Students, faculty mourn teacher's tragic death

November 30, 2009 10:21:27 AM PST
Some local high students returned to class today, but without a familiar face. They're mourning the loss of a Spanish teacher, found murdered in his SUV last week. "It's hard to have someone here one day and then the next day, they are gone," said student Teresa Colunga.

Over Thanksgiving break, students would learn that one of their Spanish teachers, 34-year-old Heladio Perales, was murdered. Police found his body in the back of his own Toyota 4-Runner on Thanksgiving Day. Authorities say he was stabbed several times.

"My sister saw it on her friend's MySpace page first and then I saw it on Facebook," said student Kristal Rios.

Even with school out for the holidays, word spread fast.

"I started crying because that was my teacher," said another student.

The news caught many students off guard.

"When I found out, I didn't believe it because I got it by text," said student Javier Noyola.

Noyola had Perales for Spanish last semester.

"It still hasn't hit me yet, but that is why I'm wearing black. A lot of kids said to wear black, in memory for him," Noyola said.

Perales came to work for HISD in 2002 and taught at Reagan High School for nearly four years. Parents say it's the way he died and how police found him that makes it so hard to explain to their children.

"That's the worst thing of all I think because it's just gruesome and kids nowadays, they have a really good sense of the details," said concerned parent Violet Riojas.

While police are still sorting out the details of the investigation, Perales' students remember what they loved most about him and are trying to find comfort in each other.

"He understood us. He was really caring with the students. He related to us," said student Jennifer Gomez.

Grief counselors are on hand at the campus for any student who needs support and they'll be there all this week. The district is planning on sending letters home today to parents.

There is an extensive investigation into Perales' death. Perales' SUV was found abandoned on a property near Needville. When authorities realized it belonged to Perales, Galena Park Police sent an officer and a tow truck. But no one opened the vehicle until it was back at the police station some 53 miles away.

Texas Rangers are assisting with the investigation. Right now, DPS investigators believe Perales was murdered in Wharton. Authorities are pursuing three persons of interest, but no arrests have been made.

COMMUNICATION BREAKDOWN

For three days, Perales's body sat undiscovered inside his white Toyota 4 Runner, even as police say officers from as many as three different law enforcement agencies swept over it.

"We had no idea the victim was in the back," said Galena Park Police Chief Robert Pruett.

Investigators tell us a property owner outside Needville found the SUV abandoned Tuesday and reported it to the Ft. Bend County Sheriff's Office. A deputy reportedly ran the license plate and left a note warning it would soon be towed. Records show a Houston police officer also ran across the car.

But it wasn't until Perales' family walked into the Galena Park police station at 4am Thanksgiving Day that officers realized he was missing and quite possibly in danger.

Officers linked Perales to the SUV and sent Fort Bend County deputies to check it again. Those deputies say they also offered to process the vehicle for evidence, but Chief Pruitt told us his officer failed to pass that information along.

"I was under the impression Fort Bend County had said, 'This is your case. We're not gonna fool with it,'" said Chief Pruett.

So the chief says he made the decision to have deputies photograph the car, secure it and then tow it some 53 miles back to the police station.

"I said, 'Before you leave with the vehicle, pop the trunk and make sure there's no victim in the trunk," said Pruett. "My sergeant informed me, 'Chief, Ft. Bend County done looked in the vehicle. It's clean. You can see inside the vehicle.'"

But seven hours later, the chief says a curious officer shined a flashlight into the car's dark tinted windows, discovering a small crack in a rollover cover and a body hidden underneath.

"There was procedural mistakes made," said Chief Pruett. "I don't know how they could have been corrected."

While all this was going on, Wharton police reportedly made a discovery of their own a home with evidence of a murder inside and no body. Police believe it was Perales who was the victim in that crime and they have three people of interest they are searching for.

We asked the chief if there was going to be any disciplinary action taken. He says at this point, he hasn't made a decision.


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