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Frustration, distrust mount in Uvalde as families search for justice

Four relatives of Irma and Joe Garcia pose for a photo. A woman holds a sign that says "You can't wash the blood of the innocent off your hands," while another woman and a teenager hold a photo of the teacher and her husband. A young man stands next to them.
Camille Phillips
Texas Public Radio
Relatives of Irma and Joe Garcia, including Irma's sister Velma Duran and their 16-year-old daughter Lyliana, attended Uvalde's city council meeting June 30, 2022. Duran said she couldn't understand why local police and school officials all still have their jobs.

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A couple dozen family members of victims of the Robb Elementary shooting attended Uvalde’s city council meeting Thursday looking for answers.

They clustered in groups wearing buttons and shirts with their loved ones’ names and pictures and talked quietly while they waited two hours for the council to come out of closed session.

Uvalde city council members returned to open session after meeting with attorneys to discuss possible litigation related to the mass shooting. They took questions from the family members, and listened to emotional pleas for transparency and accountability, but said they couldn’t share any new information or hold anyone accountable at this time.

“The one thing I can tell you is we don't know any more when we left this room than now,” Mayor Don McLaughlin said. “We're not trying to hide anything from you. We're not trying to do that. We don't have anything. DPS has tied our hands. If we did have something and we released it, then we would be subject to individual criminal charges. But we don't have it. We don't have anything to give you or we would. I promise you.”

Uvalde parents and relatives sit in rows, some with heads down and others with arms crossed as cameras surround them.
Camille Phillips
Texas Public Radio
Uvalde residents and relatives of victims of the Robb Elementary shooting ask city council members questions June 30, 2022.

Several times during the hour-long exchange between council members and the public, McLaughlin held up copies of letters from the district attorney and the Texas Department of Public Safety as proof of the reason city officials can’t respond to public records requests about the mass shootings.

“Here's the letters right here, telling us it's an ongoing investigation. You can't release nothing under criminal charges,” McLaughlin said.

Although the letters don’t mention criminal charges, McLaughlin said council members could be charged with obstructing justice and obstructing a criminal investigation if they released information.

Council members also said they haven’t been able to access their own city police records, including body camera footage and 911 calls, because the Department of Public Safety “technically owns it right now.”

“They have a lock on our files not to release any files,” McLaughlin said.

Pete Arredondo

Uvalde school district police chief Pete Arredondo missed his third city council meeting in a row on Thursday.

According to the city’s charter, the council can declare his seat vacancy after he misses three meetings. But Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin said one of the meetings he missed doesn’t count because it was an emergency meeting posted less than 24 hours beforehand.

“This is his second meeting. If he misses the third, I don't think there's anybody up here that will tell you that we won't take the action that we need to take,” McLaughlin said.

Council Member Chip King said he’s arguing that all three meetings should count against Arredondo. The school police chief was elected to the city council shortly before the mass shooting at Robb Elementary May 24.

Texas Public Radio is supported by contributors to the Education News Desk, including H-E-B Helping Here, Betty Stieren Kelso Foundation and Holly and Alston Beinhorn.

Victims' Families

Irma Garcia’s sister, Velma Lisa Duran, wanted to know why all of Uvalde’s police officers and school leaders still have their jobs more than a month after the shooting.

“That is unbelievable to me. Unbelievable that these people are walking around like nothing, and my nieces and nephews have to see them at Walmart or H-E-B or go to school and know that they still have their jobs because, well, we have to follow a process,” Duran said.

Velma Lisa Duran gestures emphatically as she speaks to Uvalde council members.
Camille Phillips
Texas Public Radio
Velma Lisa Duran, sister of Irma Garcia, speaks to council members June 30, 2022. Duran is a teacher like her sister.

Duran said that all of the police agencies that responded to the shooting are at fault.

“These kids were obliterated. My sister was obliterated. It was a closed casket. I couldn't hug her. I couldn't touch her. I couldn't say my last goodbye,” Duran said.

She said that the facts are out there and the city should act.

Uvalde City Manager Vince DiPiazza said if he were to put all of the Uvalde police officers who responded to the mass shooting on leave there wouldn’t be enough left to protect the town.

“You're telling me what you think the facts are, and you may be correct, but I don't know that yet,” DiPiazza said. “I don't have enough information yet to make that decision. I'm not inclined to take action against people that are employed by the city without knowing the entire story.”

Family members and Uvalde residents shouted out responses to city officials’ comments from several directions, expressing their frustration and skepticism. Relatives of at least five of the 19 children and two teachers killed in the shooting attended the meeting.

“All the cops around here know exactly what happened in there, but they have a gag order to keep their mouth shut,” a woman said. “We're already to the point where we don't believe anything that anybody says.”

“Look at it as a dad, as a parent. Don't do what you can do as a mayor. Go beyond that,” a man said. “I know there's a limit on what you can do. Go beyond that. What if it was your kid?”

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Camille Phillips can be reached at camille@tpr.org or on Instagram at camille.m.phillips. TPR was founded by and is supported by our community. If you value our commitment to the highest standards of responsible journalism and are able to do so, please consider making your gift of support today.