley, the fact that agents involved in Ashley’s death have not been arrested or punished is proof of pervasive corruption, racism, and pro-police bias in America.
“The police always tell us that they are there to protect us from drugs and gangs,” Pamela Hernandez noted. “But who is going to protect us from the police? They get away with this stuff all the time. They always treat you bad if you are poor, or Hispanic or young.”
Ashley’s sister Adrianna says she’s angry about the lack of action taken against those who ended her sister’s life.
“They should lose their jobs, their money, and their lives,” she said resolutely. “They took a life. They have to pay. The system has to make them pay. For them to be out walking around, when my sister is dead in the ground, that to me is the biggest insult.”
In incidents involving DEA agents and other police officers, drug warriors have inflicted severe injury and death on innocent people.
In St. Louis in 2000, DEA agents shot 21 times into a car they claimed was racing towards them, killing the car’s driver and passenger. Witnesses said that the car had not been moving at all. The DEA exonerated the agents.
In a Brooklyn incident two years ago, a DEA agent shot and killed an unarmed father of two in the back. The DEA said the shooting was “self-defense.”
In 1992, DEA agents and Los Angeles sheriffs killed millionaire Donald Scott during a marijuana cultivation raid. Police documents showed the raid was fueled by agents’ desire to seize Scott’s land, and that there was absolutely no marijuana anywhere on Scott’s property. No police officer was ever arrested for Scott’s death.
In 2000, a 62-year-old African-American was shot dead by five white police officers in his home in Lebanon, Tennessee. Officers had a faulty search warrant with the wrong address on it.
Also in 2000, an 11-year-old Hispanic boy was shot in the back and killed by officers during a botched drug raid in Modesto, California.
In Tulia, Texas in 1999, a large percentage of the town’s African-American residents were arrested during a drug sweep based solely on the testimony of a now-discredited racist undercover cop named Thomas Coleman. Many of those arrested were jailed or otherwise had their lives ruined. Earlier this year, prosecutors moved to overturn their convictions while the county tried to pay them off for wrongfully imprisoning them.
The Tulia case mirrors a drug war battle gone wrong in Dallas in 2001, during which undercover cops set up dozens of impoverished Hispanics on bogus drug charges, using powdered sheetrock that the cops alleged was cocaine.
The list of drug war killings and frauds is long and getting longer, but the unifying feature of these tragedies is that police officers who commit drug war crimes are rarely if ever brought to justice.
On one of my visits to San Antonio to investigate this case, I knelt examining tire marks apparently made by Ashley’s car on February 9 in front of the house where she died. The curb was festooned with a memorial of flowers and cards placed at the scene of her death.
Danny Robles was there; he gave me a picture of Ashley. I looked into her lively eyes and saw her unique spirit; then I looked down at the broken glass from her windshield, and dried spots of her blood.
I walked past rustic Catholic churches and modest homes ? friendly Latino children playing and laughing in yards and in the streets ? to the cemetery where Ashley was buried under a thick collection of floral wreaths, Valentine’s cards, and other gifts, and then to Sol Russ Middle School, where classmates and teachers told me of the anger and horror they felt, will always feel, when they think of how the cherished girl’s life was stolen from her and the community.
Ashley didn’t use drugs of any kind, I was told. She was “totally clean.” She was “a bright, energetic, happy child.” The school created a memorial to Ashley. One of Ashley’s best friends wrote devastating poems about her death, and presented the poems in a plaque given to Nelly.
“Ashley was a sweet angel who brought a lot of people together, in life, and in death,” her mother told me later, choking back tears. “I pray to God every night, asking Him to bring her to me, asking Him just to let me talk to her. I saw her a few hours before it happened, and I thank God that when we parted, we said ‘I love you’ to each other.”
Debbie Villarreal and I sat quietly in a small park next to a Texas freeway, with heartbreakingly poignant childhood pictures of Ashley on a table between us and wildflowers blowing in the wind. I had a despairing feeling like I’ve never had before, even though I’ve written about, and suffered, many drug war atrocities.
Finally, Ashley’s mother spoke, in the somber, bewildered tones of someone trying to find a way to keep on living after enduring unbearable loss.
“People tell me to forgive those DEA agents; leave it with God,” she said. “I don’t know how to do that. I just pray that when they are alone at night or with their own little daughters, that their hearts will hurt so hard with the realization of what they have done. Their stupid drug war jobs, chasing people around because of some weed or some powder, and killing kids over it. I’m angry! They can go home to their daughters. They’re still getting paid. They’re walking around free, enjoying the springtime. But Ashley, my angel, is too soon back in heaven. We needed her here.”