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Criminal cases in South Texas are unraveling because of a Texas Ranger’s suspension after the Uvalde shooting

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Posted at 7:12 AM, Dec 22, 2022
and last updated 2022-12-22 08:12:32-05

Late in the afternoon on Sept. 8, just hours after hammering out a plea deal for a teenage client accused of capital murder, defense attorney Leigh Cutter received a text from Uvalde County District Attorney Christina Mitchell: “I need to disclose something to you. Call me when you can.”

On the phone, Mitchell had a bombshell revelation: Christopher Ryan Kindell, the Texas Ranger who’d led the investigation of Cutter’s client, had been suspended while the Texas Department of Public Safety — the agency that oversees the Rangers — investigated his role in the law enforcement response to the horrific mass shooting at Robb Elementary School that left 19 students and two teachers dead.

As far as Cutter was concerned, the suspension — which the prosecutor was required by law to disclose to the defense — meant that Mitchell’s key witness was tainted. She told Mitchell that her client would reject the plea deal and go to trial on charges that, when he was 12 years old, he shot and killed Uvalde boxer John VanMeter in 2019.

Five days later, as potential jurors waited in the courtroom, Cutter and her co-counsel, Mary Pietrazek, held tense negotiations with Mitchell. In the end, they agreed to a six-year sentence — one year less than the original deal. The change was significant because it would allow the defendant — whose court file is sealed because he’s a juvenile — to be released before he turns 18 and avoid being transferred to an adult prison. The plea deal was first reported by the San Antonio Express-News.

“She seemed like she really wanted to resolve the case,” Pietrazek said of Mitchell.

District Attorney Christina Mitchell at a press conference at Uvalde High School on May 27. Credit: Evan L'Roy for The Texas Tribune

Less than a month later, Mitchell dismissed aggravated sexual assault of a child charges against a husband and wife whom Kindell had also investigated. In an email to The Texas Tribune, the district attorney said she had several reasons for dismissing those cases, “one of which was Ranger Kindell’s suspension,” but she plans to re-indict them.

As the Texas Ranger based in Uvalde, Kindell is responsible for assisting local law enforcement agencies in Uvalde and neighboring Real County with major crimes. He has 50 open investigations in 10 counties, according to Department of Public Safety records. In Uvalde, his open investigations run the gamut from official oppression to attempted capital murder.

In an interview, Mitchell said she’s waiting on the outcome of the DPS investigation before she asks a grand jury for indictments in some of Kindell’s cases. She said she’s worried about going to trial in two murder cases Kindell helped investigate.

“I am concerned,” she said. “I’ve got some other cases that if his situation does not get resolved soon they may be dismissed.”

The unraveling of cases he investigated shows how the disastrous law enforcement response to the Robb Elementary massacre is reverberating through the region’s criminal justice system.

“That really hurts the prosecutor’s case, a lot of them, because they’re not going to be able to rely on his testimony,” said Alfonso Cabañas, a San Antonio criminal defense attorney.

Mitchell added that she can’t know whether Kindell is tainted as a witness until she learns the outcome of the DPS investigation.

“Generally, any suspension of a law enforcement officer calls into question a prosecutor’s ability to sponsor that officer as a witness in a case,” she said.

Hundreds of law enforcement officers — including 91 from DPS — responded to Robb Elementary on May 24, and the images and videos of them waiting in the school’s hallways and preventing parents from entering the building prompted national outrage.

DPS wouldn’t say how many officers have been suspended as a result of the agency’s internal investigation. The agency didn’t respond to questions about Kindell and wouldn’t say if it had an active-shooter policy before the Uvalde shooting.

Mitchell and other law enforcement officials have raised questions about whether DPS followed its own policies in suspending the Ranger.

“It is especially alarming when there has been no documented and buttressed reason for the suspension or the suspension is based on a potentially new policy being retroactively applied,” Mitchell wrote in her email to the Tribune. Mitchell said she couldn’t elaborate because she doesn’t know the details of the DPS internal investigation.

A letter from the department’s inspector general, apparently an attempt to reassure Mitchell that Kindell’s work as a criminal investigator had not been called into question, has raised additional questions. In the letter, DPS Inspector General Phillip Ayala wrote that his investigation into the Robb Elementary shooting response “does not include any apparent misconduct or matters related to Ranger Kindell’s integrity.”

Kindell said he couldn’t comment. DPS refused to release information about Kindell’s suspension in response to a request made under the Texas Public Information Act, saying DPS Director Steve McCraw hadn’t made a decision about whether he’ll face discipline.

Former law enforcement officials and police management experts who reviewed the letter, the DPS general manual and the limited documents related to the suspensions that DPS has released said they don’t understand how Kindell’s actions at Robb Elementary could be serious enough to warrant suspension but not call into question his conduct or integrity.

“You can’t say somebody did something wrong, then say they’re not being suspended for misconduct or integrity,” said G. M. Cox, a lecturer in law enforcement management at Sam Houston State University who has served as police chief in several Texas cities. “That’s incongruent.”

Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw at a Public Safety Commission Meeting in Austin on Oct. 27. Credit: Sergio Flores for The Texas Tribune

Cox raised the possibility that DPS leaders rushed to suspend officers to show elected officials and the public that they were taking action after the horrific shooting, but also potentially to avoid facing scrutiny themselves.

“They’ve got a reputation to protect,” Cox said. “And they’ve got their own purse strings to protect. Not only that, McCraw’s got to cover his ass as the commander, the colonel of DPS. He’s certainly not going to blame himself.”

Mitchell, the district attorney, said she’s had to tell crime victims that their cases are in limbo until DPS makes a decision about Kindell.

“You can’t tell one family that another family’s loss is greater than theirs,” she said. “I think the question is, was the handling of Ranger Kindell appropriate?”

Ranger has major role in criminal cases

In rural Uvalde and Real counties, where most of the local police lack the experience to investigate major crimes, Kindell is in practice the lead investigator for almost every homicide, sex crime and public corruption case in the region.

“In general, the Ranger for that area is the end-all, be-all,” said Laredo defense lawyer Joey Tellez, a former assistant district attorney in Webb County. “They make all the calls. They are usually the ones that interview the defendant. They are the ones who pick and choose what evidence goes to the lab for testing. In rural counties, they operate as a detective would in major metro areas that have regular police forces.”

Kindell joined DPS in 2006 and worked in the criminal investigation division before becoming a Ranger in 2016. As a ranger, Kindell was routinely assigned to high-profile investigations in nearby counties, and records show he’s still the lead investigator on open cases from his old posting in Kingsville.

His current cases include a sexual assault in Zavala County, possession of child pornography in Jim Hogg County, a sexual assault in Kleberg County, an officer-involved shooting in Kinney County and a murder in Edwards County.

He’s also leading the investigation of Dimmit County Sheriff Marion Boyd, who is accused of interfering in the investigation of a traffic accident involving a county vehicle. Boyd was indicted this year on charges of tampering with a witness, stalking and tampering with evidence.

The Texas attorney general’s office, which is prosecuting the case, said the case remains open and declined to answer questions about Boyd.

Kindell also played a central role in the investigation of VanMeter’s high-profile slaying. The 24-year-old boxer’s fianceé told reporters the 12-year-old accused of shooting VanMeter had lived with them. Police alleged the boy killed the boxer while trying to steal a gaming system, said Cutter, the boy’s lawyer.

After a state trooper drove the boy to Uvalde’s juvenile probation office, Kindell questioned him for several hours until the juvenile admitted to killing VanMeter and told Kindell where he could find a rifle that police later said was used in the killing, Kindell testified in a 2021 court hearing. The boy became one of the youngest capital murder defendants in the country.

Cutter asked a judge to declare the confession inadmissible in court because Kindell never offered to let her client’s grandmother, who was his legal guardian, be present during the interrogation, as required under Texas law. During the 2021 hearing, Cutter noted that the boy struggled to understand the meaning of the word “waived.”

State District Judge Camile Dubose ruled that while Kindell violated the Texas Family Code by not notifying the grandmother, the 12-year-old “knowingly and intelligently waived his Miranda rights” and prosecutors could use the confession at trial.

Had the case gone to trial, Cutter said she would have again tried to suppress the confession and would have asked Kindell about his suspension to try to undercut his credibility before the jury.

“We would have annihilated him,” she said.

Mitchell said she wouldn’t comment on the case because the defendant is a juvenile.

Kindell’s role in Robb Elementary response remains unclear

Exactly when Kindell arrived at Robb Elementary on May 24 is unclear. The gunman entered the school at 11:33 a.m. At 12:50, a Border Patrol tactical team entered the room and killed him — 77 minutes after he entered the school.

School surveillance video first shows Kindell at the scene at 12:45 p.m., according to DPS records. An investigation by The New York Times found that Kindell appeared on surveillance footage delivering keys to officers huddled near the classroom door nine minutes earlier. CNN reported Kindell was in a school hallway before the gunfire stopped.

Students were evacuated through windows at Robb Elementary School during the mass shooting in Uvalde on May 24. Credit: Courtesy of Pete Luna/Uvalde Leader-News

In the days that followed, a DPS regional commander gave a bumbling press conference riddled with false information about the law enforcement response. The agency falsely blamed a teacher for leaving an exterior door open. Reports trickled out that students and teachers in the classrooms with the gunman called 911 while police crouched outside.

State legislators launched an investigation and found that none of the 23 responding agencies set up a command center amid “an obvious atmosphere of chaos” while police debated how and when to enter the classroom.

After the shooting, McCraw, the DPS director, called the law enforcement response an “abject failure” but sought to shift blame to local police, mainly Pete Arredondo, the former Uvalde school police chief who was among the first officers at the scene.

Arredondo later said he didn’t consider himself the on-site incident commander, even though the school district’s active-shooter policy stated he was. Arredondo made the crucial decision to treat the gunman as a barricaded suspect, not an active shooter, which would have required officers to enter the room and eliminate the threat as quickly as possible.

Former Uvalde school police Chief Pete Arredondo on June 8. Credit: Evan L'Roy for The Texas Tribune

In early July, Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin accused McCraw of “covering up” for his agency’s missteps by blaming the locals.

When the Texas House investigating committee released its report on July 17, it didn’t single out DPS but leveled criticism at police who “had received training on active shooter response and the interrelation of law enforcement agencies” but failed to take charge of the situation.

On July 20, McCraw sent a memo to the entire department, updating its active-shooter policy. It read in part, “DPS Officers responding to an active shooter at a school will be authorized to overcome any delay to neutralizing an attacker. When a subject fires a weapon at a school he remains an active shooter until he is neutralized and is not to be treated as a ‘barricaded subject.’ We will provide proper training and guidelines for recognizing and overcoming poor command decisions at an active shooter scene.”

He also announced that Jeoff Williams, DPS’ deputy director for law enforcement services who’s known for being well versed in active-shooter response, would oversee an investigation into the department’s response.

Five days later, McCraw sent a list of five employees to the DPS Office of the Inspector General, instructing the agency’s internal watchdogs to investigate possible policy violations and failure to follow Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training, a widely accepted protocol when facing an active shooter. Most of the names are redacted. One sergeant has been fired as a result of the investigation, and a state trooper resigned before DPS decided whether to discipline her.

But it wasn’t until September that DPS started to face serious questions about why, as the better-funded, better-trained agency, it hadn’t taken control of the situation. The Uvalde school police force had only six members, and while the city police department has a SWAT team, it hadn’t taken the state’s standard active-shooter training, according to the House committee report.

On Sept. 6, the Tribune and ProPublica published a story asking those questions, and CNN confronted McCraw with a tape of him telling highway patrol captains that “no one is losing their jobs.” Later that day, McCraw suspended Sgt. Juan Maldonado. Records indicate Kindell was suspended about the same time.

Maldonado was fired Oct. 21. Less than a week later, McCraw told the Texas Public Safety Commission, “DPS as an institution, right now, did not fail the community — plain and simple.”

Jesse Rizo, the uncle of 9-year-old Jackie Cazares, one of the students who was killed at Robb Elementary, has been critical of McCraw. He said he was pleased to see that the DPS director was moving forward on disciplining officers who responded to Robb Elementary, but said he wants to see officers fired and has concerns about the timeline.

“What happened between May 24 and [July 20] for McCraw?” Rizo asked. “Did he only do that because the House committee [report] came out?”

Jesse Rizo speaks during a special meeting of the Uvalde school district board of trustees in Uvalde on Oct. 19. Credit: Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune

Tina Quintanilla-Taylor, who was on campus for her third grade daughter’s end-of-the-year awards ceremony, said all the officers who didn’t try to immediately stop the killing should be fired.

“If they’ve been identified in a video that they were there and they didn’t respond, not only should they be fired, but they shouldn’t be able to practice anywhere else,” she said, adding that she doesn’t understand why the investigations are taking so long.

DPS remains tight-lipped about reasons for suspension

Details about the shooting response and the suspensions have trickled out slowly because DPS and Mitchell have refused to release most records. Because the Rangers are investigating the law enforcement response to the shooting and the district attorney is considering criminal charges against responding officers, DPS has asked the Texas attorney general’s office to let it withhold information that would otherwise be public, including information about Maldonado’s suspension. The Tribune and other news organizations are suing DPS to get access to those records.

But the records that DPS has released show Maldonado was initially suspended for violating a chapter of the DPS manual that requires employees to “maintain sufficient competency to properly perform their duties and assume the responsibilities of their positions.”

A portion of Kindell’s suspension letter obtained by the Tribune shows he was accused of violating the same chapter, as well as a chapter of the Texas Rangers Division manual covering investigations that directs Rangers to take action “for the detection, prevention and prosecution of violators of any criminal law … not part of their regular police duties” if “the exigencies of the situation require immediate police action.”

Three days after the suspension, the DPS inspector general sent the letter to Mitchell, the Uvalde district attorney, telling her that Kindell’s suspension doesn’t involve misconduct or issues of integrity.

Cox, the Sam Houston State instructor and former police chief, said law enforcement agencies usually give a much more detailed reason for disciplining someone.

“If I’d written that to an officer in my command, I would have [outlined] specific behaviors, telling them the exact elements of their behavior I would have used to sustain the complaint,” he said.

Tellez, the former Webb County prosecutor who’s now a defense attorney, said the vague allegations will help defense lawyers attack Kindell’s credibility in court.

“Incompetence opens up the door to the defense attorney much better than cowardice … because they’re saying you don’t know how to do your job,” he said.

Cox said every officer who showed up to Robb Elementary had a duty to try to get into the classroom as quickly as possible and stop the killing.

The town square memorial for victims of the Uvalde mass school shooting on June 15. Credit: Kylie Cooper for The Texas Tribune

“Somebody should have gone in,” he said. “It should have been the first three who got there. And if they didn’t, it should have been the next three.”

But he said McCraw’s July memo suggests that wasn’t DPS policy at the time.

“It reads to me like they’re disciplining Maldonado and possibly [Kindell] for following a doctrine that they previously established and are now suspending,” Cox said. “One could conclude that perhaps DPS personnel are being held to a standard that has been changed after Robb Elementary.”

“DPS is not being transparent in this process at all,” he added. “Tell us what it is that Maldonado specifically did that supports your conclusion of incompetence. Tell us directly, not in legalese but in layman’s terms, what it is that Maldonado did or did not do. Tell us what the Ranger [Kindell] did or did not do.”

Patrick O’Burke, a law enforcement consultant and former DPS commander, said the agencies that responded, and law enforcement in general, need to look at the big picture of what went wrong. He said it’s unlikely punishing a handful of officers is going to prompt those conversations.

“I agree with Director McCraw’s assessment that this is an abject failure,” O’Burke said. “And being an abject failure, that doesn’t mean that one person did something that’s problematic. It points to a greater breakdown in structure, either in management or in training or in overall understanding of what their mission was. So you can’t hold a single person responsible for that. To terminate a trooper is myopic to think it’ll solve this problem.”

Rizo, the uncle of Jackie Cazares, agreed DPS needs to have a larger conversation about who’s responsible.

“The bigger-picture item is what did you learn from this? How did your leadership fail you?” he asked.

Jason Buch is a freelance writer based in Austin.

Disclosure: Sam Houston State University and The New York Times have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

"Criminal cases in South Texas are unraveling because of a Texas Ranger’s suspension after the Uvalde shooting" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/12/22/texas-ranger-uvalde-shooting-criminal-cases-kindell/.

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