Telling stories about the unthinkable: How three journalists shined a spotlight on child abuse

April 20th, 2014 by John Tedesco
Sarah Brasse

Sarah Brasse

In February 2009, an 8-year-old girl from Schertz died, alone, of acute appendicitis — a disease that could have easily been treated if caught in time.

In the hours leading up to her death, people concerned about the girl — including officers from the Schertz Police Department — had warned the Texas Department of Child Protective Services that she was a victim of neglect.

CPS didn’t act. And on Feb. 5, 2009, authorities found the girl’s body in a soiled bed.

Her name was Sarah Brasse.

It wasn’t so long ago in Texas that you would have had a tough time learning any of those tragic details.

In fact, according to the state officials in charge of protecting children from abusive adults, you would have had no legal right to even know Brasse’s name.

And you certainly wouldn’t be able to know the agency missed opportunities to help Brasse.

But a decade of diligent reporting by three Express-News journalists shined a spotlight of transparency on tragedies involving Brasse and scores of other children in San Antonio, helping the public understand the unfathomable.
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San Antonio lawyer Alberto Acevedo says he bribed judge, got favorable treatment

March 19th, 2014 by John Tedesco

Express-News Reporter Guillermo Contreras, who covers the federal-courts beat, has been writing scoop after scoop about an FBI investigation at the Bexar County courthouse in San Antonio. The latest bombshell is a story about this plea deal for local defense lawyer Alberto “Al” Acevedo Jr., who lays out in excruciating detail how he bribed Bexar County District Judge Angus McGinty by giving him cash, paying for car repairs and selling the judge’s Mercedes for him:

“In exchange for these bribes, Judge McGinty provided favorable judicial rulings which benefited me and my clients,” Acevedo says in the court document. “Judge McGinty provided these favorable judicial rulings as requested, and as opportunities arose. These favorable rulings included leniency at sentencing and less restrictive conditions of release.”

The clients included a man who was convicted of DWI and sentenced by McGinty to three years imprisonment. In court, McGinty had said the defendant had committed so many offenses it didn’t make any sense to put him on probation. Yet after Acevedo asked him to reduce the sentence, the judge did just that and sentenced him to four years community supervision:

On Sept. 10, Gabriel A. Lopez stood before then-state District Judge Angus McGinty and received three years in prison and a $1,500 fine for his no-contest plea to drunken driving.

He admitted his blood alcohol level was 0.21 — more than 21/2 times the legal limit. It was his third driving-while-intoxicated conviction.

“There comes a time when someone has committed so many offenses that it doesn’t make sense to put them on probation,” McGinty told Lopez, 35, who appeared with attorney Leandro Renaud.

The judge noted Lopez had 11 prior criminal cases and had received probation four times, while three of those were revoked.

“That’s unacceptable, Mr. Lopez,” McGinty admonished. “I do not think probation is appropriate.”

But just three days later, on Sept. 13, Lopez stood before McGinty again, this time with lawyer Al Acevedo Jr. And this time, he walked out a happier man after the judge changed Lopez’s sentence to four years of probation.

“Mr. Lopez, when you were here last, and I sentenced you, it’s because I thought you had earned the right to go to” prison, McGinty said. “Your attorney has done a good job of pointing out some facts that I didn’t adequately consider before.”

In reality, the FBI has alleged, Acevedo had the good graces of the judge because he had served as McGinty’s personal car service — paying for repairs on the jurist’s two luxury cars with the expectation that the scales of justice would tilt heavily in favor of Acevedo’s clients.

Later, Acevedo’s law partner congratulated Acevedo. “I guess it does make a difference givin’, givin’ people money, right?”

Acevedo laughed. “Sure does,” he replied.

Other clients that benefited from the judge’s leniency included an alleged bank robber and a man charged with aggravated robbery.

McGinty resigned after word of the federal investigation spread but hasn’t yet been charged.

Check out the San Antonio bars and restaurants that raked in the most money in alcohol sales

February 20th, 2014 by John Tedesco
Jen at Bohanan's

Date night with no kids. Look how happy this woman looks.

Last night Jen and I enjoyed a rare date night at one of our favorite restaurants downtown, Bohanan’s, a swanky oasis of cocktails, jazz — and no screaming Tedesco children.

If you’ve ever wondered exactly how much money your favorite haunt makes in alcohol sales, there’s now an easy way to find out.

Joe Kokenge, the Express-News’ database editor, put together this interactive data viz that shows total alcohol sales for San Antonio bars and restaurants last year. Some of these numbers are mind-blowing.

The top seller in San Antonio was the JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort & Spa — the same project that sparked years of controversy for seeking exemptions from city taxes and for building on the environmentally sensitive Edwards Aquifer recharge zone.

The resort raked in more than $11 million in alcohol sales in 2013. That’s more than the second-place venue, the AT&T Center, home of the San Antonio Spurs and overpriced macro brews.

The sales data comes from the Texas Comptroller’s office, which doesn’t offer the information in a very user-friendly format. Joe combined a year’s worth of data and put together an interactive, easy-to-use table that you can sort and search.

It doesn’t show who sold the most alcohol, only how much revenue was generated in alcohol sales. So expensive drinks might move a company up in the rankings.

Out of curiosity, I checked Bohanan’s and learned it generated a whopping $2.2 million in alcohol sales in 2013.

That’s a lot of fancy cocktails.

‘San Antonio 4′ set free after doubts raised in bizarre criminal case

November 18th, 2013 by John Tedesco

Anna Vasquez, right, embraces her brother David Vasquez, as family and friends of Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera and Kristie Mayhugh gather in the 175th District Court in the Cadena Reeves Justice Center to hear that the 3 women will be released from prison. Monday, Nov. 18, 2013. The fourth women, Anna Vasquez, was released on parole from prison just over a year ago.Express-News reporter Michelle Mondo spent 18 months investigating the bizarre case of the “San Antonio Four” — four women accused of sexually assaulting two girls over the course of a weekend filled with debauchery and Satan worship. Michelle’s meticulously researched article raised questions about the evidence and the credibility of the accusers, who might have made up the whole sordid story.

Since then, one of the accusers recanted, and one of the accused was released on parole. Today, the remaining members of the San Antonio Four were set free on bond.

Amazing.

(Photo credit: Bob Owen/San Antonio Express-News)

Former San Antonio official Fernando De Leon faces federal charges in alleged bribery scheme

September 23rd, 2013 by John Tedesco

Fernando De Leon, assistant director of land development for the city of San AntonioIn March 2010, San Antonio police detectives and FBI agents visited the city’s Planning and Development Services Department, the place where real estate projects go to live or die based on whether the necessary permits are approved.

One of the officials who signed off on those permits was Fernando De León, the department’s friendly, soft-spoken assistant director. Investigators headed to his office. De León wasn’t there, but they seized his computer and files. City Manager Sheryl Sculley later fired him, but De León wasn’t arrested.

Until last week.

A federal indictment made public Thursday sheds light on the case against De León:


Longtime readers of the Express-News might remember some of the details we had discovered about the case through public records and lots of digging:

  • Authorities were scrutinizing De León and a permit-expediting company called Rapid Permit Services. Federal officials subpoenaed records at Pape-Dawson Engineers Inc., one of the largest engineering firms in town, to gather information about Rapid Permit Services and possibly others. Pape-Dawson was not the target of the inquiry;
  • Rapid Permit Services got a plum job at the Rim, an 800-acre shopping center;
  • De León reviewed and approved some of the paperwork for the Rim that had been filed by Rapid Permit Services;
  • De León’s sister and possibly his mother were tied to Rapid Permit Services;
  • At Pape-Dawson, the point of contact for Rapid Permit Services was a project manager named Oscar Rodriguez.
  • For the first time, the indictment lays out the actual allegations against De León, and describes how he is accused of teaming up with Rodriguez to defraud Pape-Dawson and the firm’s clients.

    Check out the most recent story here, and if you want to learn more, here are past posts about the case.

    Review of the SteadyTracker UltraLite and tips from company owner Rene Kropf

    July 23rd, 2013 by John Tedesco

    I have kids. Which means I own a video camera. Which means I chase my kids around with my video camera, trying to catch them in action. And the footage always looks shaky and horrible.

    So I’ve read more than my fair share of reviews about stabilizers, Glidecams and Steadicams. They rely on gimbals and counterweights to produce smooth, dream-like shots. But they’re often expensive, and some customers complain it takes forever to balance these contraptions.

    About 15 years ago, Rene Kropf and his colleagues were experiencing the same frustration as they worked in his garage trying to design a tool that could help stabilize shaky film footage for light cameras.

    “We went down the same route of counterweights and all that,” Kropf told me. “And we saw that as a nightmare. It’s like, the sun went down and we still haven’t balanced it, so forget that.”

    The SteadyTracker UltraLite doesn't rely on a gimbalKropf, the owner of Cobra Crane, a camera gear company in California, abandoned the gimbal system altogether. Instead, he helped devised something called the SteadyTracker Ultralite, a crowbar-like device with two adjustable weighted ends and a balancing pad in the middle that rests on top of your hand.

    I recently bought the SteadyTracker UltraLite for about $179 on Amazon. The SteadyTracker is touted as a simpler, inexpensive option compared to other stabilizers. I’ve been using it for a few weeks and produced some sample shots in this video review. When I called Cobra Crane with a few questions about the SteadyTracker, I was surprised to get a call back from Kropf, the company’s owner. He offered insights and tips that aren’t in the instruction manual.

    “It’s relatively inexpensive,” Kropf said. “It’s pretty easy to use. And the biggest thing, the number one thing that people comment on, is it’s a super-quick set up, so you don’t miss shots.”
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    More awesome search tips from Google expert Daniel Russell, with real-world examples

    July 1st, 2013 by John Tedesco
    Daniel Russell, research master at Google

    Daniel Russell, research master at Google

    When a research scientist at Google offers to show you how to unlock the full potential of the powerful search engine, you pay attention.

    Last year Daniel Russell spoke at the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Boston. Dan showed us search techniques that can make anyone a better researcher. Some tips I already knew. Others I thought I understood but didn’t. And some I had no idea existed.

    I thought Dan’s talk was eye-opening — and others had the same reaction. My post about his presentation last year was widely shared, so there’s enormous interest to learn more about how Google works and how to use it effectively.

    You gotta know a little bit about how to make Google dance. This is all mother’s milk for investigative reporters.”

    Since that conference a year ago, Dan began offering online classes. I’ve had a year to practice many of these techniques. And about a week ago, Dan spoke again at the IRE conference in San Antonio with even more advice.

    “You gotta know a little bit about how to make Google dance,” Dan said at his panel, Digging in with Google. “This is all mother’s milk for investigative reporters.”

    I thought it’d be a good idea to compile some of the interesting new techniques, and revisit tips Dan discussed last year with some real-world examples of how journalists used them in actual news stories. Many of these methods also work on other search engines, such as Yahoo! and Bing.

    These tips are for journalists, researchers, librarians and anyone else who wants to learn new ways to find information. Google will never replace the importance of shoe-leather reporting — knocking on doors and talking to real people. But Google can help reporters find the right doors to knock on and reveal surprising details about the people you’re talking to. Knowing how to find obscure information on the Internet is a vital skill for any journalist.

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    Saying goodbye to an ‘Unsung Hero’

    June 28th, 2013 by John Tedesco

    The last time I saw Kelly Guckian, we had taken her out for lunch on her last day at the San Antonio Express-News before she embarked on a new journey at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I snapped this picture of Kelly and our colleagues outside the Express-News building 17 months ago:

    Kelly Guckian and the Express-News crew

    There she is in the middle with the slightly mischievous smile. See how everyone else is squinting in the bright Texas sun? Kelly’s the one flaunting sunglasses. Clearly the smartest one in the bunch.

    A subset of journalists in the news business knows how to obtain government data, analyze it and tell readers something new about the world.

    And within that niche, there are experts like Kelly. The ones who really know their stuff. Whenever a data problem stumped me, I’d turn around at my desk and ask, “Hey, Kelly, how do you …” And no matter what I asked, I’ll be damned if Kelly didn’t know the answer every time.

    Years ago, after the death of former state Sen. Frank Madla and his family in a tragic house fire, Kelly, Karisa King and I analyzed fire-response time data we obtained from the San Antonio Fire Department. I remember this story very well because it’s a powerful example of how public data can empower journalists to tell readers what’s really going on in their community. Our story said:

    City records show the Fire Department’s mission of protecting lives and property is clashing with San Antonio’s appetite for new land.

    In the past six years, firefighters rushed to inner-city blazes far more quickly than to fires in popular outlying areas that attract thousands of new homeowners.

    Delays on the city’s edges plague rich and poor alike, from the exclusive enclave of the Dominion to low-income neighborhoods like Sunrise, a struggling community on the far East Side.

    San Antonio annexed many of these neighborhoods despite protests by residents, who complained the city would fail to provide swift fire protection.

    The city’s own records reveal that most of the time, those fears came true.

    You can’t write that kind of story without knowing how to analyze public data for yourself. Kelly got that.

    Kelly started out in the news business as a photo archivist in 1994. But then she was drawn to the geeky goodness of computer-assisted reporting. This was her calling, and she excelled through intelligence, generosity and hard work. Kelly went to school in her spare time and rose through the ranks to become database editor at the Express-News.

    But it was a hard climb. Like I said, computer-assisted reporting is a niche field. Not everyone understands the work that goes into it or sees a need for it. But many of Kelly’s colleagues saw how she was improving the newspaper. When the Express-News created a new “Unsung Hero” category for the Philip True awards in 2004, the newsroom staff overwhelmingly nominated her to be the first recipient.

    Kelly loved to learn about this intriguing, challenging field of journalism. She would have kept on learning, and she would have been generous with her knowledge.

    But five months ago, Kelly was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, a ferocious disease.

    Yesterday, Kelly died.

    I’ll miss Kelly’s cheerful spirit. Her amazing desire to learn. And her mischievous smile.

    Live-blogging the IRE 2013 Conference in San Antonio: Resources that will help you be a better journalist

    June 20th, 2013 by John Tedesco

    IRE Conference 2013

    Check out some of my favorite research tips, strategies and resources from this year’s Investigative Reporters and Editors conference, where about 1,100 incredibly talented journalists are meeting in San Antonio. These conferences are geared for journalists, but really anyone who’s interested in research tools will find many of these tips handy.
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    How sexual assault victims in the military are declared mentally ill and booted out

    May 21st, 2013 by John Tedesco

    Amazing reporting by Karisa King, who shows in excruciating detail how sexual assault victims in the military face retaliation and accusations of mental illness. Check out the “Twice Betrayed” home page with links to video interviews and the entire package of stories.