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Reporting On Deadly Collision Leads To Legal Threats Against Journalist

A ghost bike memorial for Beatrice Gonzalez at the site where she was struck and killed.
A ghost bike memorial for Beatrice Gonzalez at the site where she was struck and killed.

When TPR started asking questions about a deadly accident involving Martin Phipps’ executive assistant, the firm accused the reporter of harassment and of catfishing employees on the hookup app Grindr. As TPR has reported, Phipps and the firm have been in the news following a group of resignations from the firm and Phipps’ arrest.

Samantha Castillo, 24, has been accused of hitting and killing a cyclist on the evening of April 7 while intoxicated. She is a paralegal and executive assistant to Martin Phipps — founder and owner of Phipps Ortiz Talafuse PLLC and of Paramour bar.

The law firm represents Bexar county in its lawsuit against opioid manufacturers and distributors.

Shortly after 8 p.m. on that night, Beatrice Gonzalez was standing over her bicycle with another rider waiting for two others to catch up. It was dry and clear, according to a police report.

According to a witness statement, the two cyclists were standing on the sidewalk near Central Catholic High School and Gonzalez was using her phone to call her family.

Then a 2016 black Mercedes Benz sedan sped towards them. According to police reports, it “failed to negotiate a curve.”

The car jumped the curb, and struck Gonzalez. The force of the collision was so great it threw her 5’3” body into the street. Her bicycle tumbled out after her in front of Fire Station #4.

Emergency workers at the station heard the accident and responded immediately, said the report. Gonzalez was pronounced dead at the scene less than 20 minutes later.

Her fellow cyclist — whose name was redacted from the report — told police he narrowly avoided being hit. He said Castillo was the driver. She had pulled over after striking Gonzalez.

“(Castillo said) that she messed up,” said the police report. The officer noted she smelled of alcohol, was crying and had “blood shot glassy eyes.”

Castillo couldn’t remember where she was coming from, and the officer noted later it was a restaurant and bar a little more than 500 yards from the accident called Cerveceria Chapultepec. The report didn’t note how the officer came to this conclusion. The bar didn’t respond to emailed requests for comment by the time of publication.

Castillo told police she got off work at 5 p.m. and headed to the bar to eat and drink.

Police records describe a field sobriety test where Castillo couldn’t keep her balance during the instructions. She was polite, talkative, and — they determined — intoxicated.

She was arrested, charged with intoxication manslaughter, bonded out at $50,000, and awaits a May 11 hearing.

“We are preparing to aggressively protect her rights and defend her on this charge as we do for all of our clients,” said Jason Goss, Castillo’s lawyer.

Meanwhile a $20 million lawsuit has been filed in state district court against Castillo and an as-yet unnamed bar(s), by Gonzalez’s children, Danielle and David.

“We have a very young adult having to raise her brother who is a freshman in high school,” said Fidel Rodriguez, attorney for the family.

The lawsuit alleges that Castillo was overserved by “Unknown Bar X.”

The lawsuit does not name the bar because, according to the firm, it was relying on the initial police report which did not name the place where Castillo was drinking that night. A report from the arresting officer which TPR obtained through an open records request named one bar, but said Castillo had named several that it did not list and that she was confused.

While Castillo has been working as a paralegal and assistant to Phipps, her LinkedIn profile has been taken down.

According to the police report, she was traveling southbound towards The Phipps building at the time of the accident. It wasn’t immediately clear why she was heading that direction, which is the opposite direction of her home, according to police. Goss declined to answer questions beyond the initial statement.

The accident occurred two blocks from Castillo’s office at The Phipps.

When TPR reached out to former firm and bar employees, they indicated Castillo frequented Paramour.

Because of the proximity of the collision to the office, and reports that Castillo may have been in Paramour that day, TPR contacted some current bar employees.

“That’s gonna be a strict no comment on my part,” said Andrew Flores, Paramour manager.

“I have nothing to say on that subject because I don't know anything about it. I was not there. I don't know anything,” he said, noting he wasn’t the manager at the time of the accident.

TPR also reached out to Phipps directly.

In a follow up email to TPR a spokesman offered more detail.

“We are deeply saddened by this tragic event and our sincerest condolences go out to the Gonzalez family. Out of respect for those involved, we will make no further comment on the matter except to say none of the people involved in this tragic incident had been at Paramour that day,” said the spokesman.

“Thanks for reaching out for comment – hope all is well by you. I will reach out now to see if Mr. Phipps will comment,” said Rich Wilner in an email. Wilner works for a communications company the firm hired after Phipps was arrested for telephone harassment in February.

TPR later received more of the police record indicating Castillo had been at a bar other than Paramour prior to the accident.

Within the hour of reaching out to Phipps through his communications consultant, Meagan Talafuse, a senior partner at Phipps’ firm sent a cease and desist letter to TPR.

“Mr. Flahive is clearly attempting to fabricate a story we believe is contradicted by police reports and physical evidence. We demand that Mr. Flahive immediately cease his incessant and harassing phone calls and text messages,” reads the letter.

When TPR received the letter, its reporter had called two current Paramour employees and followed up with one via text.

The letter goes on to make an additional accusation even more outlandish.

“Additionally (and disturbingly), we have reason to believe Mr. Flahive is posing as Martin J. Phipps on the dating app Grindr in an attempt to extract information from employee(s),” said Talafuse.

Grindr is a dating app marketed to a largely LGBTQ+ user base.

Attached to Talafuse’s email are six screenshots that show part of Grindr conversations between unidentified parties, one of them apparently impersonating Phipps. At one point in the excerpted conversation, one of the app users references the name “Sam,” which may be short for Samantha Castillo.

The screenshots however didn’t seem to relate to TPR’s questions submitted to Phipps, nor had TPR or its reporter seen the screenshotted messages before.

Provided by Meagan M. Talafuse
Phipps, Ortiz, Talafuse
One of six screenshots attached to a cease and desist email from Meagan M. Talafuse that show Grindr conversations between unidentified parties, one of them, apparently impersonating Martin Phipps.

“Had you not described the screenshot messages as ‘being about the same matter’ that Mr. Flahive is reporting about, Mr. Flahive and TPR would not have had enough context to know the sender and recipient are even discussing the fatal collision,” wrote lawyers representing TPR in a response letter.

The cease-and-desist letter threatened TPR and Flahive with legal action and asked the station and reporter to hold onto evidence.

“Routine newsgathering activities about a matter of public concern are protected by the First Amendment and are not harassment,” wrote the lawyers, Thomas Leatherbury and Michael Shapiro with the SMU Dedman School of Law’s First Amendment Clinic. “[A]s Mr. Flahive’s request for interviews and information are plainly not harassment, it is unclear to what potential claim your litigation hold request relates.”

One former employee contacted TPR shortly after giving an interview to say that Martin Phipps had called him and threatened him with a breach of his non-disclosure agreement, an agreement he said he was unaware he had signed.

This is the second time TPR has received a demand letter from the firm this year. In February another partner, Gabe Ortiz, claimed TPR had received “confidential information protected from disclosure by attorney-work product privilege...in Bexar County’s active lawsuit against opioid manufacturers and distributors.” Ortiz demanded that TPR not “produce or publish” any such information.

TPR could not determine what information Ortiz was referring to, and TPR did not agree to the demand.

Beatrice Gonzalez was buried Tuesday. She was 44.

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.

Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org