Skip Davis

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.