A sheriff's deputy in Texas is accused of sexually assaulting a 4-year-old girl and threatening to deport her undocumented mother if she reported the crime, authorities said.
Authorities arrested detention officer Jose Nunez, a 10-year-veteran of the Bexar County Sheriff's Office, early Sunday while he was off duty. He faces a felony charge of "super aggravated sexual assault of a child," which carries a minimum prison sentence of 25 years, Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar said in a news conference.
"The details of the case are, quite frankly, heartbreaking, disturbing, disgusting and infuriating all at the same time," Salazar said.
The sheriff said Nunez, 47, allegedly touched the girl inappropriately on numerous occasions, causing her pain and "at least some indication of minor injury." Authorities believe the assaults have been taking place for several months or potentially for as long as two years, Salazar said.
The 4-year-old girl is related to Nunez, and the alleged assaults took place at her residence, Salazar said. Officials suspect there may be more victims related to Nunez who were affected.
Nunez allegedly blackmailed the girl's mother, taking advantage of her undocumented status to "place the mother in fear that she would be deported" if she reported the alleged assaults, Salazar said.
"We believe that there was some hesitation on the part of the witness to report the conduct because of the fact that she's undocumented in the country," Salazar said.
But after the 4-year-old girl "made an outcry to her mom," the mother took her to a local fire station to report the crime on Saturday night, Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar said. By morning, Nunez was booked into jail. He has not commented or filed a plea.
"Folks like this are creatures of habit and opportunity," Salazar said. "I don't know that he was purposely targeting the undocumented community. Certainly I think what appealed to him, in this case anyway, is the vulnerability of that community because of the fact that they're less apt to report things."
Salazar declined to comment on the girl's residency status. He told the San Antonio Express-News that the mother is from Guatemala.
"The little girl now is safe and we're continuing to process the case," Salazar said.
The mother's hesitance to report the crime underscores long-running concerns that undocumented immigrants are reluctant to engage with law enforcement out of fear of deportation, Salazar said. "That's always a concern in the undocumented community," he said.
Authorities are filling out paperwork to ensure the mother is given a protected status pending the outcome of the case, Salazar said.
"I would urge anybody that may be undocumented that is a victim of a crime or a witness to a crime to please come forward and report it," he said.
Since President Donald Trump took office, law enforcement officials and immigrant rights activists have warned that the administration's crackdown on immigration enforcement could create a chilling effect in undocumented communities.
And in the past year, law enforcement agencies from California to New Jersey have indeed reported drops in crime reporting among predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods.
In a nationwide survey conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union and National Immigrant Women's Advocacy Project, 70 percent of prosecutors said that sexual assault is now underreported and harder to investigate than before Trump took office.
In Houston, the number of Hispanics reporting rape in 2017 decreased nearly 43 percent from 2016, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said last year. Those reporting other violent crimes dropped by 13 percent.
"It looks like they're going further into the shadows," Acevedo told The Washington Post in May of last year.
Advocates say these fears are particularly heightened in Texas, which has the second largest Hispanic population in the country. The governor signed a bill last year that effectively bans "sanctuary" jurisdictions in the state, imposing costly fines and even jail time on officials who refuse to cooperate with U.S. immigration agents. It also allows local law enforcement officers to ask people they detain about their immigration status.
Salazar said the Bexar County Sheriff's Office is conducting a separate but concurrent internal affairs investigation on Nunez. He has been put on administrative leave from the agency, of which the first 10 days are paid.
If he fails to make bond, Nunez will be moved to a different facility from the Bexar County detention center where he worked.
"My objective is to separate this person from the agency as soon as possible," Salazar said.
The Washington Post