The police van is parked just outside a building where two accountants are held hostage by a co-worker named Leslie. A woman with no previous criminal record, Leslie was recently indicted on 56 counts of embezzlement, money laundering and tax evasion, and she is angry and armed. She blames the accounting department for mishandling her accounts.
In the van, a specially trained hostage negotiation team of the San Antonio Police Department is trying to keep Leslie on the phone long enough to assess the situation. Other team members are hurriedly collecting information on both the hostages and the hostage taker.
Leslie insists on seeing her lawyer, Jim from Seguin, but won’t provide either his last name or phone number. After calling and hanging up several times, she finally volunteers his last name.”If you want to get them (the hostages) out, get my attorney,” she commands, slamming down the phone again. A few minutes later, she launches into a tirade against the CEO of the company.
After some discussion among themselves, the negotiators decide on a strategy. “We are going to let her talk to her lawyer only when she gives up. That’s going to be our position,” suggests the police psychologist, and everyone agrees. But they are still worried that she may hurt one of the hostages just to show that she is serious.
A moment later, the team’s sergeant walks in. “They just heard shots inside,” he announces.
“Damn right!” shouts Leslie through the phone.
Clear and present danger
That’s where negotiations can become really tense.
Though the above scenario was not an actual hostage takeover but a training exercise, the 14-member SAPD hostage negotiation team deals with similar situations 30 to 50 times a year, says Officer Barbara Thomas, a negotiator since 1992. A good-looking 47-year-old with an optimistic disposition, Thomas is proud of her colleagues and their collective work.
“Our team is world renowned,” she says. “We train other negotiators, including FBI agents and Texas Rangers. Our motto is ‘Everybody comes out alive,’ hostages and hostage takers. We save 99.9 percent of them. Then let the courts deal with the bad guys.”
Thomas knows what she speaks of. Whether it’s a case like the one described above or a domestic crisis where a family member threatens to shoot himself or his family, she has seen it all. Just a few months ago, Thomas successfully negotiated the surrender of a Mississippi man who had abducted a San Antonio woman and barricaded himself with his victim inside a hotel on Loop 410. Even though he barely knew the woman, the abductor had become obsessed with her. The negotiations lasted all day and well into the night.
“It took a while just to calm him down. He was in a crisis mode, not really rational,” explains Thomas. “Then, it’s a matter of wearing him down. We keep on asking questions, asking him to retell his story, asking him about what’s going on inside the building. Each time, he may reveal something important that we missed before. Time is our ally. They (hostage takers) like to maintain a certain amount of control to the end. They make demands, and then we talk about those, build a report. He finally let her out after 20 hours, but it took two more hours for him to come out.”
In another case, Thomas had to negotiate face to face with a man threatening suicide. The man’s wife had called because he had assaulted her, but when Thomas arrived at the house, she found the man barricaded in his bedroom. There was no phone or phone connection, so she had to confront him in person.
“He was huge and high on heroin, and he had a knife,” she recalls. “He was standing at the far end of the bedroom and I was at the door. I saw him stab himself several times. He was paranoid at that point. Needless to say, my stress level went sky high.”
She finally used psychology to turn things around. She told him that statistics show that children of suicides are very likely to commit suicide themselves. Would he want that for his kids? That got to him. He was a bright man, a former athlete, who cared for his children, she says, but heroin had undone him.
“You have to have some empathy for these men as well, and it has to come across,” explains Thomas. “You have to separate the person from the action.”
When she is not dealing with life and death, Thomas spends her days patrolling through a relatively quiet section of North Central San Antonio, between Blanco and Lockhill-Selma, north of Wurzbach Road. The day we met for our first interview, nothing much happened. There was a call about a missing person who later turned up and a mild domestic dispute case. Her day typically starts at 6 a.m., when she reports for duty at the Prue Road Substation, and ends at 2:30 p.m. after filing her reports for the day. Because of her seniority status, Thomas no longer has to work the “dog watch shift” (nights) when barroom fights, vehicle thefts and violent domestic disturbances can keep police pretty busy.
“I have always had a fascination with police work,” says the California native. “Watched a lot of cop shows when I was growing up. For the most part (police work) is boring, but then it’s also exciting, and there are moments that are terrifying.”
Before joining SAPD, Thomas spent 10 years in the Air Force, where she first worked as a B-15 bomber technician and later as an intelligence agent. Air Force training prepared her well for her current job. Teamwork, responsibility and organization are all part of both the military and the police. Not to mention that she was hardly intimidated by a gun. So far, however, Thomas has never actually shot anyone though she “came close several times.” But she did get injured once when she and a partner responded to a domestic violence call at night. The two were about to leave after seemingly calming the situation, when the man who had been fighting with his wife suddenly went ballistic.
“I went flying through the air and landed on my arm and crushed it,” she recalls, almost lightheartedly. “I was in rehab for six months, had to relearn to write. My partner had to shoot the guy.”
The divorced mother of two young men, Thomas complains that people stereotype police officers. To show another side of herself, she invited us to stop by her booth at the Starving Artists Show held in April in La Villita. It was indeed a different woman who greeted us there. Surrounded by her vivid paintings and handmade jewelry, her hair loose and her clothes casual, she was just an artist among fellow artists.
“I just started doing art three years ago as a stress reliever,” she explained with a sunny smile.
The challenge of leadership
In high school, San Antonio native Teresa Velasquez dreamed of being a TV anchorwoman.
But a few years after graduation, when one of her brothers announced that he was applying to be a policeman, she abruptly decided to follow suit. As fate would have it, she was accepted, he was not. (He later became a fireman.) Thus began Velasquez’s 17-year career with SAPD, where she is now the lieutenant in charge of the patrol daylight shift for the Central Substation. With 54 officers under her supervision, it is her duty to make patrol assignments each morning, monitor them throughout the day, resolve problems when they arise and step in as commander when an operation calls for it. In addition, she handles administrative and personnel matters and serves as mentor in the Leadership Development Program for city employees.
She starts our interview by telling us about the new emergency training which will coordinate the efforts of first responder agencies in case of disasters involving weapons of mass destruction. Named the National Emergency Response and Rescue Training and administered by the Texas Engineering Extension Service from Texas A&M University, the initiative is part of the nationwide post- 9/11 effort to be prepared should major calamity strike.
“This is the first time ever that these various agencies are working together,” says Velasquez, clearly excited. “There will be a unified command center, and we will be able to save more lives should something horrible happen, whether a terrorist attack or a hazardous chemical spill. It’s scary, but I am glad we are starting to keep up with the challenge.”
As if on cue, a colleague comes in to pick up her police phone so it can be adjusted to communicate with the FBI, the fire department and other parties. So far, the training has targeted only the command level, which in the police department starts with Velasquez’s rank of lieutenant. It’s a responsibility she takes seriously. “I am seeking those classes so that I can be really prepared,” she says.
As a lieutenant, Velasquez must also be prepared to help her troops “on the street” in more mundane but nevertheless dangerous situations. On a recent occasion, for instance, she had to take charge of an operation involving five suspicious explosive devices. The incident occurred at the corner of West Avenue and Gardenia, where officers found a suspicious device next to a bush and couldn’t figure out whether it actually contained explosive material. She called the bomb squad, evacuated and cordoned a three-block area, alerted the HazMat people and eventually ordered a search of the nearby house, where four more devices were found. Turned out, all were fakes. Apparently, an expelled tenant wanted “to spook the landlord.”
“But you don’t know that in advance,” she says. “All kinds of things pass through your mind. What if three blocks are not enough? What if somebody gets killed? But you have to be confident that your judgment is a good one. You get that adrenaline rush! I kind of miss that (being mostly in the office.)”
Before rising to her present position, Velasquez spent five years on patrol while pursuing her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Southwest Texas State University. Following graduation, she was promoted to detective and worked in several units, including theft and white-collar crime. From there, she went on to become a sergeant who worked closely with the community on fighting crime while increasingly developing her law enforcement-management skills. She is currently working on a master’s degree in human resources and public administration.
Considering her multiple responsibilities, what is her greatest challenge?
“Personality issues,” she says with a chuckle. “How to resolve them while at the same time maintaining everybody’s motivation to work together. But I love it. I am a people person, and I think I have found my niche.”
Still single at 39, Velasquez — who is pretty enough to be an anchorwoman — says her position intimidates men. “Every boy wanted to be a policeman at some point and there you are, doing what he wanted to do,” she shrugs. She was supposed to get married last summer, but the engagement fell apart in the wake of her promotion to lieutenant.
Once she retires, she will be able “to be a girl again,” but in the meantime she likes it where she is. “Police work is more than a job for me,” says Velasquez “It’s special, like family. We have this police culture. There is a lot of loyalty to each other.”
To catch a thief
For Detective Gina Dillon the family bond may be just a little stronger. The Oklahoma native, who had already completed both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree by the time she started police training, met her husband, Willie Dillon, at the police academy. Back when she was on patrol for five years, knowing that he was out there in another patrol car provided, on occasion, an additional sense of comfort.
Dillon’s sights were originally set on the FBI, but she knew she first needed some experience in a municipal setting. A petite woman who doesn’t look like she could intimidate too many bad guys, Dillon says matter-of-factly, “I’ve never been afraid of anything.”
Still, she found the physical training at the academy tough. “I was overwhelmed for a while,” she admits. “What did I get myself into? But I wasn’t going to quit. We were four females in a class of 49, and three of us graduated.”
An exercise that she found particularly unnerving was entering a chamber filled with a highly irritating gas without a mask. The challenge was to remain in control and put the mask on before “freaking out.” By comparison, tackling a knife-wielding thug on the street was, well, easier.
For the last couple of years, however, Dillon has been tackling a different kind of criminal. As a detective in the financial crimes unit, she now goes after the crooks who forge documents, steal honest people’s identities or defraud their clients or employers. In one case, she worked with the Secret Service to bag five people involved in a large counterfeit check ring. The group had stolen more than $100,000 by making copies of legitimate company checks, which they then cashed at various banks, using fake signatures.
So how did she get them?
“Believe it or not, one of them actually signed his real name on one of those checks, and his thumbprint was on it,” she says, smiling. “That was the starting point. After that, it sort of unraveled. They were federally indicted, but they are now out on bond.”
Another crime that she has dealt with is identity theft. It has skyrocketed in the past few years, says Dillon. A case she solved a few months ago involved a woman who used somebody else’s name and personal data to get credit, have breast enhancement surgery and expensive dental work. She was able to access this information because she worked in a doctor’s office.
The way Dillon cracked the case was by questioning the plastic surgeon’s staff. It turned out an unsuspecting friend of the con artist had come to pick her up after surgery. Dillon located the friend, who revealed the suspect’s whereabouts. The victim of the identity theft, however, is still struggling to rebuild her tarnished reputation.
“A lot of these crimes are difficult to investigate, though, especially if they are done over the phone or on the Internet,” admits the detective. “You don’t know who is sitting behind the computer. Technology has made it really easy for crooks to steal other people’s personal information.”
Oddly enough, most of Dillon’s cases involve female crooks. And that holds true even in the cases of “misapplication of fiduciary property,” which is a fancy name for embezzlement. At the time of our interview, Dillon was investigating just such a case, involving a woman who siphoned off $170,000 from her employer into her brother-in-law’s account, all in $1,000 chunks. The paper trail is mindboggling, but it does exist, making it possible for a detective to collect the evidence.
Before transferring to financial crimes, Dillon served in the sex crimes unit, dealing with child abuse. That was a tough assignment for a mother of a young boy. Seeing children with horrible injuries, including a little girl with lighter burns all over her body, was just too much to stomach. Going home to her own child, she would wonder in bewilderment “how can someone do this to a precious little kid.”
Yet despite seeing so much of the seedy side of life, or perhaps because of it, the rewards of her job are clear to her: “When you get these people off the streets, and you know they won’t do what they did to another person, that’s gratifying.”
Dealing with predators
That’s a statement that Detective Kim Bower from the sex crimes unit would wholeheartedly agree with. But unlike Dillon, the vivacious brunette, herself a mother of three boys, actually requested the sex crimes job. The unit handles not only sexual assaults, but also kidnapping, injuries to children, family violence, public lewdness and even disorderly conduct, because these offenses frequently have a sexual component.
“Nine out of 10 sexual assaults are committed on children, and most are committed by people the victims knew,” she says. “I felt helping children was the best contribution I could make.”
As we have all learned from press reports, the abuser is often the mother’s boyfriend or a stepfather, but it can be an uncle, a family friend or a grandfather. In rare instances, it may even be the child’s own father, says Bower, who spent two years dealing with what police call “known offender crimes.” In these situations, there’s little doubt as to who did it, because the child can usually identify and name the perpetrator.
These days, however, Bower faces a more challenging investigative task. As a member of a four-person “stranger team,” she now goes after assailants who have no previous connection to their victims.
“Family crimes are crimes of opportunity,” explains the detective. “The offenders manipulate the kids for their own purposes. Strangers who assault women or children are predators. I consider those crimes the worst of the
worst, and I like catching those guys.”
But it’s not easy. Usually, there is very little to go on. A recent case is typical. A masked man entered an apartment at night where two young women were sleeping. One of the women woke up to find the assailant on top of her, brandishing a knife. Fearing that her friend was dead and probably following instinct, she grabbed the knife and fought the intruder. Eventually, the would-be rapist fled, but not before he had taken something out of the girl’s purse.
What that “something” was must remain unnamed because the case was still under investigation at the time of our interview. But that “something” helped Bower to identify a suspect. When questioned, however, the man, who is married, denied everything.
“Do I believe it’s him? Yes. Can I prove it? Not yet,” she says. “I am waiting for more evidence from the lab.”
While this suspect will likely be nabbed, whoever is responsible for the death and disappearance of 12-year-old Rosa Sandoval is still at large. Rosa disappeared from her home in San Antonio late in the evening on May 27, 2004, without anybody seeing or hearing anything. The case attracted a lot of media coverage, including a spot on the TV program “America’s Most Wanted,” but searches proved futile. The child’s remains were finally found in a formerly flooded field in southwest Bexar County earlier this year.
“I believe this was a stranger crime, not someone she knew,” says Bower, who is still heartbroken about it.
A 1987 graduate of John Marshall High School, Bower worked for H-E-B for eight years before going into law enforcement. She went through security/ police training twice, first with the Alamo Area Council of Governments and later at the SAPD academy.
After obligatory time on patrol, Bower was promoted to detective by passing a highly demanding test with flying colors. Like all detectives, she works four days a week, including one weekend day.
Police work suits her perfectly, says the dynamic detective: “I am bossy, and I love the outdoors. Police work is working outdoors a lot and making command decisions.”
Bower and her husband, Detective Gary Bower, live on a small farm near Boerne with their children and Kim’s mom. The spouses talk shop while driving home but once there, they devote themselves to kids and animals. Kim likes to tend her horses, which is “like therapy” to her.
Maybe life on the farm helps her stay optimistic. Even though a colleague was killed in the line of duty, Bower doesn’t dwell on fear.
“I have always believed that when it’s your time to go, it’s your time. So why fret about it,” she says with a laugh.
Author: Jasmina Wellinghoff
Photographer: Liz Garza Williams