Arrest comes 7 months after motorcycle crash led to death of former PRESS editor Liz Sweeten
By DINA ARÉVALO
Port Isabel-South Padre Press
Port Isabel police today arrested a man in connection with the death of former Port Isabel – South Padre Press journalist Elizabeth “Liz” Sweeten.
Ronnie Huerta, 33, was arrested at his home in Mercedes Monday by members of Port Isabel police. Huerta was transported back to Port Isabel, under the strength of a warrant issued by the 138th District Court.
Huerta stands charged with intoxication manslaughter with a vehicle in connection with an auto pedestrian accident that resulted in Sweeten’s death this spring. The warrant lists Huerta’s bond as $75,000 cash or surety.
Looking back to March
As reported in the PRESS in March, Huerta — riding a Suzuki GSX-R1000 motorcycle — had reportedly been seen riding across the Queen Isabella Causeway toward Port Isabel at a high rate of speed. Just moments after he got off the causeway, at approximately 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, March 4 — Huerta allegedly struck Sweeten, who was attempting to cross Queen Isabella Boulevard on foot.
According to Port Isabel Chief of Police Robert Lopez, Huerta struck Sweeten with such force that she died instantly. “He hit the woman head on and lost control of the motorcycle,” Lopez said in March.
Lopez estimated Huerta was traveling approximately 70 mph at the time the incident. He had also been seen riding on the shoulder. The speed limit on Queen Isabella Boulevard is 30 mph.
Traffic that evening was heavy with crowds flocking to the region for the first weekend of Spring Break. An officer monitoring the flow of traffic at the corner of Garcia Street and Queen Isabella Boulevard saw Huerta coming off the bridge and initiated a pursuit.
Just four blocks down the road, Sweeten, who lived near the PRESS offices and could regularly be seen walking to various locations around town, was returning to her home after visiting the Stripes convenience store located on the corner of Musina Street and Queen Isabella Boulevard.
The force of the impact was so strong that momentum caused the motorcycle to careen into a nearby palm tree, where the bike broke in half before ricocheting northwards on Musina Street. A police photograph of the scene shows the mangled motorcycle lying in the middle of the street.
Huerta suffered serious injuries in the crash. He was transported via ambulance to Valley Regional Hospital in Brownsville, but was later airlifted to a trauma center in Edinburg.
Chief Lopez said toxicology results revealed the presence of both alcohol and marijuana in Huerta’s system. Lopez said at the time that Huerta’s blood alcohol level (BAC) was over the legal limit.
Sweeten was declared dead at the scene by Pct. 1 Justice of the Peace Bennie Ochoa, III.
A witness recalls what she saw
As news broke of Huerta’s arrest, one woman came forward and said she had been with Sweeten just moments before the crash.
Longtime Laguna Madre resident Vicki Haub, and a former coworker of Sweeten with Dirty Al’s, said she ran into Sweeten by chance at the Stripes convenience store on the corner of Musina Street and Queen Isabella Boulevard.
“I was on my way to some friend’s house and I stopped in there for a 12-pack of Coke and we had a lovely visit about lottery tickets,” Haub said. She added that Sweeten had just won a $100 ticket and the pair had joked about where to purchase lucky tickets.
Haub said she had offered Sweeten a ride home. Her voice faltered with a sense of regret as she described Sweeten declining her offer. “That night when she refused my ride, I totally got it because she loved to walk,” Haub said.
As Sweeten left the convenience store to make her return walk to her home just a few blocks away, Haub got into her vehicle and prepared to leave, as well. She remembers worrying about the congested Spring Break traffic, wondering if motorists would leave the intersection clear for her to cross the median.
“Luckily, or unluckily, I don’t know. I don’t know. Traffic did stop, and I looked over and we waved and I — traffic stopped and I went through the intersection at that point. And I’m sure she stepped off the curb to do the same thing,” Haub said.
A moment later, just as Haub was turning west onto Queen Isabella, she heard a loud sound she described as horrific. At first, she thought the sound had come from some distance away. It shook her badly enough to pull over onto the side of road to gather herself before continuing to her destination. But, when she looked in her rearview mirror, she couldn’t make out what had happened, she said.
“I just know that it was a horrific sound that’s why I never would’ve dreamed that it was a pedestrian,” Haub said.
Still, something didn’t sit well with her. Once she arrived at her friend’s house, where her husband had been awaiting her, she recounted the incident to him and told him she had a “sick feeling” about it.
“I try not to think about it because I should’ve stopped. I should’ve went back. What if I would’ve — but, I don’t know,” Haub said, her voice again faltering.
As things stand now
Many on social media have wondered why Huerta’s arrest came so long after the incident — more than seven months after Sweeten was killed in March.
Port Isabel Chief of Police Robert Lopez explained two reasons spurred the delayed arrest. “It’s taken a little bit of time because it is a sensitive case; we wanted to make sure everything was in order. Plus, the suspect has been very injured. He was in a wheelchair for a while — for a long time,” Lopez said.
The chief expressed gratitude to the Cameron County District Attorney’s Office for their guidance in the case, as well.
The chief also walked back earlier reports that Huerta had been fleeing from police just before the crash occurred. The department had received reports of two motorcyclists driving erratically through traffic on the Causeway. And Lopez confirmed that a Port Isabel police officer had been stationed at the base of the Causeway to monitor traffic — with his patrol vehicle’s emergency lights flashing.
“We were on the lookout for a motorcycle. When we saw the motorcycle pass be, we think the driver thought the lights were for him. He just sped off without us even getting behind him or anything to that effect to show that we were behind him,” Lopez said.
“He just zoomed right when he saw the lights, and that’s when the accident happened,” Lopez said.
For Lopez, Huerta’s arrest helps to provide closure for the Laguna Madre community that mourns the violent death of a person beloved by that community. “You’re innocent until proven guilty, but he’s (Huerta) going to have his day in court,” Lopez said.
“There was a fatality that involved a female that was well known in this community. Of course, she worked for the paper and we’ve heard nothing but good things about her,” he said.
“To see this happen to someone that we used to see every day, it is mind-blowing because we know her every day. We see her every day,” Lopez said.
In the weeks before his arrest, Huerta has been active on social media. In what appears to be a Facebook account belonging to him, Huerta recently posted that he had gotten married. A profile photo shows him on a motorcycle. Red text placed over the image reads, “What doesn’t kill you only makes you Stronger (sic).” That profile image has since been taken down.
Huerta was transported from his home in the Mid-Valley to the Port Isabel Police Department Monday afternoon. Still suffering from injuries sustained in the crash, Huerta remains confined to a wheelchair.
Cameron County Sheriff’s deputies arrived at the police station a short time later to transport Huerta to Carrizales-Rucker Detention Center in Brownsville. He posted bond earlier this week.
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