Criminal Charges Could Be Filed Against Texas Utility Companies Over Winter Storm Deaths

A sheriff's office in Texas has formed a team of investigators to examine if criminal charges can be brought in connection with more than a dozen deaths during the recent severe winter storm.

Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar said the team is looking into 15 deaths and following up around 150 calls for welfare checks as the state continues to deal with freezing temperatures and power outages.

Salazar said the department is prepared to file negligence charges against CPS Energy and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) if it is found people died as a direct result of the weather and their power going out.

"At least some of them, it looks like it may have been a factor," Salazar said during a press conference.

Salazar gave examples of people who were found dead during the winter storm, but said it is still too early to speculate on the reasons why.

On February 18, deputies conducted a welfare check on a 69-year-old man in Green Lake Drive. They found him dead in his home in 35 F temperatures. Salazar said the investigation is trying to determine if his power was on or off at the time of his death

On February 21, officers made it into the home of a woman who had been missing for several days. She was found dead in her bedroom.

"Since that time, we have found out that most likely she passed due to natural causes," Salazar said. "We do know after speaking to her neighbors that her power was out for a significant amount of time.

"So what we're trying to find out is, yes natural causes, but is it anything that could have been hastened or aggravated by the fact this person was without power."

Salazar also described a "heartbreaking" case in which they found the body of an elderly woman who appears to have been deceased for days. A severely disabled 49-year-old woman was also at the home and had been living with the corpse "for some time."

Salazar said the department is looking into when exactly the woman's power went out, or if other factors such as a carbon monoxide leak may have played a part.

Salazar added that there still could be people lying dead inside their homes who haven't been discovered yet.

"It's way too early to say if anyone is going to face criminal charges," Salazar told reporters.

"We may find out after all this that all these were natural deaths, that they could not have been prevented. The electricity or lack thereof didn't contribute, the temperature didn't contribute, and then we'll go on with our daily lives.

"However, with that being said, we owe it to those who survived these folks to give them the complete answers."

The Bexar County District Attorney's Office said in a statement: "The Bexar County District Attorney's Office supports all reviews into what contributed to the power and water crisis that impacted so many Texans last week.

"All Texans should have a clear understanding of what went wrong so that those mistakes are remedied and not repeated. As the BCSO conducts its investigation into whether criminal wrongdoing may have contributed to deaths related to last week's winter weather, Sheriff Salazar has assured us he will ask our office if grand jury subpoenas are needed."

In a statement to Newsweek, CPS Energy said: "CPS Energy extends heartfelt condolences to the friends and family of these individuals. We have received some subpoenas for information from Bexar County law enforcement.

"CPS Energy is cooperating with authorities as these incidents are investigated. We are committed to our customers and remain focused on helping our community recover."

ERGOT has been contacted for comment.

This article has been updated with comment from CPS Energy.

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Power lines are seen on February 19, 2021 in Texas City, Texas. The Bexar County Sheriff has formed a team of investigators to look into more than dozen possible weather-related deaths. Thomas Shea / AFP/Getty