A Texas state police captain tried to delay a law enforcement team entering the classrooms to end the Robb Elementary massacre and is now among those under investigation after an account from someone at the scene that he ordered his officers to stay out of the school in the initial response to the shooting, sources tell CNN.
CNN has obtained a new audio recording of Capt. Joel Betancourt ordering a strike team to wait, more than 70 minutes into the attack. Betancourt says he thought a more highly skilled team was on its way. Separately, police memos highlight criticism of Betancourt, a 15-year veteran of the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS).
Memos written just two days after the May 24 massacre and reviewed by CNN detail some of the DPS involvement in the hesitant but chaotic law enforcement response to the shooting in Uvalde, Texas. No action was taken against the gunman or to help those trapped with him for 77 minutes apart from an initial approach that was aborted when he started firing. Nineteen children and two teachers were killed in the massacre.
“I heard someone shout out, Capt. Betancourt said all DPS personnel need to be on perimeter, do no (sic) enter building,” one DPS lieutenant stated, after writing how he had driven from some 40 miles away at speeds of up to 130 mph to get to the scene.
A DPS sergeant added in his memo: “As this was clearly against established training, we both decided to enter the building where the shooter was located.”
DPS director Col. Steven McCraw told CNN, “Yes, absolutely,” when asked if Betancourt was being investigated for telling officers not to go into the hallway. “The IG is investigating that,” McCraw said during an impromptu interview before a meeting last month.
Betancourt was interviewed multiple times in the immediate aftermath of the event and has since become one of seven current and former DPS officers referred for further investigation by the DPS inspector general, CNN has learned from sources close to the events who are not authorized to speak to the media.
He told investigators he arrived at Robb Elementary at about 12:45 p.m., a few minutes before the teenage gunman was killed, the sources said.
“Hey, this is DPS Captain Betancourt. The team that’s going to make breach needs to stand by. The team that’s gonna breach needs to stand by,” he ordered at 12:48 p.m. on May 24, as heard on the audio from a police radio broadcast captured on multiple officers’ body-worn cameras.
In the course of the investigation, Betancourt told investigators he had no first-hand knowledge of what was going on, including that a specialized Border Patrol tactical unit, BORTAC, was confronting the shooter, according to sources familiar with the investigation. He said he issued the order for the team to stand by as he thought a better unit was on its way, sources said.
He told agents no one responded to or followed his order, the sources said.
The memos reviewed by CNN and the audio offer evidence that contradicts the official DPS narrative that its officers were never in control or issuing substantive orders. DPS director McCraw has repeatedly criticized then-school district police chief Pedro “Pete” Arredondo as leading the “abject failure” of a response. Arredondo has said that he did not see himself as the incident commander.
CNN left messages for Betancourt on phone, email and text. He did not respond.
Betancourt remains on active duty with DPS.
DPS declined to comment on this story.
Two officers have given accounts of the initial response to the shooting in which they were told not to enter the school. The officers did not say in their memos when they received that message. Betancourt did tell investigators he remembers telling DPS officers to stay out and form a perimeter, but says that was after he arrived and was told by Uvalde Sheriff Ruben Nolasco there were too many people inside, according to the sources. Nolasco has not responded to CNN’s requests for comment.
The names of the DPS officers under investigation have not been publicly released. Betancourt’s involvement has been confirmed to CNN by McCraw and other sources. Another of the seven, Crimson Elizondo, left DPS to work for the Uvalde school district this summer and was fired after CNN revealed what she said and did on the day of the massacre.
First alerted to the shooting
Betancourt, the most senior officer known to be being investigated over the failed law enforcement response, told investigators he had little to do with the operation at Robb Elementary until after the gunman was killed, sources close to the inquiry told CNN.
The interviews from the immediate days after the event, described to CNN by several sources, offer the first direct accounts from the officers now being scrutinized by the inspector general.
Betancourt told investigators he had a clear memory of being in Eagle Pass, Texas, with other officers when the first call of a shooting came in at about 11:50 a.m., he said, but it was unclear how major the situation was. As details became available, they left, Betancourt driving the 60 miles to Uvalde alone and stopping to get gas, he said.
Betancourt told agents he had no body camera or dash cam recording him, according to the sources. He said he spoke to Nolasco, the Uvalde sheriff, on the phone while he drove and heard a gunman was barricaded in the school with “an AK47,” the sources said.
Betancourt told investigators he arrived at about 12:45 p.m. and he first assumed Nolasco was the on-scene commander as he was there outside the school.
Later, when he saw school district police chief Arredondo inside after the gunman was killed and talked to him, he told investigators he then thought Arredondo was in charge. Arredondo was fired by the Uvalde school board in August, and he has argued he should be reinstated.
Betancourt was asked if he talked with anyone about why entry was not being made to the classrooms and he said he did not, sources told CNN, remembering only that there was talk about negotiating with the shooter.
He said to investigators he issued the order to “stand by” based on information from Nolasco and thinking there was a better SWAT team still heading to the school, sources said.
After the teenage gunman was killed by the BORTAC team, Betancourt said he focused on clearing the crime scene and setting up a command post. He told investigators how he used FaceTime to show his superiors the state of the school after the carnage, the sources familiar with the interviews said.
In a follow-up interview, he said he did not know there were any children in the building until after the breach, CNN was told.
Early texts from Betancourt about attack
At least two officers said it was Betancourt who alerted them to the ongoing attack at Robb Elementary, the sources familiar with the investigation told CNN.
A sergeant said he had received a text about an “active shooter” incident from Betancourt at about 11:37 a.m., raising questions about Betancourt’s claim that he only became involved later.
And Victor Escalon, the regional DPS director for the South Texas Region that includes Uvalde, said Betancourt had texted him at 12:09 p.m.. That text read: “Initial info one person possibly a teacher shot in head, one officer shot, kid has AK 47, CNU [specialist negotiator team] has been activated, suspect is barricaded. Troopers who are medics have been deployed. Drone team is on its way,” the sources said.
McCraw and other DPS leaders have refused to discuss the internal investigations or release information until the investigations are complete at the request of local District Attorney Christina Mitchell Busbee. Her criminal investigation may take years and she has said she will charge anyone who has committed a crime at Robb Elementary, including law enforcement officers.
CNN is in a coalition of news organizations suing the DPS for records relating to the investigation, including the radio transmissions and body camera footage mentioned in this story, that have been withheld from the media and public.