Peñitas offers fire marshal a second chance at law enforcement

Five years after he failed a drug test and abruptly left law enforcement, former Peñitas City Councilman Jose “Pepe” Gonzalez is back.

The Peñitas Police Department made Gonzalez, the city fire marshal, a full-fledged peace officer on Dec. 7, according to Texas Commission on Law Enforcement records.

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While the move allows Gonzalez to carry a gun and make arrests, City Manager Omar Romero said Gonzalez will stay focused on fire department work, including building inspections and fire investigations.

“In my view, something that happened over five years ago — he has been an exemplary employee and a public servant,” Romero said, referencing the drug test results.

 

“If I saw anything that concerned me or had any kind of warning sign, I would probably discuss it with him. However, he has never caused me to have any kind of concern to where I feel it is necessary for me to go and dig up his past.”

 

Gonzalez didn’t respond to a request for comment.

 

LAW ENFORCEMENT
Jose Alejandro “Pepe” Gonzalez graduated from La Joya High School in June 1989.

Armed with a solid high school transcript, he enrolled at the University of Texas-Pan American to study police administration, according to personnel records. Gonzalez, though, struggled with college coursework.

He left without a degree. Rather than study police work, Gonzalez would learn on the job.

A Mission-based company hired Gonzalez to provide private security at weddings, parties and nightclubs, according to personnel records. He didn’t stay long.

Gonzalez took a dispatcher position at the La Joya Police Department in May 1992, according to personnel records. Less than a year later, Gonzalez earned a promotion to police officer.

 He left La Joya for Hidalgo, which had a bigger police department and higher pay, during February 1996.

 “I was a patrol sergeant and he was a patrol officer,” said Peñitas police Chief Roel Bermea, who also made  the move from La Joya to Hidalgo during the 1990s. “We were both patrol.”

 Officers would often split shifts between the Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge and regular patrol duty.

 “We used to have traffic lined up for miles going into Mexico on Fridays and Saturdays,” Bermea said. “It was massive, massive traffic going into Mexico at that time.”

 Bermea said he worked well with Gonzalez and never had any problems with him.

 “He’s always been a real good officer,” Bermea said.

 Gonzalez left Hidalgo for the Mission Police Department, which hired him in November 1998.

 The job paid $11.65 per hour.

 THE DRUG TEST
Gonzalez spent nearly 14 years with Mission, gradually earning promotions and higher pay.

After serving as a resource officer at local schools, Gonzalez moved to patrol and eventually became an evidence technician, according to personnel records, which don’t show any disciplinary action against him.

Gonzalez also became involved in local politics, winning a seat on the Peñitas Board of Aldermen — what’s now the City Council — with support from Mayor Marcos Ochoa.

In June 2012, though, a minor car crash upended Gonzalez’s career. City policy required him to take a drug test.

Gonzalez tested positive for cocaine on June 25, according to records released under the Texas Public Information Act. The drug test found a metabolite called benzoylecgonine, which remains in the body after exposure to cocaine.

He resigned on July 3.

“It was a pleasure working for the Mission Police Department for all this years (sic),” Gonzalez wrote to then-police Chief Martin Garza. “I am resigning from the Mission Police Department at this point to further my education. I have different ambitions and goals at this point for myself and my family.”

Gonzalez also quit the Peñitas Board of Aldermen on Sept. 21.

The drug test had cost Gonzalez his job and political career.

A SECOND CHANCE
After resigning from the police department, Gonzalez took carpentry and pipe fitting jobs in Houston and Port Arthur, according to personnel records.

He found work closer to home during December 2014, when Peñitas hired him.

Gonzalez started handling code enforcement and animal control for the city. The job paid just $12 per hour — barely more than his starting salary at the Mission Police Department roughly 16 years ago.

“I’m halfway through my third year as city manager and I’ve never had any concerns,” Romero said about Gonzalez. “He’s always been on the up-and-up.”

After Gonzalez joined the Peñitas Volunteer Fire Department, the City Council appointed him fire marshal in January 2017.

The volunteer position didn’t come with any compensation. Peñitas also didn’t make Gonzalez a law enforcement officer, which is standard for fire marshals in Texas.

When questions about the drug test emerged, Romero and Mayor Rodrigo “Rigo” Lopez emphasized the volunteer job wouldn’t come with law enforcement authority.

“We’re behind Mr. Gonzalez 100 percent,” Lopez said in January 2017 after appointing Gonzalez fire marshal. “As far as what he did over there, I am not aware of it — and have no interest to be aware of it.”

Eleven months later, Peñitas made Gonzalez a law enforcement officer, according to Texas Commission on Law Enforcement records.

Romero said he didn’t review the drug test results or ask Gonzalez about the incident before Peñitas made him a full-fledged law enforcement officer.

“As far as I’m concerned, that test and its validity have nothing to do with Mr. Gonzalez’s service to the city,” Romero said.

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