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Suspect in RJ reporter’s killing came from politically powerful family

Updated September 18, 2022 - 9:36 am

EL PASO, Texas — He was born with a family name that was synonymous with politics and public service, but the murder charge against Robert Telles in Las Vegas has at least one relative thinking about changing her name.

Telles, 45, grew up in a once-powerful political dynasty whose influence extended into all aspects of government in El Paso. It began with his great-uncle, Raymond L. Telles, and grandfather, Richard Telles. The two men were brothers who returned to their growing border town of El Paso after fighting in World War II.

“Coming back from the war, a bunch of Hispanic veterans started to assert their desire for political participation in El Paso,” said Robert Moore, founder of the El Paso Matters news organization and a longtime political observer. “Raymond was the face and voice of that movement. Richard was the tactician.”

Raymond Telles ultimately became the first Mexican-American mayor of El Paso. He was tapped by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 to be the U.S. ambassador to Costa Rica. Today, in El Paso, there are a street and a school named after him.

Richard Telles, meanwhile, was not content to be a mere power broker. He also served for nearly 20 years as a county commissioner and was president of the El Paso Independent School District board of trustees.

The pioneering work the Telles brothers did for Hispanics in politics is the stuff of legend. Richard Telles used empty refrigerator boxes to simulate voting booths so that new voters would feel comfortable when navigating real ones.

The brothers devised a scheme to mark the rosaries carried by Latino voters who couldn’t read English. By holding the rosary up against the voting machine, voters would flip the lever next to the marked bead, which was the one to vote for the Democratic candidate.

But succeeding generations of Telleses were not always as successful as brothers Raymond and Richard.

Richard’s son, Raymond Rutherford Telles, who is Robert Telles’ dad, showed early promise. He was elected to two terms on the El Paso City Council.

But he lost a bid for mayor in 1997 that many thought he should have won.

“One of the issues in that campaign was that Raymond Telles didn’t have a college degree,” Moore said. “So Raymond finished his degree and then went to law school. It was a cool story. Then he got caught up in a major public corruption scandal.”

Perhaps foreshadowing the political fate his son Robert would suffer, Raymond R. Telles was charged along with dozens of other people in a conspiracy to bribe local officials for favorable votes. One bribery scheme involved a contract to refinance $40 million in county debt. Raymond R. Telles pleaded guilty in the fraud case in 2008 and surrendered his law license. Though he got probation and didn’t go to prison, his life in politics was over.

‘Nerdy, reserved and quirky’

Years later, his son Robert Telles would win election as public administrator in Clark County, Nevada, but he would lose his bid for re-election following stories about bullying and favoritism in his office. Those stories were written this year by Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Jeff German, and authorities allege that they were a motive for the politician to fatally stab German.

After police made an arrest in the murder case, news also broke about the suspect’s March 2020 arrest on charges of domestic battery and resisting arrest. Those charges stemmed from a dispute with his wife, Mae Ismael.

“Robert had a chance to clean up what his dad did regarding my father’s name, but I guess the apple wasn’t far from the tree,” said cousin Santino Telles, 47.

In a recent telephone interview with the Review-Journal from his home in Washington state, Santino Telles recalled the nerdy younger cousin he used to spend Christmases with as a child in El Paso.

“He was never the jock,” Santino Telles said. “He didn’t date pretty girls. He had self-esteem issues. He was very nerdy, reserved and quirky.”

Santino Telles said Robert Telles and his two younger siblings, a brother and sister, followed their father’s footsteps, attending St. Pius X Catholic School and Cathedral High School. A high school yearbook from that time lists Robert Telles’ “brags” as track, yearbook and honor roll.

A former high school classmate in El Paso, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified, expressed shock at the murder allegations. The classmate said that during high school, in the early 1990s, Robert Telles did not stand out in any way, good or bad.

“The only thing that was notable was his family was in politics,” the classmate said.

Their graduating class in 1995 had about 125 students.

The classmate remembered that Robert Telles made it clear that he was “estranged from his father, didn’t talk to his father.”

Robert Telles’ parents divorced in the 1980s, according to his cousin Santino Telles, leaving their three children to seek refuge with their aunt, Santino Telles’ mother, who served as a pseudo-parent when the children needed money or family with whom they could spend the holidays.

“My mother came home from work yesterday,” Santino Telles said on Sept. 10. “She came home crying after I shared the news with her.”

Robert Telles was arrested on Sept. 7 in German’s killing. German was 69.

Santino Telles said the last time he saw Robert Telles the man was working for a software company in Colorado in the early 2000s.

While in Colorado, Robert Telles married his first wife, Tonia Burton, whom he met when they worked together at a Super Kmart in Denver.

Burton said Robert Telles told her he had wanted to become a Border Patrol agent in El Paso but couldn’t pass the vision test. She said they had a daughter together and divorced in 2008 because Robert wanted to be center stage, while she preferred to be a stagehand, in the shadows.

“I still wake up every morning thinking this is a crazy episode of ‘Forensic Files’ that I manifested in my head,” she said during a recent phone interview.

‘So out of character’

Burton said she never thought Robert Telles was capable of murder. She recalled that when he became an air-conditioning technician, they would spend tons of money on different soaps to get the grease off his hands and keep them soft.

“He would never get his hands dirty. He didn’t know how to do laundry,” she said. “What he’s being accused of is so out of character for so many little reasons like that.”

Burton said the couple moved to Las Vegas to be close to his mom, who lived there at the time. They quickly found jobs as apartment managers. She said her ex-husband has two other children with Ismael: a stepson, who is the oldest, and a younger daughter. Ismael has declined to comment to the Review-Journal.

About four years ago, Santino Telles did an internet search and discovered that his cousin was involved with civic organizations and had gone to law school, like Robert Telles’ father. Now Santino Telles and his family are weighing their support for a close relative against the crime he is accused of committing.

“I have a sister who wants to remain anonymous,” Santino Telles said. “She’s debating changing her name.”

Robert Telles’ mother and father have separate residences in the El Paso area. A woman at the father’s home told a Review-Journal reporter seeking comment with a colleague on Thursday that they “need to leave.” Robert Telles’ mother, Rosalinda, did not respond to requests for an interview left at her home and with neighbors.

People in El Paso still use the Spanish pronunciation “TAY’-us” for the family name, but during his time in Las Vegas, Robert Telles pronounced it “TELL’-us.”

The Telles name is recognized in El Paso political circles mostly by old-timers these days. Although Raymond L. Telles’ daughter Cynthia Ann became ambassador to Costa Rica in March of this year, as her dad had done during the Kennedy administration, few children in the family sought elected office after brothers Raymond and Richard died. Many of the younger generation left El Paso for greener pastures.

Robert Telles’ own siblings moved away to pursue careers in the East. His brother is a photographer in New York. His sister is a physician in South Carolina. Neither has responded to requests for comment on their brother’s murder case.

And though the accusations against Robert Telles may have tarnished the Telles name, people who keep track of Texas politics fondly remember the glory days of the clan, from the 1950s to the 1990s.

El Paso resident George Thomas, who dated one of the Telles daughters and worked for the Democratic Party, said the family should be remembered for breaking down barriers.

“They were really involved in getting the Hispanic people in charge of their own city,” Thomas said.

Contact Glen A. Meek at gmeek@reviewjournal.com or 602-380-8951. Follow @GlenMeekLV on Twitter. Staff writers Sabrina Schnur and Briana Erickson contributed to this report.

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