By MICHAEL RODRIGUEZ
Compiling an end-of-year list of the biggest stories in San Benito is always a difficult task, and 2013 was no exception as scandals, controversies, courtroom dramas and what’s considered a promising business venture made headlines.
The following are the top five stories of the year according to newspaper sales, online readership and feedback.
5. CHEERGATE HOOPLA EXPLODES / POWER PLANT DEVELOPERS BAIL
It started out as a disagreement about a T-shirt that escalated into a full tilt drama that included allegations of discrimination, bullying and a lawsuit, not to mention the arrest of a San Benito High School varsity cheerleader and subsequent court cases.
The SBHS cheerleader in question, Alexandria Hernandez, 17, was arrested by the San Benito Police Department on Oct. 31 for misdemeanor assault, a charge which stems from an Oct. 11 incident in which the teen allegedly accosted the mother of a fellow member of the cheer squad. Hernandez, who reportedly suffers from type 1 neurofibromatosis and has a prosthetic left leg following a childhood amputation, was specifically accused of pointing her finger at the mother while shouting vulgarities and allegedly blaming the victim’s T-shirt for the teen’s illness.
The T-shirt in question was worn by Colleen Duncan, the cheer mom and victim in the assault report, and showed senior cheerleaders in a group photo. Hernandez’s uncle and advocate, Noe Treviño, has accused the cheerleaders in the photo and their parents of discrimination for not including his niece in the picture. Duncan, however, has contended that the picture was not a school or cheer sponsored photo and that it innocently depicted a group of friends, further arguing that Hernandez and others have taken photos in the football program that excluded fellow teammates and therefore reasoned that such action was common.
Though special education attorneys Buechler and Associates completed an investigation into the discrimination and bullying allegations levied by Hernandez and Treviño, finding that the claims were “unsubstantiated,” two court cases remain pending into the matter.
Also making the list at number five (yes, it’s a tie) was the controversial exit of alleged power plant developers who came to San Benito touting a multi-million dollar project aimed at creating jobs and economic development in the city before departing under dubious circumstances.
The San Benito News conducted an investigation after being unable to verify the authenticity of the developers, PowerCom International and Telemark Development Group. The probe uncovered multiple discrepancies in the information provided by the developers proposing to build a $225 million power plant at the city’s old airport property, including a manipulated photo on the PowerCom website that showed the company’s logo superimposed over an abandoned Las Vegas, Nev. building it did not own, rent or lease. The photo has since been removed from the website.
In addition, developers purported via their websites to be based out of 850 South Boulder Highway, #120, Henderson, Nev., which was traced back to a UPS store PO Box.
When asked about the discrepancies, Peter Del Mastro of PowerCom said developers never claimed to own the building shown on the company’s website yet did not explain why their logo was superimposed on the edifice. Instead, Del Mastro criticized San Benito, referring specifically to City of San Benito officials, as being “backwards” in how the City does business.
Del Mastro then submitted a letter to the City’s Economic Development Corporation, which was addressed to the mayor, indicating that the developers would no longer be considering San Benito for its power plant project.
4. MAYOR VINDICATED
Mayor Joe H. Hernandez experienced closure in 2013 after becoming embroiled in a criminal case and trial. In November, the mayor was found not guilty of making a terroristic threat against a former city commissioner. The verdict came on Nov. 5, after three trial postponements, as the jurors dismissed a terroristic threat charge, a class B misdemeanor, levied against Hernandez. The jury came to the decision following near 30 minutes of deliberation.
It all started on Nov. 6, 2012, when Ricardo R. Rodriguez, a former San Benito City Commissioner who served from 1975-79, filed a report with the SBPD alleging that on Oct. 27 of that year, Hernandez parked outside his San Benito residence and took photographs of the home before allegedly threatening to burn down the house in retaliation for his alleged involvement in another criminal case against the mayor.
On the allegations, the mayor said, “It’s just a whole bunch of lies. The names that were mentioned in the courts were people that were after me from day one, since I became mayor of this city. It’s just an act of jealousy and evil against me for reasons I don’t know.”
3. RESACAWALK PROJECT OFF TO A GOOD START
Friday, Dec. 20, was a good day for San Benito. That’s when EDC officials announced the awarding of a $1.2 million federal grant in which $990,000 already went toward the purchase of the former First National Bank property, located off Business 77 and opposite the Heavin Resaca Trail.
Considered “prime commercial waterfront property,” the land is 9.8 acres in size and will be the future home of a new museum, which officials said will house the Freddy Fender Museum, the San Benito History Museum and the Texas Conjunto Music Hall of Fame and Museum—three exhibits currently located in the cramped quarters of the Community Building on East Heywood Street.
That’s not all. A resaca front boardwalk, coined by officials as the Resacawalk, where officials hope to lure retail businesses and restaurants is also planned on the property.
Joining EDC and City officials for the announcement were U.S. Representative Filemon Vela, and Economic Development Administration Regional Director Pedro Garza of the U.S. Department of Commerce.
The Resacawalk project coupled with recent news that Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen is coming to San Benito has local officials excited for 2014.
2. CONVICTED EX-DA DISGRACED IN BRIBES SCANDAL
This was the news that rocked all of Cameron County, San Benito included. The federal trial of former Cameron County District Attorney and 2012 Congressional candidate Armando R. Villalobos came to a spectacular close when the San Benito native was found guilty on May 24 on seven nine counts—five for extortion, and one each for racketeering conspiracy to commit racketeering.
Villalobos, who prosecutors said bribed former State District Judge Abel Limas and accepted bribes from attorneys in a cash-for-court favors scam, remains free on bond until his sentencing in January. The case was part of an ongoing high-profile FBI investigation into corruption in the Cameron County legal system, including accusations that he received an $80,000 kickback in a scheme that ended in convicted murderer Amit Livingston escaping imprisonment.
Current District Attorney Luis Saenz has recently stressed efforts in capturing Livingston.
Still, the story didn’t end with Villalobos’ conviction as he’s appealing the verdict. Also, Oscar de la Fuente Jr., an attorney and former member of the SBCISD Board of Trustees, testified on May 17 to assisting in the hiring of Villalobos’ family members at the school district while he served on the board. De la Fuente was a school board member in San Benito for 15 years, having been re-elected four times, before stepping down in May 2012 citing a desire to spend more time with his family.
As previously reported, initial testimony from De la Fuente consisted of allegations that he paid Villalobos for favorable treatment of his clients. The accusations did not end in a conviction.
1. SUPERINTENDENT SUSPENDED PENDING INVESTIGATION
It’s what everyone’s still talking about seven months later.
Antonio G. Limón was placed on paid administrative leave as the SBCISD Superintendent of Schools on May 23 as per a 4-3 split vote of the Board of Trustees. The subsequent investigation, which didn’t begin until about two months later despite the suspension being voted on pending the outcome of a probe, has since spent $6,674.50 for 44.5 hours of work conducted in the investigation by the attorneys hired to complete such a task—Guerra and Farah PLLC of Houston.
Two interim superintendents, Alfonso Obregón and Dr. Ismael Cantu, have since been appointed to head the district while Limón, who makes $165,303 annually, remains on paid leave. Obregón, during a tenure that exceeded six months, was paid $717.25 per day for a total of $91,092.38. Cantu cited fairness in accepting less pay at $500 per day.
What has transpired since Limón’s suspension, though, includes much more than the expenditures incurred by the district. The public remains divided between those who supported and opposed Limón’s suspension, and all trustees involved have been heavily criticized for their leanings as well.
In the meantime, Guerra and Farah attorneys continue its investigation into Limón, who reportedly faces at least 17 allegations—a number narrowed down from 64. The allegations have yet to be made public.
By ARMANDO GARZA
Special to the NEWS
While politics and controversies certainly made headlines in the San Benito area this year, the 2013 year in sports was a nice respite from the drama. There was plenty to boast about in the Resaca area in the sports world. Here are just five of those special moments.
5. END OF AN ERA IN LOS FRESNOS
The name Shawn Jones was synonymous with Los Fresnos Falcons boys basketball, and the winning that came with it.
Totaling 11 seasons on the bench, 2012-13 was the last for Jones, who left Los Fresnos to take an athletic director/head boys basketball coach position in Huntington, a 3A school in East Texas.
In his final season, Jones saw the Falcons finish 20-12 (11-5 in 32-5A) and a fourth-place finish. The Falcons fell to McAllen Rowe in bi-district.
The Falcons were playoff regulars under Jones, who spent a total of 15 years in the Valley. He previously coached at Marine Military Academy, where he went 73-18 and helped the Leathernecks win a state championship in 2001. All told, Jones won more than 200 games during his stay in the Valley.
4. FOOTBALL BOBCATS BACK IN PLAYOFFS
After a one-year absence, the Rio Hondo Bobcats finished as the runner up in 32-3A to get back to the postseason for the fifth time in six seasons under head coach Rocky James.
Rio Hondo (4-7) lost to Zapata in bi-district, but the season can still be declared a success. Many of the Bobcats are youngsters who got their first taste of playoff football and will be ready to hit the fields next season.
“Getting back to the playoffs was a big step for us and I think we all appreciate it more now than the past,” James said, alluding to last year’s playoff-less year.
Rio Hondo junior quarterback Eli Pitones was terrific all season, totaling 1,896 yards total (1,244 passing, 652 rushing) during the regular season. Pitones was one of 32-3A’s top offensive weapons and emerged as the year went on. He’ll be one of the top returning signal-callers in 3A football.
Along with Pitones, fellow junior Marco Garate (667 yards, 6 TDs) was solid and earned 32-3A Newcomer of the Year honors. Sophomore linebacker Daniel Flores (115 total tackles) also has tremendous upside and the trio will lead the squad in 2014.
3. LADY BOBCATS DOMINATE COURT EN ROUTE TO 3RD ROUND, STATE RANK
Rio Hondo girls basketball was the talk of the area this year as the Lady Bobcats stormed to the 32-3A district, bi-district and area championships.
The Lady Bobcats finished 28-4 during the 2012-13 season, earning a bi-district bye and defeating Lytle in the area round of the playoffs before falling to perennial power West Oso in the regional quarterfinals.
But Coach Robert Jaramillo and the girls had nothing to feel down about. Along the way, Rio Hondo was ranked as high as 21st in the Texas Girls Coaches Association’s state poll.
As they prepare to start 32-3A district play on Jan. 3, the Lady Cats are intent on duplicating and exceeding last season’s run. Many of the girls from last season’s squad are back and ready to make that happen.
2. BANNER YEAR FOR SAN BENITO GIRLS SPORTS
While the obvious choice for the no. 1 story garnered deserved notoriety (see below), there was plenty to rave about with many other Lady ’Hounds as well.
Led by 31-5A’s leading goal scorer, Eva Rubio, who tallied nearly 50 netters, the Lady ’Hounds soccer team got to the postseason. Rubio went on to sign with NAIA school Texas College.
Esmer Sosa burned up the track for San Benito, winning a 31-5A title in the triple jump, finishing second in the long jump and 200-meter dash, and third in the 100m. She advanced to regionals in both jumps. She won the 100m at the Meet of Champions and held the Valley’s best in the triple jump (36-3 and a half) and was second in the long jump (17-5 and a half), 100m (12.20 seconds). She signed on to run for UTPA.
Defending their state championship of 2012, the San Benito girls powerlifting team finished third in the state this year. With several girls back, the Lady ’Hounds will look to reclaim their crown.
Golfer Emma Valle also enjoyed a super year. The sophomore (now junior) was named 31-5A’s 2013 Most Valuable Player and earned a second straight trip to the Region-IV golf tournament.
1. LADY ’HOUNDS SOFTBALL MAKES MAGICAL RUN TO STATE TOURNEY
This one’s a no-brainer.
Already known as the “Premier Softball Program in the Rio Grande Valley,” the San Benito Lady ’Hounds affirmed that statement by making the Valley’s first-ever appearance at the UIL State Softball Tournament in Austin.
The Lady ’Hounds finished 34-3 and defeated Brownsville Hanna (bi-district), Edinburg North (Area), Eagle Pass (Regional Quarterfinals), San Antonio O’Connor (Regional Semifinals or Sweet 16) and Smithson Valley (Regional final, Elite 8) to reach the state tournament. San Benito was already the only softball team to reach the Elite 8 (in 2011) and added to that and then some.
Players like Amber Jasso, Jackie Elizondo, Dina Treviño, Jav’ana Gonzalez, Kim Harper, Mel Ramirez, Dorothy Millan and many more became not just household names, but Valley sports legends in the process. Same goes for skipper Elias Martinez, who etched his name into RGV sports history adding to his already legendary coaching resume.
It was a story which captivated the Valley and South Texas. The girls not only had to win on the diamond—like a walkoff suicide squeeze to bounce nemesis O’Connor—but off of it too. San Benito withstood a lightning-shortened series against Eagle Pass, which resulted in an attempted injunction/restraining order filed looking to throw out the result and replay the game. The effort failed and the girls moved on. Then against Smithson Valley, hundreds of fans made the trek to Laredo on a rainy day in May. The start was pushed back a couple of times and the field was ultimately ready to be played on. However, umpires out of the Coastal Bend ultimately failed to show for the game and it was pushed back a day. The girls came out unfazed and won the first-ever Region-IV championship. Credit to Martinez and the staff for keeping the girls focused.
At state, thousands were in attendance (the most attended game of the state tourney) as San Benito took an early lead on a game televised live on Fox Sports Southwest. But a bad inning ultimately cost the Lady ’Hounds as they fell to Lewisville 5-2. The Lady Farmers went on to win the state championship.
Nevertheless, 2013 was a special year for San Benito softball and sports in general. As a new year approaches, local sports fans can only hope for a year as exciting and worthwhile. But let’s hope it’s a great ride! Happy New Year!