In our last story I wrote that Council Members and others who opposed the appointment of former Police Chief Art Acevedo as an Assistant City Manager may have had more reasons than they let on to condemn Acevedo. But, I added, “none of them ever let someone convicted of assaulting a woman — and accused of assaulting multiple women — walk free without being sentenced to jail time; none except DA (District Attorney) José Garza.”
After further research I realize that I should have said that Garza let a man completely avoid jail time who committed sexual related crimes against women and a child, even after the offender pled guilty to charges including injury to a child, and even though the man pled guilty to aggravated assault (of a woman) causing serious bodily injury. The latter is a woman he chased and attacked while she was out for a run, breaking her leg as she fought off his attack. Instead, however, of saying the perpetrator was also “accused of assaulting multiple women” I should have said, he was accused, by women, of sexual related crimes against women and a child in at least eight other instances. Only one of those women, however, was physically harmed as a result of violence used by the perpetrator, Antonio Cordero Rios. For all that he got 10 years probation in a plea deal with José Garza’s office.
Jala Washington of KXAN was one of several journalists to report on this case at the time and she summed it up pretty well: “A man who admitted to attacking a woman and exposing himself to a child is now on probation for the next 10 years.” Washington went on to provide a lot more detail, including that the case was solved by a group of the victims of Cordero Rios’ crimes.
We revisit this case now because José Garza is running for reelection in the March 5 Democratic Primary and this case allows an examination of both how well Garza has kept some of his key promises, as well as how he runs his office and the County prosecutorial process. We offered Garza the chance to discuss the cases and sent him a list of questions. At the request of his press office, we even delayed publication for two days to allow them time to answer. We did not, however, hear back by the time on which we agreed, or at all. (The questions we sent to Garza are pasted below this story.)
Garza has an opponent in the March 5 Democratic Primary, one of the only contested local races in the primary. That is Jeremy Sylestine, currently a criminal defense attorney who worked as a prosecutor in the Travis County DA’s Office under Ronnie Earle, Rosemary Lehmberg and Margaret Moore. Garza also has a Republican opponent as well, Daniel Betts. Betts is also a criminal defense attorney. The race, however, will almost certainly be decided in the Democratic Party in heavily Democratic Travis County.
County Attorney Delia Garza drew no Democratic opponent. So she will coast to another four years.
In the District Attorney race Sylestine will have to introduce himself to voters, convince a majority of Democratic Primary voters that Garza needs to be replaced and also that he, Sylestine, is well equipped to be the replacement. It’s a tall order for such a short period of time.
We will cover that race as it goes along, but in this story we will concentrate on Garza’s record, especially as it relates to his promises regarding the treatment of female survivors of sexual crimes. For instance, during his 2020 campaign, Garza criticized the incumbent DA Margaret Moore, saying, “In the most progressive county in the state, our District Attorney has lost the trust of survivors of sexual assault. He praised “the courage of survivors and advocates” and promised to build a criminal justice system “where women are believed and survivors are treated with dignity and respect.”
Fast forward four years and the very top headline on Garza’s campaign reelection website reads, in all caps, “STANDING WITH SURVIVORS.” There he also maintains, “DELIVERING REAL JUSTICE FOR ALL (see screenshot at top).” Then, in “A Personal Note from José,” he states, “Four years ago, survivors of sexual assault sued the City of Austin and the DA’s Office for failing to investigate and prosecute violence against women. Four years later, we’ve made survivors a partner in new accountability strategies.”
For a group of local women, brought together by the crimes of Cordero Rios, the Cordero Rios plea deal calls Garza’s commitment to those promises into question.
Before going further I want to let readers know that some of the material that follows is pretty graphic. I realize that some folks out there think I am moving into too much of a True Crime style. I believe, however, that when women cannot walk safely, and without fear, on Austin trails and streets — and a DA lets their tormentors walk free — then the times call for reporting these kind of stories. Also, I see it as just reporting, and commenting on, the local news.
Here’s how Kelsey McKay — an attorney for several of the women who encountered Cordero Rios and a former prosecutor under Ronnie Earle and Rosemary Lehmberg — characterizes the women’s story. This comes from a statement she wrote before a plea deal between Garza’s office and the defendant was finalized in April 2023: “This is a story of how local women came together to protect themselves, identify a sexual serial predator, and band together to fight for justice.” She adds that Cordero Rios menaced “numerous women while jogging, walking their dogs, riding their bikes, or going for a walk with their children. In some cases, he exposed himself, in others he touched himself, and in most cases, he masturbated as he approached the victims.”
The Initial Attack
The story begins with Lynn Isaak a Travis Heights resident. In her “allocution,” after the sentencing hearing, Isaak recalled, “I left my house on Wednesday, June 30, 2021, ready to kick start my morning with a training run expecting my day would be routine” and “I started my Apple Watch to record my activity.” It was shortly before 7 AM. (The Austin Independent left it to the women involved as to whether we should use their names. Through attorney McKay, Isaak said we could use her name.)
Telling the courtroom that running was her “sanctuary” during COVID, Isaak recalled, I had done this many times before, never feeling unsafe, but I was wrong.” Then, speaking directly to the man who attacked her — Antonio Cordero Rios — Isaak said, “I don’t remember the entire attack, the snip-its I do recall were pure evil. I also remember doing everything to survive. I remember you, like a coward, covering your identity with a mask. I remember you waiting, blending in by pretending like you were working out. You hid behind an identity that you knew would gain trust.”
Isaak continued, “I remember looking behind me and seeing you sprinting towards me and grabbing me. Some of the details are too graphic and unspeakable for me to say out loud.
My leg was shattered that day, and I spent two years coming back from that day. I will never be the same. I will never run again. I will never again be carefree or get to feel that daily exhilaration from a morning run.”
Isaak said it was “days after the attack” when she realized that “my Apple watch had recorded what my brain had not. . . how I ran from you, how I fought for my survival. The visual image of my movements and my survival is horrifying. The pattern showed that for 7 minutes I fought.” The attack happened in the 1100 block of Alameda.
An arrest affidavit from Austin Police Department detective Steven Constable provides more detail, “The victim remembers the suspect grabbing the back of her arm and taking [his] hand and running it down her backside over her yoga pants. She stated the suspect pulled his gym shorts aside and exposed himself. She stated he did not have underwear on.”
As confirmed by the Apple Watch, the struggle lasted seven minutes. The affidavit explains that Cordero fled when a neighbor heard Isaak’s scream and emerged into his yard nearby.
Above: Screenshot from Lynn Isaak’s Apple Watch. The transition from green to orange and then red shows where she was attacked by the perpetrator, then struggled with him for seven minutes. The transition from green to red to orange illustrates her heart beat increasing. The attack took place in the 1100 block of Alameda, in Travis Heights.
A satellite adaptation from Lynn Isaak’s Apple Watch illustrating her movements during her seven minute struggle with her attacker, in the 1100 block of Alameda, in Travis Heights.
The affidavit also describes the seriousness of Isaak’s leg injury: “she was unsure how her leg got injured but she said the doctor told her the force of her femur pushed her fibia down. She stated she would have to have surgery to repair it.”
According to the affidavit, Isaak had surgery on July 15, 2021 “to repair left tibial plateau fracture” and “was informed by her doctor that the recovery period for her injury would be months and she would need total knee replacement in 2-5 years.”
Isaak Begins Her Own Quest to Solve the Case
Isaak’s attorney, McKay, wrote that when Isaak “reported the assault to law enforcement” the police “were not optimistic they would be able to find the perpetrator.” McKay adds, however, that “while recovering from surgery, Lynn almost immediately began searching the NextDoor app, sharing the perpetrator’s description to see if others may have been confronted by the same perpetrator.”
“To her surprise,” continues McKay, “she found other women who had encountered this perpetrator, including an instance of him watching a teenage girl through a fence and several instances of him touching himself or masturbating in front of women and children in public places. Through the Next Door app, this group of women began collecting crucial pieces of evidence, including a photo of him masturbating and Ring video footage identifying his vehicle.”
They then produced a (very graphic) flyer and map (posted below) which included locations of the different incidents around Austin.
Flyer composed and circulated by a group of Austin women trying to find the perpertrator in a number of sexual related acts directed at them and at a child
The arrest affidavit describes several of the incidents involving Cordero Rios, as well as how the women teamed up to crack the case. One important incident took place on July 28, 2021 in the Barton Hills neighborhood near Cliffside Drive and Spring Creek Drive. There, shortly before 6:30 PM, a woman walking with her nine-year-old son saw a man sitting on a fire hydrant. According to the arrest affidavit (filed by Detective Russell Constable, brother of Detective Steven Constable), she politely said hello as they neared the man, but then she realized that he was “masturbating.” She hurried her son past the man on the fire hydrant then turned and snapped a picture of him. After she took the picture, “the suspect pulled his pants and mask up and began moving towards her.” She then “yelled for her son to run home and get his father, while also managing to call 91l.
The suspect decided to flee and the woman observed him get into a nearby White Kia SUV with Texas plates. She was not able to get the plate number. Detective Constable then managed to “locate video surveillance from (a) nearby residence showing (a) White SUV driving in the area around the same time.”
The woman posted her photos of the man and his car on NextDoor and warned people to be on the lookout. Isaak, recuperating at home, saw the photos on NextDoor and thought this was the same person who attacked her. She and the woman in Barton Hills began talking over the phone and later met in person, after Isaak was able to walk again, in December 2021.
In the arrest affidavit Detective Constable describes the last half of 2021 related to the case, “From period of June 2021 to December 2021 multiple incidents were reported to the Austin Police Department and Williamson County Sheriff’s Office reporting similarly described unidentified male following women and exposing himself while masturbating.”
While addressing Cordero Rios directly during the sentencing hearing, Isaak listed eight incidents, in addition to her own, in which the women believed Cordero Rios was the perpetrator.
A big break came on December 7, 2021 when a woman called police about an incident that had happened on November 10. As quoted in the arrest affidavit, “0n Nov. 10 (2021), at around 7:45 am, I was walking up Wilshire Blvd. toward IH35 with my dog.” A man “was walking on the left side of the road in front of me. So I switched sides to go around him. Once I was past him, I noticed that he just stopped and was standing there.” He then ran to his car, “got in and sped off.” She added, “He was wearing a mask and I was never super close to him.” She, however, managed to get the plate number. Later, on December 7, she contacted the police after someone forwarded her one of the flyers and she recognized the perpetrator.
Police ran the plate and traced it to Antonio Cordero Rios. Then on December 9 detectives visited the woman who had called and administered a “lineup” of photos. According to the arrest affidavit, she “selected Antonio Cordero Rios and noted she was ‘100% confident’” that he was the man she had seen. The next day — December 10, 2021 — APD obtained a warrant and arrested Cordero Rios. He was charged with “Indecency With A Child Exposes” and “Indecent Exposure.” The first is a third degree felony) with a sentencing range of two to ten years. The latter is a Class B Misdemeanor with up to six months in jail or a $2,000 fine.
Even more serious charges were filed in Isaak’s case. Cordero Rios was charged with “Aggravated Assault causing Serious Bodily Injury,” according to the Texas Penal Code, a “felony of the second degree,” subject to a “term of not more than 20 years or less than 2 years.”
Ultimately, according to press reports at the time, Cordero Rios was charged in at least three other cases brought forward by the group of women. But, according to the press reports, those cases were left pending at the time of the plea deal. In the questions to DA José Garza we asked about the fate of these cases. But, as already noted, he did not reply.
The Cases Solved by the Female Survivors Go to District Attorney Garza
So these cases went to Travis County DA José Garza, who, as noted earlier, campaigned for office pledging to be a strong advocate for female crime victims.
In this instance he had the benefit of dogged detective work by female survivors, who at times risked their own safety to photograph the perpetrator and to identify the car the perpetrator drove and its license plate. Garza also had the benefit of work by Austin police who cooperated with the women, helped confirm the identify of the perpetrator and then arrested him.
At one point during the time between arrest and trial Judge Karen Sage ordered Cordero Rios into house arrest. He served six months of house arrest.
In late April 2023, sixteen months after Cordero Rios’ arrest, José Garza cut a plea deal with his attorney, Jorge Vela. Cordero Rios was sentenced to 10 years probation, no jail time. This drew the attention of several local television news teams, who sought interviews with Garza. He gave no interviews, but instead his office issued a written statement to television stations CBS Austin and Fox7, and perhaps others: “We are grateful to the survivors of this crime for their courage and resilience to speak up to ensure justice. During the review of these cases, we discovered significant evidentiary challenges that made the result at trial far from certain. For the safety of our community, the defendant will be monitored through probation and be required to register as a sex offender,” for the time he is on probation.
We reached out to both the District Attorney and to Lynn Isaak, through her attorney, for comment. McKay, Isaak’s attorney, provided the Austin Independent a statement from Isaak, — specifically about Garza’s claim that his office “discovered significant evidentiary challenges” in the cases.
Isaak wrote, “I was shocked at the DA’s statements as they never discussed or shared any significant evidentiary issues with me or my attorney. All the victims felt confident in the evidence brought forward and still believe that a jury should have heard the evidence to determine the outcome. I’m concerned that this process will deter victims from coming forward in the future.”
Isaak also wrote in an earlier Victim’s Impact Statement, “The Travis County DA’s office has placed the Austin community’s safety at a lower priority than their stance on restorative justice.”
McKay also provided the Austin Independent with some comments on Garza’s media statement. “As a former prosecutor and defense attorney, I am familiar with what it takes to try a case from both sides of the courtroom. The outcome is never certain, and justice is never a guarantee. However, in this case it seemed worth the risk. There is both a compelling interest in protecting our community and a powerful arsenal of evidence to support each element of the crime. The victims have no motive beyond community safety, and their cooperation throughout the criminal process has been commendable and unwavering.”
McKay also addressed DA Garza’s contention that there were “evidentiary challenges” with some of the evidence that was used to identify the offender. She said that “despite his attempt to conceal his identify by wearing a mask, the perpetrator was: identified by multiple individuals; he confessed to police that he was at the location of the violent attack; admitted it was possible the victim saw him shaking his penis; his vehicle was recorded by a home surveillance camera; his license plate number was documented by a witness; his vehicle was photographed at multiple scenes; and a photograph of the perpetrator exposing himself was captured at one of the scenes.”
McKay continued that her clients believed the case was compelling because “numerous women in Travis and Williamson County reported his sexually inappropriate and creepy behavior, and medical records supported the seriousness of the injury.”
José Garza disagreed and the perpetrator who brutally attacked Lynn Isaak and committed other sexual related acts is free today.
Lynn Isaak and the other survivors formed a group called The Uncooperative.
Kelsey McKay heads Respond to Violence, “a multidisciplinary think tank seeking to generate sustainable change in our society’s collective response to violence and trauma.”
Below are the questions that the Austin Independent sent to the office of District Attorney José Garza last Friday January 26 at 11:36 AM. As we noted earlier a representative of Garza’s office called late Friday afternoon and said they could not respond by Monday at noon as I asked. They asked if I would delay the story until Wednesday. I considered that a fair request and agreed to wait. They did not, however, answer the questions.
Emailed Questions to District Attorney José Garza
|Jan 26, 2024, 11:36 AM
Dear District Attorney Jose Garza and media office representatives:
I am writing a story that includes a review of the case of Antonio Cordero Rios, the case, on which he received 10 years probation in a plea deal with your office for, according to media reports, aggravated assault causing serious bodily injury, and injury to a child.
I have a few questions to make sure that I am accurate and to give DA Jose Garza or his representatives a chance to comment. I am open to written answers or by phone. If you want to answer by phone then I ask that we schedule a time so that we don’t risk a missed a call.
I would appreciate getting answers to the questions by 1 PM on Monday January 29.
- My first question, is my above description of the charges and the sentence/plea deal accurate? If not please correct what is inaccurate.
- According to some of the media reports the assault was one of several in which women accused Antonio Cordero Rios of similar crimes. Is that also true?
- Is it accurate that the April 2023 plea deal involved, as described in more than one of the stories, the case of Lynn Isaak and the one where Cordero was masturbating publicly near a fire hydrant when a woman and her child passed by? If not please correct this.
- To many people this would seem like a light sentence and one that might endanger the public. Can you please comment on that?
- At least one of the women and an attorney for the women said this sentence was too light. Do you have any comment on that? (I saw the statement issued by the DA’s office that is quoted in some of the articles. I will use that if I don’t get further comment.)
- At least two media reports quote the attorney for Cordero Rios saying that this plea agreement was the result of 16 months of negotiation between him, on behalf of his client, and the DA’s Office. Is this accurate?
- The attorney also was quoted saying that “rehabilitation” is one of the goals of the justice system. Was that part of the thinking in the DA’s Office on this case?
- Can you please provide me the arrest affidavit in this case. If you cannot provide this please tell me the best place to get it.
- More than one of the stories say there were three other cases pending against Condero Rios at the time of the plea deal (April 2023) for indecent exposure. Is this accurate and have these cases come to court or been settled yet? If so, what was the result and the sentence, if any?
- Given the nature of the crimes and that Condero Rios had three cases pending, why was he not at least required to wear an ankle monitor as part of the plea deal and his probation?
- Could you comment on how the plea deal in this case squares with your (Jose Garza’s) campaign promises to protect women and your claims to have done better on that than your predecessors?
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