HOUSTON – A kidnapping victim killed during a rescue attempt was shot after grabbing the rifle of an FBI agent when the agent tried to enter the home where the victim was being held, police said Tuesday, describing the incident as tragic.
The FBI agent didn't know it was the victim who grabbed his rifle during last week's rescue attempt as the room was dark, said Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo.
"A well intentioned effort to rescue a man who had been kidnapped ended in a tragic outcome," he said.
However, Douglas York, an attorney for the family of 47-year-old Ulises Valladares, is attributing his death to a series of bungling errors that show "a roadmap of mistakes," by authorities.
"We're not saying the guy went there with malice in heart so that he could kill a duct-taped hostage," York said. "But once they got there, they failed to protect the very person they were designed to do. And when you're holding a deadly weapon, I think you owe a duty to the hostage not to kill him."
Police said Valladares was kidnapped from his home in Conroe, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) north of Houston, on Jan. 24. His 12-year-old son called police, who called the FBI for assistance.
The FBI tracked down two male suspects to a motel near Houston. The suspects directed FBI agents to a house in Houston where another suspect — a woman — was located along with Valladares.
At around 3:30 a.m. on Jan. 25, a SWAT team from the FBI began entering the house. While one team of agents entered through the front of the home, two other agents began entering by breaking through a back window. When the tool one agent was using to break the window fell into the home, he started using his M4 rifle to break the glass, Acevedo said.
Someone then started to pull the agent's rifle and the agent, fearing the weapon could be used against other agents entering the home, fired twice, Acevedo said. One bullet hit Valladares, who died later at a hospital.
The agent didn't know that Valladares, situated right by the window, was the person pulling at his rifle, Acevedo said. The room was dark and the agents breaching the window didn't use any lights because they didn't want to blind the entry team coming in through the front of the home, Acevedo said.
"Everyone involved, their heart breaks," he said. "Those agents that morning went there with the best of intentions."
While Valladares' hands had been bound with tape to the front of his body, he was apparently still able to grab the weapon, Acevedo said.
Agents at the scene were yelling "FBI" and Acevedo suggested the victim, who is from Honduras, might not have understood what the agents were saying.
However, Valladares' brother, Ernesto, said his brother spoke perfect English and he doesn't believe investigators' claims that his brother pulled the agent's rifle.
"How is he going to grab the rifle when his hands were bound?" Ernesto Valladares said.
York was critical of the agent's decision to fire his weapon in the dark.
"I'm positive he was not trained just to start firing his weapon into an area he can't see because why? You're going to shoot somebody who is an innocent victim," York said.
The police investigation into the shooting is ongoing and once it's concluded, its findings will be presented to prosecutors, Acevedo said.
In a statement, Perrye Turner, special agent in charge of the FBI Houston office, said he couldn't provide additional details because of the ongoing investigation but his agency "takes very seriously any shooting incident."
Two men and one woman have been charged by authorities in Montgomery County, where Conroe is located, with aggravated kidnapping. The men also are charged with aggravated robbery.
Ulises Valladares' 12-year-old son was placed in foster care after his father's death. York said Ernesto Valladares has filed a lawsuit to get custody of his nephew as the boy's mother died a couple of years ago from cancer and he has no other relatives in the Houston area.
Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter at www.twitter.com/juanlozano70