But her raw, unfiltered social media dispatches and her guerrilla-style vlogging have led to tense confrontations with police that, according to Villarreal, have escalated since the summer.
Now, after quietly investigating her for months, local authorities are alleging some of Villarreal’s reporting was criminal.
On Dec. 13, Villarreal was arrested and charged with two counts of “misuse of official information,” a third-degree felony, in connection with her posts on a U.S. Customs and Border Protection employee who committed suicide by jumping from a city overpass earlier this year.
Authorities say Villarreal got the employee’s name from a Laredo police officer and published it on her Facebook page before the department released it to the public. They claim that’s a violation of state law, as the Laredo Morning Times reported.
Villarreal, who turned herself in voluntarily, denies any wrongdoing. She says the department is trying to silence her for criticizing officers and beating their public relations office to the punch. She is confident she will be cleared of the charges.
“All this is just a personal vendetta,” she told The Washington Post on Friday. “And I have all the proof I need to prove it.”
Department spokesman Joe Baeza didn’t immediately respond to a message seeking comment early Friday. In comments to the Morning Times this week, he said: “We have no personal vendetta or ax to grind with anybody.”
The name of a dead public employee is generally not classified or barred from disclosure under federal or state laws — in fact, most public records laws all but guarantee that such information can be legally disseminated by reporters. It’s also extraordinarily rare for prosecutors to go after journalists who publish information that is set to be made publicly available in short order. Even in cases where classified information is published by a news outlet, prosecutors tend to investigate the people who leaked it first.
Legal experts said Laredo police may have picked a First Amendment fight they can’t win. “It’s wrong. They have missed the boat,” Joseph Larsen, a media law specialist, told the Morning Times. Authorities seemed to have “massively overreacted and overstepped,” added Stuart Karle, an adjunct media law professor at Columbia Journalism School, in remarks to Texas Monthly.
Local media reported that Laredo Police officer Barbara Goodman, a 19-year veteran, was the officer who provided Villarreal with the CBP employee’s name. She has been placed on administrative reassignment but has not been charged with a crime.
In Texas, the misuse of official information statute applies when a person receives nonpublic information from a public servant and disseminates it “with intent to obtain a benefit or with intent to harm or defraud another.” Authorities said that’s exactly what Villarreal did.
“Information provided by Officer Goodman pertaining to the case in question was used by Priscilla Villarreal in her Facebook page ‘Lagordiloca News Laredo TX,’ immediately notifying her followers of the incident,” said the criminal complaint against Villarreal, according to Texas Monthly. “Villarreal’s access to this information and releasing it on ‘Lagordiloca News Laredo Tx,’ before the official release by the Laredo Police Department Public Information Officer placed her ‘Facebook’ page ahead of the local official news media which in turn gained her popularity in Facebook.”
An affidavit also stated that police searched Goodman’s and Villarreal’s phone records, finding that they had called or texted each other hundreds of times over about seven months this year. The officer’s attorney told KGNS she had been singled out to scare others in the department out of talking with Villarreal.
Villarreal said Goodman was a longtime friend but denied that she received the CBP employee’s name from her. It came from a tipster, she told The Post.
“What the police don’t understand is that my sources are the people out and around my town. Every time there’s an accident or something, everybody calls me or texts me,” she said. “The officers are angry at the fact” that people “give me the information first.”
Indeed, Villarreal seems to have many friends and admirers around town. In a recent profile, Texas Monthly called her “one of the most relied-upon and most viewed news sources in Laredo.” On a typical night, she’s driving the streets from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m., fielding tips from her followers and sources — a swarm of police in a neighborhood, a car crash, a shooting. Some of her content is graphic, and she’s the first to admit that she has a foul mouth when she gets worked up.
“She’s both beloved and despised for broadcasting the kinds of images that don’t make it into the city’s traditional media,” reporter Leif Reigstad wrote in Texas Monthly.
Villarreal said she learned over the summer that someone from the department was investigating her, though she didn’t know the reason. Around that time, tensions were mounting between her and some in the department, apparently stemming from a dispute she had with an officer at the scene of a shooting, she said. Several videos on her page show her arguing with police about her presence at different crime scenes.
After fretting about her possible arrest for months, Villarreal spoke in early December with an investigator, who told her he had two warrants for her arrest. The bond was $60,000.
She tussled with her attorney about when to turn herself in. Sooner was better, she decided.
The morning of Dec. 13, she drove to the police station. On the way, she live-streamed a video of herself explaining the situation to her followers. When she arrived, media were there waiting, she said.
“It looked like a circus,” Villarreal told The Post. “Police were on the second floor taking video, taking pictures. I was shaking my head.”
She was booked, photographed and escorted to jail without handcuffs. About an hour and a half later, she was released.
Villarreal is set to appear in court after New Year’s. For now, her Facebook page is still a steady stream of crime, car crashes and local news.
“One of the reasons people follow me is because my news is raw, unedited and uncensored. With me, I basically post everything,” she said. “I’m going to keep doing what I like to do.”