Local teen no-billed, but feds keep him in jail
CONROE – A Willis High School senior remains in the Montgomery County Jail despite being no-billed by a grand jury last Thursday in connection with an accident that killed his friend and classmate.
Jose Juan Sanchez, 18, was arrested on September 4, after an ordinary school day ended in tragedy.
He was about to leave the campus when 17-year-old Alex Caballero approached him saying he missed his bus and needed a ride home. Sanchez obliged and the pair got into his pickup and journeyed into the heavy after school traffic.
Officials said Caballero, Sanchez and other students were bickering during the school day and it continued after school. As Sanchez was about to turn from FM 830 onto SH 75 in front of the high school, investigators said the other students pulled up beside his truck and one of them threw a pocket mirror. After the mirror was thrown, Sanchez accelerated and started to turn onto SH 75.
What happened next will never be fully understood because, as defense attorney Michael Valdez pointed out, the only person who could explain it is now dead.
For reasons unknown, Caballero suddenly opened the passenger side door. He was not wearing a seatbelt, and as the pickup took off, Caballero fell out onto the pavement. He landed directly in the path of a Willis ISD school bus that was in line behind Sanchez. Officials said the bus driver swerved, but was unable to avoid running over Caballero.
Valdez said when the truck door closed, Sanchez looked over and saw that his friend was gone.
“He looked in the mirror and saw (Caballero) on the ground,” Valdez said. “All the emotions rushed in at once and he said he panicked.”
Sanchez saw people running toward Caballero from every direction. Valdez said he does not believe Sanchez knew the bus had run over his friend at that point, just that he was seriously hurt. In any case, Sanchez knew a lot of people were rushing to help his friend, Valdez said.
“His first thought was that (Caballero’s) parents should hear it from him and not anybody else,” Valdez said.
By all accounts, Sanchez drove directly to Caballero’s home and told his parents what happened. He then immediately returned to the scene with them, where he learned his closest friend was dead and he was going to jail for leaving the scene.
Sanchez was charged with failure to stop and render aid, which is a third-degree felony.
Under normal circumstances, Sanchez’s family might have managed to post bond and have him released shortly after the accident. However, that was not an option.
During the booking process, it was discovered that Sanchez was an illegal immigrant. The US Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) placed a hold on Sanchez, meaning he could not post bond. If convicted, Sanchez would serve his sentence in the US and then be deported. If exonerated, Sanchez would be deported as soon as possible.
Consequently, the grand jury decision was a bittersweet victory for Valdez. The seasoned prosecutor and defense attorney said he was so confident in his client that he placed Sanchez in front of the grand jury to tell his story, which he said is something rarely done by defense attorneys.
“His story was so consistent,” Valdez said. “It never changed.”
The strategy was a success, but the grand jury decision has nothing to do with the ICE hold and Sanchez’ pending deportation, which Valdez finds deeply disturbing.
Sanchez is in the US illegally, but it was not his decision. His parents brought him to the US illegally several years ago, Valdez said. Sanchez has since assimilated into American society and would have soon earned his high school diploma.
“Anybody from Willis High School will say he’s a good student,” Valdez said.
In one day, the 18-year-old went from being a high school student to an inmate in the men’s section of the county jail.
According to Valdez, the deceased was Sanchez’s closest friend and in addition to dealing with that loss and his uncertain future, Sanchez has not seen his parents since his arrest because they are illegal immigrants and fear they will be deported if they go to the jail. As it stands, Sanchez may be deported alone, to the country his parents left behind years ago.
“He’s a young terrified kid,” Valdez said.