Special Report: Living Witness

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LOS FRESNOS - Before the horror in Houston, before the end of watch for so many, before the now active alert for police to watch their six, David Rucker and Enrique Carrisalez died.

In September 1981, backup units found Trooper Rucker, as they responded to another call that a Los Fresnos police officer was down. The scene was found around 11 p.m. along Highway 100, just east of Los Fresnos.

Law enforcement officers were called from all over South Texas.

“34 years ago, I went through loss and tragedy,” said Los Fresnos Police Officer Enrique Hernandez about the events he witnessed.

Hernandez said he never thought he’d talk publicly about what he witnessed on September 29, 1981.

The state of our country motivated Hernandez to speak out.

“Struck a nerve,” he said. “This badge is not a shield.”

From that deadly patrol to the road of recovery, Enrique Hernandez’s eyewitness account is a rare glimpse at some of the worst moments endured by police.

On a weeknight in Los Fresnos in 2015, officer Hernandez watches over rookies, as they make their rounds.

“I hope they're careful,” he said. “I hope they make it home.”

Los Fresnos is like most Rio Grande Valley towns. It’s a farming community with a few traffic lights.

“Every town has something that went bad, at some point,” Hernandez said.

The night of September 29, 1981, Hernandez was with police officer Enrique Carrisalez. Carrisalez wasn't an officer at the time. The two men had many bonds. They shared the same first name, both were 25 and both were newly married.

“All around good guy,” Hernandez said about Carrisalez.

The two men were buddies since kindergarten. They both loved law enforcement.

“He once told me that if he retired, as a police officer giving out traffic tickets, he was happy,” Hernandez said about Carrisalez. “He didn't want to go anywhere else.  This was his town.”

For the first time in 34 years, Enrique Hernandez physically retraced his steps.

“I’ll always remember,” he said.

It was 9:30 p.m. on a Tuesday, the night Carrisalez died. Hernandez drove to the Los Fresnos Police Department. He requested a ride along with his friend, Carrisalez, which he routinely did.

As Hernandez waited for Carrisalez, he made small talk with David Rucker. The state trooper made a pit stop at the police station.

Hernandez said, “I said, ‘Are you going to be around here?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I'm going to hang out outside of town on 100, east of town.’”

Rucker was a 37-year-old veteran trooper stationed out of Port Isabel. The married father of three was going to take a vacation, the following day.

By 9:40 p.m., Hernandez was riding passenger in Carrisalez’s patrol unit, a Chevy Impala with red and blue revolving lights.

“Slow, typical Tuesday night,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez and Carrisalez crunched chips and traveled down memory lane as they cruised down city streets. Hernandez was considering a career in law enforcement at that time.

Enrique Hernandez said, “He told me, ‘Chase your dream, if you don’t you are going to regret it.’”

Hernandez said that Carrisalez loved being a police officer.

Carrisalez’s shift was set to end at 11 p.m., after his patrol in September 1981. By 10:30 p.m., Carrisalez hadn’t made a single stop, hadn’t responded to a call for service, that night. Los Fresnos was at peace.

The men drove around and patrolled for the next 30 minutes.

“Eventually, he makes the decision to go ahead and stop and park and work a little radar,” Enrique Hernandez said.

Carrisalez parked on a corner with the window open.

“He was always afraid that the window was going to interfere with the radar working right,” Hernandez said about Carrisalez. “So he’d roll it down. Nothing coming through, nothing at all”

Moments later, a late 70s Mercury Cougar popped on the radar.

“Rick clocked him at 54 on a 30,” Hernandez said about Enrique Carrisalez. “Let’s get him,” they chuckled. “It’s the last ticket.”

Carrisalez had one last ticket left in his book that night. The patrol unit rolled onto Highway 100 to make the stop, six minutes before he was supposed to get off.

Hernandez said he remembered how the Impala patrol cruiser stopped behind the two-door car at the intersection of Paredes Line Road and Highway 100.

“He acknowledged us, indicating with his hand, that he knew we were behind him,” Hernandez said. “So the light turns green.  I think right at this point is when Rick lit him up, to stop, to pull over.  And he immediately pulled over.”

Carrisalez called in the traffic stop. He gave dispatch the Texas license plate of the Mercury Cougar. He exited his vehicle and made it to the bumper of the Mercury.

Leonel Herrera was stopped that night. The 34-year-old Edinburg man first leaned out of his car. Unknown words were exchanged with Officer Carrisalez. Herrera reached toward his middle console. Carrisalez backpedaled from the vehicle, with his eyes glued to it.

“Without any warning whatsoever, Herrera came out and point blank fired at Rick,” Hernandez said.

In 1981, officers weren’t required to wear a bullet-proof vest. Carrisalez dropped to the pavement with a single shot to the chest.

Hernandez feared he was next. He crouched under the dashboard. And He reached for a small gun that he carried in his boot.

Enrique Hernandez waited for Leonel Herrera to approach the patrol car.

“That didn’t seem to happen,” Hernandez said. “What must have seemed like seconds, turned into an eternity, because I wouldn’t see him. I finally peeked up over the dashboard,” he said. “I saw him walking back to the driver’s side of his car, getting in and driving off. I grabbed the radio,” Hernandez said. “And instinctively, I went, ‘officer down’ three times.’”

What no one knew then, 34 years ago, was that six miles east, along Highway 100, Trooper David Rucker was dead.

Rucker broke protocol. He didn’t call in the stop of the Mercury. News reports from 1981 showed that Rucker stopped Herrera. There was a struggle.

David Rucker was shot in the head. His gun was taken. Herrera’s Social Security card was clenched in the trooper’s lifeless hand.

Rucker’s body was discovered, as law enforcement responded to the shooting of Carrisalez.

Enrique Carrisalez lived nine days before he died in the hospital. An anonymous tip helped police nab the man who was later convicted of killing the two peace officers.

Two years later, Enrique Hernandez became an officer himself.

“Part of me wanted to finish the job that Rick started,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez reflected on the event that happened.

“I kept thinking about that night for so many years,” he said. “Of course, you start to ask yourself what you could have done, what you could have done different.”

Lessons were learned by Hernandez.

“It does change you,” Hernandez said. “It does make you think twice. I’ve learned to accept pain better, loss better,” he said. “I tell young officers now, like Rick told me years ago, follow your dreams. Chase your dreams.”

On a Tuesday night in a small Texas town, one patrol can change an instant.

“This guy came out of nowhere, into this little town, and took one of Los Fresnos’ finest,” Hernandez said.

The killer, Leonel Hernandez, was put to death by lethal injection in 1993.

Cameron County’s detention center is named in honor of Officer Enrique Carrisalez and Trooper David Rucker. The Los Fresnos Police Department also has a memorial plaque for Carrisalez.

A roadside memorial for Rucker stands along Highway 100, just east of Los Fresnos.