Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Winter Texans thwart suspect’s escape

January 07,2006 Cari Hammerstrom The Monitor
MISSION — If Bentsen Palm Village RV Park manager Star Weidman didn’t smoke, drink, eavesdrop and play poker, 20-year-old Humberto Garza might have pulled off the great escape.
At the intersection of Old Military Highway and Schuerbach Road on Thursday night — which is near the RV park — law enforcement agencies orchestrated a massive search for Garza, Roel Gonzalez and another fugitive from the law. The men had allegedly broken into a home in Pharr about 7:30 p.m. and then led police on a high-speed chase to the area near the park where they bailed out of the vehicle and ran away on foot.

Weidman, 58 and originally from upstate New York, said she was in the park’s clubhouse playing poker with her husband, Wally, and their friends when they heard the police sirens outside and saw a helicopter flying overhead, shining its bright spotlight into treelines and scrub.
The park residents figured police were searching for an illegal immigrant who had crossed the Rio Grande, she said, which is less than a mile away from the park.

So Weidman gingerly walked to the porch for a smoke. There, she recalled, she saw a young man sitting in one of the park’s large blonde-wood rocking chairs.

"He said real calm and collected, ‘You enjoying yourself tonight?’" she said.
The young man told her he was staying with his grandmother in the park. Weidman said she thought nothing of it. Wally then asked her to bring him a beer, so she drove the golf cart to their house, or "casita," at the back of the park and returned to the clubhouse, cold one in hand.
The young man was now inside the clubhouse, where residents sat around circular tables playing cards and dominoes. He flipped eagerly through a phone book, and seemed like he wanted the woman who was on the free phone to get off of it in a hurry.

"I heard him say his mom was staying here," Weidman said, instead of his grandmother as he had previously told her. She admitted to eavesdropping on his conversation.

Weidman became suspicious.

"He was only 19, 20, 21," she said. "And his stories didn’t match. That alerted me."
She quickly ran to a resident’s home — the resident is some kind of retired federal agent, she said, not wanting to reveal any more information — and he came to the clubhouse and started questioning the young man.

How did you get in? they asked.

Through the gate, he said.

So, what’s the combination? they asked.

Hmmm… he said.

The resident then asked the man for some identification and the man gave him his driver’s license. Garza was his last name. Weidman didn’t recall any Garza registered at the RV park.
"He was real cool, real calm. He was trying to blend," she said. But it didn’t work.

The resident sat the young man, later identified as Humberto Garza, in one of the chairs and called the police.

The tire tracks are still visible in the lawn where Mission police drove up to the clubhouse. The officers came inside, Weidman said, and handcuffed Garza.

He was one of the men police had been looking for all night long. It is highly unlikely they would have found him if it hadn’t been for the Weidmans’ intuition.

"Nobody even realized what was happening," she said. "I didn’t want to panic anybody."
But Ben and Janie Peek, who have only been at the resort for a few days, were outside when police arrived. Panicked they were.

"He said, ‘POLICE! Get inside and lock your doors,’ and he kept running," Peek said, remembering when an officer wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying an AK-47 went running by him in the dark. "And I thought that was a wise idea,"

Most of the residents at Bentsen Palm Village RV Park did not even know the next day that their park manager helped police catch a fugitive, but once they do find out, Weidman will likely be hailed a hero.

"It’s part of the job," she said. "To keep residents happy."

Garza and Gonzalez, the other man police captured in a field that night, were each arraigned at Pharr Municipal Court Friday on one charge of aggravated robbery and evading arrest, said Pharr police spokesman Lt. Guadalupe Salinas. Their bonds were each set at a total of $1.05 million.

Police are still on the lookout for four suspects — three of whom escaped the robbery scene in a white Chevy Caprice.

Anyone with additional information on this case is asked to call Pharr Crime Stoppers at (956) 778-TIPS (8477).
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