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Texas "Gang Expert" Indicted for Sex Assaults

On June 17, 2004, top Texas prison administrator Salvador "Sammy" Buentello was indicted on felony charges that he sexually assaulted three female employees of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). A week earlier Buentello had been indicted on four misdemeanor charges of official oppression for alleged sexual harassment.

In his more than 25 years with TDCJ, Buentello had built a reputation for being hard, tough, and uncompromising. As director of the Department's Security Treat Group Unit, which monitors institutional gang activity, the swaggering Buentello was a nationally known expert on prison gangs and the tactics used to appear to combat them. Around the prison system he became known as a macho man. Perhaps a little too macho.

Five women, all former employees, have accused Buentello of sexual misconduct during his tenure as head of the State Classification Committee, a TDCJ division that assigns prisoners to a particular prison, including long term segregation units. Two of the victims have filed a federal lawsuit against Buentello and TDCJ.

According to Walker County District Attorney David Weeks, officials decided to investigate after several women filed complaints with TDCJ's Office of the Inspector General. After conducting numerous interviews, investigators ultimately referred the case to his office, Weeks said. The resulting felony indictment alleges that Buentello sexually assaulted 3 women on four occasions-- in May and June 1999, and in January and May 2002. The indictments accuse Buentello of, among other things, forcing the women to engage in oral sex and sexual intercourse.

As for the official oppression indictments, one charge accuses Buentello of sexually harassing an employee in August 2003 by exposing himself and "attempting to touch her." A second charge alleges that in December 2003, Buentello harassed another female employee "by touching her inappropriately, knowing said touching was not welcomed." Two other charges accuse Buentello of making "unwelcome sexual advances" to two employees on two occasions in 2003."

The federal lawsuit filed by two of the victims offers more details. One former female employee contends that when she separated from her husband Buentello started making offensive sexual comments to her. "He asked her if she was still having sexual relations with her husband," the lawsuit alleges. "He intimated that he wanted her to provide him with sexually explicit photos of herself and requested them on a daily basis."

Another former female employee alleges that beginning in 2000 Buentello started making unwelcome and offensive sexual advances toward her while he was her supervisor. She said Buentello exposed himself to her, groped her breasts, and on more than one occasion "pinned her down in what she believed to be an attempt to rape her."

Although the women allegedly reported the sexual harassment to a supervisor and the prison's Equal Opportunity Office; TDCJ took no action against Buentello. Now that he has been charged, many TDCJ employees worry that Weeks will not aggressively pursue the charges against Buentello, who has worked closely with his office in the past.

Kathleen L. Day, a Corpus Christi attorney who is representing two of the women in their federal lawsuit, says the prison system has winked at sexual harassment for far too long. Because TDCJ is male-dominated, she said, prison administrators simply don't take sexual misconduct seriously. "There is a code of silence, and women who come forward face retaliation for breaking that code," Day said. "They get the message that if you file a complaint, you will be punished."

Soon after the allegations surfaced Buentello was placed on administrative leave. A month later, on Apr1l 30, 2004, he retired. Many who commented on prison-related websites expressed anger that Buentello was allowed to retire rather than be fired.

Still, both sides believe that Buentello will eventually be tried on the charges. Buentello faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted on the sexual assault charges, and up to one year in jail and a $4,000 fine for each of the misdemeanor charges.

Buentello is the highest-ranking TDCJ official to face criminal charges since prison director Andy Collins was indicted on federal bribery and money laundering charges in 1998. Collins was later convicted and is still awaiting sentencing years after being convicted [see PLN , November 2003, p. 12].

Sources: Houston Chronicle, Austin American Statesman

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