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Jury finds former Progreso cop guilty in sexual assault case

After a two-day trial, a jury took less than two hours Wednesday to find a former Progreso police officer guilty of violating the civil rights of people he arrested.

Two men testified that former Progreso police Officer Matthew Sepulveda sexually assaulted them after traffic stops in June 2019. The jury found Sepulveda guilty on two counts of deprivation of rights under color of law, a federal civil rights charge.

“Given the very serious nature of what the jury has found, unanimously, and the significant sentence that you’re facing, I’m going to have you taken into custody at this time,” said U.S. District Judge Randy Crane.

Crane said he was concerned about the safety of the community because the jury essentially concluded that Sepulveda is a serial rapist.

“And also I’m worried about your own safety, you know, given that the sentence, it looks very large,” Crane said. “And I don’t want you harming yourself during this time.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas, which prosecuted the case, released a statement about the verdict on Wednesday afternoon.

“We of course respect the decision of the jury,” according to the statement, “and are pleased this man was held accountable for his actions.”

Attorney Mauro L. Reyna III of Peñitas, who represented Sepulveda, said he didn’t want to comment until after sentencing.

Matthew Lee Sepulveda, 25, of San Juan worked for the Progreso Police Department from April to July 2019, according to Texas Commission on Law Enforcement records. The trial focused on a two-day period in June, when Sepulveda worked the graveyard shift.

On June 28, he arrested an undocumented man for driving without a license or insurance. The man — identified in court by the initials “CL” — testified that Sepulveda threatened him with deportation.

CL had moved from Mexico to the United States in first grade. Afraid of deportation, CL pleaded with Sepulveda to release him.

“He told me: ‘I can’t just let you off like that. You’re going to have to do something,’” CL testified on Tuesday. “And I was like: ‘What can I do? I can do community service, sweep, mop, come clean the office.”

Sepulveda took CL to a part of the police department without security cameras.

“No, it’s not that simple,” CL said, recalling what Sepulveda told him. “And then I kind of stayed quiet for a little bit and he said: ‘I need you to grab that chair, turn out the light and let me suck your dick.’”

CL said that Sepulveda performed oral sex on him. Any sexual contact between a police officer and a person in custody is illegal.

“I didn’t think I had an option,” CL said. “He had me there under arrest.”

CL reported the sexual assault hours later. The Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office and the FBI investigated the incident.

Deputies reviewed surveillance video, which showed that Sepulveda had taken another person to the same part of the police department on June 30.

The Sheriff’s Office determined the other person was a 17-year-old boy. Identified in court by the initials “AA,” he testified on Wednesday.

Sepulveda detained AA — who is now 19 years old — and his brother after an early morning traffic stop.

AA said that Sepulveda locked his brother in a cell and took AA to a part of the police department without security cameras. Sepulveda showed him pornography, AA said, and performed oral sex on him.

“I didn’t know what to do,” AA said, adding that he was afraid.

AA didn’t tell anyone what happened until the Sheriff’s Office asked to speak with him.

Progreso fired Sepulveda in July 2019, just days after the incidents occurred. A grand jury indicted him that October.

The coronavirus pandemic delayed the trial for months.

Jurors wore masks and sat in the gallery, which allowed them to follow social distancing guidelines. Attorneys and courtroom employees also wore masks throughout the proceedings.

Reporters and members of the public were not allowed to attend the trial in person. The court broadcast the trial on Zoom instead.

To afford CL and AA some level of privacy, the camera turned off when they entered the courtroom and didn’t show them testify.

The Zoom broadcast, however, occasionally had technical problems.

Videos shown to the jury were not shown on Zoom. The audio failed several times, including for a period of nearly 10 minutes on Wednesday, when an investigator with the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office testified about Sepulveda’s phone records and documents seized from the police department.

Reyna, the attorney who represented Sepulveda, attempted to cast doubt on DNA evidence that linked his client to CL.

An analyst from a Texas Department of Public Safety lab in Laredo testified that DNA found on CL’s underwear matched Sepulveda.

Tests conducted by DPS couldn’t determine whether the DNA came from blood, semen, saliva or some other source. DPS doesn’t test for saliva.

Reyna suggested the DNA had been deposited when Sepulveda patted CL down, searching for weapons or contraband.

An expert witness hired by the defense, Rhonda C. Williams, a senior criminalist at the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, testified the small amount of DNA on the underwear could indicate touch rather than oral sex.

“Dr. Williams pretty much discredited the DNA reports,” Reyna said during his closing argument.

Reyna also suggested that CL made up the sexual assault story because he wanted to avoid deportation. Reyna questioned why CL would take a shower and change clothes before reporting the sexual assault.

“Because that’s evidence, right?” Reyna said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarina S. DiPiazza, who prosecuted the case with Assistant U.S. Attorney Angel Castro, addressed questions about the evidence head-on during her closing argument.

“Mr. Reyna talked to you about how there’s no witnesses and no video,” DiPiazza said. “Why is that?”

Sepulveda picked a room in the police department without cameras, DiPiazza said. He manipulated other police officers, keeping them away from the department while he sexually assaulted AA. And he didn’t record the arrests.

“We have two victims that do not know each other. Yet they’re making the same exact allegations against Mr. Sepulveda: that he performed oral sex on them in the same room — without knowing each other, the layout of the police station, none of that,” DiPiazza said.

Sepulveda decided to sexually assault CL because he knew CL was undocumented, DiPiazza said, and CL was unlikely to report what happened. Sepulveda also detained AA and his brother, who hadn’t committed any crime, because he wanted to sexually assault them.

“Matthew Lee Sepulveda violated the laws that he swore to enforce. And Matthew Lee Sepulveda victimized the people that he swore to protect,” DiPiazza said. “All while wearing an officer badge. A badge that we are all taught as children to trust.”

Sentencing is scheduled for May 20. Sepulveda faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.

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