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Peñitas and La Joya settle sexual assault lawsuit for $220,000

Faced with a federal lawsuit, attorneys for Peñitas and La Joya approved a $220,000 settlement during December.


A 38-year-old Mission woman — assigned the pseudonym “Autumn Renee” by the Texas Rangers — filed the lawsuit after a dispatcher sexually assaulted her at the La Joya Police Department.


Autumn Renee accepted the $220,000 settlement on Dec. 4. U.S. District Judge Randy Crane dismissed the lawsuit ten days later.


“She just wants to put all of this behind her,” said attorney Reginald E. McKamie Sr. of Houston, who represented Autumn Renee. “She went forward with this because she did not want this to happen to anyone else.”


Questions about how La Joya handled the sexual assault allegations became particularly thorny because the police dispatcher, Felipe Santiago Peralez, 27, of La Joya dated Jordan Alexandra Garcia, the granddaughter of La Joya Mayor Jose A. “Fito” Salinas and City Commissioner Mary Salinas.


Peralez lived at the Salinas family home from 2011 to 2013, according to city records. He listed Mary Salinas as a reference when he applied for the dispatcher job.


Mayor Salinas denied that Peralez ever lived at his home, but acknowledged that Peralez may have dated his granddaughter.


The Texas Municipal League, which provides insurance for local governments, will pay the settlement. Neither Peñitas nor La Joya admitted any liability.


“We were at fault because the employee should not have done what he did,” said La Joya City Administrator Mike Alaniz, who added that he didn’t agree with how attorneys and investigators characterized the sexual assault allegations. “The way they portrayed it was false. It was definitely false.”


The three-and-a-half year saga started on May 29, 2014, when Autumn Renee went shopping at the Peñitas Walmart.


Her friends started arguing. Someone called the police.


Peñitas police Officer Abelardo Gutierrez arrested her on a county warrant for possession of cocaine, according to Hidalgo County court records. He also charged Autumn Renee with failure to identify.


The Peñitas Police Department, though, didn’t have anywhere to detain Autumn Renee. Officers transported her to the La Joya city jail.


That’s where she met Peralez, the night shift dispatcher.


Peralez left the dispatch room and started talking to Autumn Renee, telling her about his wife and child.


“I really did not care or understand why he was telling me,” Autumn Renee said during an interview with the Texas Rangers, according to the report. “I just wanted to go to sleep and he was just keeping me up.”


After the initial conversation, Peralez started demanding sexual favors.


He told Autumn Renee to undress and started touching her inappropriately, according to the Texas Rangers report. He occasionally left to check on the police dispatch computers, but always came back.


Security cameras caught Peralez visiting the holding cell 49 times during the night shift, according to the Texas Rangers report.


Peralez missed so many calls that Officer Nancy Venecia, who had been working on police reports, decided to check on him.


She couldn’t find Peralez. Concerned, she sent a text to Officer Jose Bustillos.


He found Peralez with Autumn Renee.


“Peralez was in a kneeling position facing the female prisoner and she was facing him,” Bustillos said, according to the Texas Rangers report. “He was holding on to the bars of the cell and I believe she was sitting down on the concrete bench.”


They reported Peralez’s strange behavior near the jail cell.


When he arrived at work the next day, police Lt. Ramon Gonzalez started reviewing the security cameras.


Video from the night before showed Peralez sexually assaulting Autumn Renee.


Gonzalez attempted to ask Autumn Renee what happened, but she didn’t want to provide details, according to a copy of the La Joya Police Department investigation.


However, Peñitas police Officer Elizabeth Garza overheard Autumn Renee making a phone call to her mother.


“You need to get me out of here,” Garza remembered Autumn Renee saying, according to the Texas Rangers report. She also recalled Autumn Renee saying “I was raped.”


Garza also attempted to ask Autumn Renee what happened.


“After she was done with the phone call I took her out of her cell and walked her to the restroom and asked her if she was alright,” Garza said, according to the Texas Rangers report. “She said ‘No. I’m okay’ but she appeared like she was in shock.”


Garza transported Autumn Renee to the Hidalgo County jail. During the drive, Autumn Renee started crying and told Garza the full story.


Garza wrote a report on the sexual assault allegations, but the police department later lost track of the document, according to the Texas Rangers report.


While Autumn Renee waited in jail, La Joya police attempted to investigate the sexual assault allegations.


Gonzalez, the police lieutenant, gathered statements from officers and wrote a detailed report on the surveillance video.


“It was taken seriously,” Gonzalez said.


Police Chief Geovani Hernandez, though, didn’t make the investigation a priority, Gonzalez said.


Hernandez resigned in January 2015. He’s currently facing federal drug trafficking charges and couldn’t be reached for comment.

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