Yvonne Rosales, elected two years ago to be the top enforcer of criminal laws in far West Texas, repeatedly invoked her Fifth Amendment rights against self incrimination Thursday when asked about her office’s treatment of the family of one of 23 people slain in a 2019 mass shooting.
Taking the Fifth was the latest turn in a remarkable collapse for Rosales, who announced her resignation on Monday, effective Dec. 14. The resignation ended a court petition that sought her removal for incompetency and official misconduct, which was scheduled for trial in March.
“On the advice of counsel, I plead the Fifth Amendment and assert my constitutional right to remain silent,” Rosales said in response to a question from Mark Stevens, an attorney for the suspect in the Walmart shooting.
Rosales’ lawyer, Matthew DeKoatz, repeatedly objected to the questioning of Rosales, saying it was improper and being done in an effort to publicly humiliate her. District Judge Sam Medrano Jr. overruled the objections and allowed the questioning to continue.
Stevens’ first question alleged that Rosales took part in an effort to get federal officials to revoke the visa of Rosa Maria Valdez Garcia, the widow of a man killed in the 2019 Walmart mass shooting who was scheduled to testify in a hearing about possible wrongdoing by the District Attorney’s Office. He alleged she conspired with then-Assistant District Attorney Curtis Cox and her personal attorney, Roger Rodriguez, to have Valdez’s visa revoked to prevent her from testifying.
Stevens asked several other questions, and Rosales continued to invoke her Fifth Amendment rights against self incrimination. Medrano then said it was clear she would continue to invoke her rights and called a halt to questioning.
But he allowed the defense team to read into the record a number of questions they wished to ask Rosales and Cox, who also asserted his Fifth Amendment rights in refusing to answer questions at a hearing Wednesday.
At the end of the hearing, Medrano said he would consider what actions to take as the result of two days of testimony about possible misconduct by the District Attorney’s Office.
Rosales had been ordered by Medrano to appear Wednesday at a status hearing in the case of the man accused of killing 23 people and wounding 22 others at the Cielo Vista Walmart on Aug. 3, 2019. When she failed to appear, Medrano issued a “show cause” order that directed her to appear in his court Thursday or face possible arrest.
The hearings Wednesday and Thursday focused largely on the treatment by the District Attorney’s Office of the family of Alexander Gerhard Hoffmann Roth, a Juarez resident who was killed at the Walmart.
Testimony Wednesday from Hoffmann’s son, Thomas, detailed efforts to use the family to create an Aug. 4 email sent to El Paso media that was critical of Medrano and a former prosecutor in the case. The email, if written by a witness in the Walmart case such as the Hoffmann family, could have violated a gag order issued by Medrano on July 1.
Thomas Hoffmann testified Wednesday that the email was written by Roger Rodriguez, who has served as a personal attorney for Rosales, and Rodriguez’s wife, Anne. Thomas Hoffmann said the email was sent from his mother’s phone, though she had no idea of the contents.
During in-person and phone conversations between Rodriguez and the Hoffmann family, three of which were recorded by Thomas Hoffmann, Rodriguez made repeated threats against Medrano and others, according to testimony and a translated transcript of the recordings. (El Paso Matters CEO Robert Moore was among those allegedly threatened by Rodriguez.)
When the Hoffmann family began questioning Rodriguez’s actions, he began threatening them, Thomas Hoffmann said. At one point, Rodriguez showed him a handgun and said he used it to kill his enemies, Thomas Hoffmann said.
Thomas Hoffmann testified that Rodriguez repeatedly said he was acting on behalf of Rosales. He said he believed that because Rosales introduced the Hoffmanns and other families of the Walmart shooting victims after the July 1 hearing where Medrano issued the gag order.
Justin Underwood, an attorney appointed by Medrano to represent the Hoffmann family, said at Wednesday’s hearing that all 31 recipients of the Aug. 4 email were also on the media distribution list for the District Attorney’s Office, which implicated Rosales in the email scheme because non-employees like Rodriguez wouldn’t have access to the list. The linkage of the email recipients and the DA media list was uncovered by an El Paso Matters investigation.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Medrano ruled that the Hoffmann family did not violate his gag order, but he has not ruled on whether other parties in the case may have done so.
Attorneys for the accused gunman in the Walmart shooting sought to issue subpoenas compelling testimony at Wednesday’s hearing from Rosales, Rodriguez and Cox.
A private investigator hired by the defense team testified Wednesday that he made numerous unsuccessful efforts to serve the subpoenas, including staking out homes and making repeated visits to the DA’s office in the courthouse.
Cox also had been ordered by Medrano to appear at Wednesday’s hearing. He walked into the courtroom three hours after the start of the hearing, then invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. He is no longer working in the DA’s office.
For months, the controversy surrounding the District Attorney’s Office has overshadowed the main issue in the Walmart mass shooting – the guilt or innocence of the suspect, and whether he should face the death penalty.
When Rosales’ resignation becomes official later this month, Gov. Greg Abbott will appoint someone to serve the remaining two years of her term. Rosales tapped her former longtime law partner, George Al-Hanna, to run the office until an appointment is made.
When – or if – the case finally gets to a jury, it will be the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history to be tried in court.
A trial on federal hate crimes charges is scheduled for January 2024. The Justice Department must decide by next month whether to seek the death penalty in that case.
More than three years after the shooting, no trial date has been set on the state capital murder charges. Multiple attorneys that Rosales placed in charge of the Walmart shooting case, including Cox, have quit.
On Wednesday, Tito Anchondo, whose brother Andre was among those killed in the Walmart, posted his frustration on Facebook: “So are we ever going to get justice for my brother’s murder?! All these families that lost someone…. And it’s been 3 years now…..”