Tribal Wars & Jail House Suicide

What Apache Medellin originally wanted was Necho Solis’ left eye. He wanted to make a ring out of it. It took some time to for his fellow gang members to convince him that it was going to be very hard to sell Necho’s death as a suicide if his left eye was missing.

Necho was in the Bexar County Jail at the time, along with Gato Mendares and some other friends of Apache. The difference was that Gato and the others were mostly awaiting trial for drug offenses, while Necho was awaiting trial for the murder of Apache’s sister. She had been murdered by a single shot through her left eye.

The Fernandez gang was probably the largest in operation in the area at the time, in the mid 1970s. Fred Carrasco had been sent to the pen and subsequently died of gunshot wounds received in an attempted breakout. Mando Fernandez was in the pen, and Apache was in charge in Mando’s absence.

Apache was, of course, well known to the police department, and everybody knew that Necho was accused of murdering his sister. That’s why Necho’s death had to look like a suicide, and why, presumably, Apache was willing to forego the original ocular jewelry he had at first sought. The scheme they finally hit upon—to strangle Necho and then hang him from a steel rod in the shower room, so the guards would take it for a suicide—was doomed from the start.

The jail guards might very well have been fooled, but the characteristic fracture of the hyoid bone, which is the inevitable result of manual strangulation, would be a dead giveaway to any competent pathologist.

And so it was accomplished, one dark afternoon. While four other inmates each held an arm or a leg, Gato Mendares strangled him until he was dead. In case you’re wondering, and for my own purposes even if you are not, that is an event which takes several minutes. There is as much of a struggle as the circumstances permit, lasting perhaps as long as a minute before unconsciousness occurs.

Unconsciousness is no indicator of death, however, and if the strangulation stops at that point the victim will almost certainly survive. No, the pressure must be maintained well after unconsciousness occurs. After perhaps another minute, the victim’s body will begin to convulse violently, and quite involuntarily—this is the result of spasms occurring within the dying brain, as a result of oxygen deprivation. If pressure is maintained through the end of the convulsions, it’s probably long enough, but to be absolutely sure it is best to continue for another minute or so, to be sure that you produce a corpse and not merely a brain-dead vegetable.

I have been as graphic as this because I don’t want the point to be missed that Necho Solis was brutally murdered by Gato Mendares, at the request of Apache Medellin. The reason I don’t want this point to be missed is because, at the subsequent trial of Sgt. Ramon Alarcan and Captain James O’Brien of the Sheriff’s Department for violating Necho Solis’ civil rights, the government’s star witnesses—both by then in the Federal Witness Protection Program—were the self-same Apache Medellin and Gato Mendares.

It was my privilege to represent Ramon Alarcan in those proceedings. Let me begin by saying that a jury of his peers found him not guilty of violating Necho Solis’ civil rights, not guilty of conspiring to do so, and not guilty of obstruction of justice.

In fact, the only defendant convicted in the case was one who was shown to have been holding down one of Necho’s legs while Gato Mendares choked the life out of him.

The Justice Department in the 1970s was aggressively pursuing complaints against state and local police authorities for violating the civil rights of citizens. We were not completely removed at that time from the era of the white sheet and burning cross (indeed, traces continue to this day), and I believe that aggressively pursuing such complaints was and is entirely appropriate policy. However, any time a prosecutor sets out to aggressively pursue any sort of unlawful conduct, rather than simply proceed on matters brought to him by law enforcement agencies, there is a danger of an excess of zeal and a loss of sight of the forest while examining the trees under a microscope.

From the undeniable facts that Necho Solis was murdered by fellow inmates in the Bexar County Jail and that, at that particular time even more than usually, a lot of drugs seemed to be getting into the jail—particularly to friends of Medellin and Mendares—the thesis was born that this could only be so with the complicity of one or more jail guards. While this thesis certainly merited inquiry, it was the building of the government’s case upon the wholly noncredible Mr. Medellin and Mr. Mendares and very little else which I believe betrayed an excess of zeal.

Certain women known to be friendly to both Medellin and Mendares were suspected of having acted as drug couriers, delivering drugs—heroin, mostly—to Mendares and others in the jail when they came to visit inmates.

After the death of Necho Solis, it came to be suspected that the drug deliveries and the murder were interconnected. That particular suspicion proved to be true; Mendares testified Medellin sent him drugs via women couriers, as well as giving assurances Mendares’ family would be taken care of while he was “away,” in exchange for Mendares killing Necho Solis.

An investigation was begun at the jail, and guards and inmates were interviewed.

Jail guards, at the low end of the law enforcement prestige scale in terms of education, pay, and benefits, and even level of intelligence required, are scared to death of FBI agents, who are at the other end of the scale on all counts. They had heard about other local law enforcement people who had been prosecuted for civil rights violations, and had heard it was better not to talk to the FBI. On the other hand, they sure weren’t comfortable about seeming to “take the fifth” when they hadn’t done anything.

Ramon Alarcan was the shift sergeant on the evening shift, when most of the visitation took place—and hence when most of the drugs were smuggled into the jail. Most of the young men and women jail guards looked to Ramon for advice—on a lot of things, and in particular on how they should handle themselves when questioned by the FBI. Ramon counseled them to tell the truth, but to volunteer nothing and to say no more than they had to.

While most of the young guards took that as advice given for their benefit, to keep them from getting involved in something that was over their heads, two interpreted the remarks as being instructions to keep their mouths shut. It was this perception by these two (of 30 or 40) that resulted in Ramon—and only Ramon—being named in a third count of the indictment, alleging obstruction of justice. The investigation took months, during which all of the jail employees involved in prisoner visitation or who worked under Sgt. Alarcan or Captain O’Brien were interviewed. Then many of the same jail employees were called before the Federal Grand Jury.

The case didn’t really get off the ground, though, until deals were made with Medellin and Mendares. After their deals were struck, indictment swiftly followed.

Indictment resulted in suspension, of course, without pay. Enter Felipe Alarcan, Richard’s brother, who is better known as “P.L.” P.L. had been married, but was not married at this time, and the most important people in the world to P. L. were Ramon, his wife, and kids. P.L. helped Ramon get set up in the taxicab business, driving his own cab, while the case was pending trial; I don’t know what they’d have done without him.

The case was prosecuted by lawyers from the Civil Rights Enforcement Division in Washington. The office of the local United States Attorney offered assistance, but everything except for logistical help was declined. That, in my opinion, was a serious mistake, since the Washington lawyers simply didn’t know how to talk to a San Antonio jury—even if they’d had a case.

Although those who had assisted Mendares in strangling Necho Solis were indicted, along with a couple of women who were alleged to have carried heroin into the jails, the real targets were Sgt. Alarcan and Captain O’Brien.

As a matter of fact, a civil rights prosecution of this sort could not be brought against private citizens without alleging that they were in cahoots with one or more law enforcement officials, as the civil rights violation occurs only if what is done is done by persons acting ‘under color of State law”—i.e., exercising some dominion and control arising out of their employment as state or local peace officers.

Only one of the alleged drug couriers, one of the stranglers, and the two deputy sheriffs went to trial together. The other stranglers, who had already been convicted in State court for the murder of Necho Solis, plead guilty to violating his civil rights.

I won’t recite the details of the trial, but I’ve got to mention the testimony of Medellin and Mendares as to why they had become government witnesses. It had nothing to do, of course, with their having been placed in the witness protection program and given new identities, rather than spending the rest of their lives in the penitentiary, as each so richly deserved. No, Medellin was testifying for the government, he said, because he had “found God” and “had to get things straight with the man upstairs.” Mendares was doing so for the same reason he had killed Solis in the first place—out of a deep and consuming concern for the welfare of his family!

As I said earlier, the jury acquitted Capt. O’Brien on both counts and Sgt. Alarcan on all three counts. Anybody who was in the courtroom to watch the amazement on their faces as Medellin and Mendares testified first about what they had done and then about how and why they had done it and, finally, about their motivation for testifying, was in no way surprised by the verdicts.

I’ve heard a lot of prosecutors over the years arguing the necessity of “making deals” to obtain critical testimony, and there is no question but that it is necessary. Since the Devil is not found in Heaven, a deal to get the Devil has to be “made in Hell,” no doubt about it.

The problem was that in this case, the government had made deals with the devils themselves in order to try to convict decent, honest Ramon Alarcan and James O’Brien, against each of whom there was virtually no other evidence. Ramon Alarcan never went back to the sheriff’s office. He had always loved being a peace officer, and was a darned good one. The loss was ours.

Judge Wayne Patrick Priest
Judge Wayne Patrick Priest
Judge Wayne Patrick “Pat” Priest was a founding director of TCDLA. He received his JD from St. Mary’s University, where he served as an adjunct professor of Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure, and Trial Advocacy at its School of Law from 1979 through 1999. He has been on the bench since November 1980. As the senior District Judge of Bexar County in semi-retired status, he is called upon to preside over some big cases—including the Tom DeLay campaign finance trial, among others.

Judge Wayne Patrick “Pat” Priest was a founding director of TCDLA. He received his JD from St. Mary’s University, where he served as an adjunct professor of Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure, and Trial Advocacy at its School of Law from 1979 through 1999. He has been on the bench since November 1980. As the senior District Judge of Bexar County in semi-retired status, he is called upon to preside over some big cases—including the Tom DeLay campaign finance trial, among others.

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