Extradition, Criminal Law
September-October 2020

It was a long road to justice

By Brandy Robinson
First Assistant District Attorney in Austin County

In 1991, Blas Tierrablanca murdered Brenda Smith in an Austin County motel room and then fled to his home country of Mexico. The journey to bring him to justice took six prosecutors, six forensic experts, at least 16 city and county law enforcement officers, two state troopers, two Texas Rangers, at least six FBI agents, several border patrol agents, at least six members of the Department of Justice’s Office of International Affairs, an unknown number of people at the United States and Mexican Embassies, and several members of Mexican law enforcement over a span of almost 30 years. 

            The day of the murder, Tierrablanca rode to a bar in Sealy with his friend, Chuy, in Chuy’s gray Camaro. At the bar, Tierrablanca struck up a conversation with Brenda, a familiar local. When the group decided to leave, Tierrablanca borrowed Chuy’s Camaro so he could take Brenda to a motel, and Chuy rode home with his girlfriend, Maria.

            Once in the motel room, Tierrablanca stabbed Brenda in the chest and cut her throat several times. He tried to clean up in the shower but left bits of toilet paper scattered throughout the room. Tierrablanca took the motel’s towels with him when he left in Chuy’s car. The next morning, motel staff discovered Brenda’s body and called the police.

1991: The investigation

The Sealy Police Department employed fewer than 10 officers in 1991, and they had no official investigator. Officer Brad Murray found Brenda’s body curled against the motel room wall, covered in blood. Officer Joe Villarreal helped him investigate the case.

            Motel staff told police that Brenda Smith had arrived with a Hispanic man in a gray Camaro the night before. After leaving the motel, Officer Murray learned that a night-shift officer had seen a gray Camaro at the motel around midnight and had written down the license plate number. Officers issued a BOLO on the Camaro.

            That morning, Chuy had heard that Tierrablanca left the Camaro at a friend’s house, so Maria took Chuy to pick it up. As Chuy drove home in the Camaro, police cruisers suddenly blocked him in. Chuy had no idea what was happening.

            Both he and Maria gave the same story: Tierrablanca had borrowed the car to go to a motel with Brenda. When officers searched the vehicle, they found the motel towels, a pair of socks, and a piece of bloody toilet paper.

            While Villarreal collected evidence from the car, Officer Murray went to the home in Sealy that Tierrablanca shared with his common-law wife, Josefina. Josefina told Officer Murray that Tierrablanca had come home late, left a red baseball cap, and fled.  Murray took the cap and noticed apparent blood on its front.

            Murray learned Tierrablanca drove to Bell- ville where he ditched the Camaro, and from there caught a ride to Rosenberg, then a bus heading to Corpus Christi, then south to McAllen. The last witness placed him on that bus, heading toward the Mexican border—mere hours ahead of the police.

The evidence

Officers Murray and Villarreal collected every scrap of evidence they found, meticulously bagging and tagging each item. Officer Villarreal then called in a young DPS forensic analyst, John Moran. Although some agencies could perform DNA comparisons in 1991, Sealy police relied on the DPS Crime Lab in Houston for all forensics, and DPS lacked DNA testing capability. The best that officers could hope to gain from analysis might be confirmation of human blood and blood type.

            Analyst Moran tested dozens of items for the presence of human blood, but obviously he couldn’t test for DNA. At that point, Moran had a choice to make. He knew DNA testing lay on the horizon for DPS and that the technology would require a substantial sample. He also knew that performing blood typing on the evidence would destroy most of his samples. Moran opted not to perform blood typing. Instead, he painstakingly preserved the items that he deemed most valuable, documented them, and stored them at DPS for a future day when a suspect was arrested and a DNA comparison could be done. He had no way to know when—or if—that day would come.

            Officers Murray and Villarreal staffed the case with District Attorney Travis Koehn and obtained a warrant and indictment for Blas Tierrablanca for first-degree murder.

1992: The lead

Officers had a suspect, but they also had a problem. How could they arrest Tierrablanca in Mexico? Without knowing the suspect’s location and without Mexican jurisdiction, they couldn’t.

            A year passed before Officer Villarreal heard that a local hairdresser, Diane, had been speaking to Tierrablanca on the phone. Diane was a mutual friend to Tierrablanca and Josefina before the murder. After the murder, Josefina’s daughters forbid their mother from talking to Tierrablanca, so Tierrablanca called Diane and had her relay messages to Josefina. 

            Officer Villarreal interviewed Diane and learned Tierrablanca had confessed to her. Diane cooperated with police and allowed Officer Villarreal to covertly record her calls with Tierrablanca while she attempted to convince him to return to Texas. During one recorded call, Tierrablanca even discussed committing the murder. 

            Eventually, Tierrablanca stopped answering Diane’s calls, but not before giving up his location. He claimed he lived in Acuña, Mexico, just across the border from Del Rio, Texas. Officer Villarreal asked Del Rio law enforcement to keep a constant eye and ear out for any word of Blas Tierrablanca, but no word ever came.

1992: The warrant

After recording the calls between Tierrablanca and Diane, Officer Villarreal learned it was possible to request a warrant for Tierrablanca for the federal crime of Unlawful Flight to Avoid Prosecution (UFAP). Initiating a federal case allowed the U.S. government to use its FBI and U.S. Marshall resources to help locate Tierrablanca in Mexico. The Department of Justice’s Office of International Affairs would then attempt extradition if Tierrablanca were ever caught.

            District Attorney Travis Koehn and then-Assistant DA Joe Contreras prepared the packet required to obtain the UFAP warrant. The packet contained the Texas murder statute, witness statements, and affidavits from Officer Villarreal and DA Koehn summarizing the law and evidence. The UFAP was accepted, and the federal government issued a provisional arrest warrant for Tierrablanca.

            By the end of 1992, Officer Villarreal had an indictment, a recorded confession, the suspect’s location, and both a state and federal warrant. He had every reason to be hopeful.

2005: The waiting game

But by 2005, we were far less hopeful. In 2004, then-assistant DA Karli Kennell had supplemented the UFAP with reports and statements, but there had been no news. 

            Travis Koehn hired me in 2005.  When I moved into Kennell’s old office, then-assistant DA Dan Leedy pointed to a large file in one corner of a bookshelf, gave me a brief summary of the Tierrablanca case, and told me, “Never lose that file.  You may be trying it one day.” 

            I had my doubts.  It was our oldest pending case, and I was the fifth prosecutor to handle it. 

            From 2005 to 2016, I—like the prosecutors before me—received routine calls from the DOJ regarding the file. The agents changed, but the questions never did: Did we want them to keep the case open? Did we still have enough evidence to prosecute?

            Each year, I contacted Officer Villarreal, an experienced investigator in Sealy by then. He assured me we still had the evidence and key witnesses. However, he’d heard that Tierrablanca had fled to the interior of Mexico years ago. Each time the DOJ called, my answer was the same: Keep it open. We can still make the case.

2016-2017: The update

In 2016, my new contact at the DOJ asked us to update the UFAP packet. My legal assistant, Lisa Tobola, dug through decades-old paper files to find the original UFAP and scan it in. We reviewed the file, completed new affidavits, and submitted the updated UFAP.

            The most terrifying part of the process came when my DOJ contact told me that the statute of limitations on our case may have already run. As a new lawyer in 2005, I had assumed—wrongly—that because murder has no statute of limitations in Texas, any corresponding warrant or extradition would have no limitations.  However, extradition works differently. 

            First, an extraditing country must consider whether the underlying crime constitutes an extraditable offense. Each country’s list of extraditable offenses varies. Even if a crime is extraditable, the extraditing country may not extradite if its statute of limitations has run in its own country for that specific crime. For example, Mexico may extradite on murder charges, but the statute of limitations for murder in Mexico varies, depending on the law and facts. So, if the statute of limitations had already passed for Tierrablanca’s crime if he had committed it in Mexico, then he could never have been extradited to the U.S. Lucky for us, the statute of limitations for our particular facts had not run. 

            If you seek extradition, be sure to contact the Department of International Affairs in the Justice Department to ask whether the crime in your case is considered an extraditable offense by the country to which the defendant fled. Also ask what statutes of limitations, if any, may apply to that charge in that country. 

            By 2017, the DOJ received our updated UFAP, and our regional FBI agents updated their provisional arrest warrant for Tierrablanca. The DOJ warned us to begin preparing our extradition packet in advance. As I understood it, the UFAP allowed authorities to help Mexico apprehend Tierrablanca, but an extradition required us to convince the Mexican embassy to actually give him to U.S. authorities for trial. The extradition request needed more evidence, and deadlines would come fast if Tierrablanca were ever caught.

            We started creating an extradition packet.

2017: The apprehension

Ten minutes after I left for lunch one day, our office got the call that someone had a new lead on Tierrablanca’s whereabouts in Mexico. When I returned and got the message, I told District Attorney Koehn, who immediately called our regional branch of the FBI. They coordinated with federal agents in Mexico, who confirmed they would assist with apprehension.

            The federal agents asked if we wanted them to attempt an interview. We knew Tierrablanca’s first contact with law enforcement was our best chance to get a statement, so we said yes. I sent the agents the legal requirements under CCP Art. 38.22 and a Spanish version of the Texas statutory interview warnings to make sure the interview was admissible. 

            We decided against asking them to request a DNA sample. We worried about the potential complications of needing federal agents to prove up an international chain of custody.

            Agents found Tierrablanca hiding in a goat shed near Acuña, Mexico.

            As soon as I received our copy of Tierrablanca’s federal interview, I asked Investigator Villarreal to come listen to the recording with me for the first time. In it, Tierrablanca told the agents he had slit a woman’s throat years ago at a Sealy motel and then fled in a gray car.

            I paused the recording, and Villarreal and I looked at each other.

            “That’s it,” he said. “We got him, Brandy. We finally got him.”

            Now, we just had to keep him.

2017–2018: The extradition

Although the Texas governor’s office manages extraditions between the states, the DOJ’s Office of International Affairs manages extraditions between countries. On September 8, 2017, we started coordinating the extradition process with the DOJ using the packet we’d already been preparing. We essentially had to show, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Blas Tierrablanca was guilty as charged. We also had to show we could have proven the case even without his arrest and without any evidence produced in Mexico, so we couldn’t include Tierrablanca’s confession.

            Legal assistant Lisa Tobola had scanned in the entire 1991 case file, including handwritten and typed offense reports, photographs, the autopsy report, witness statements, and evidence lists. She also sent hairstylist Diane’s recorded calls to a certified translator to have Spanish-to-English transcriptions and translations made. I selected evidence for the packet the same way I would choose evidence for trial. Tierrablanca had prior convictions for DWI, failure to identify, and aggravated assault against a peace officer. We included those judgments.

            The DOJ wanted a finished packet within the month, and they needed DA Koehn and Investigator Villarreal to sign new declarations. They also asked that we obtain a new sworn statement from Diane with additional information about the murder and whether she could still identify Tierrablanca. Villarreal re-interviewed Diane, and she confirmed everything. By October 4, 2017, we submitted the final packet.

            Last, we had to cover costs to translate the entire extradition packet into the language of the extraditing country, Mexico. After we submitted the packet, we waited to see if Tierrablanca would fight extradition. The DOJ warned me that the process could take years if he contested it. By February 2018, the DOJ gave us the good news: Tierrablanca decided not to fight, and Mexico approved the extradition.

2018: The return

Due to the invaluable efforts of the DOJ and FBI, Tierrablanca was due to set foot on U.S. soil again. We asked Texas Rangers to meet the federal agents at the airport to take custody of him.

            Ranger Louis Owles and Spanish-speaking Ranger Noe Diaz brought Tierrablanca back to Austin County. During his custodial interview, Ranger Diaz told Tierrablanca they wanted to ask about something that took place in Sealy about 25 years ago.

            “Twenty-six,” Tierrablanca corrected him. Tierrablanca claimed Brenda was a prostitute. He said she wanted more money from him, and he had refused. He calmly said that Brenda threatened to call his wife and the cops on him, so he slit her throat and fled.

            When we were preparing the extradition packet, we had asked Houston DPS forensic scientist Tanya Dean to find the file at the Houston lab. She did—on microfilm. It contained John Moran’s 1991 lab report. Using that report, I made a checklist of physical evidence and located key items at Sealy PD and DPS for DNA testing. DA Koehn and I then consulted with Dean on what to test, even though we would not get results before the extradition packet deadline.

            DPS still had viable samples of DNA from the victim, Brenda, and Chuy, the owner of the gray Camaro, which Moran had preserved. DPS tested those samples against the piece of toilet tissue, two socks, and the towel found in the Camaro that had all been positive for human blood. DPS also tested the human blood on the red baseball cap recovered from Tierrablanca’s house.

            The results excluded Chuy from every item. Brenda Smith’s DNA matched the blood on Tierrablanca’s red baseball cap and on the toilet paper and towel from the Camaro. A bloody DNA mixture on one sock came from Brenda and an unknown individual we believed would be Tierrablanca.

            During Tierrablanca’s confession to the Rangers, he voluntarily provided a DNA sample, and DPS could finally obtain test results decades in the making: Tierrablanca’s DNA matched the sock that also contained Brenda Smith’s blood.

March 2020: The road’s end

Excellent police work, lab work, and commitment from witnesses led to success at trial. Officer Murray, Investigator Villarreal, Forensic Analyst Moran, Chuy, Maria, and Diane were still available and able to testify despite the years that had passed.

            Although we had strong evidence, my second chair, Assistant DA Ben Nystrom, and I both felt enormous pressure since the weight of so many people’s work ultimately rested on us. My main worry was how to counter the character attacks I expected the defense to raise about the victim. Montgomery County ADA Donna Berkey gave me great voir dire advice, suggesting that I remind the jury that every person, no matter how great or how small, deserves the same justice.  

            “There is no victim too small for justice,” became our theme of the case.  

            The jury quickly found Tierrablanca guilty.

            During punishment, Brenda’s daughter testified. Jurors learned that her grandmother (Brenda’s mother) feared she might see Tierrablanca on the street one day and not recognize him, so she kept his photo with her all her life hoping she could help police find him. Sadly, Brenda’s mother died years before officers apprehended Tierrablanca and never got to see justice done for her daughter.

            Tierrablanca confessed during the punishment phase that he had killed Brenda. He admitted fleeing, moving deeper into Mexico, and eventually coming back to Acuña. He’d re-married, raised children, and lived happily. Tierrablanca insisted he never believed he’d actually be caught.

            After almost 30 years, the jury took just 40 minutes to determine where Tierrablanca’s road would end: life in a Texas prison. 

            These days, justice system failures draw a lot of attention.  But this case reminded me of the multitude of people who spend quiet lifetimes behind the scenes in law enforcement relentlessly seeking justice for every person, no matter how great or how small.