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A call, a text, an apology: How an abortion arrest shook up a Texas town

The arrest and since-dropped murder charge against a 26-year-old woman stoked widespread outrage and confusion.

Protesters stand outside the Starr County Jail after Lizelle Herrera, 26, was charged with murder for allegedly performing what authorities called a "self-induced abortion," in Rio Grande City, Tex., April 9. (Jason Garza/Reuters)

Calixtro Villarreal’s phone rang Saturday afternoon, about 48 hours after his client, Lizelle Herrera, was arrested and charged with murder — over what local authorities alleged was a “self-induced abortion.”

It was Gocha Ramirez, the district attorney in Starr County, Tex., a remote area on the border with Mexico. Herrera should never have been charged, Ramirez told the lawyer, according to a person familiar with the situation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private interactions.

The district attorney reiterated that sentiment in a text he sent the next day to an acquaintance. “I’m so sorry,” he wrote in the message, which was reviewed by The Washington Post. “I assure you I never meant to hurt this young lady.”

Texas woman charged with murder after abortion

Ramirez moved to drop all the charges Sunday. He did not respond to requests for comment, nor did Herrera. Villarreal declined to comment multiple times.

Abortion rights advocates in Texas and across the country seized on Herrera’s arrest soon after she was taken into custody Thursday, concerned that it might be connected to a new Texas law banning most abortions and, worse, pointed to an ominous future in which seeking to terminate a pregnancy is treated as a crime.

However, interviews with several people in the South Texas community closely following the situation, as well as statements from leaders in the Texas antiabortion movement, suggest this was not part of a broader antiabortion strategy, but instead a hasty error by a first-term Democratic district attorney. Herrera’s husband -- who filed for divorce on the same day as her arrest -- is being represented by a prosecutor in the district attorney’s office, raising questions about potential conflicts of interest.

Still, Herrera’s arrest could inflame a growing state-by-state fight over abortion. The battle has intensified leading up to a Supreme Court decision this summer that could overturn or significantly weaken Roe v. Wade, the landmark precedent that has protected the right to abortion for nearly 50 years. Since the district attorney’s statement that it was a hospital that reported Herrera to law enforcement, her case has drawn sharp concerns from abortion rights activists, who worry that potential patient privacy violations could instill greater fear in women seeking access to legal abortion.

“There is already such a great degree of mistrust and fearfulness around abortion,” especially in Texas, said Blair Cushing, an abortion provider in South Texas.

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Texas law explicitly exempts a woman from a criminal homicide charge for aborting her pregnancy. While many of the specifics of Herrera’s case remain unclear, even staunch antiabortion activists condemned her arrest. Texas Right to Life, the organization that helped draft the Texas abortion ban, said her indictment came as a surprise.

“The Texas Heartbeat Act and other pro-life policies in the state clearly prohibit criminal charges for pregnant women,” said John Seago, the group’s legislative director, referring to the Texas law that allows private citizens to sue anyone who helps facilitate an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy. “Texas Right to Life opposes public prosecutors going outside of the bounds of Texas’s prudent and carefully crafted policies.”

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Cushing said she sees patients every day who buy pills in Mexico for a medication abortion — a two-step procedure that involves mifepristone and misoprostol — then come to her clinic for a check-up. After hearing that a woman in their region was charged with murder for an abortion, Cushing said she expects patients may try to hide the details of their situations — or they may not come to her at all.

In a statement issued Sunday, Ramirez acknowledged that the events surrounding the incident had clearly “taken a toll” on Herrera and her family.

“To ignore this fact would be shortsighted,” he said.

A hospital brought the case to the attention of the sheriff’s office, according to Ramirez’s statement. Rene “Orta” Fuentes, 61, who became sheriff in 2008 after spending nearly three decades in the department, did not respond to a request for comment.

Ross Barrera, a community organizer and former chairman of the Starr County Republican Party, said abortion is rarely discussed in public forums in the heavily Democratic county. He described Ramirez as a “hardcore Democrat” and said he simply made a misstep in the Herrera case.

“I think his office just failed in doing their work," he said. “I would put my hand on the Bible and say this was not a political statement.”

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Ramirez has been widely supportive of Democratic candidates. He backed the Democratic presidential ticket in 2020 on social media. He contributed to Democrat gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke last year, to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis in 2014 and to Democrat Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign in 2008, according to state and federal campaign records.

Starr County, in the heart of Texas’s overwhelmingly Hispanic Rio Grande Valley, is a mostly rural region dotted with small towns. Residents of Rio Grande City, the county seat, buy their groceries at a single H-E-B supermarket. People either gather at church or in their backyards for carne asada, according to the person familiar with the situation involving Herrera. Since a Panda Express opened recently, this person added, it has been “all the rage.”

While people in Starr County tend to vote for Democrats up and down the ticket, many are socially conservative, particularly when it comes to abortion. The region is saturated with staunch Catholics who still raise an eyebrow to discuss who got pregnant “out of wedlock,” said the person familiar with the situation.

Few details are publicly known about Herrera, the 26-year-old woman at the center of an incident that has drawn national attention. She was released from police custody after mobilization efforts helmed by abortion rights groups led by women of color.

Her husband, Ismael Herrera, filed a divorce petition on April 7, the same day as her arrest, according to court documents. They married in 2015, when she was 19 years old, and stopped living together on or about Jan. 1, according to the records. The separation occurred less than a week before the “self-induced abortion” described in her indictment. The couple have two sons, according to the records.

The lawyer who filed the petition, Judith Solis, did not a respond to requests for comment. Solis is one of five prosecutors who works in the Starr County district attorney’s office.

Court officials referred questions about which prosecutor presented Herrera’s case to the grand jury to Ramirez. He could not be immediately reached Wednesday morning. But lawyers say prosecutors in that office are allowed to practice civil litigation.

Melisandra Mendoza, a lawyer who used to work in the district attorney’s office, said if Solis does not make Herrera’s arrest an issue in the divorce, there may not be conflicts of interest. However, she said she would not have taken the divorce case. “I probably would have walked away from this case,” she said.

Ismael Herrera also could not be reached by The Post. He spoke briefly in Spanish to a local television reporter on Monday, saying, “Listen right now, I have no words. ... It was a son. A boy.”

Ramirez, the 68-year-old district attorney, won the Democratic primary in 2020 and did not face a Republican challenger in the general election. Much of his campaign focused on child advocacy. On April 1, one week before Herrera’s arrest, his office posted a message on Facebook declaring April “Child Abuse Awareness & Prevention Month” in the 229th Judicial District.

The district attorney’s office chose to present this case to a grand jury to seek an indictment for murder.

Within the legal community in Starr County, Ramirez’s decision to bring the case is widely seen as “gross negligence," said a lawyer in the community, who like others interviewed for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss sensitive topics.

When Abner Burnett, one of the Starr County public defenders, first heard about the arrest, he was confused about which statute the District Attorney’s office might be using, because the Texas penal code clearly exempts a pregnant woman from this kind of murder charge.

“At first I thought maybe someone had slipped a new statute by me and they were trying it out,” said Burnett.

Legal advocates in the national abortion rights community rushed to offer financial and legal support to Herrera over the weekend, according to the person familiar with the situation. But Herrera and her family decided to retain Villarreal, a 54-year-old lawyer known for quoting Scripture.

His law firm’s website describes it as “a Christian-based organization that believes in the teachings of the Lord and the impact that only Jesus Christ can have on individuals. The website adds: “With this in mind, our intention is to use our wisdom and experience that the Lord has provided to serve our clients with the utmost respect and care. It is an honor to serve our clients, for it is a service to God.”

In a small legal community where most of the attorneys know one another, court records show 19 federal cases in which Villarreal and Ramirez represented co-defendants. Villarreal publicly declared his support for Ramirez in two Facebook posts leading up to his election in March 2020.

“They’re friends,” said a person close to the situation. “They go way back.”

Many abortion rights advocates across the country have called for a lawsuit against Ramirez and others responsible for Herrera’s arrest. Local practitioners in Starr County have also signaled their support for legal action.

If Burnett, the public defender, was in Villarreal’s position, he said, he would sue the county for what it did to Herrera “in a minute.”

“It’s wrong, not just that they arrested her and charged her with a crime that didn’t exist, they also exposed her to a kind of public light that she did not deserve,” Burnett said. “They should have been way more careful before they did that.”

As soon as Cushing, the abortion provider, heard the news about Herrera, she said she immediately thought of the women she sees in the Rio Grande Valley.

When her patients go to Mexico for abortion pills, they are often given incorrect instructions about how to take them, said Cushing. Sometimes the false regimen will fail to terminate the pregnancy, she said, and occasionally it might put a patient’s health at risk.

Cushing has worked hard to earn those patients’ trust, she said. Now, she added, she’ll have to work even harder.

Nate Jones contributed to this report.