Questions raised about Uvalde County sheriff’s role during Robb Elementary rampage

(UVALDE, Texas) — For months since the May 24 school massacre in Uvalde, Texas, attention and blame have been focused on the chief of the tiny school district’s police force. That man, Pete Arredondo, was first suspended and then fired as investigators pointed to him as the incident commander who failed the students and their teachers by failing to act to stop the carnage.

But records that are still being kept confidential and interviews with officials familiar with the most sensitive aspects of the investigations shed new light on the events of that day and raise questions about another ranking law enforcement official who has, thus far, avoided nearly all scrutiny.

That official is Uvalde County Sheriff Ruben Nolasco.

“We’re looking at him,” one law enforcement official said of Nolasco.

Officials briefed on the investigation said Nolasco and his role on the day of the massacre have been a focus as detectives work to unravel both the events that led up to the shooting and the bungled and delayed response of law enforcement to what was an “active shooter” situation.

Determining just who was in charge that day is a focal point as investigators try to make sense of a series of poor law enforcement decisions and delays in the police response that could well have cost lives.

Nolasco, who insists he was not the incident commander when an 18-year-old former student of Robb Elementary School killed 19 children and two of their teachers, has been on the radar of investigators from the start. He initially refused to cooperate with a special investigative committee empaneled by the Texas House of Representatives, agreeing to appear only when he was threatened with civil penalties after being summoned, the committee announced at the time.

Families of the victims, meanwhile, want to know more about his role on the day catastrophe struck Uvalde.

“We feel he should have done more to save children,” said Berlinda Arreola, step-grandmother of Amerie Jo Garza who was killed in the rampage. “We feel like he’s hiding something. There is a reason he hasn’t spoken to anyone.”

In his first interview with a news organization since the shooting, Nolasco defended himself and said he was not and could not have been in command as the massacre played out.

“All I can say is I was not the incident commander that day,” Nolasco told ABC News. “Honestly, I mean, there’s just a lot of finger-pointing that’s going on right now … I think they want to point fingers to me and point fingers at me.”

He said he had given interviews to state and federal investigators leading the official probes into the massacre.

A spokesman for Texas DPS declined to comment for this story.

Soon after radio calls for assistance went out on May 24, scores of police from an array of different agencies poured into the neighborhood around the Robb campus on Old Carrizo Road while the massacre was unfolding inside two adjoining classrooms.

According to investigators, Arredondo had assumed control inside the school building. But official reports say it was a different story outside. There, Nolasco “had operational control,” according to one of the highest-ranking state troopers to report to the site that day.

In a June 2 interview with the Texas Rangers leading the investigation, Capt. Joel Betancourt of the Texas Department of Public Safety said he “initially understood that Sheriff Nolasco was the scene commander.” That statement was included in two synopses of investigator interviews with Betancourt reviewed by ABC News.

That report says Betancourt told Ranger Lt. Randy Garcia that, when Betancourt arrived at Robb, he “met with Uvalde County Sheriff Nolasco and started setting up a command post.” Betancourt went on to explain that he and Nolasco discussed the situation inside the school and the law enforcement resources that were on their way. Betancourt said the sheriff told him the original “active shooter” emergency had settled into one in which an individual was behind closed doors and holding police at bay — what is called a “barricaded subject” in police parlance.

It would go down as the same bad call made inside the school’s hallway by Arredondo.

Betancourt described to the investigator a scene of confusion and poor communication.

“Captain Betancourt said he was getting his information from Uvalde County Sheriff Nolasco because he had operational control,” Garcia wrote in his report. “Captain Betancourt said he did not know if anyone was in charge inside the building. Captain Betancourt relayed a story where at one point he started towards the door to the school and the Sheriff stated there were too many people inside there already, insinuating for Captain Betancourt not to go inside the building. Captain Betancourt took that statement to mean the Sheriff was in operational control.”

Betancourt told the investigator that it was only after the shooter had been killed by a special assault team from U.S. Border Patrol that he “realized that Chief Arredondo was the incident commander.”

Nolasco said he believes it was clear that Arredondo was in charge that day.

“You have a chief of police that works for the school,” Nolasco said. “And he coauthored (the school district active shooter) policy that put him in charge. The incident is at school and I’ll let you do the math.”

Nolasco, a Republican, was elected sheriff in 2020 after nearly three decades in law enforcement. He first joined the Uvalde sheriff’s department in 2005 and has done everything from 911 dispatch to emergency medical response to undercover narcotics operations.

The sheriff said any attempt to make him look responsible for incident command shows “they’re just looking for a scapegoat.”

Arredondo and his attorney did not respond to requests for comment for this story. In his only news interview after the shooting, Arredondo said he did not view himself as the incident commander.

“I didn’t issue any orders,” he told the Texas Tribune.

In a statement issued just before being fired from the school district in August, Arredondo’s attorney also made it a point to remind the public that the school attack first began as a shooting at the Diaz Street home of gunman Salvador Ramos where Ramos shot his grandmother in the face. Nolasco personally responded to that scene.

“That would have been the first incident to establish incident command,” Arredondo’s lawyer, George Hyde, wrote, referring to the Diaz Street location.

In his comments to ABC News, Nolasco took issue with that, saying, at the time, “I didn’t know the connection to that other scene over there” on Diaz Street.

The connection between the Robb school shooting and the earlier gunshots on Diaz Street was a prime focus of the special legislative committee that Nolasco was reluctant to cooperate with. The committee reported that there were differing accounts of when Nolasco arrived on Diaz Street and when he later learned of the Robb shooting.

“In a desire to put this issue to rest, and to foreclose the suggestion that earlier reporting of the attacker’s assault on his grandmother could have led to an earlier law enforcement intervention, the committee has requested records from Sheriff Nolasco’s mobile phones to confirm that he was not contacted directly for assistance on Diaz Street,” the committee wrote in a footnote to its July 17 report. “The committee has not yet received these records. The issue is important if a more timely report of the Diaz Street shooting could have prompted an earlier call from dispatch for law enforcement response to the area or an earlier … alert at the school.”

The committee still has not received those records, said former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman, who served as one of three members of the legislative panel.

“Sheriff Nolasco had a key role, and transparency around his actions that day would serve the people of Uvalde well,” Guzman told ABC News.

In an interview with Ranger investigator Garcia on June 3, Nolasco insisted “he was in his office when he heard radio traffic of a traffic crash near Robb Elementary School,” according to a synopsis reviewed by ABC News. “Soon thereafter, the radio traffic advised of a shooting related to the crash, and Sheriff Nolasco responded to the area. While traveling on Garden Street, he was contacted by the Ramos family as he passed.”

Nolasco also told the investigator, according to the synopsis, that he and DPS Capt. Betancourt “planned the establishment of a command post” but did not proceed once they learned the gunman had been killed by officers inside the school.

As for his reluctance to cooperate with the legislative probe, Nolasco said the reason was simple: “There is an investigation going on. And I participated while cooperating with the Rangers and the FBI. I told them my part of what happened on that day, my understanding, and I was instructed not to talk to anybody else because of the ongoing investigation … It put me in a bad spot. I’m here to cooperate and try to help as much as I can.”

“But, you know, when you have an investigation that’s going on, you wait till it’s investigated before you talk to anybody that’s going to review, I guess, anything,” he said.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.