U.S. Supreme Court Justice dies at Cibolo Creek Ranch County judge stands by action in not ordering autopsy

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Contributed by the Big Bend Sentinal

By Sarah M. Vasquez

PRESIDIO COUNTY – Presidio County officials this week shed some light on events following the death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia at Cibolo Creek Ranch on Saturday.

National news media questioned County Judge Cinderela Guevara’s handling the justice’s death when she didn’t order an autopsy and her ruling that Scalia died of natural causes without her seeing the body and the room where he passed away.

The San Antonio Express-News on Saturday afternoon first reported that Scalia was found deceased at the upscale ranch getaway near Shafter and south of Marfa.

Ranch owner John Poindexter told the Big Bend Sentinel/Presidio International that Scalia was in town for an invited gathering hosted by Poindexter. He said he met Scalia in Washington once before and Scalia expressed he wanted to visit this part of the state. Thirty-five guests were invited for the weekend where they participated in outdoor activities at the secluded ranch.

Poindexter said Scalia arrived around noon on Friday, and went on a drive around the ranch, but didn’t participate in the hunt. Poindexter said he was seated two places from the justice during dinner that night and that Scalia seemed animated and appeared normal. At 9pm Friday, the justice stood up and said he was tired and wanted to get a good night’s sleep.

The next morning, Poindexter went to check on Scalia after he failed to appear for breakfast. He knocked on Scalia’s door, but it was locked. Scalia didn’t answer the door or the phone either. Poindexter didn’t want to intrude so he left him in peace, going with the party on a morning outing.

It was at 11:15am when Poindexter entered into Scalia’s room with a friend of Scalia’s from Washington and found Scalia “completely reposed” in bed.

Poindexter said that “no doubt,” Scalia died from “natural causes.”

According to Chief Deputy Joel Nuñez, the Sheriff’s Department double-checked their logs and the only call they received from Cibolo was from Pointdexter requesting the phone number for the US Marshal’s Service.

Poindexter said he called dispatch to notify them of the fatality and then tried to reach the U.S. Marshals. He said Marshals traditionally escort Supreme Court justices, but they left Scalia unattended at the justice’s request in Houston when he boarded a chartered airplane to Cibolo.

Poindexter couldn’t reach marshals after calling offices in Alpine, San Antonio, El Paso, and Washington, DC, because those offices are normally closed on weekends. He then called Sheriff Danny Dominguez to request his help. Dominguez contacted the Marshals directly and then headed to the ranch. He was the first responder to arrive and saw Scalia in bed. It looked to him that there was no foul play, according to Dominguez.

A few U.S. Marshals later arrived, as did two Border Patrol agents.

Justice of the Peace Juanita Bishop of Presidio received the initial call for the inquest, but called Justice of the Peace David Beebe of Marfa to handle the vague call about a body at the ranch. No name was mentioned. Bishop was in Fort Stockton at the time, and Beebe was attending a political forum in Alpine.

Dominguez then called Guevara, who pronounced Scalia’s time of death at 1:52pm by telephone. Scalia was 79 years old.

The Texas Code of Criminal Procedures allows justices of the peace to determine the time of a death telephonically if events surrounding a death are deemed reasonable. Guevara was a justice of the peace in Marfa for about 25 years before she was elected county judge.

While Alpine Memorial Funeral Home was initially called to the scene, Scalia’s body was transferred later that night with a DPS escort to an El Paso funeral home as per the family’s request.

Father Mike Alcuino of Santa Teresa de Jesus Church in Presidio was called around 3:20pm to give the justice, a Catholic, his last rites.

Guevara told this reporter on Saturday evening that she was headed to the ranch to determine the cause of death and was en route to Cibolo in a Presidio County emergency services vehicle. She later said she returned to Marfa after the U.S. Marshals at the scene said her presence wasn’t needed.

Guevara told WFAA TV in Dallas that she asked the sheriff and U.S. Marshals if there was any sign of foul play, which they replied “absolutely not.”

After Scalia’s doctor called her at 8pm that night to explain Scalia’s health conditions, Guevara used that information to rule the justice died of natural causes. She said the doctor told her Scalia had heart problems and other chronic ailments for some time.

Guevara still stands by her decision. She told the Big Bend Sentinel/Presidio International this week that she decided to call the time of the death over the phone because she was 64 miles away in Alpine and knew the situation needed immediate attention.

“I did ask questions as to whether there was any indication of foul play,” said Guevara.

She was told there was not.

The judge misspoke, though, when she told WFAA that Scalia’s cause of death would be listed as “myocardial infarction” – or a heart attack. She later said she meant that his Scalia’s heart had stopped beating.

Scalia’s family asked that an autopsy not be performed, according to Rob Walters, an attorney from the prestigious law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Cretcher in Dallas.

In an email to Guevara obtained by the Big Bend Sentinel/Presidio International, Walters said that arrangements were already under way to have the justice returned to Virginia. The email continues that the family wished to proceed as planned so the justice could be brought home to his family as promptly as possible.

Guevara is now being scrutinized whether she followed proper procedure.

Executive Director of the Texas Association of Counties Gene Terry told the Texas Tribune that he thinks everybody did what they were supposed to do. The article goes on to explain autopsies are only requested when foul play is suspected, which wasn’t the case with Scalia.

Thea Whalen, an attorney who trains JPs at the Texas Justice Training Center in Austin, also told the Texas Tribune that the law doesn’t indicate the JP has to go to the scene in person. Whalen said in the article that the JPs are to investigate and determine the time of death.

But Whalen said to the Austin American-Statesman that their position is that a reasonable place of inquest would include seeing the body in person, but they understand there are geographic and time issues that might make it impractical.

Guevara said she would fill out the death certificate as the certifier for the cause of death, and Bishop said she would sign the document as the registrar in the county precinct where the body was found.

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