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“Our hands are just as tied…”
Frio County Sheriff Mike Morse heard Thursday, June 16, from a room full of frustrated landowners that they continue to suffer property damage from bailouts during the ongoing border crisis of immigrant smuggling and pursuit.
The sheriff acknowledged the landowners’ cries for help during a public forum he and his staff hosted in Pearsall last week.
“It is definitely a crisis,” Morse said, “and to be honest I should have done this a long time ago; that is on me.”
Before beginning the question-and-answer portion of the forum, attendees watched several dashboard camera videos of recent bailouts that involved deputies engaging in high-speed pursuits on the interstate, county and farm-to-market roads, and onto private land.
The first clip showed a pickup truck traveling at over 100 miles per hour on IH 35 before stopping and several passengers fleeing into the brush, some crossing the busy interstate.
Hours before the sheriff hosted the forum, deputies were assisting US Border Patrol agents with a high-speed pursuit on Spur 581, just south of the Wishing Well Club. Officers indicated a woman was driving the car at over 120 miles per hour. Frio deputies deployed tire-deflating spikes to stop the car but the vehicle broke the spike strip at high speed. The vehicle eventually stopped on FM 1582 at the Riggs Ranch. The woman had been smuggling a number of undocumented immigrants and her passenger was holding a 10-month infant without a safety belt.
“The majority of these drivers, they have their trails, so if they bail out on a ranch, they try and go back to that same ranch to bail out,” Frio Lt. Josh Longoria said. “Our deputies are advised to stay on the paved road. Our main goal is to notify the rancher.”
Morse said he wanted to gather everyone together because he is aware that landowners have a front-row view of what is happening. He said that he does not believe the crisis will end soon.
The sheriff also noted that the majority of vehicles used in the smuggling efforts appear to be stolen pickup trucks, many of them heavy-duty Fords, Dodges and Chevrolets.
The sheriff also addressed the abandoned vehicle (ABV) fund, clearing misconceptions on the use of the monies and stating the resource is a means by which the law enforcement agency funds daily operations.
“Last year our budget was cut by three hundred thousand dollars,” Morse said. “So we got creative and started using the ABV fund to fund daily operations.”
Chief Deputy Peter Salinas added the the ABV fund is used for anything from uniforms to equipment to vehicle maintenance.
“In order to reduce our taxpayer-funded footprint on our budget we utilized funds out of the abandoned vehicle fund,” the chief deputy said. “We took one hundred and sixty thousand dollars and moved it into our budget from what was taken from us due to the budget shortfall the county was seeing at that time.”
The sheriff said he is proposing, for the next three months, contingent on the approval of the county commissioners and judge, to contribute some of the ABV fund to the repairs of the gates and fences damaged during smuggler pursuits.
Both the sheriff and chief deputy said they believe landowners should be aware that the majority of pursuits that occur in Frio County are not initiated by Frio County deputies.
“We are not going to stop,” the sheriff said of the smuggler interceptions. “If we stop them, this will become a sanctuary. As long as I am sheriff we are not going to stop chasing stolen vehicles.”
Residents voiced concerns over an apparent lack of support from insurance companies to help them with repairs after bailouts that are occurring weekly, sometimes daily, on their properties.
“I agree with you that the insurance companies should have to fix your fence,” Salinas said. “But there is a loophole. If the vehicle is reported stolen, they do not have to fix the fence. But it is not the sheriff’s office fault. Our hands are just as tied, but it is going to be a legislative thing.”
Salinas provided attendees with statistics from 2021 that listed 80 vehicle pursuits, only 20 of which had been initiated by Frio County officers. Eleven of those pursuits, he said, resulted in property damage.
“Out of those events, we made 24 arrests, typically American citizens smuggling,” the chief deputy said.
“I understand we lose a lot of bodies,” Salinas said. “But there is no way a deputy is going to be able to chase fourteen individuals. And we are not going to go through your fences. We have to get out and gingerly open your gates. I understand it is scary that these individuals are on your property. We will continue to formulate that plan until we figure out one that fits the people of Frio County just right.”
According to the sheriff, smugglers are typically American citizens who are arrested and charged with a state jail felony and have bond set by the district attorney’s office. A surety bond is set for each count of human smuggling and Morse said they are normally not bonded out. Therefore, the county is responsible for housing the inmate for at least 90 days. Those who are not indicted by a grand jury in 90 days are released on a personal recognizance bond.
“So you and I are paying to house them and for their medical,” the sheriff said. “Now we do have an agreement with TDCJ Briscoe Unit that they will take some of our smugglers.”
Deputies were quizzed over the option of using federal or state funding programs to provide assistance.
Pearsall Mayor Ben Briscoe told the audience he recently learned of a program through the USDA NCRS office that ends on July 5. He encouraged landowners to contact the office and have their farm number ready so they could take advantage of the funding.
Salinas presented the landowners with a program he is mirroring from Jim Wells County. Landowners can fill out an information sheet that includes livestock information, ranch data, contact information and other identifying markers. Each landowner will be issued a placard with a number assigned to the specific ranch.
“You will put this placard on your main gate so when we are out there running around at night we can tell the dispatcher we are at your ranch, and the dispatcher will be able to look up your tag number and we have information that will help us get to you quicker,” the chief deputy said. “I hope this gives you guys a little bit more peace of mind and gives us a little bit more advantage. The dispatchers have information so they can share it with other law enforcement agencies in the event a pursuit happens on private property.”
Salinas said landowners should tag heavy machinery and deputies will do their best to watch out for that equipment and stop and check to make sure that it is being moved by the right people.
Placards are funded through assets and forfeiture resources derived from seizures of assets held by drug traffickers and other offenders.
“The county commissioners and judge need to realize by taking [money] from you all they are taking from us,” Luke Alvarez said. “They need to realize the problem that is occurring. You all are fighting with your hands tied.”
Alvarez and other forum attendees suggested the sheriff’s office increase its $25 daily storage fee for seized vehicles to help increase the available fund amount.
Salinas said 90 percent of the abandoned vehicles are recovered by the insurance companies who pay towing and storage fees.
“If allowable, we can give the storage fee to the landowner,” Salinas said. “The goal is to help you all in every way humanly possible. As much as the government red tape will allow us.”
The sheriff said he believes Frio County’s landowners are in a position to plead a case for a reimbursement program.
“You’ve got to have a starting place, and this is a good place to start,” Morse said.