Man pleads guilty to fed gun charge while awaiting trial for murder in state court

The federal courthouse at Bentsen Tower, located on Bicentennial Boulevard in McAllen, is seen in this August 2018 file photo. (Joel Martinez |
Jesus Orlando Casal Garza

McALLEN — A man who is currently awaiting trial for murder in state district court appeared in federal court March 2 to plead guilty to an unrelated gun charge.

Jesus Orlando Casal Garza, 33, is accused of unlawfully receiving an AK-47 style rifle in March 2019 while he was then free on bond for murder and other charges stemming from a fatal May 2018 vehicular crash.

Casal Garza originally pleaded not guilty to the weapons charge after being arrested by federal agents last April; but, changed his plea to guilty last Monday, adding he was at the time unaware it was a crime for him to possess the weapon.

When U.S. District Judge Ricardo H. Hinojosa confirmed that Casal Garza had then known he was out on bond for a pending murder charge, and that possession of a weapon under that circumstance was prohibited, Casal Garza replied, “Yes, Your Honor, I know that ignorance is no excuse.”

Federal prosecutors, however, allege that Casal Garza knew it was unlawful for him to possess a firearm when he and an unnamed woman traveled to Pharr on March 8, 2019 to purchase the Pioneer Arms Corporation Sporter model 7.62x39mm caliber rifle.

In exchange for his guilty plea, the government has agreed to lower its sentencing recommendation by two levels under the federal sentencing guidelines, according to a copy of the plea agreement.

Casal Garza is slated to return to court for sentencing on May 12. Until then, he remains in federal custody due to an immigration detainer.

Meanwhile, prosecutors in the 389th state District Court continue to move forward with several charges stemming from the 2018 car crash.

There, Casal Garza faces one count each of: murder, accident involving death, accident involving injury, accident involving serious bodily injury, and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

According to the five-count indictment, Casal Garza allegedly “…commit(ted) an act clearly dangerous to human life, namely, driving a motor vehicle into another motor vehicle… that caused the death” of one of its passengers, Cassandra Rios.

The crash occurred just after midnight on May 3, 2018, where the Interstate 2 frontage road intersects with Main Street, according to an offense report obtained from the McAllen Police Department in response to an open records request.

Authorities believe Casal Garza, driving a white sedan, had initiated a chase after a verbal altercation with the passenger of a green SUV in the parking lot of Rio Grande Regional Hospital.

The driver of the SUV, Ramiro Yau, later told police that an acquaintance, Andres Rios, had asked him for a ride to the hospital to “pick something up,” a police report reads. Rios’ sister, Cassandra Rios, was also a passenger in the vehicle’s backseat, Yau said.

They were met at the hospital by Casal Garza, along with his passenger, a woman named Enas Ibrahim. Casal Garza spoke to Andres Rios through the front passenger window for a moment before Andres told Yau excitedly to leave, the police report reads.

Casal Garza allegedly followed Yau onto the freeway, then onto the frontage road where Yau tried to turn north onto Main Street, he told investigators. That’s when Yau claims Casal Garza sped up and struck his SUV. Yau lost control of the vehicle, veering up onto the wall of the overpass before the SUV rolled over onto the curb.

As Yau crawled out of the wrecked vehicle, Casal Garza allegedly approached him, saying, “Where’s my s—?” and then struck Yau on the head with a cross-style tire iron.

Several witnesses reported the crash, with some saying they saw a vehicle flee the scene.

As officers were responding to the scene, they received word of another hit-and-run on the 1300 block of South 10th Street. There, they encountered Casal Garza and Ibrahim, who claimed she had been driving the sedan when it was struck from behind by an unknown SUV, police records show.

Officers quickly connected the two incidents and attempted to question Casal Garza, who “immediately started to get irate” before asking for an attorney, police records show. Both he and Ibrahim were transported to the McAllen Police Department.

Meanwhile, both Andres and Cassandra Rios were trapped in “the crushed and damaged vehicle” and had to be extracted by firefighters. Both were unresponsive when police arrived, records show.

Yau was conscious when police first arrived and found him outside the vehicle bleeding profusely with “a large flap of his scalp … hanging off his head.” He later lost consciousness while being treated by EMS, police records show.

Casal Garza, who was originally held on a total of $1 million in bonds, was released from custody on Dec. 6, 2018 after posting a combined $175,000 in attorney signature bonds. That attorney, Mauro Barreiro, has requested to withdraw from the case, citing nonpayment of services, court records show.

A status conference in the state murder case is slated for March 18.