Special Report: Trust Trashed

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MCALLEN - Three years after his fall from grace, Jonathan Trevino spoke out about his time in the Panama Unit. The unit was an elite group of officers made up of Mission police officers and Hidalgo County Sheriff’s deputies. Their sole purpose was to stop drug trafficking in Hidalgo County.

Federal agents caught the Panama Unit stealing drugs from dealers. CHANNEL 5 NEWS’ I-Team dug through court records and pieced together what happened, what went wrong, what made these officers betray the badge.

Jonathan Trevino was labeled the leader of the group. Trevino said he was no leader. He said each officer took an oath and chose to break it.

The federal case eventually brought down the sheriff of Hidalgo County. FBI and Homeland Security investigators revealed a web of corruption, protecting drug loads, making deals and stealing evidence.

Loretto, Pennsylvania is a new home for Jonathan Trevino. He and his partners were narcotics investigators. Each of them had a place in the Panama Unit. And each ended up as part of a federal investigation.

Panama Unit officers were each convicted of protecting drug loads, stealing cash and drugs from dealers and selling what they could for profit.

Trevino agreed to talk to CHANNEL 5 NEWS about how corruption crept into the Panama Unit. Prison administrators denied our requests to bring in cameras or an audio recorder into the prison. All requests were denied. We were told we could only bring a notebook and a pen.

One hour isn’t a lot of time to catch up on four years of corruption. CHANNEL 5 NEWS had to submit our questions in advance. It took Trevino two weeks to write his answers.

Trevino greeted CHANNEL 5 NEWS dressed in his pressed jail-issued khaki uniform. His name was scribbled in ink across his chest. This was a stark contrast from his days in law enforcement.

CHANNEL 5 NEWS: What happened? Why did you go against the law? What was the motivation?

Jonathan Trevino: "I want people to know that I didn't wake up one day and say ‘I'm going to be a corrupt cop.’ I didn't graduate from the Police Academy telling myself, ‘I'm going to ruin my career by abusing my position.’ This is something that happened years after my career started. It was a combination of temptation and greed, and I let it get the best of me."

This was a story Trevino had told before. He said everything began in December 2010.

Jonathan Trevino: "I pulled over a random vehicle for a traffic violation. My two partners... showed up to assist me. We ended up searching the guy's vehicle. One of my partners found... bundles of cash. My partner... looked at me and said, 'Let's take some.' I said, 'Are you crazy?'”

Trevino said he remembered the exact amount. They each took $3,300.

Jonathan Trevino: "If my partner would have never suggested we take that money, I strongly believe we wouldn't be in the position we are currently in. That night started this whole mess. No, I don't blame my partner because it was his idea. I blame myself because I was the most responsible and experienced and should have taken the proper actions when he suggested we take the money. Like I said, it was all greed and temptation."

The corruption ran deep for two years. The Panama Unit teamed up with other Hidalgo County Sheriff’s deputies. They teamed up with Trevino’s friends and a cousin. All of them eventually turned their back on Trevino.

CHANNEL 5 NEWS: How did you commit the crimes without your friends and family catching on?

Jonathan Trevino: "I showed them no signs that I was doing anything illegal, yes, I always bought new clothes, went out to eat a lot, and went out of town often, but I also made $72,000 a year after overtime. I lived at home, wasn't married, had no kids, and no real bills, so they never questioned my spending because they knew I got paid well."

Those who worked with Trevino had their own cover.

Jonathan Trevino: “One of my cousins and four of my close friends at the time knew what the Panama unit was doing and worked right alongside us. Their roles in the conspiracy was to sell the drugs that the Panama unit would take them. These individuals all had respectable jobs in the community ranging from a CPS caseworker to an elementary P.E. coach."

Trevino said the CPS caseworker and the elementary P.E. coach were not charged. He called them federal “informants.” They worked with the federal government to catch the Panama Unit’s dirty officers.

Jonathan Trevino: "The individual who worked as a CPS caseworker was asked to resign for obvious reasons, but the elementary P.E. coach was allowed to keep his position and remains employed by a Valley school district. Some things I'll just never understand."

CHANNEL 5 NEWS asked for more details about the informants. Prison executives stopped Trevino from answering. They also redacted parts of Trevino’s written responses to our questions.

Trevino spoke directly to those who he claims ratted him out.

Jonathan Trevino: “I want to thank each of you for doing the right thing because without you all cooperating with the federal government, we would still be out there and who knows how things would have ended. Each of you had a decision to make, which was to cooperate and turn your back on me or stay loyal and chance going to prison. I want you all to know that y'all made the right choice and I will be grateful for the rest of my life. Things could have ended a lot worse. Thank you and God bless each of you."

Trevino said he knew how his life of crime could end. The cartels sent a warning a year before the unit was busted. Two men attacked Hidalgo County Sheriff’s deputies. The deputies were shot. The shooters told investigators that their attack was a warning for corrupt cops.

CHANNEL 5 NEWS: What is life for you now? (Describe your day.)

Prison executives stopped Trevino as he started to talk about his job inside the prison. They redacted part of his written answer.

Jonathan Trevino: "I recently got an orderly position for the prison. I make sure all supplies and materials needed to do jobs are available. This current job pays me around $60 a month. Prior to receiving this position, I was taking out the trash in one of the restrooms Saturday and Sunday nights for 60 cents a month.”

It’s still a far cry from the $72,000 he made as an officer, but $60 is a lot to make in prison.
The prison in Pennsylvania is very different from Trevino’s warm Rio Grande Valley. It isn’t security that stops friends and family from visiting, it’s the distance that drives the wedge.

Jonathan Trevino: "I would say the hardest thing about being in prison is being away from my family. They mean the world to me. Prison is not physically tough but is definitely mentally and emotionally tough.

To help pass time and keep my mind off the outside world, I read, workout, play softball, football, pool, cards, volleyball and just hang out with some of my buddies. Three nights a week, I teach a small group of Spanish-speaking inmates how to speak the English language, which I enjoy doing.

Sometimes I think to myself, I can't believe I received a 17-year-sentence and it's very possible I'll do all 17 years. That means I would get out when I'm 47-years-old. My parents will be in their 80s.

I pray and hope my parents are still alive and healthy when I get out. Being away from them all these years and not knowing if I'll ever be able to be with them again is definitely the ultimate punishment."

The fall of the Panama Unit revealed a web of corruption within the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office. Trevino said narcotics officers deal with drugs and money daily.

Jonathan Trevino: "There is a lot of temptation while working in the field of narcotics. There is more temptation of doing something illegal than there is in any other field in law enforcement, which makes the temptation of doing something illegal so high."

Trevino sent a message to those who still wear a badge.

Jonathan Trevino: "If you see your partner or any other law enforcement officer doing something out of line, bring it to his attention and take the proper action before it's too late. Don't think you're doing your partner a favor by not bringing it to his or a supervisor's attention. You are actually setting him up for failure by keeping it to yourself. I could have put a stop to this whole mess that December night, if I would have only done the right thing. So please, learn from my mistakes."

Trevino doesn’t ask for forgiveness from the public. He asks for understanding.

Jonathan Trevino: “I want and need you all to know that I am extremely remorseful for the crimes I committed and for the damage I have caused. To this day, I feel horrible and still upset with myself for making the choices I did. I let down a lot of people and am truly sorry. It's important that you all know that any one of us could have quit at any time. No one held a gun to our heads, forcing us to participate in illegal activity. There was no leader in the Panama Unit. We all had the same rank. There was no shot caller.

On sentencing day, I stood in front of the Honorable Judge Randy Crane and took full responsibility for my actions and blamed no one but myself. I felt that was the right thing to do. I could've stood there and told the judge a sad story, made excuses, and blamed others, but that wouldn't have been right of me.

The judge, citizens, and viewers in the courtroom didn't want or deserve to hear excuses. They wanted closure. I felt that my co-defendants should have done the same, but instead they blamed my father and I for their actions, which was wrong. Like I said, we all committed the same crimes with the same amount of drugs.

The only difference was that I was the sheriff's son and got punished the hardest. I felt we should have all received the same sentence, whether it was eight years like one of my co-defendants received for the 17 years I received."

Jonathon Trevino may spend every day of his 17-year sentence in Loretto, Pennsylvania, 1,700 miles away from his family.

Trevino’s case isn’t over. He may qualify for a sentence reduction. The U.S. Sentencing Commission voted unanimously to reduce sentencing guidelines for certain crimes. This may make Trevino eligible for less time in prison.

The reduced sentencing guidelines could also allow Trevino to be transferred to a prison camp, Some of those are close to Texas. Prison camps have open environments with no barbed wire.

Trevino’s fate is in the hands of a federal judge.

Link: Jonathan Trevino's Responses