March 08--MCALLEN -- An Edinburg priest has been charged with vandalism after police say he punctured the tires of a parishioner. The priest is also a person of interest in a series of arsons.
Eusebio Martinez turned himself in to McAllen police Thursday morning and then was formally charged with one count of vandalism by Municipal Judge Robert Salazar, who set his personal recognizance bond at $2,000.
As Martinez was being arraigned, Martin Villanueva Jr. watched intently as the man who allegedly stalked his father finally faced a judge. Villanueva's father is the man whose tires Martinez allegedly slashed in an apparent personal vendetta that has spanned more than two years, he said.
"I don't know why he was doing this," Villanueva said. "I don't know if it was professional jealously or what."
According to Villanueva, his father was a devout member of Holy Family Church in Edinburg where Martinez preaches. That all changed in 2010 when his father had a falling out with Martinez, and suspicious things started happening.
In addition to petty vandalism, Villanueva suspects Martinez may be behind five cases of arson that targeted the homes that his father was building as part of their family business, Villanueva Construction.
While Martinez has not been charged in any arson case, the Mission Fire Marshal's Office has interviewed him in connection with one fire at a home that was being built by Villanueva.
The fire took place about 1:32 a.m. Jan. 25, 2012, at 1203 E. 28th St. in Mission and was ruled an arson, said Mission fire Lt. Joe Luna. At the scene of the fire, investigators were able to recover a video recording that shows a man setting fire to the place.
As part of the investigation, which is ongoing, Martinez was questioned by fire officials since he is considered a person of interest in the case, Luna said, adding that he has not been charged.
McAllen police began investigating Martinez, who is a Catholic priest at Holy Family Church in Edinburg, on Jan. 13 after a victim got video of him damaging the tires, said Lt. Joel Morales, McAllen police spokesman.
After an investigation, detectives were able to obtain a warrant for his arrest Wednesday, and Martinez turned himself in to police Thursday morning.
The Diocese of Brownsville has placed Martinez on leave while the case is resolved. Martinez maintains his innocence, the diocese said in a written statement.
Martinez attorney Reynaldo "Trey" Garza III said his client is innocent of the all charges.
"We've reviewed the video and photo evidence and we don't believe that the man depicted there is my client," Garza said. "We are preparing our defense and are planning to take this case to trial."
On Thursday evening, parishioners at Holy Family Church were dealing with the shock of Martinez's arrest.
"I don't believe he did it," said Lily Ocanas, a churchgoer for more than 10 years. Martinez "is a wonderful father; his homilies are excellent.
"I don't believe it."
Anyone with information regarding the arson cases is asked to call the Mission Fire Marshal's Office at (956) 580-8711.
Ildefonso Ortiz covers courts and law enforcement for The Monitor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and (956) 683-4437 or on Twitter, @IldefonsoOrtiz.
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