On the way back from Eagle Pass, an Agua Special Utility District vehicle made four mysterious stops in Lopeño — a tiny town in Zapata County notorious for illegal gambling.
The vehicle, which utility board Director Ivan Sandoval borrowed to attend a conference, parked at four locations in Lopeño on Feb. 27, according to GPS records the utility district released under the Texas Public Information Act.
“I think we should look into it further,” said utility board President Esequiel “Zeke” Ortiz Jr. “Now that it’s been brought to our attention.”
Questions about the trip surfaced in March, when someone posted a photo of the vehicle on AnonymousRGV.com with the caption: “Agua Sud Employees at a Slot Machine Game Room in Zapata During Working Hours.”
Sandoval, who borrowed the utility district vehicle to attend a conference at the Kickapoo Lucky Eagle Casino Hotel in Eagle Pass, said he stopped to meet his mother-in-law on the way back.
“She was taking care of my kids,” Sandoval said on March 4 during an interview with the Progress Times. “And I had to pick up the key for the house.”
Sandoval met his mother-in-law at the game room but said he didn’t play the slot machines.
“Understand, I’ve gone and played there so many different times. Of course, with my vehicle, right? Now, you enter there, I mean, the phones don’t work. No service inside,” Sandoval said on March 4, adding that he couldn’t call his mother-in-law from the car. “So, of course, I have to get off. I have to find her. Look for her. So it’s going to take me a couple of minutes because there are so many different machines.”
GPS records show that Sandoval parked at four locations and spent two hours in Lopeño that day.
Sandoval didn’t respond to written requests for comment on April 15 and April 22.
After reviewing the records, utility board Director Roger Hernandez cautioned against drawing any conclusions from the GPS data.
“I think, first, we need to talk to him and see the situation,” Hernandez said. “Let’s get an actual ‘What is it that he did?’ Because we don’t know. We can’t judge beforehand.”
What prompted Sandoval to spend two hours in Lopeño, an unincorporated community with roughly 175 residents, remains unclear. Lopeño offers little besides a post office and game rooms packed with slot machines.
Game rooms allow patrons to play casino-style games on cheap slot machines. Texas law prohibits owners from paying cash prizes, but they frequently flout the rules.
Many game rooms moved to Lopeño after Starr County cracked down on illegal gambling.
Starr County Special Crimes Unit Cmdr. Robert Caples said he’s never come across a game room that actually follows state law.
“Not a single one,” Caples said, adding later: “The closest place to the Valley where you can legally use the eight-liner machines and get paid in cash is Kickapoo.”