Thursday, February 20, 2003

Federal and state law-enforcement authorities are investigating the death of a 14-year-old Texas girl shot by a Drug Enforcement Administration agent who was part of a team seeking to arrest her father, who was suspected of dealing cocaine.
Ashley Villarreal died Feb. 11 at Wilford Hall Medical Center in San Antonio after being taken off life support at the request of family members. She was shot two days earlier by an unidentified DEA agent seeking to arrest her father, Joey Angel Villarreal, 36, who turned himself in Feb. 12 and was charged with drug trafficking.
The death is being investigated by homicide detectives from the San Antonio Police Department and by the DEA’s Office of Inspections, a team of investigators from the agency’s Washington headquarters. It was not clear yesterday how long the inquiry would take.
District Attorney Susan Reed in San Antonio said she expected a thorough probe and would bring charges in the case if warranted. Her first assistant, Michael Bernard, said in an interview yesterday that county prosecutors have been meeting daily with the San Antonio detectives to keep current on the probe’s progress.
“We are satisfied that a full and independent investigation of the shooting is being done by the San Antonio Police Department, which was not involved in the incident and has no other interest than in finding the truth,” Mr. Bernard said.
DEA Agent Javier Pena, who heads the agency’s San Antonio field office, immediately called for an investigation after the shooting, telling reporters in San Antonio last week that Ashley’s death was a painful incident for everyone involved.
“It’s traumatic,” he said. “People are hurting. I feel for the family, and I also feel for my agents.”
A DEA spokesman in Washington said that after a shooting involving DEA personnel, a thorough investigation by whatever police agency has jurisdiction is “standard operating practice” and that the DEA’s Office of Inspections is also routinely involved. He said the DEA was “cooperating fully” in the probe.
Authorities said the shooting occurred after undercover agents spotted a man they believed to be Mr. Villarreal coming out of a San Antonio house they had under surveillance. They said the man got into the passenger side of a car driven by Ashley who drove away with the lights off.
“When they started leaving without the headlights on, and at a high rate of speed, the agents felt certain this was their suspect and he was trying to escape,” San Antonio Police Sgt. Gabe Trevino told reporters.
Authorities said agents surrounded the car and shots were fired after it rammed into two DEA vehicles. They said one agent fired again, killing Ashley as the car sped in reverse toward him, believing he was about to be run over.
The passenger was identified as Daniel Robles, a caretaker for the girl’s grandmother, who lived at the house the DEA had under surveillance. Mr. Robles, who was uninjured and charged with public drunkenness, said the agents opened fire only after the car Miss Villarreal was driving crashed into the DEA vehicles, but said they did not identify themselves until after the shooting. The girl’s relatives told police she panicked when confronted by the agents.
Mr. Villarreal was identified by federal prosecutors in San Antonio as “part of an ongoing investigation in a larger drug trafficking case,” although they did not elaborate.
He was arrested by Kerrville, Texas, police on drug-possession charges just two days before the shooting, with the help of DEA agents. A search of his hotel room in Kerrville on Feb. 7 found a “white powdery substance” on the nightstand and floor, according to court records, and investigators found $986 in cash in his possession.
Mr. Villarreal was charged with possessing less than a gram of controlled substance and driving with a suspended license. He spent the night in jail and posted bond the next day. After his release, authorities said the DEA received information he was about to flee to Mexico and agents set up the surveillance operation.

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