After Monica Velasco went on the run from the law, parents of her students at Thomas Manor Elementary School in El Paso, Texas, told investigators that the unassuming 42-year-old brunette was one of best teachers their children ever had.
She used to return home in the evenings to a spacious $400,000 house on the west side of El Paso. But on January 25, officials say she escaped out the back door of a dingy, one-story redbrick safe house minutes ahead of the US Marshals Service's Lone Star Fugitive Task Force.
Authorities are seeking Velasco on charges that she allegedly managed the finances and transferred property for her family's violent drug trafficking operation, which prosecutors say smuggled "huge quantities" of marijuana into the US, kidnapped victims for ransom, including children, and ripped off rival traffickers to sell their stolen drugs, among other offenses.
"She was living a double life," Deputy US Marshal Scott Williams told VICE News. "I've talked to people who had kids in her class who said, 'She was my favorite teacher, she was so nice.'"
Monica's brother is 29-year-old alleged crime boss Emmanuel "Richie" Velasco Gurrola, who prosecutors say headed his family's lucrative operations in narcotics, car theft, money laundering, extortion, and kidnapping, with a reach that stretched from Ciudad Juárez in Mexico to the Carolinas.
Headquartered in El Paso, the group allegedly had significant ventures in Las Vegas and New Mexico, as well as a drug distribution network in Dallas.
Details of the group's operations were laid out in a racketeering indictment against Emmanuel, Monica, their brother Samuel Velasco Gurrola — a 40-year-old who prosecutors have identified as the "co-leader" of the family business — their sister Dalia Valencia, and other associates that was filed in the US District Court for the Western District of Texas on October 28. The siblings have pleaded not guilty to all charges.
The document was unsealed in January, a few months after Monica quit her job at Thomas Manor Elementary and quietly disappeared.
The Velasco Criminal Enterprise
Prosecutors refer to the gang as the "Velasco Criminal Enterprise," or VCE, and allege that it trafficked hundreds of kilograms of marijuana, as well as other drugs like cocaine, into the United States.
Monica and Dalia, 43, were "primarily in charge of handling and storing VCE's money," according to the indictment. Members of VCE would meet with Monica to deliver or pick up drug proceeds, and she rented vehicles for VCE members to use.
In 2014, the schoolteacher once received a Cadillac Escalade SUV as payment for a kilogram of cocaine and passed the car on to Emmanuel, the document says.
At the time, Monica appeared to be living a quiet life, with no husband, boyfriend, or children of her own. Deputy Marshal Williams said that she forged fond attachments to her students.
"It seems like she was real involved in the school," he remarked of her 14-year tenure. "She loved her kids."
But she carried multiple cellphones, including disposable "burner" phones, to communicate with her family.
"She and her mom had specific phones to talk to each other. She had other phones just to talk to her brothers," Williams said. "Normal people don't do that sort thing."
Prosecutors charge that the group routinely engaged in violence, including threats against its own members to keep them in line. Members of a kidnapping team operating in Juárez killed two of their own in an April 2009 incident, the indictment says, though it didn't explain why.
From 2009 to 2013, prosecutors allege that Emmanuel, Samuel, and Dalia planned and executed a wave of "extortion and kidnapping" in the US and Mexico, targeting "local business owners, medical professionals, students, and children."
VCE's kidnapping operation was allegedly organized into teams, with different groups to identify victims, provide intelligence on their daily schedule, acquire weapons, stage the abduction, and negotiate a ransom. Dalia would "provide names of possible victims to kidnap," the indictment says, while Emmanuel and Samuel would personally call the victim's family to negotiate.
Another of the group's alleged activities was to "rip off or steal drug loads from sources of supply or competing drug trafficking organizations and then sell those stolen drugs for profit."
Molestation and Murder
In a separate case, Samuel, Emmanuel, and Dalia are accused of conspiring to murder Samuel's estranged wife, Ruth Sagredo, who was gunned down on a Juárez street in November 2008. Federal agents have testified that the killing was aimed at keeping her from providing testimony against Samuel in a case concerning his alleged sexual assault of a young family member in 2005.
Samuel and Ruth, a nurse practitioner at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, were married in February 2004. But less than a year later, Ruth wanted out.
In her petition for divorce from Samuel, she accused her husband of "a pattern of extreme and outrageous conduct" that caused her to "suffer severe emotional distress."Her petition states that the couple stopped living together on January 12, 2005 — the same day that, according to a grand jury indictment that followed, Samuel was alleged to have molested the child.
A federal agent later testified that Ruth was the only witness that the prosecution was going to put on the stand, having been the person whom the victim initially told of the assault. As the molestation case worked its way to trial, Samuel, Emmanuel, and Dalia hatched a plot to have her killed, according to statements given by federal agents.
"They conspired to kill Ruth Sagredo because, if she was killed, she would not be able to testify in that case," Special Agent Thomas Salloway of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations division testified during Dalia's preliminary detention hearing in October.
Just ahead of when the jury trial was set to commence in November 2008, they arranged to kill Ruth's 69-year-old father, a prosperous businessman named Francisco Maria Sagredo Villareal, in Juárez, and planned to ambush her when she visited to attend the funeral, Salloway testified.
"A hit team was put together," he said. "They knew that Ruth Sagredo didn't travel often to Mexico, that they were going to have to figure out a way to lure her into Mexico…. The plan being that Ruth Sagredo would then attend her father's funeral in Mexico, where they, at that point, would be able to murder Ruth as well."
At the time, Juárez was a city convulsed in violence fueled by the drug war and human smuggling. In 2008, the city's murder rate more than tripled to 1,607 deaths, and Juárez was well on its way to becoming Mexico's murder capital.
"They wanted to make it look like a cartel hit," Jason Kaunas, an agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration, testified during Samuel's detention hearing, citing cooperating witnesses who had revealed the conspiracy.
On October 3, 2008, Francisco was robbed of $140,000 in cash and killed in his Juárez home. Three masked men stormed into the house, locked the other family members in the bathroom, led Francisco to another room, and shot him, according to Kaunas.
But Ruth decided not to attend her father's funeral, Salloway said. So the siblings' next move was to have Ruth's 40-year-old sister, Cinthia Judith Sagredo Escobedo, killed as well, the agents testified.
"They then murdered Cinthia Sagredo, hoping that this would, in turn, lure Ruth Sagredo to come to Cinthia's funeral," Salloway said.
Cinthia was shot to death in front of the Posada San Nicolás hotel in Juárez, where she worked, on November 20, 2008. Two days later, while riding in her sister's funeral procession, Ruth was ambushed and murdered. Roberto Martinez, one of Ruth's co-workers who had accompanied her to the funeral, was also killed.
Local press reports described two trucks with multiple shooters pulling up beside her 2004 Kia Amanti, and at least 20 rounds from AK-47s ripping through the vehicle.
During the funeral procession, "several armed men in two separate vehicles drove up to her vehicle, boxed her in and opened fire, killing her inside," Kaunas said.
Edward Hernandez, Ruth's longtime lawyer, had asked her not to risk going down to Juárez, according to a story in the El Paso Times. After the murder, he argued that she had been targeted along with her father and sister in connection to her domestic problems, and hoped that federal, state, and local authorities would investigate.
The sexual assault charges against Samuel were dropped the following March after "the complaining witness… requested dismissal," according to a copy of a court order from the 243rd District Court of El Paso County.
On the Lam
Monica Velasco isn't accused of being involved in Ruth Sagredo's death.
But the arrest in September of Samuel and Dalia on charges related to the killing prompted her to flee, according to an account that their 63-year-old mother, Josefina Gurrola, gave to law enforcement after she was herself taken into custody earlier this month on charges that she had concealed Monica from arrest.
A federal indictment in September charged Emmanuel, Samuel, and Dalia with conspiracy to kill in a foreign country and conspiracy to cause travel in foreign commerce in the commission of murder for hire, to which they have pleaded not guilty. They could face the death penalty or life imprisonment if convicted.
Emmanuel was already in custody by then, having been arrested in San Diego on April 13, 2015 after being indicted for possession of 100 kilograms of marijuana with intent to distribute. Samuel and Dalia were arrested on September 24, 2015.
That was the moment when Monica quit her job at Thomas Manor Elementary School and fled.
The Drug Enforcement Administration, Homeland Security Investigations, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation had been tracking the criminal enterprise for at least two years, according to Salloway and Kaunas's testimony. The October indictment says that by late 2013, Emmanuel was being "recorded discussing drug trafficking activities, including the movement of drug proceeds, with a person known to the grand jury" — suggesting that at least one associate of his gang turned state's witness.
Kaunas testified that about 20 cooperating witnesses are assisting the investigation into the family's alleged drug trafficking and money laundering operations, and suggested in court that the racketeering investigation had uncovered new information about the 2008 murder case in early 2015.
"We were able to develop cooperating defendants that provided specific information related to the meetings that were conducted to orchestrate the murder of the victims," he said.
A month after she quit her job, Monica was indicted over her role in the family's criminal enterprise, and a warrant was issued for her arrest.
Her face went up on highway billboards around the city in the weeks that followed, as a team of 15 marshals from the Lone Star Fugitive Task Force was tasked with finding the former schoolteacher.
In January, investigators believed they had traced her to a small brick house with iron bars on the windows.
"Somehow she got word that we were talking to the owner of the house, her cousin's husband," Williams said. "When we were approaching the house, probably minutes prior to us getting there, she fled out the back door."
Today, her whereabouts are unknown, and authorities say that she should be considered armed and dangerous.
On February 5, Josefina Gurrola was arrested while trying to submit paperwork to withdraw Monica's retirement funds from the Yselta Independent School District. (The district's board of trustees unanimously voted to terminate Monica's contract in December. "Velasco is no longer employed with the district and no further comment can be provided at this time," it said in a statement.)
Under questioning, Gurrola told the police that Monica "realized after her brother and sister were arrested that she would be next," according to a copy of the complaint against her, and that Monica "got scared of going to jail."
Gurrola first told the police that she had planned to deliver the retirement payments to Monica, because her daughter had "no money" and was "living on the streets." But she later retracted that statement, according to the police complaint, saying she planned to use the money to hire attorneys in Tucson, Arizona, so that Monica "could have a bond when she was arrested." She then refused to answer more questions.
"Stop, stop," she's quoted as saying. "I do not want to speak to you all anymore because you do not believe anything I say."
Gurrola, a Mexican citizen, was denied bail due to the chance she might flee the country.
But officials believe Monica may still be in El Paso — and that she is more frightened of what might await her in Mexico than she is of facing prison in the US.
Williams said investigators have been told by people who know Monica that she has always been scared of visiting Mexico, even before she was on the run from the law.
"We're hearing that she's afraid to go there," he remarked. "In the past, when some of her other family went over there, she always refused to go."
Now that members of the family are on trial, Williams added, it was possible that someone might want to "harm her, to prevent her from talking."
"If she's in as deep as they say the family is," he said, "then once they know the entire family is wanted and she's the only one on the run… you never know what their intentions are for her."
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