Double homicide trial postponed for more tests

EDINBURG — A 25-year-old Mission man’s jury trial on accusations he shot two women to death during a drug deal gone wrong days before Christmas in 2015 is on hold after a judge learned an officer involved in the double homicide investigation may have had a relationship with one of the victims.

Guadalupe Garcia Vela appeared in court last Thursday afternoon with defense attorneys Nereyda Morales-Martinez and Regina “Regi” Richardson who requested that the Hidalgo County District Attorney’s Office explore whether the Palmview Police Department has a policy that would allow prosecutors to conduct ballistic testing on the officer’s service weapon.

Authorities never found the weapon police say Vela used to gun down Yvette Garza and Natalie Hernandez on Dec. 20, 2015, the Thursday hearing revealed. He has been in jail since his arrest in January 2016, and has pleaded not guilty to capital murder charges.

Investigators have said one of the victims had packages of cocaine strapped to her body.

The defense attorneys said in a motion filed in early August that on June 14, the state informed them of the possible relationship between an officer and a victim. “On June 14, 2019, notice was given to the defense by the State there were rumors that one of the officers involved in the investigation of the case may have been having a relationship with one of the victims,” the motion states. “Of course, this officer has access to firearms in order to carry out his duties as a police officer.”

On Aug. 1, the state told the defense attorneys that two witnesses who were at the crime scene owned a shotgun and one 9mm handgun, according to the motion.

Authorities recovered 9mm casings at the crime scene, the hearing revealed.

“In any case, the defense respectfully requests that any and all weapons owned, possessed, and or in the care, custody or control of the officer thought to have been in a relationship with one of the victims (Officer Martinez; first name unknown at this time) and the shotgun and 9mm handgun in possession of the two witnesses at location of the crime be secured and or picked up as evidence in this case and that they be tested for the possibility of any said weapons being the weapon(s) used in the commission of the crime,” the motion states.

On Thursday, state District Judge Marla Cuellar partially denied the request in regards to weapons privately owned by the officer and the witnesses because the state had no authority to seize the weapons without a search warrant.

The Palmview Police Department never collected or tested those weapons, the hearing revealed.

“Can’t you use that as your defense,” Cuellar asked, suggesting that the defense could argue that police conducted an incomplete investigation during a trial setting. Another reason the jury trial, which was scheduled for late September, was canceled is because the Texas Department of Public Safety’s Weslaco crime lab began testing canisters found at the crime scene for DNA at the beginning of August.

The state was unable to provide the judge an update on the status of that testing during the hearing.

Vela is charged with capital murder of multiple persons. The Hidalgo County District Attorney’s Office is not pursuing the death penalty.

If convicted, Vela faces life without parole.