Hit-and-run suspect found in Mexico after nearly 7 years on the run

A suspect in a 2016 hit-and-run that killed a teenager in Manor has been found after spending nearly seven years on the run with his mom, says officials.

25-year-old Thomas Bernal is accused of hitting 19-year-old Devon Sanders with his car on July 27, 2016 and then fleeing the scene, says the Manor Police Department. He is alleged to have driven away from the scene in his black Cadillac, with Sanders hanging from his vehicle. 

Bernal and his mother, 51-year-old Debra Bernal of Elgin, have been taken into custody by US Marshals in Hidalgo County after they were detained by Mexican authorities. Manor police say the two have been on the run in Mexico for nearly seven years. 

Image 1 of 2

Thomas Bernal  (Hidalgo County Jail)

Both Bernals are being held in the Hidalgo County Jail in Edinburg and will be extradited to Travis County.

Thomas Bernal faces charges of second-degree felony manslaughter and second-degree felony failure to stop and render aid accident involving death. Debra Bernal faces a third-degree felony tampering with physical evidence charge for allegedly transporting the black Cadillac into Mexico.

Sanders had recently graduated from Manor New Tech High School and had planned to attend the University of Houston in Victoria.


What happened on July 27, 2016?

Officials say the hit-and-run happened around 12:30 a.m. in the 13000 block of Marie Lane in Manor.

Police responded to a reckless driver call from a neighbor who reported that a driver was hitting and knocking over trash cans. The neighbor was unable to give a vehicle description.

When officers arrived on the scene they followed a trail of debris and found Sanders seriously injured under a pick-up truck, which had sustained damage. ATCEMS performed CPR but were unsuccessful and Sanders died at the scene from his injuries.

Officers found pieces of another vehicle at the scene, including broken window glass, pieces of glass stuck together with window film and pieces of what appeared to be the top of the front passenger door, court paperwork says.

Officers learned that Sanders lived at a home in that block and spoke with his younger brother, who told them that Sanders had been texting someone around midnight and left the house, heading south down the street. 

The owner of the damaged pickup truck told officers he had heard a loud thump from his garage and saw a small dark car traveling south and leaving the neighborhood. Other residents described hearing loud yelling and thuds, including the sound of something hitting trash cans.

A search of Sanders' phone uncovered a text conversation between him and another person concerning the sale of an ounce of marijuana. The last text in the conversation was just minutes before Travis County dispatch received the initial reckless driver call.

What happened during the investigation?

Elgin police told investigators that a patrol officer had seen Bernal driving a black Cadillac a couple of days before Sanders was killed. Bernal had also been driving the Cadillac during a traffic stop in Elgin a few months earlier, court paperwork says.

Investigators later spoke with Bernal's sister who told them that Bernal had sold the Cadillac to someone in Austin and that she went with him. She also said she had not seen Bernal in a couple of days.

Investigators did a social media search and uncovered a Facebook account for a teenager in Elgin, who Elgin police identified as an associate of Thomas Bernal. The teen's relatives told investigators he ran away from home after he was told Manor police were looking for him.

The teen's mother contacted Bernal's mother Debra after receiving a phone call from him seemingly from Mexico. The teen's mother stated she believed this was related to the hit-and-run and told Debra a black Cadillac was involved, as well as Thomas Bernal and the teen.

Debra told the mother that she did not know where the two were and that Thomas had not brought the Cadillac home in about a week. The mother told investigators something about Debra seemed "weird" to her and that she said Thomas "cannot go back to jail or he will kill himself," court paperwork says.

A license plate reader picked up Thomas's black Cadillac traveling south in Brooks County, one to two hours from the Mexico border, and then in Falfurrias, Texas. A photo printout showed damage to the front passenger door, which matched the damage at the scene where Sanders was found. 

The reader also picked up a blue Chevy truck with Debra Bernal and her daughter inside. The truck was also seen crossing into Mexico and then back into the US.

Investigators interviewed Bernal's sister who told them that the Cadillac had not been sold and that her mother had asked her to follow her to Mexico in the truck while she drove the Cadillac. The daughter waited near the border while Debra allegedly dropped the Cadillac off somewhere in Mexico.

Debra later told her daughter that they took the Cadillac to Mexico because Thomas and the teenager were in trouble and the police were looking for them because of the hit-and-run. The daughter also told investigators that she knew her mother was in Mexico and was in contact with her and that she believed her brother and the teenager were with her.

The daughter also told investigators that Thomas told her that he and the teenager went to meet Sanders to buy marijuana. They had questioned him on the weight and Sanders offered to get a weight scale from his house, court paperwork says. Thomas said he had gone to park the vehicle, but the engine has issues and jumps sometimes, so it looked like Thomas was taking off with the marijuana.

Court paperwork says Thomas thought Sanders was possibly reaching for a weapon, so he took off. However, Sanders grabbed onto a gap in the front passenger window and Thomas started hitting trash cans with the Cadillac to get Sanders to let go.

He did not see the truck and hit it causing Sanders to fall off, and then continued driving, court paperwork says. He told his sister he did not know Sanders had died until they learned about it from the news.