It was early Friday morning, October 18, 2013, in Mission, Texas, just a few minutes before dawn. Joel Escamilla, a supervisor at a local paper plant, was just about to step through the front door of the home he and his wife built together 17 years ago, the home in which they raised their two daughters, and go to work, as he has done every weekday for years. His wife, Gracie, 51, had not gotten out of bed yet.
The Escamillas’ world crashed in on them shockingly, when men dressed in black poured over their six-foot fence and into their front yard. The men converged on the front door and began pounding and demanding to be let in.
“I was in bed. I heard a loud noise, you know, somebody was breaking into my house,” Gracie says. “I came out [and stood] on my staircase, with only my underwear, no top. Afraid. I thought it was an invasion. A home invasion.”
In the border town of Mission, Texas, home invasions are all too common despite the federal government’s claims that the border is safer than ever. Mission is situated on the Texas border with Mexico just across the Rio Grande from Reynosa. Reynosa has been one of the epicenters of Mexico’s hyperviolent drug war. That drug war has spilled over into the border states, including a notorious firefight between U.S. law enforcement and cartel gunmen in Hidalgo County’s Chimney Park in 2011.
In its past, Mission was best known as legendary Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry’s home town. In recent years, it has become more known for corruption and for being too close to the drug war on the south side of the river. Drug cartel operatives cross the border into Mission and even own homes and money laundering businesses there. Cartel muscle conducted a home invasion just over a block away from the Escamilla home a year before. Even the Hidalgo County sheriff’s federally funded Panama Unit engaged in illegal home invasions, crimes for which its members have been convicted and are now headed to federal prison on long sentences. “No one feels safe here,” Gracie says. They stay on in Mission because it is home, and because the cost of living farther north of border, in cities like Austin and San Antonio, is just too high. Mission used to be a haven for retirees on fixed incomes.
On the morning of October 18, Gracie and her family had every reason to fear the men outside.
“They jumped the gate,” Gracie says. “They all jumped. They broke our sprinkler system.” Soon they were disrupting the neighborhood quiet, pounding on the Escamillas’ front door.
“I feel that they could have called or something, you know. It was not necessary for them to jump the gate.”
The authorities had in fact interviewed Gracie twice before, across three days a few months earlier in 2013. They left a business card at her gate with a request that she call them. She did. Investigators asked her to come in for interviews, and she did. She says she was cooperative both times. Five months of silence followed those interviews.
The men outside pounded on the Escamillas’ door, said they were the police and demanded to be let into the house.
Joel’s first thought as he stood at the door was to get his handgun and defend his wife and daughter.
The county sheriff’s own son was among the officers convicted of home invasion and other crimes. In a region where you cannot trust the police, where trusting the police can even get you into serious danger, you must trust your own instincts. But had Joel acted on that thought and retrieved his handgun, he probably would have been killed. The men who were swarming in their yard were all wearing sidearms and body armor. Police raids resulting in shooting and death have become all too common in the past few years, a fact that was racing through Joel’s mind that morning. “It was very scary,” Joel says. A military veteran, Joel identifies the officers as federal. He says they were obviously armed and wearing body armor. “My pistol wouldn’t have done anything against them,” he says.
He let the men in. Both he and Gracie agree that the men never allowed them to read a warrant. One officer flashed a piece of paper and said that they were arresting Gracie on suspicion of Medicare/Medicaid fraud. Gracie says that the officers, who she and Joel say were from the Federal Bureau of Investigations, never read Gracie her rights.
“They did not read my rights. They just said, ‘You cannot get anything. You can’t get your purse. Your phone. Nothing at all.’” Gracie says she was never told to find an attorney.
Even worse, Gracie was still in her underwear when the mostly male squad of officers entered her home. They quickly separated Joel and Gracie from each other.
“Shortly after that, they came inside. And one of the male investigators was standing on the side of the staircase. And, again, I was in my underwear. No top. And the male investigators, or the police officers, looked at me. You know, were looking at me without a top. ” A female officer accompanied Gracie to her bedroom where she found a blouse to wear. They shackled Gracie and took her out to the unmarked car waiting in the street, while puzzled neighbors looked on. Soon, Gracie’s name and picture were in the local press, along with the accusation that she had been part of a serious Medicare/Medicaid fraud conspiracy.
For several years, Gracie had operated RioPlex medical billing out of her home. Over about a five-year span, that business had taken in about $69,000 from processing billing for hospitals, doctors and ambulance services. It was the latter that the federal agents who arrested Gracie believed had been corrupt. Frank Gonzalez, owner of River Valley Transport ambulance company, was arrested on the same day of Gracie’s arrest for billing the government for ambulance services not provided, including billing for ambulance rides for patients who were already receiving care in area hospitals. Gracie employed a specialist who handled all of her company’s ambulance billing, including billing for River Valley Transport. But the billing system merely transmits records electronically to the federal government, with no requirement that a superior oversee or sign-on that the records are accurate.
That’s an open invitation for massive fraud, an invitation taken many times over the years. Both the state and federal government have set up investigative units dedicated to cracking down on fraud. Most Americans would agree with the need to stop people from bilking the government. But what happens when the government swoops in at dawn with armed men in black to pick up a grandmother who may be innocent? In this case, in that part of Texas, it could have ended in bloodshed.
Despite the fact that Gracie operated her billing business out of her home, the arresting officers took no files, no computers, no evidence. She showed me around the office she once used for her business, in which she says she trained several women who were unemployed and had experienced abuse and needed help. The computers are still there, unplugged and untouched. On one wall is a little shrine to her older daughter, which includes a couple of photos of that daughter during tryouts to become a San Antonio Spurs cheerleader.
Gracie was born in Mexico, legally immigrated to the United States as an infant, and grew up in El Paso. She became a US citizen in 2005. Her husband, Joel, was born in Chicago and served in the United States Army. They built their home themselves, to raise their daughters and enjoy the life of home ownership. Their home is festooned American and Texas flags, with photos of their daughters, decorations, and Bible verses. A large painting of the Last Supper hangs on the wall in their dining room. Gracie and Joel have two grandchildren by their older daughter, who finished her education and is married, starting a life with her family.
The military-style dawn arrest shocked Gracie. “Never have I been involved in something like that,” she says. “Never been arrested. So to me it was very humiliating.” A check of her background turns up no arrests in the state of Texas, where she has lived nearly all of her life.
The officers took Gracie to the Texas attorney general’s Medicaid fraud control unit office in Pharr. From there she was taken before a judge to be arraigned, and then she was taken to the federal Bentsen Tower in McAllen.
While she was being held in the federal building, Gracie says that she was not even allowed a single phone call. When she asked why, she says the jailers claimed that it was because they were testing her for tuberculosis. She had no symptoms for TB, then or now.
She was held, incommunicado, in the Bentsen Tower for five days. During that time, she says she never spoke to an attorney. Officers treated her as if she had already been convicted, holding her in isolation and describing Gonzalez as her “partner in crime.”
Gracie was originally slated to stand trial on identity theft and other associated allegations in December 2013. She says her attorney wanted her to strike a plea deal with the US attorney prosecuting her, for which she would get probation but serve no jail time. Gracie rejected that and insists that she is innocent of all the charges contained in the 21 pages of charges filed against her. Her trial has been delayed and is now in limbo as the court sorts out issues with her defense attorney.
Americans are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty. The fact is that at this point, Gracie has already paid a price for crimes she insists she did not commit. Since her arrest, Gracie has lost the medical billing business entirely. She was so trusted in her 30-year career in medical billing that a local hospital had employed her to audit its billing. Her arrest cost her that job too.
“I’ve never even been audited,” she says of the business she has now lost.
Gracie’s family is now on the hook for at least $25,000 in legal fees to defend Gracie against the charges, cash that they did not have readily available. The legal expenses forced the Escamillas to dip into Joel’s 401(k) retirement plan, a tough pill for parents who have funded their daughters’ educations and are just over a decade away from their own retirement, to swallow.
At the moment, more than half a year after her arrest, Gracie is free, sort of. Her trial is in an uncertain stasis, just hanging over her head. She cannot leave the southern federal district of Texas without permission. She cannot get back into the medical billing business that was her life for decades. She’s stuck. She says that she wanted to get her story out to clear her name and get all this behind her and her family.
“I’ve been taking odd jobs for minimum wage,” since her arrest, she says, including working as a maid at a local La Quinta motel, “just trying to help in the finances here at home. We don’t live in luxuries. Just, um, hard-working people” she says, choking back tears. “Never been in trouble with the law. And going through this…it’s a life-changer.”
Nathan Lichtman contributed to this report.