Sleep doesn't always come easy for UTMB Detective Greg Gaona.
He often wakes up in the middle of the night with an “aha” moment that may crack a case or lead to an arrest.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had an idea come to mind at 3 a.m. and I have to go write it down,” he says. “Putting puzzles together and solving cases, especially complex cases—I can’t tell you how rewarding that is. You have to be persistent, nosy and think outside the box.”
Since he joined the UTMB Police Department as a guard 20 years ago, Gaona’s thirst for new and challenging assignments has led him to become the department’s criminal intelligence officer and K9 officer. Gaona and his four-legged “partner in crime,” Jay, a Belgian Malinois, can be spotted patrolling the Galveston Campus and assisting neighboring agencies with detection of suspicious articles.
When I meet up with Gaona on a Wednesday morning, he is preparing himself for a bit of a role reversal.
“I’m usually the person asking the questions, not answering them, so this should be fun,” he says warmly, offering a firm handshake.
It’s hard to ignore Jay peering out from a large kennel next to Gaona’s desk. The two are together 24/7—Gaona even takes the dog with him on vacations. It’s immediately clear they share a special bond.
“He’s mad at me right now because I won’t let him out of the kennel,” he laughs. “Jay came from Holland. He knows Dutch and is one of only three bomb dogs in the county. It’s a blessing I was able to get him because I’m older now—he’s my legs, eyes and ears. A lot of people don’t understand that we are a tactical unit, so we will go in before a SWAT team to search a building. You have to have faith in your dog.”
Gaona usually starts his day around 7 a.m. by reviewing the police department’s “Daily Activity Report,” which covers what went on over the last 24 hours. If there are any pertinent cases that need to be addressed immediately, he will take the lead or assign them among the three detectives he supervises.
“My days vary—I could get a call right now and have to rush out the door, or I could spend my day gathering intel (information), logging evidence, serving warrants or training Jay,” he says. “Between myself and the three other detectives assigned to the criminal investigations division, we have more than 30 ongoing cases. At UTMB, it’s like a mini city. We don’t have separate divisions like homicide or property crime. Here, whatever comes through, we will handle it.”
Gaona says UTMB PD has some of the best-trained officers in the state, as he has had the opportunity to go through highly specialized training for areas such as cybercrime, forensics and biosecurity. He explains that UTMB officers are commissioned by the UT System Board of Regents and licensed by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement. As state police officers, they have jurisdiction within 63 counties where property is owned, leased, rented or otherwise under the control of UT System.
“I’ve been on cases that have literally taken me all over the state,” says Gaona. “A lot of people wonder why we are pulling them over on the highway, thinking we are just campus cops. But that’s not the case.”
One recent case that he’s proud to have helped solve involved an identity theft ring. As part of a seven-month investigation, Gaona, along with Detective Jason Chide, traveled to Dallas, Austin, Waco and Round Rock, partnering with the FBI and Secret Service. He also teamed up with other UTMB departments, such as Compliance, to examine different leads. He credits Shelly Witter, privacy officer and director of compliance programs, with being instrumental in the case.
“Through our work here and the work Shelly did, the main suspect got 15 years in federal prison and she will do every bit of those 15 years,” says Gaona. “But not all cases go smoothly. It can be frustrating when you’ve put in months of time and effort just to hit a road block. But we’ve had cases over the years that may be in the last months before the statute of limitations runs out and we’ll get some intel just in the nick of time to solve the case. It’s amazing.”
Gaona knows pretty much every law enforcement entity around Texas and the country, as he partners with anyone who needs assistance.
As we discuss memorable experiences from throughout his 20-year career—such as the time he recovered $240,000 worth of 16th-century tapestries that had been stolen from UTMB’s Open Gates Conference Center, or when he helped safely transport Ebola waste from Dallas to UTMB for safe incineration—his phone rings. A truck delivering supplies has arrived at the Galveston National Lab.
“Whenever a contract truck comes through there, it has to be checked by dogs,” he says. “We have one other K9 team, Sergeant Wesley Braunsdorf and Noey, who are available if anything comes up overnight. We’ll also do a walk around the GNL building, just to look for anything suspicious. It’s also just to be seen—visibility is one of the most important parts of our job.”
Gaona leads Jay around the truck, having him sniff all sides of the vehicle. Once cleared, Jay is taken off-leash to walk around the GNL. The energetic canine weaves through the bushes and checks out every corner and crevice of the area. Whenever Gaona says a command, Jay reacts quickly.
“We train all the time—it’s non-stop,” says Gaona. When we get back to his patrol vehicle, he pulls out a small cotton ball that has the scent of TNT on it and plants it near the gas tank. “When Jay gets to it and smells it, he should sit and then I’ll reward him with his tug toy.”
Sure enough, Jay walks around the entire vehicle, starts walking by the gas tank, then whips his head back and sits abruptly next to the cotton ball.
“Good boy!” says Gaona enthusiastically. He throws the tug toy in the air and the two aggressively pull back and forth on it for a few minutes.
When we get back to the police department offices, Gaona meets with UTMB interim police chief and assistant director of the UT System Police Department, Ruben Puente, about developing updated “Go” bags for officers. Go bags contain personal protection equipment such as gloves, arm coverings and gas masks.
“Right now, what we have is heavy and not functional for everyday use,” he explains. “I’m working with Environmental Health and Safety to come up with lightweight, disposable kits, so when we come across biological or chemical issues—substances like fentanyl [a synthetic opioid that is up to 100 times more potent than morphine] can be deadly even in tiny amounts—we can easily slip on gloves and arm sleeves to protect ourselves and not have to wear hot suits in the middle of July.”
Puente looks impressed with the idea and comments on Gaona’s invaluable role in the department.
“Greg brings a wealth of experience and leads a very active intelligence-gathering network here at UTMB,” says Puente. “He is very knowledgeable and is a great mentor to younger officers—how can I complain?”
Gaona says his goals for the future are to develop a robust, proactive threat management and assessment team that incorporates biosecurity, especially with the GNL on the Galveston Campus. That includes keeping up with evolving technology and monitoring social media for potential threats.
As for his afternoon, he plans on working on a “big” case with his colleague, Detective Jose Cortez. Their lips are sealed when it comes to disclosing any details about the case, so we say goodbye. Gaona will continue piecing together pieces of the puzzle—although it might wake him in the middle of the night. If it does, he’ll have a pen and paper ready.