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Former school police chief in Uvalde ‘disappointed’ by law enforcement failures

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UVALDE — He’s sat with grieving family members at funerals, and accompanied them to ongoing wakes to honor victims of one of the most gruesome mass school shootings in the country.

Last week Leo Flores, known as Chato, witnessed angry parents call on their school board members to resign, deriding them as cowards, and demanding accountability in the wake of the massacre at Robb Elementary that left 21 dead.

Flores fidgeted uncomfortably — his anxiety rising.

“I know one thing: Had I still been at the school, I wouldn’t be alive today,” he said. “For sure.”

“As a mother I would have expected more dead officers and more children alive,” added Melissa, 37. “If he had been there ... I wouldn’t have a husband today. I’d be a widow.”

Flores, 37, is the former Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District police chief, replaced in 2020 by Pete Arredondo, who is facing intense criticism for not immediately storming the classroom and instead trying to negotiate with an active shooter. A school board meeting set for Saturday to decide whether Arredondo should be fired was delayed after his lawyer raised concerns.

Among the 19 students killed was Flores’ niece, Eliahana Torres, Eli to her best friend and cousin, Unica Alicia Flores, the daughter of Flores and his wife Melissa. Flores and Melissa have been at just about every post-shooting meeting, accompanying Melissa’s sister after the shooting, forming a tight family support system around her.

“My niece was there so yes, I wish I had been there,” he said, and pausing through every word, he added “Every … Single … Day.”

Nearly two months after the state’s deadliest school shooting, Uvalde remains a town filled with regret. Grief transformed into fury, following a leaked 77-minute video showing footage of cops mostly standing along the hallway inside Robb Elementary School, waiting for someone to take command of a chaotic situation, waiting for instructions to attack an 18-year-old gunman who killed 19 elementary school students and two teachers.

The week culminated with the special House subcommittee 79-page report, the most exhaustive account yet of the tragedy, that detailed a “systemic failure of egregious poor decision making” by nearly everyone in power to do something, every one of the 376 law enforcement officers who descended at Robb.

Flores read the report extra carefully, complete with the expected ‘Could have. Would have. Should have.’ He created the school district’s original police department, trained staff for active shooter situations, and tried keeping teachers on their toes. After reading the report he said he was at a loss for words, “disappointed.”

“You take an oath to protect and serve,” he said, adding “In an active shooter situation, you eliminate the threat at all costs. If it’s you, the one that’s killed, or the guy behind you, or the one behind him, the threat is eliminated in a timely matter. I’ve been through a door where I didn’t know what was on the other side numerous times ... it’s just what you signed up to do. It’s part of the training from day one.”

Feeling of betrayal

In many ways, Flores’ life is synonymous with the majority-minority town’s underdog character — resilient, yet faced with long odds. The community of some 15,000 is even more on edge since the leaked videos, reawakening a searing pain, and overwhelming agony, made worse by second-guessing, which Evadulia Orta, the mother of Rojelio Torres — Rojelito to her — said “isn’t healthy. We just want the truth of what happened and accountability so we can move forward.”

Divisions, mistrust, acrimony, meantime, grow. Even the U.S. Border Patrol agents who were lauded for finally storming a classroom and taking down the 18-year-old shooter are facing scrutiny and some disdain.

“Even the migra waited too long,” said Ruben Mata, grandfather of Lexi Rubio, in an interview in Spanish, referring to the U.S. Border Patrol. “We were betrayed by everyone and anyone with a badge, I can’t stop thinking what would have happened if the kids were white, or if we lived in Dallas, or Alamo Heights (San Antonio). Where is the outrage? Where is the accountability.”

Gone are most of the makeshift tributes, the balloons, the big crowds. The flowers have since wilted in the heat. Only plastic ones survived, though they’re fading too, along with the teddy bears under a scorching sun.

“We stopped looking for heroes,” said Rosie Ruiz, who lives around the corner from Robb.

Ruiz has known Flores since he was born. “I do think he’s crazy enough to have stormed the classroom and taken down the shooter, without hesitating. He would have done his job.”

Flores hears those words everywhere he goes, he said.

“People approach me and say they wish I had been there and I think people mean that as a compliment,” he said. “But it weighs heavy on me.”

But if Uvalde needs a hero, Flores is an unlikely one, he concedes. He resigned as chief of the school district in January 2020 under a cloud of controversy, tied to “family problems,” said Mayor Don McLaughlin, in an interview. “He made some personal mistakes, but I’ve done stupid things too when I was young,” pointing to a divorce. “Some learn from their mistakes. I think he did too.”

Path to the force

McLaughlin has known Flores for years and this week, following the cantankerous board meeting, the two huddled quietly late into the humid evening. Towering oak trees stood still as mosquitos attacked.

A native of Uvalde, Flores was raised by his grandparents, after his parents split. He was a star wide receiver during Friday night high school football games. Following graduation, he thought of joining the U.S. Border Patrol, common for young Mexican Americans living on or near the border. He didn’t have a chance. Melissa, his sweetheart since elementary school, was pregnant. He had no choice, but to grow up fast, he said.

Uvalde Police Detective Jerry Martinez’s hobby was restoring old cars. One weekend, he approached Flores who was working on his 1979 Chevy Blazer. Martinez liked the hubcaps. Flores offered them for free. They struck up a conversation and Martinez encouraged him to apply for a job in the police department.

“I was attracted to his personality,” said Martinez, who is now a captain at the Carrizo Police Department, some 50 miles away. “Very approachable. Easy to get along with.”

Flores responded: “That would require going to college and school is not for me. I’m a father and I gotta work.”

Martinez persisted and soon after, in 2007, Flores began working as a police dispatcher overnight for about a year, simultaneously attending police academy during the day for six months. A year later he was working as a police officer and member of the SWAT team. Later he worked for the U.S. Marshals Fugitive Task Force. He loved the adrenaline and was usually the “entry person in countless situations involving barricaded shooter, suicide-murders, very tense situations,” he said.

But Martinez cautioned that no one person can take credit for taking down a bad guy in those situations.

“There’s no I in SWAT,” he said. “He was very proactive.”

By 2018, Flores was hired as the first chief of the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District, where Melissa also worked. He quickly formed a four-member police force team.

Suddenly, his luck dried out. In January 2020, he resigned under pressure from the district for causing a disturbance with his wife at work. Three months later, he was arrested at a local bar, on charges of unlawfully carrying a weapon on premises that sell alcohol, obstruction or retaliation and Class C public order crimes and booked into county jail, according to The Uvalde Leader-News.

Flores eventually paid a $50 fine and $350 in court fees. He also took a plea bargain from the District Attorney “cause I couldn’t afford an attorney.” He lost his police license.

In the past two years he’s held a myriad of jobs, including door-to-door delivery service. On May 24, he was doing a plumbing apprenticeship when a co-worker said, “Bro, there’s a shooting at Robb.” Flores ignored it, assuming it was yet another false alarm. But his phone lit up. Flores abruptly ran out “and I left the poor lady with her sink undone.”

He made a beeline for Robb.

Chaos and confusion

He said he arrived at about 12:14 p.m. and was surrounded by hundreds of law enforcement officers, including many he knew from his days at the city’s police force and school district police. Among them, Arredondo, who had once served as the assistant police chief for the city, where Flores once worked. He saw a visibly upset Ruben Ruiz, his old friend and colleague at the district. In the video, Ruiz is shown scrolling through his phone in the hallway, reading a text from his wife who had just been shot and told her husband she “was dying.”

He stared at Robb Elementary School, encircled by a 5-foot fence, the same fence he used to climb over, as a drill in which he disguised himself as an intruder to keep staff on their toes — just like the shooter had done earlier that morning, entering the school through an unlocked door. After his drills, Flores used to write up reports for the principal, specifying how many doors were unlocked and making recommendations. He would share the information on Facebook to alert the community, especially parents.

“A culture of complacency weakens those safeguards,” he said.

Flores was now staring at what he described as a “chaotic scene.” He offered his former police colleagues help but “I was told ‘everything is under control.’ And then I saw them pull a couple of bodies out of the school and I knew nothing was under control. Everything was in such chaos. It was bad.”

As the situation deteriorated, “one of my nephews ran toward me and said ‘Eli, has been shot.’ “And I just, it was … so difficult ... Still is. I just wished I had been in there.”

Eli’s uncle and legal guardian, Al Salinas, 54, has heard the talk in town about how things might have been different under Flores. He knows Flores. Salinas is married to one of Melissa’s older sisters, making him a “concuno, brother-in-law,” he said. And he’s seen the videos too with law enforcement members standing around, paralyzed. Salinas isn’t convinced.

“It’s easy for him in a conversation to tell me that he would have done this and he would have done that, but he didn’t have actual live rounds shot at him,” he said. “No one did their job. We’ll never know.”

Flores agrees that it’s wasted time to second guess. It’s time to move forward, he said, and prepare for the next mass shooting. This week he wrote to the school board and offered to be part of a committee to look into what happened at Robb and come up with informed suggestions on how to prevent another mass shooting.

“I asked not as someone who wants to be a cop again, because I know that’s not going to happen, but as a concerned parent,” he said.

His eldest, Leo, 18, who was a school classmate of the shooter, just graduated from high school. His second, Jett, 14, is entering high school and his youngest, Unica Alicia, 9, hasn’t slept in her bedroom since the shooting. She’s since moved in with mom and dad “to sleep at night, feel safe. She misses her cousin, Eli.”

“We don’t know what we will do when it comes to school time because she won’t go to the bathroom by herself,” he said.

Asked what options they’re considering, Flores paused.

“That’s a tough question,” he said. “One thing that nobody talked about at the board meeting, and everybody wants an answer, but nobody really asks is: Are we truly safe anywhere, anymore?”

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