Alleged border wall panel thief freed on bond

The first panels of levee border wall are seen at a construction site Nov. 7, 2019, along the border in Donna. (Eric Gay | AP)

McALLEN — A man who allegedly helped steal more than $1.5 million in border wall panels from a construction site in Pharr last fall was freed on $30,000 bond Wednesday.

Jose Emmanuel Gonzalez, 21, was released from federal custody after being arraigned late Wednesday on one count of theft of public property.

Gonzalez and another man, Juan Nestor Rojas, are accused of stealing approximately 215 border wall panels from Strong Structural Steel between August and December 2021.

“Each panel has been valued by the (U.S. Army) Corps of Engineers at $7,000,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Lee Fry said during Gonzalez’s arraignment and detention hearing Wednesday.

Fry added that 215 panels was a “conservative” estimate of how much material the pair allegedly stole.

“The government would note we find this offense to be serious. Theft of government property is not something that we see (often),” Fry said at the start of the hearing.

Though a grand jury handed up the single-count indictment against Gonzalez and his co-conspirator, Rojas, on June 14, Gonzalez wasn’t arrested until Nov. 18. Prosecutors explained that was due to “investigative purposes.”

Rojas has remained in custody since his arrest by federal agents in mid-July.

On Sept. 7, Rojas reached a plea agreement with federal prosecutors, however, a rearraignment hearing has yet to be set by the court.

The theft first came to light when Strong Structural Steel Vice President of Business Jerry Ring noticed that 110 border wall panels were missing last December, according to Monitor archives.

Each panel measured 32 feet by 8 feet, Ring told The Monitor then.

Ring told police that he believed the theft to be an inside job since the company’s own forklift appeared to have been used and only one employee had a key for it.

Gonzalez previously worked at the steel fabrication company as an operations assistant, U.S. Magistrate Judge Juan F. Alanis said during Wednesday’s hearing.

Surveillance video obtained from a nearby business by Pharr police appeared to show four pickup trucks towing flatbed trailers near Strong Structural Steel just before 5:30 a.m. on Dec. 5, 2021.

Some of the paneling was later located at a Weslaco scrap yard.

Some of the paneling had been used to build patio or pavilion type structures, Pharr police said.

The case was later turned over to federal investigators.

Meanwhile, the magistrate judge found that Gonzalez was neither a flight risk nor a threat to the public. As such, he set bond at $30,000 with a $500 deposit.

Gonzalez’s family posted the bond Wednesday, court records show. Gonzalez is next set to appear in court on Jan. 3, 2023, before U.S. District Judge Ricardo H. Hinojosa.