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Bexar County Sheriff’s Office Creates Team To Investigate Deaths Potentially Related To Cold Weather And Power Outages

Bexar-County-Sheriff-Javier-Salazar-PALACIOS-091418.JPG
Joey Palacios
/
Texas Public Radio
Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar

The Bexar County Sheriff’s Office said it was investigating more than a dozen deaths that could be related to the cold weather and power outages last week.

Sheriff Javier Salazar said since the winter storm, the office found an ‘unprecedented’ number of death cases. At least 21 have been reported so far. The sheriff created a team to investigate each death to see if freezing temperatures and no electricity played a factor. Finding the cause of death could take several weeks, according to the medical examiner's office.

At present, it was unclear if some of the 21 deceased found so far died from natural causes or underlying conditions. But Salazar said he wants to determine if the cold weather played a role in exacerbating any of those circumstances.

“It’s way too soon to say that any of those, even, are attributed to the weather or any sort of outages,” Salazar said. “But I can tell you that with at least some of them, there may have been a factor involved.”

There may be more deaths that have not been reported.

“I still at this moment don’t believe we know of all the deaths,” Salazar said. “I’m honestly a firm believer that at this very moment, there are people lying dead inside homes that we still have not discovered. Maybe they’re a person that a home health agency only checks once a week or every two weeks.”

The sheriff listed several examples of the 21 deaths. One included a 69-year-old man on Greenlake Drive in southeast Bexar County. He was found dead in his home on Feb. 18. Salazar noted it was 35 degrees inside the home.

“It’s still under investigation whether the power was on at that time, or not on at that time the deputies arrived,” he said.

The investigative team will consist of at least five members from various departments of the sheriff’s office. They include a homicide cold case detective who is also a registered nurse, a CSI unit sergeant, a public integrity investigator, and retired FBI agent who now works as a deputy in the office. The sheriff did not provide names of the team members.

During Tuesday night’s COVID-19 briefing and weather response update, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff was surprised by Salazar’s revelation and said he wasn’t aware of any deaths related to the cold weather in the San Antonio area.

“That’s the first I saw what he came up with,” Wolff said. “I don’t think any deaths that I know of have been certified from the freezing.”

Determining cause of death is up the medical examiner. On its website, the Bexar County Medical Examiner said there has been high interest in cold weather or hypothermia related deaths but at the moment the office didn't have an accurate count of any deaths related to the winter storm.

“Unfortunately, these types of deaths require a thorough investigation into the relevant environmental conditions as well as assessment of the individual’s underlying health conditions, often including additional laboratory testing,” the statement said. “Therefore, these deaths take several weeks to adequately investigate and determine.”

Other cities in Texas have had reports of deaths that could be linked to the below freezing temperatures and the loss of power. The Dallas Morning News reported the Dallas County Medical Examiner looked into 17 potential weather related deaths. In the Houston area, an 11-year-old boy died, and officials believed hypothermia could be the cause.

The sheriff’s office asked CPS Energy, the local power utility for Bexar County and San Antonio, for outage data on specific addresses where bodies are found. Salazar said the utility requested a grand jury subpoena for any request.

“In every one of these ... cases we will be seeking grand jury subpoenas and then giving those over to CPS Energy in hopes of getting those records of any outages that may have occurred.”

John Moreno, a CPS Energy spokesperson, in an e-mailed statement said the utility was working with the sheriff’s office.

“CPS Energy extends heartfelt condolences to the friends and family of these individuals,” the statement read. “We have received some subpoenas for information from Bexar County law enforcement. CPS Energy is cooperating with authorities as these incidents are investigated. We are committed to our customers and remain focused on helping our community recover.”

If a death is attributed to the storm and power loss, Salazar said he's considering criminal charges for people or entities that could be liable for the deaths.

“I just want to make it clear I’m not saying we’re not going to arrest anybody today, or tomorrow, or next month, but what I’m telling you is what would seemingly be a heart attack case we’re going to have to look at it a little bit harder,” Salazar said. “And I found a Bexar County resident lost their life as the result of somebody’s negligence, absolutely there’s going to be hell to pay.”

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