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Jury deliberating in ex-chief assault case

By Christopher Sherman
Associated Press

EDINBURG, Texas — Jurors began deliberating Friday whether to convict a South Texas police chief of sexually assaulting one of his officers after a party at his house.

Jose Luis Vela, 44, was the Alton police chief in 2006 when he allegedly performed oral sex on an officer who had passed out drunk. The officer awoke during the act and fled. Vela testified that the sex was consensual and that he had an ongoing sexual relationship with the officer.

But prosecutor Hope Palacios told jurors in closing argument Friday that the officer, whom The Associated Press is not identifying because he was the victim of an alleged sexual assault, would not have publicly testified on the embarrassing event if it were consensual.

"Rape is an ugly word," Palacios said. "It's not what we expect to hear from the mouth of a man. It's definitely not what we expect to hear from the mouth of a police officer."

Vela's attorney Luis Singleterry tried to convince jurors that his client was the victim of a conspiracy arranged by another employee and her ex-husband, who investigated the case for the Hidalgo County Sheriff's Office. Singleterry said the alleged victim and two others who testified about other alleged assaults were motivated by money they could win from a civil lawsuit. He pointed out that they only told their stories after they were approached by Hidalgo County Sheriff's investigator Raul Cantu, whose ex-wife worked at the Alton Police Department.

But Palacios dismissed that idea.

"Is there any amount of money in the world that would make a man do something like that?" she said.

Palacios painted the image of an unprofessional police chief who partied with his employees even while they were on the clock. She accused Vela of manipulating poorly qualified officers willing to work for minimum wage.

"He surrounded himself with officers who couldn't get jobs at reputable agencies," Palacios said. "And he preyed upon them."

This is unlikely to be the last trial for Vela.

He also faces a charge of stealing a firearm last year. He is accused of taking a pistol from the department's evidence locker while he was still police chief. At the time of his arrest on that charge, investigators found a Colt .357 Magnum stolen from a Missouri man in 1988 and recovered by police in 1993 in Vela's home.

And Vela is charged with sexually assaulting another employee in 2007.

Accusations of bad record keeping and stealing confiscated alcohol ultimately cost Vela his job in September 2007.

Alton is a town of about 4,400 residents located 10 miles north of the Mexican border in the Rio Grande Valley.

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