Sobbing brother testifies in Border Patrol agent's murder trial

The star witness against a Border Patrol agent accused of murder — his own brother — gave tearful testimony in a Brownsville courtroom Wednesday.

Lead defense attorney Carlos Garcia assists defendant Joel Luna in putting on a tie prior to Luna's murder trial in Brownsville on January 17, 2017.
Lead defense attorney Carlos Garcia assists defendant Joel Luna in putting on a tie prior to Luna's murder trial in Brownsville on January 17, 2017.  Douglas Young

BROWNSVILLE — In a dramatic day of testimony in the murder trial of Border Patrol Agent Joel Luna and his brother Eduardo, their elder sibling broke down in sobs on the witness stand Wednesday before describing in detail how Eduardo allegedly shot and killed Franky Palacios at an Edinburg tire shop. 

Re-enacting the spring 2015 murder in front of the jury, Fernando said Eduardo — the youngest of the three Luna brothers — walked into the tire shop office where Fernando and Franky were watching TV. He said he heard a gun shot and saw Franky slump over. After that Eduardo walked back out of the office with his hand in his pocket, presumably where he was clutching the murder weapon.

“The [gunshot] sound was heard and I turn around and [Franky] was bleeding,” Fernando said, speaking through a court translator. “I see him just go down.”

Immediately afterward Fernando said another defendant in the case — whose trial is still pending — helped wrap the body in a blanket. Authorities later found Franky Palacios’ naked and headless body floating in the waters off South Padre Island.

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Judge Benjamin Euresti ended the court session promptly at 5 p.m., before Fernando Luna, 36, could finish his testimony. In an appearance that lasted about an hour and a half, there was scant mention of Joel, 31, who was not at the tire shop on the day of the alleged murder. Fernando Luna’s testimony is set to resume Thursday, when prosecutors can continue to question him and defense attorneys will have a chance to cross-examine.

Fernando Luna has struck a plea bargain with prosecutors in exchange for his testimony, which makes him a key witness for the state. But his sobbing debut prompted Assistant District Attorney Gus Garza to label him an "adverse witness," which could have led to a revocation of the agreement. After Garza and the defense attorneys briefly huddled before the judge, the questioning continued and Luna gained his composure. 

Fernando described how he and Eduardo ended up in Texas, where their middle brother — the only U.S. citizen in the family — worked as a U.S. Border Patrol agent. Their family in Reynosa, across the border from McAllen, Texas, received a threat and had to evacuate their home in March of 2013. Fernando said he went into hiding but stayed behind in Reynosa to wait for Eduardo, 26, whom prosecutors believe was a Gulf Cartel “commander.” 

Fernando said he eventually retrieved Eduardo from nearby Camargo and was instructed by his younger brother to pick up a sack full of cash — which he estimated to contain around $250,000 — and then a kilo of cocaine. He stashed the dope and money in Mexico but eventually smuggled it into the Rio Grande Valley, where by mid-2013 he had taken up residence.

It was during this piece of testimony that Garza, the prosecutor, brought the Border Patrol agent brother back into the picture.

“Where was your family living?” Garza asked.

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“In Joel’s house,” he said.

“And to what address were you bringing that money?”

Fernando provided a street address in San Juan, near McAllen.

“And that’s the address of your brother Joel?” Garza asked.

“Yes,” he said.

That wasn’t the only time cash was mentioned in testimony about Joel Luna. The federal agent’s sister-in-law, Roxana Ruvalcaba, testified that Joel gave her about $42,000 in cash — “just in packets with a rubber band” — and asked her to deposit it at a South Texas bank. The money was later used to buy a house in San Juan that Eduardo lived in, records show.

Ruvalcaba’s husband Carlos, who appeared on the stand after his wife, said that Joel told him he had saved up $400,000 but didn’t tell Carlos where he got it. A day before arresting Joel in late 2015, investigators found almost $90,000 in cash in a safe in his mother-in-law’s house. It also contained cocaine, Joel’s commemorative Border Patrol badge and weapons.

Joel’s lawyer, Carlos A. Garcia, said the claims of prosecutors notwithstanding, the state has “zero evidence” connecting his client to the murder and drug-trafficking operation authorities claim to have uncovered. 

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“This case is the story of a family divided by a river,” Garcia said. “Absent from the the state’s case will be any evidence that Joel ever assisted or helped anyone sell drugs, commit a murder or dump a body.”

Garza, the assistant district attorney leading the prosecution, said by the end of the trial the jury will be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the Luna brothers ran a criminal enterprise that Franky Palacios threatened to expose — and paid for it with his life.

“This saga started in Reynosa and crossed the river into San Juan and Edinburg, and but for the drug possession, trafficking distribution, whatever you want to call it, of the Luna brothers, Franky would not have been killed,” Garza said. “The fact that Franky knew that the Luna brothers were engaged in this criminal activity ... that led to his demise.”

Related Tribune coverage:  

  • When Franky Palacios Paz was found floating naked and decapitated off South Padre Island, the local sheriff thought the murder would lead investigators back to Mexican drug cartel violence. He didn't expect a U.S. Border Patrol agent to be among those arrested.
  • In an unusual twist to an already unusual case, federal immigration authorities are questioning the nationality of a U.S. Border Patrol agent accused of capital murder and drug cartel ties in deep South Texas.