For former La Joya Housing Authority Executive Director J.J. Garza, the long goodbye is finally over.
He gave away his guns and sold his truck, a Ford F-150 Platinum. He danced with his daughter, who held her quinceañera early — allowing him to attend. And he spent long nights at Walker Lake, telling stories and talking with old friends.
He also planned a road trip: La Joya to Beaumont, where Garza will serve a 37-month sentence for conspiracy to commit wire fraud.
Garza must report to the low-security prison at the Beaumont Federal Correctional Complex on Friday afternoon.
“I’ve been told by other friends that have been to ‘low’ camps that say ‘Hey, nobody’s looking for trouble there,’” Garza said. “It’s really calm.”
It’s an ignominious conclusion for Garza, who headed the La Joya Housing Authority for nearly two decades and became a major player in western Hidalgo County politics.
Born in Camargo during March 1968, Juan Jose “J.J.” Garza moved to La Joya as a child.
The Garza family knew Leo J. Leo, the western Hidalgo County political leader, who hired Garza’s father as a firefighter for the fledgling city of La Joya.
They lived next to the Jackson family, which is how Garza met Roberto Jackson — a lifelong friend who became the La Joya city attorney.
“He would walk over there and talk to me about books,” Garza said. “And I was like ‘I’m not interested in books, man.’”
They graduated from La Joya High School together in 1987 with Oscar “Coach” Salinas, who became the school board president, and J.D. Salinas, who became the Hidalgo County judge.
Garza worked for IBC Bank and First National Bank of Edinburg before taking a job with the La Joya Housing Authority.
La Joya Mayor Billy Leo asked him to apply for the executive director position, Garza said. He replaced former Executive Director Jose Reynaldo Trevino, who pleaded guilty to embezzlement charges.
Garza also gradually became involved in local politics.
With encouragement from Billy Leo, he recruited candidates to run for the La Joya school board in November 2010.
Garza asked Oscar “Coach” Salinas and his brother-in-law, Gabriel Salinas, to join the ticket. Billy Leo suggested they run with Eden Ramirez Jr., a 21-year-old political science major at the University of Texas-Pan American.
They lost. The numbers, though, showed they had significant support.
“We said ‘We’re winning in 2012,’” Garza said. “And that’s when everybody started joining us.”
They called the new political organization “Team Liberty,” promising to break former state Rep. Ismael “Kino” Flores’ perceived control over the school board.
With support from Flores’ long list of opponents, they won the November 2012 election and took control of the board.
That made Garza a target.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Inspector General sent federal investigators to the La Joya Housing Authority, asking questions about Garza.
Along with the FBI, they uncovered a bid-rigging scheme that sent Garza to prison.
“Honestly,” Garza said. “I thought it was political.”