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Cops’ stories vary on search

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By Lee Einer

Authorities have conflicting explanations about a search of a woman’s home in public housing.

At issue is resident Bernadette Varela’s dealings with Las Vegas police on Feb. 18.

It turns out that officers went to her home twice that day. But the Police Department’s reports say nothing about a morning search, only referring to an afternoon visit.

Only after the state police investigated allegations that city police Sgt. Martin Salazar threatened to hurt Varela was it revealed that Salazar had gained entry to Varela’s home that morning. Salazar was cleared on the threats allegation

Varela said she woke up to Salazar opening her dresser. He told her he was checking to make sure she was all right because her door was open.

According to the police report in the matter, signed by city police Sgts. Salazar and Mack Allingham, Salazar was tipped by a confidential informant identified only as “C/ I#1.” He or she had purchased crack cocaine from Santiago Gallegos at Varela’s home and that he or she had seen a laptop there that had been stolen during a recent burglary.

According to the report, Salazar arranged with city police Lt. Adrian Crespin, to go to the residence and investigate the stolen property. The report states that they arrived at Varela’s residence after 3:30 p.m. Feb. 18.

The report states that before their arrival at Varela’s home, Salazar examined her public housing lease agreement and verified that it allowed warrantless searches — something HUD has since ordered the local housing authority to eliminate after an Optic inquiry.  

The probable cause statements by police in the arrests of Bernadette and  Cesalie Varela and Santiago Gallegos all agree that police first arrived at Varela’s home around 3 p.m. Feb. 18.

But after reports surfaced that Salazar threatened verbally to hurt Varela at the San Miguel County jail, the matter was investigated by the state police.

And a hitherto untold story from the state police emerged:

Bernadette Varela told the investigating officer that Salazar gained entry to her home “around breakfast time” and said he was performing a welfare check on her because the apartment’s two front doors were open. Varela, according to the report, said the doors were not open and that she told Salazar to leave “or she would go downtown to complain.”

In the dashboard camera video of Varela’s encounter with Salazar, the following exchange was recorded:

Varela: “You came into my house and woke me up this morning.

Salazar: “Your door was open.”

Varela: (louder) No, it was not! You opened it and came in!

Salazar: “Your door was open.”

Varela: (shouting) It was not open, it was locked!”

At this point, Salazar tells Varela that she is being arrested on a charge of disorderly conduct and to get out of his parked car.

Santiago Gallegos, the suspect, told the police officers investigating Salazar that Salazar gained entry to the home about 9 a.m. and that everyone in the house was still asleep at the time.

Although Cesalie Varela, Bernadette Varela’s daughter, is listed as an interviewee in the report, the interview with Cesalie Varela is not present in the copy given to the Optic.

Salazar’s version of his 9 a.m. entry into Varela’s home is as follows: He was with Officer Dennis Nelson, and they were near Varela’s residence looking for another woman in an unrelated case. A woman described only as “large” told Nelson that he should check on Varela’s apartment because its front door was open. The two officers knocked at the open front door, were greeted by Cesalie Varela, who escorted them to the back bedroom where Bernadette lay in bed. Bernadette, still in bed, thanked the two officers. They left. Later, a confidential informant told Salazar about a stolen laptop at the residence.  

According to the report, Nelson told the investigator that it happened like this: He was with Salazar, and they were near Varela’s residence looking for another woman in an unrelated case. Nelson noticed that both of Varela’s doors were open.  Salazar knocked at the front door, and Cesalie Varela welcomed them in. Nelson did not go into Bernadette’s bedroom; he remained in the doorway of the apartment. Salazar spoke with Bernadette while she was in bed. Varela then emerged from the bedroom and thanked the two officers. While standing in the doorway, Nelson saw several items that looked like items stolen in a recent burglary. Nelson told Salazar about seeing the items, which included “a personal electronic device of some sort.”

It was a cold morning for people to leave their doors open, based on information from the web site www.wunderground.com. The site maintains a database of archived, hour-by-hour weather by zip code. At 8:53 a.m. Feb. 18, the temperature in Las Vegas was reported to be 33 degrees.

According to the investigation report, housing director Robert Pacheco said Salazar told him there were stolen items in Varela’s home and that was the basis for Pacheco approving the search of Varela’s home that afternoon.

• • •

District Attorney Richard Flores said that it is his job and duty to be concerned about such issues as searches, and pointed to his dismissal of charges in a recent drug case an example. But he expressed skepticism regarding the Varela case.  

“Just because they say certain things, namely, that the door was not open, doesn’t make it correct,” Flores said in an e-mail. “These issues get resolved in a court of law after we present our facts and the defense counsel presents theirs. A judge then makes a ruling. If before that, I get evidence that what the officer is saying is not true, I will always do the right thing and dismiss before it gets to a judge.”

    • • •

Bernadette Varela has now sued the city of Las Vegas, Martin Salazar and other unnamed officers for the events of Feb. 18. The suit alleges that Varela awoke to find Salazar in her home and in the process of walking through rooms and opening and closing dresser drawers to look inside.

The suit alleges that Varela’s door was closed when Salazar entered. The suit also alleges that during the arrest of Varela, Salazar dislocated her shoulder, pulled her hair and slammed her head into the frame of his police car, and that he continued his assault in the patrol car during the drive to the jail.

There is a portion missing from the dashboard video camera recording of Salazar’s encounter with Varela. Salazar, on the recording, asks Varela, “Do you want to be cool now?” and the recording stops, then resumes with the clock at the top of the screen showing that 2 minutes and 17 seconds had elapsed that are not part of the recording.

The investigative report simply said that Salazar did not offer a reason for this lapse. Messages to the Las Vegas Police Department on this subject were not returned as of press time.

• • •

The report also indicates that the investigator obtained a release of Alta Vista Regional Hospital medical records from Varela. The report states that the investigator went to the hospital, but the medical records department was closed. There is no indication of a repeat attempt, and no documentation in the report of the extent of Varela’s alleged injuries.

Salazar didn’t return a message for comment.