Gene Vela

Gene Vela, a former public affairs graduate student, listens to testimonies during his trial at the Travis County Courthouse on Friday morning. Vela is facing two charges of aggravated assault on a public servant.
Photo Credit: Michael Baez | Daily Texan Staff

Gene Vela walked out of the Travis County Courthouse a free man Wendesday after being found not guilty on all charges.

The trial occurred more than a year after the standoff between Vela, a former public affairs graduate student, and Austin Police Department officers outside Vela’s apartment. 

Vela faced charges for aggravated assault against a public servant, making a terroristic threat and unlawful carrying of a weapon. The jury reached a verdict of not guilty after four hours of deliberation.

After hearing that her son had been found not guilty of all charges, Karen Emerson, Vela’s mother, said she is happy the nightmare is over. She said the past year has been hard on her and the rest of Vela’s family. 

“Just even from the beginning, just finding out my son was shot and just having to wait all this time while he’s been in jail,” Emerson said. “It’s not easy for him, and it’s not easy for the family for him to lose a year out of his life. I’m very, very grateful that he can resume his life.”

At press time, Emerson was waiting for Vela to be processed and released before she could reunite with him.

“I’m just grateful that he’s out,” Emerson said. “I’m grateful for the jurors and that they took into account all of the situation involved, and they were very considerate and took a lot of consideration in making this decision, and I’m grateful for that.”

When the trial began Feb. 24, Vela’s attorney Skip Davis argued Vela did not know the police were outside his apartment because they failed to identify themselves.

APD officers responded after receiving a welfare concern call from Vela’s friend Andrew Clark, former president of the Senate of College Councils. Clark said he received a call from Vela after members of the Senate leadership team had left Vela’s apartment following a cookout and meeting.

When officers got to the apartment, they said Vela answered the door armed with a gun, causing the responders to scatter before they could to talk to him. 

During the trial, officers said they felt Vela was a threat and thought he was targeting them with a laser.

“The laser did not fit Gene’s pistol,” Davis said Friday. “It fell off the gun when I asked the APD ballistics expert to affix the laser to the gun. It fell off dramatically a second time when I handed the gun back and said ‘try it again.’”

Vela, a former Marine veteran, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and had an emotional episode the night of the standoff, Davis said.

Kiefer Shenk, a finance and sports management senior, worked with Vela on the Senate leadership team and said he hoped Vela’s PTSD would be taken seriously during the trial.

“It’s not taken as seriously as it needs to be,” Shenk said. “People, especially those with more severe cases of PTSD, struggle to live a normal life. Paranoia, suspicion and mistrust are hard things to control. These are people that spend their lives fighting for our country, yet our country won’t fight for them.”

Shenk said he had a good time working with Vela in Senate and that Vela always spoke about the campus issues and how to resolve them.

“I’m just really relieved he now gets the opportunity to get the help he deserved and needs,” Shenk said. “Whereas if he was found guilty, wherever he would have gone for any numbers of years, you’re not treated the same way when you’re incarcerated.”

Gene Vela, a former public affairs graduate student, listens to testimonies during his trial at the Travis County Courthouse on Friday morning. Vela is facing two charges of aggravated assault on a public servant.
Photo Credit: Michael Baez | Daily Texan Staff

The trial of Gene Vela, a former public affairs graduate student on trial for two charges of aggravated assault on a public servant, continued Friday at the Travis County Courthouse. 

Vela was originally taken into custody in November 2013 after an armed altercation with several Austin police officers. Officers shot Vela after he aimed, but did not shoot, his handgun at two officers from the window of his North Campus apartment. 

During Friday’s trial, Vela’s attorney, Skip Davis, said Vela was not actually pointing his gun at any of the police officers who had responded to the welfare call to Vela’s apartment.

Austin Police Department officer Adrien Chopin fired one of the three shots that hit Vela that night. 

Chopin said Vela was not pointing a gun at him personally, but said he did believe Vela was aiming for another officer who was closer to the apartment. Davis questioned Chopin about recorded comments made after Vela was wounded.

“I believe I said, ‘He was dancing around with a gun in his hand,’ not, ‘That’s what you get for dancing around with a damn gun in your hand,’” Chopin said.

Chopin said he saw a red laser coming from Vela’s apartment and thought it was being used in conjunction with the gun to aim at the officers. Davis said Vela’s pistol was not equipped with a laser.

“The laser did not fit Gene’s pistol,” Davis said. “It fell off the gun when I asked the APD ballistics expert to affix the laser to the gun. It fell off dramatically a second time when I handed the gun back and said ‘try it again.’”

Davis said Vela, a Marine veteran, had a mental breakdown and did not know it was APD who was knocking on his door. He said the recordings of the event never included APD officers announcing themselves when they tried to contact Vela or before shooting at him.

“APD did not announce they were ‘the police, so put the gun down,’ until 30 minutes later, after they had shot Gene three times with AR-15 assault rifles, firing from concealed positions 45 yards away and in total black darkness,” Davis said. “He came out within a minute of being hailed to come outside.”

Vela faces four charges, including two charges of aggravated assault, one charge of unlawfully carrying a weapon and one charge of terroristic threat.

Gene Vela was booked in the Travis County Jail on Nov. 11 after aiming a handgun equipped with a laser at two policemen through his apartment window in North Campus.

Photo Credit: Helen Fernandez | Daily Texan Staff

More than a year after a standoff with Austin police, Gene Vela, a former public affairs graduate student, stood trial this week for two charges of aggravated assault on a public servant.

Vela was taken into custody in November 2013 after an armed confrontation with multiple Austin police officers. His attorney is trying to convince jurors that police did not correctly identify themselves before attempting to contact Vela.

According to the police affidavit, police officers shot Vela after he aimed a handgun equipped with a laser at two policemen through his apartment window in North Campus. Police were originally called to the apartment following a 911 call from a friend of Vela’s.

Responding officers and one medic testified in court Thursday about the circumstances surrounding the shooting. According to a recorded 911 call, Vela was told the individuals outside his home were police, but Vela’s attorney, Edumund Davis, said that because Vela was being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder, he was unable to process the information correctly. 

Vela is a Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq in 2002.

Court records show Vela has had several conflicts with Austin police, including one incident of driving while intoxicated. 

According to the Travis County Criminal Court docket, Vela faces four charges, including one charge of unlawful carrying of a weapon, two charges of aggravated assault against a public servant and one charge of terroristic threat. 

Vela’s trial continues Friday at the Travis County Courthouse. 

Photo Credit: Chelsea Purgahn | Daily Texan Staff

Gene Vela, the public affairs graduate student involved in an armed standoff with two Austin police officers Nov. 10, remains in custody at the Travis County Jail.

According to the Travis County Criminal Court docket, Vela faces eight charges, including two charges of unlawful carrying of a weapon, two charges of aggravated assault against a public servant and one charge of terroristic threat.

Austin police shot Vela in the torso after Vela aimed his handgun at two officers from the window of his apartment, according to the police affidavit.

Vela is set to appear in court twice in the next three weeks, with one hearing scheduled Friday and the other scheduled for April 14.

According to court records, Adam Reposa is listed as Vela’s defense attorney for the first hearing, but Reposa said he is no longer representing Vela. Edmund Milton Davis is listed as Vela’s defense attorney for the second hearing. 

Steve Brand, a prosecuting attorney for the District Attorney’s Office, said the attorney information on the court docket had probably not been updated yet.

Brand said he does not expect any major changes to the case as a result of tomorrow’s hearing.

“Nothing is going to happen … If the defense wants to file motions to suppress evidence or anything like that, they can,” Brand said. “But there’s nothing there right now.”

Gene Vela, the public affairs graduate student involved in an armed standoff with two Austin police officers Nov. 10, now faces four separate charges.

Vela is slated for two different court dates and has been charged with terroristic threat, unlawful carrying of a weapon and two counts of aggravated assault against a public servant, according to the Travis County criminal court docket.

Steven Brand, a prosecuting attorney for the District Attorney’s Office, said Vela has remained in custody since his arrest.

One of Vela’s two bonds was increased from $100,000 to $250,000. The second bond was reduced from $500,000 to $250,000, Brand said.

According to the police affidavit, Vela was shot in the torso after he aimed his handgun at two officers from the window of his apartment.

“He has two different ‘aggravated assault against a public servant’ charges, one for each officer he aimed his gun at,” Brand said.

Vela is scheduled to appear in court Jan. 24 and Jan. 31.

Photo Credit: Sam Ortega | Daily Texan Staff

Hours before graduate public affairs student Gene Vela, a member of the Senate of College Councils’ Leadership Team, was involved in an armed standoff with police officers, the Senate’s Executive Board convened at his house for a scheduled meeting.

Though multiple board members referred The Daily Texan to the Senate’s faculty sponsor, Dean of Students Soncia Reagins-Lilly, for comment, Reagins-Lilly denied any knowledge of the meeting in a statement. Reagins-Lilly was unavailable for an interview.

“We are unaware of any Senate of College Councils organizational or business activity scheduled on the evening in question,” Reagins-Lilly said in a statement. “Our priority in this matter remains the safety and well-being of our students.”

Senate President Andrew Clark said Senate board meetings are regularly scheduled events and are occasionally held off campus, as the board meeting was on Nov. 10. 

“We meet every Sunday at 7 p.m., whether it be Leadership Team or the Executive Board of Senate,” Clark said. “We meet every single Sunday, and sometimes we do meet off campus, but I don’t know how often.”

Clark said Reagins-Lilly would provide information and said despite the board meeting at Vela’s house, the standoff is not a Senate issue.

“Gene was a member of Senate and obviously was a contributor to the organization, but beyond that, this is something that’s kind of transcended the scope of Senate,” Clark said. “So that’s why it’s Dean Lilly’s responsibility. In any student conduct related matters, or legal things, it’s Dean Lilly’s role to take on.”

On Nov. 10, Austin Police Department officers arrived at Vela’s North Campus apartment, close to St. David’s Medical Center, after Vela called a friend and hung up abruptly. Police said the unidentified friend was concerned enough to call 911. 

When the police arrived, Vela aimed a handgun at them through his window, according to police department Assistant Chief Raul Munguia. After officers fired bullets into the corner of the window, Vela retreated, at which point police heard what they believed to be Vela loading and discharging more firearms.

Vela returned to his apartment window and pointed his laser-equipped handgun directly at the officers’ chests, and officers Leo Cardenas and Adrien Chopin fired, Munguia said. Vela was hit in the left torso and fell back. 

Clark said he was not aware Vela, who is a Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq in 2002, kept weapons in his apartment. 

“Gene is a veteran, we all knew that,” Clark said. “All I know is what’s been reported in the papers. I had no idea that he had weapons or any sort of anything else.”

Clark denied any further knowledge of what might have caused Vela to aim a handgun at officers that night. 

“I had no idea about any of the stuff that went on after the fact,” Clark said. “All I know is what’s been reported in the papers.”

In the days since the standoff, multiple members of the board have denied comment completely or referred to Clark and Reagins-Lilly for comment. 

Student Government President Horacio Villarreal said he was surprised at the seeming lack of transparency, but said he felt certain circumstances require private handling.

“This does somewhat surprise me,” Villarreal said. “In dealing with the Senate Executive Board this year, they’ve been incredibly transparent — but I trust them, they’re good people and I trust they’re making the right decision.”

Vela, who is being held in the Travis County Jail, has been charged with aggravated assault against a public servant. Currently, his bond remains set at $100,000.

Clarification: Soncia Reagins-Lilly, dean of students, was contacted for an interview but released a statement instead.

Gene Vela was booked in the Travis County Jail on Nov. 11 after aiming a handgun equipped with a laser at two policemen through his apartment window in North Campus.

Photo Credit: Helen Fernandez | Daily Texan Staff

Correction: This article has been corrected after its original publication. Steve Brand, prosecuting attorney for the District Attorney's Office, argued to increase Gene Vela's bond to $1 million on Nov 22. The judge did not rule to change the amount of the bond, which remains $100,000.

Steve Brand, prosecuting attorney for the District Attorney's Office, argued in court on Friday to increase the bond for Gene Vela, a public affairs graduate student to $1 million claiming Vela is a threat to the public at a court hearing Friday.

Vela has been charged with aggravated assault against a public servant after he was involved in a standoff with the police Nov. 10, according to UTPD. The bond, set last week, remains at $100,000.

Vela was represented by Adam Reposa and Edmund Davis. Reposa said he believed without proper treatment to Vela’s post traumatic stress disorder, Vela was going to deteriorate in jail. Vela is a Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq in 2002.

“[He needs to] take the veteran treatment opportunities that are available to him,” Reposa said. “He was only recently, probably within the last 69 days, properly assessed/given a [post traumatic stress disorder] diagnosis.”

Steve Brand, prosecuting attorney for the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, said Vela should not be released from custody for veteran treatment because he is a danger to the community.

“Police are frightened by this guy, concerned by him, they feel that he poses an ongoing danger to the Travis county community,” Brand said.

Vela was booked in the Travis County Jail on Nov. 11, the day after being shot in the torso by police. UTPD said Vela was shot after aiming a handgun equipped with a laser at two policemen through his apartment window in North Campus. Police were originally summoned to his apartment following a 911 call from a friend of Vela’s.

Vela's next hearing is set for January 2014, although Brands said he expects this date to be moved up.

Prosecutors from the Travis County District Attorney’s office may be pursuing a life sentence against public affairs graduate student Gene Vela, who is being charged with aggravated assault against a public servant after he was allegedly involved in police stand-off Nov. 10.

Vela, a Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq in 2002, was booked in the Travis County Jail on Nov. 11 at 3:26 a.m., the day after being shot in the torso by police. He was shot after alledgedly aiming a handgun equipped with a laser at two policemen through his apartment window in North Campus. Police were originally summoned to his apartment following a 911 call from a friend of Vela’s.

Adam Reposa, who represented Vela in court Tuesday, said the district attorney’s office may be pursuing a life sentence against Vela.

Steve Brand, prosecuting attorney for the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, said that no plea offer had yet been made on the case.

“I can see the argument why he should spend life in prison, but there is currently no offer on the case,” Brand said.

Brand said more investigation into the incident is required before plea negotiations can begin.

“It would be premature to say there are currently plea negotiations,” Brand said.

Vela, who is in custody, is scheduled to appear in court next Friday. Brand said the district attorney’s office would not support reducing Vela’s bond — which is currently set at $100,000 — in order to more quickly release him from custody.

Gene Vela, public affairs graduate student and suspect in an armed standoff Sunday with the Austin Police Department, plans to receive Veteran Affairs treatment following his arrest, according to his lawyer, Adam Reposa.

Vela, a Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq in 2002, was taken into custody the day after being shot in the torso by police. He was shot after alledgedly aiming a handgun equipped with a laser at two policemen through his apartment window in North Campus. Police were originally summoned to his apartment following a 911 call from a friend of Vela’s. 

“I got shot, I shook it off; they could shoot me ten times, and I won’t care,” Vela said in an official statement, according to Reposa.

Reposa said Vela has been strained by post-traumatic stress disorder, and psychological stressors have affected his recent decisions.

“He is an honest, intelligent and hardworking human being,” Reposa said. “Obviously, this is all a terrible misunderstanding. He served our country. I’m sure this will all get worked out.”

In February 2012, Vela was charged with the misdemeanor of unlawful carrying of a weapon while drunk. In the affidavit for his arrest, Vela’s brother, Jason Vela, said Gene Vela acts aggressively while drunk and commented on Gene Vela’s probable PTSD.

According to Reposa, alcohol was not likely a factor in the standoff Sunday.

“I don’t think that anybody thinks that he got drunk and that this is related to him going out and getting drunk,” Reposa said. “It’s quite the opposite, that the same things that lead him to get drunk lead him to this behavior. Drinking is the symptom, not a cause.”

According to Reposa, Vela is in good spirits and will seek trauma treatment for PTSD through Veteran Affairs.

PTSD is a reaction to one or more highly stressful events outside the range of normal human experiences that may manifest itself in several ways and is often accompanied by depression, anxiety and substance abuse, according to Student Veterans Services director Ben Armstrong. An estimated one in every five of all military personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have PTSD, according to Heal My PTSD. On campus, there are about 600 veterans within the student body and more than 2,000 people who are either veterans or veteran dependents.

“PTSD is actually a normal process that people go through in response to an extraordinary event or trauma,” said Jane Bost, UT Counseling and Mental Health Center associate director. “These are ordinary things. It is how the body protects the person from the events.”

Vela’s mother, Karen Emerson, said Vela has had more difficulty since his return from the war.

“It’s still very traumatic for me,” Emerson said. “I just wanted to make sure he was okay … He would not ever intentionally hurt anyone.”

Wayne Vincent, Austin Police Association president, said incidents of armed standoffs have been increasing in Austin. As part of standard procedure, police are required to take an administrative leave following use of deadly force.

“It seems like every few months we’re going out where an officer was forced to use some kind of deadly force,” Vincent said. “It’s very unsettling and certainly nothing an officer wants to go through.”

As the University waits for information on Vela’s case, Dean of Students Soncia Reagins-Lilly said UT’s thoughts and prayers are with Vela.

“Our main concern is for the health and well-being of our students,” Reagins-Lilly said. “We are dedicated to helping support our students through difficult times through a wide range of resources within the Division of Student Affairs.”

—Additional reporting by Sarah White

Once a year, on July 4, Texans cede our Lone Star pride to that of a more elaborate flag. Independence Day is a celebration that—theoretically—unites every American under the stars and stripes of our great nation.

I spent July 4 tossing candy at kids who anxiously awaited the floats in a quaint Independence Day parade outside Austin. Like me, these children were, in the words of Lee Greenwood, “proud to be [Americans].” But I could not help but marvel at their naivety.

Most children are patriotic because their social studies textbooks paint an innocent portrait of the United States, but as they will eventually learn, American pride is a much more complex notion, and one that evolves over time.

In just the last decade it seems like the meaning of patriotism has changed.

2003 was a year of ardent patriotism. Media coverage of the US invasion of Iraq fueled civilian passion and George W. Bush’s presidential approval ratings, which soared to 71 percent in March of that year.

Gene Vela, a student veteran pursuing a master’s degree in global policy studies at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, was 20 years old in 2003, when our country first invaded Iraq. He recalls "blind allegiance to President Bush." Questioning the president, for Vela, was tantamount to being "un-American."

For those of us who were still in grade school at the time, the implications of the invasion were unclear, but as William Yoss, a Middle Eastern studies sophomore, recalls, the "euphoria of nationalistic pride" was palpable. Yoss likens the atmosphere to what he's heard about patriotism during the Second World War.

All in all, our version of patriotism in 2003 meant pride (more like hubris) concentrated on demonstrating our military power and with imperial undertones of spreading our freedom abroad. As history professor H.W. Brands notes, "Patriotism has always been most evident during war."

Fast-forward a decade. We elected our first African-American president, our presence in the Middle East is (supposedly) waning, and Osama bin Laden is dead. The ideas that shaped our national pride in 2003 have dissipated, and now it appears America is focusing more on what it actually means to be an American. For Vela, the blind allegiance he felt in 2003 is gone, replaced by the notion of patriotism as "working to change the nation for the better."

In 2013, patriotism isn’t a boldly worded Toby Keith song. It has an introspective connotation.

To Yoss, it is "a willingness to participate in the processes of the nation, not to revolt from it or blindly follow it." It seems that through these processes American society is progressing.

Not everyone in this county is afforded the same rights. With recent Supreme Court rulings, being a first-class American citizen is now a title afforded to more people — though we still have a long way to go.

When American political discourse isn’t focused on the economy, it is considering questions of civil rights and individual liberties, a subject that resonates for every American.

This shift in the meaning of patriotism is evident even on the 40 Acres, with the emergence of more diverse cultural centers like the Center for Mexican American studies and the Center for Women's and Gender Studies. These centers follow expanding diversity in the realm of higher education, yet their mere presence celebrates the more inclusive opportunity of pursuing the “American Dream” through a college education, which is increasingly afforded to more people.

This July 4 we probably saw fewer American flags in yards than a decade ago.

American patriotism, though less brazen, still exists, and the 2013 version of it is rich with diversity — and better for it.

Wilson is a Plan II Honors and history major from Canton. Follow Wilson @andrewwilson92.