Humane Society dispute, San Benito officer’s death dominated headlines in 2023

Only have a minute? Listen instead
Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

While there was much that comprised the year in news in the communities of San Benito and Harlingen, residents and public officials endured events in 2023 that rendered one city in such pain that it took the entire Rio Grande Valley community to console them, and left the other in a state of uncertainty regarding a vital service.

Considering the community impact, these are the events that helped define 2023 in the Harlingen and San Benito area.


San Benito police Lt. Milton Resendez

In San Benito, two men are facing the death penalty in the shooting death of the city’s first police officer killed in the line of duty.

Earlier this month, a Cameron County grand jury indicted Rogelio Martinez, 18, of Brownsville, and Rodrigo Axel Espinosa Valdez, 23, a Mexican national, on charges of capital murder of a peace officer along with six counts of attempted capital murder of a peace officer stemming from the Oct. 17 killing of San Benito police Lt. Milton Resendez, 54.

While Martinez is also charged with possession of a prohibited weapon — a machine gun — Espinosa is facing two charges of evading arrest or detention with a vehicle.

A probable cause affidavit points to Martinez as the alleged shooter.

During an interview, Martinez confessed he fired at authorities from the passenger seat, shooting Resendez.

“Rogelio Martinez escorted investigators to a location in Cameron County where he hid a rifle that he used to shoot at officers,” an affidavit states, adding Espinosa confessed to running from authorities as Martinez was firing at pursuing officers.

The shooting that shocked residents here erupted amid a fierce hours-long pursuit during which the suspects are accused of exchanging gunfire with authorities before their arrest in Brownsville late Oct. 17.

At about 4:30 p.m., a traffic stop along a South Padre Island beach sparked the chain of events after a Cameron County parks officer pulled over Martinez for speeding in a red GMC Sierra truck carrying Espinosa, two women including Martinez’s sister, Katherine Martinez, and two children.

An affidavit shows a struggle broke out between Martinez and the officer before Espinosa climbed into the driver’s seat and fled.

After Martinez jumped into the truck’s bed, Espinosa suddenly stopped as Martinez hopped into the passenger seat.

Amid a pursuit, the truck drove down a small road, stopping while the two women carrying children jumped out.

In Port Isabel, a Cameron County constable spotted the truck before state troopers joined the pursuit heading toward Brownsville, where the suspects exchanged gunfire with officers, Cameron County District Attorney Luis V. Saenz told reporters during a news conference following the shooting.

The casket of Lt. Milton Resendez is seen Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023, as the San Benito community and law enforcement from across the country and the Rio Grande Valley gather to pay their respects to San Benito’s first police officer killed in the line of duty before he is laid to rest. (Miguel Roberts | The Brownsville Herald)

As Espinosa drove the truck, Martinez used a pistol and rifle to fire out the window, an affidavit shows.

When authorities stopped firing amid concern of striking residents, they lost track of the suspects, Saenz said.

Amid the pursuit, investigators were pinging Martinez’s cellphone to track the truck.

While searching for the suspects in Brownsville, authorities spotted the two men riding in a black Ford Expedition at about 10:30 p.m. before state troopers pursued the truck, Saenz said.

“The vehicle was pursued to San Benito where multiple officers reported that the front passenger of the vehicle was discharging a firearm again at officers in pursuit,” an affidavit stated.

At about 10:58 p.m. in San Benito, near Business 77 and Sam Houston Boulevard, Resendez spotted the truck before one of the suspects fired two rounds into his vehicle, San Benito Police Chief Mario Perea told reporters during the news conference.

One round pierced the truck’s door, the bullet entering Resendez’s body from beneath his bulletproof vest, Perea said.

Documents show an investigator found Martinez shot Resendez, who was rushed to Valley Baptist Medical Center in Harlingen, where he died.

“Texas Ranger Phil Kucia assisted on the crime scene in San Benito and later confirmed that no San Benito Police Department officers discharged their weapons at the fleeing vehicle; only the front passenger in the suspect vehicle fired his weapon,” an affidavit stated.

When the pursuit headed back to Brownsville, a state trooper fired at the truck, shooting out its tires.

After the suspects fled on foot, authorities arrested them on International Boulevard.

The two men remain jailed in the Cameron County Carrizales-Rucker Detention Center.

Resendez became the first San Benito police officer to die in the line of duty in this town of 25,000.

In the Valley, he becomes the fifth officer killed on duty since 2019.

A view of the facade of the Rio Grande Valley Humane Society in Harlingen in Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2023. (Miguel Roberts | The Brownsville Herald)


After 34 years, Harlingen city officials are cutting off the Rio Grande Valley Humane Society’s annual $400,000 contract, arguing the region’s “no-kill” shelter wasn’t accepting animals while the city’s strays are running “out of hand.”

Now, the Humane Society’s planning to open the area’s first “no-kill” shelter, the agency’s leaders said.

Earlier this month, city officials terminated the Humane Society’s contract, arguing the agency “breached” the agreement when it failed to accept Harlingen residents’ pets along with some animal control officers’ intake requests.

Meanwhile, City Commissioner Rene Perez has described the city’s stray population as “out of hand.”

The contract’s termination marked the end of a decades-long partnership between the city and the Humane Society, which operated under the name the Harlingen Humane Society until early this year, when the agency merged with Mission, becoming the Rio Grande Valley Humane Society.

Earlier this week, Mayor Norma Sepulveda cited what she described as “significant changes” within the Humane Society that she believes led to new policies.

“While it is true that the city has enjoyed a partnership with the Harlingen Humane Society for over 30 years, we have observed significant changes in the organizational structure and operations of the shelter over the last few years, including a complete overhaul of their board and operational methodologies, specifically becoming a limited-intake facility and closing their doors to residents wishing to rescue animals off our streets or surrendering a pet,” she said.

With the Humane Society’s contract set to expire Jan. 18, officials are requesting proposals for the city-owned shelter’s operations.

A girl points to Ziola, a cat up for adoption at the Rio Grande Valley Humane Society in Harlingen on Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2023. (Miguel Roberts | The Brownsville Herald)

Officials took steps to terminate the contract weeks after requesting the Humane Society present detailed financial information to determine whether the agency was using the city’s annual $400,000 payment to serve Harlingen residents while providing low-cost spay and neutering services aimed at controlling the stray population.

When the Humane Society presented some information weeks after a deadline, city officials questioned whether nearly $1 million was spent on payroll.

Last month, past Executive Director Luis Quintanilla, under whom the agency raised its “no-kill” banner, resigned after about four years on the job.

Earlier this week, Lillian Kim, the Humane Society’s president, and Melissa Saldana, its interim executive director, announced the agency was planning to open a new “no-kill” shelter at 729 N. Expressway 77, the site of the former Harlingen U-Pull auto parts scrap yard.

“This new location will host RGVHS’ low-cost community clinics, spay/neuter clinics and be the main location for our Harlingen foster programs,” the agency’s leaders said in a news release.

Meanwhile, city officials are planning to build a $2 million shelter on 10 acres of city-owned land near public works operations on East Harrison Avenue.

In September, city commissioners gave the Humane Society a 120-day extension on its current contract amid animal rights groups’ heated concerns surrounding a proposed agreement they argued would open the shelter’s doors to more animals, forcing more euthanasia.

Since about 2020, the Humane Society, under Quintanilla, began operating as a “no-kill” shelter, slashing its number of euthanasia procedures.