Did a Las Vegas Politician Hide a Violent Side Before Allegedly Murdering a Journalist?

robert-telles-smiling - Credit: Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review/Getty Images
robert-telles-smiling - Credit: Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review/Getty Images

Dressed in jailhouse blues and physically restrained by shackles, accused killer Rob Telles stood briefly in the threshold of Las Vegas Justice Court. He stared out into the courtroom with a bemused look and impish smile, before retreating to his cell after a postponement in the proceedings.

Under the weight of a murder charge in connection with the Sept. 2 stabbing death of longtime Las Vegas investigative reporter Jeff German, the Clark County Public Administrator’s usual confidence and winning grin had drained from his unshaven face. And with good reason, police and prosecutors contend: Within 48 hours of the discovery of the 69-year-old German’s body on the side of his home, Metro Homicide detectives had gathered physical and DNA evidence that they say directly ties Telles to the murder, which has reverberated nationally and disturbed even the jaded Las Vegas community.

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Prosecutors allege German was killed in retaliation for articles he wrote for the Las Vegas Review-Journal that accused Telles of workplace harassment and having an “inappropriate relationship” with a staffer. The stories cost Telles re-election and German his life, authorities allege.

Three days after his shortened Sept. 13 hearing, Telles was back in the spotlight giving brief jailhouse interviews to local reporters. Asked whether he murdered German, Telles deflected, instead discussing his efforts to improve the county probate office, a past problem with alcohol that he blamed for a domestic violence arrest, and admitting to the Review-Journal that, “Like any other person I’ve certainly made mistakes, and I’ve just really tried to do my best to live my life doing good for others, and I’m hoping that… people really see that.”

For a man accused of “lying in wait” and stabbing a reporter seven times, Telles’ attempt to salvage his public image was a hard sell. As he chatted with the press, his defense attorney Travis Shetler was just learning of his client’s decision to soft-lens his alleged role in premeditated murder. The veteran defense lawyer wasn’t pleased, and soon parted company.

After a brief court appearance this week, the Clark County Public Defender’s Office is representing Telles in preparation for a preliminary hearing scheduled for Oct. 26, where a plea will be entered. (The Public Defender’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.)

He’s described by a cousin, former wife, and some colleagues as a hard-working and compassionate person, as evidenced by his casually informative public administrator’s videos, Rotary Club membership, and a social media profile brimming with references to his wife, family, and favorite charities. But, other sources say, that image belied his volatility. At 45, the married father of three, elected to office in 2018, faces the possibility of life in prison without parole. Could a few embarrassing headlines and losing a county election really lead to murder?

jeff german robert telles
Jeff German, investigative reporter, poses for a portrait at the Las Vegas Review-Journal photo studio on Jan. 19, 2017.

Some signs of a troubled personality fraying at the edges were there: Outbursts in probate court, a trio of pending state bar complaints, a domestic violence arrest diverted before making the news, and allegations of workplace harassment and maintaining an “inappropriate relationship” with a favored staffer.

Outside the office, Telles’ eruptive side entered the criminal docket on the evening of Feb. 29, 2020 during an incident at his home in the upscale neighborhood of Peccole Ranch. Metro police responded to a domestic dispute after Telles’ wife, Mae Ismael, made a 9-1-1 call and exclaimed that her husband was “going crazy” and expressed fear for herself and her children. After heavy drinking earlier in the night during a date at the Bellagio on the Strip, Telles quarreled with his wife, and the argument escalated by the time they returned home. At one point, according to NBC’s account of the police report, he yelled at her, “Kill me!”

Police officers arrived to find Telles intoxicated, belligerent, and uncooperative. He was arrested and booked into the Las Vegas City Jail on charges of domestic battery and resisting arrest. Although he later claimed to have blacked out from too much booze, he was heard clearly on a bodycam arguing to police in an epithet-laced tirade: “You just want to take me down because I’m a public official,” he shouted, while attempting to have an officer contact a ranking detention center official to “vouch” for him.

Details of the arrest would remain buried from the public until last week. Ismael, who according to the report did not show signs of physical harm, declined to press charges. The domestic violence charge, according to court records, was dismissed after negotiations that included Telles accepting a 90-day suspended sentence, agreeing to pay a $418 fine and participating in a one-day stress management and conflict-avoidance class called “Corrective Thinking.”

It wasn’t the first time he had flashed his temper.

As a young lawyer Telles was a regular in probate court, where more than a dozen attorneys who encountered him recently declined interview requests. One who agreed to speak anonymously calls Telles highly confident and short-fused.

“I worked with him on a case,” the attorney said. “That’s where his true personality came out. He would become easily angered by facts that were not in anybody’s control. He had a temper. He would fly off the handle when provoked. And he was easily provoked.”

Although Telles has far more serious concerns at this point, since 2019 he also racked up three complaints to the State Bar of Nevada for abandoning a case prematurely and other violations.

That sets no records, Nevada Bar Counsel Daniel M. Hooge explains. Some lawyers draw up to a dozen in a single year, but he adds, “I’d say that’s probably a little above average. It’s definitely more than average.”

When contacted, Hooge was writing a petition to the Nevada Supreme Court seeking the temporary suspension of the public administrator’s law license. Clearly irritated by Telles’ failure to resign his elected position, despite facing murder charges, Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson is seeking to have him declared negligent in the performance of his official duties. If approved, county leaders will then appoint a temporary replacement ahead of the November election.

In a Sept. 8 bail hearing, prosecutor Richard Scow said Telles’ list of motives for murder included a “ruined political career, likely his marriage, and this was him lashing out … at the cause of the unraveling of his life at this point.”

It unraveled in a hurry. The office turmoil, which included a surreptitiously shot video of Telles and a staffer emerging from the back of her vehicle, caught the attention of German in the spring of 2022. A veteran of four decades in the Southern Nevada newspaper business and an investigative reporter with the Las Vegas Review-Journal, German was an award-winning byline machine whose aggressive reporting sent shivers through many local public officials.

“He had a temper,” says one lawyer who worked with him on a case. “He would fly off the handle when provoked. And he was easily provoked.”

One of German’s sources was Telles’ second-in-command, longtime county employee Rita Page Reid. A self-described “worker bee” by nature, Reid says she initially felt optimistic with Telles’ election and was satisfied with serving in the number-two position, until she and others experienced his mercurial management style, which several sources say included publicly dressing down staff, piling up work on those not in his good graces, and playing favorites with a staffer with whom they suspected he was romantically involved.

Reid says she was stripped of her supervisory role and watched Telles grow more dictatorial and erratic by the day, at one point becoming concerned for the safety of staff. “As far as my treatment [by him], that was very difficult,” she says. “He would demean me throughout the office.”

Another critic and German source was staffer Aleisha Goodwin, who filed an 18-page complaint with the Clark County Office of Diversity alleging workplace discrimination and calling for Telles and another staffer to be removed from the administrator’s office after suffering “for two years because of their prejudice against me and their inappropriate extra marital relationship.”

Telles denied the allegations and, as an elected official, was not bound by the same rules governing county staff. He blamed entrenched office “old-timers” for spreading gossip and German for taking their bait, but the reporter’s articles published prior to the June 2022 Democratic primary enabled upstart candidate Reid to knock Telles out of office.

The self-described reformer and efficiency specialist was just months from losing his $120,000 salary and the perquisites of public office. He grew increasingly angry, spouting off in social media posts about German’s reporting.

SCION OF A GROUNDBREAKING political family in El Paso, Texas, Telles grew up in a house fractured by divorce, with a father whose own life crashed in scandal. His cousin Santino Telles wonders whether that’s what drove his younger cousin’s professional and political desires.

A surgical tech living in Tacoma, Wash., Santino recalls boyhood memories in El Paso playing with G.I. Joes with Robert in the front yard of the family home, having sleepovers, and remaining friends throughout childhood. For many years, Santino says, the extended Telles family spent Christmas together.

Robert was, “more quiet, very smart, an introvert, really kept to himself, never caused any issues. Never had any beefs with anybody,” Santino says. “To me he was the model of doing what you need to do to be the right person. He studied, he worked hard, he never blamed anybody.”

robert telles
Robert Telles’ mug shot after his arrest earlier this month.

In El Paso, the Telles name is synonymous with public service. Robert Telles’ great uncle, Raymond L. Telles Jr., was appointed by President John F. Kennedy as Ambassador to Costa Rica, making him the first Mexican American Ambassador. Robert Telles’ grandfather, Richard, served more than two decades combined on the El Paso County Commission and El Paso Unified School District.

Robert’s father, Raymond, served two terms in the El Paso City Council. He later lost his status in the community and nearly his freedom for his role in an attempt to bribe public officials to win a contract for a $40 million county debt refinancing. After pleading guilty in 2008, Raymond received probation. But his fall from grace was sealed.

In June 2021, before German’s reporting brought his alleged behavior to the public eye, Telles cheered in a social media post that his cousin, Cynthia Ann Telles, daughter of Kennedy appointment Raymond Telles, had been nominated by President Joe Biden as Ambassador to Costa Rica. (The Costa Rican Embassy did not return Rolling Stone’s request for comment.)

One of his former legal colleagues recalls him talking about his family’s long history of public service: “I remember him being really proud.”

NEARLY TWO DECADES before Robert Telles made his own mark in Southern Nevada politics, while working a second job in 2001 at a Super Kmart in Denver, he met Tonia Burton.

“He was a pretty easygoing, fun guy,” she says. “He liked to sing karaoke. We would go hiking out in Denver. He had a lot of friends out there. We both did.”

The two married in 2002, moved to Las Vegas, and had a daughter, whom they successfully co-parented after their 2008 divorce. Burton says Telles was never physically aggressive.

“What I read in the news is not indicative of the Robert Telles I know,” she says. “Don’t get me wrong. Me and him have had disagreements, but most of our disagreements are over different perspectives on how to raise our daughter. I don’t think anything was unreasonable or out of line. We both just want the best for her.”

He also envisioned a future that reflected the best of his family’s political legacy that she says contributed to their split.

“He wanted a politician’s life, and he needed a wife who was going to want to be like his current wife, like Mae, someone who likes to dress up, play the part, smile for the camera, and be out there doing all the community service right there with him,” Burton says. She has since remarried and lives in a rural community outside Las Vegas. “We prefer to be, I call it, stagehands. We want to be in the background. We don’t want to be front and center on the news.”

Robert turned his sights on practicing law and pursuing politics. He worked and took classes at UNLV’s Boyd School of Law and, for a time, served as president of its Minority Law Students Association. “He came into the presidency like a tornado,” former classmate Carlos Morales told a Las Vegas television news reporter, and “wanted to make drastic changes to everything.” Telles graduated, but left amid turmoil after being accused of, but never sanctioned for, inappropriately touching a fellow student.

He named his solo practice Accolade Law.

Telles also delved into immigration reform issues and served for a time on the boards of the Clark County Democratic Party and Hispanics in Politics. As his family grew, he expressed a willingness to trade daily grind of private practice for an elected position and the public administrator’s six-figure salary.

“When he worked for me on the board, he was responsive to what I needed to have done or what needed to be done,” says former county Democratic Party chairman Chris Miller. “What I see now is somebody I don’t know.”

Running in 2018, he received predecessor Jerry Cahill’s endorsement, and amassed more than 50 percent of the vote.

Probate and guardianship attorney Homa Woodrum was one of Telles’ early supporters and stuck with him even after the office turmoil hit the front page. She recalls meeting Telles early in his career and being impressed by his willingness to learn and to help people experiencing guardianship and probate issues. It’s an area of the law rife with incidents of exploitation and historically wracked by scandal in Clark County.

“Everybody sits there and now wonders, ‘Was I duped?’” Woodrum asks.

As a successful first-time candidate and taking office in January 2019 as public administrator, Telles appeared energetic and sincere to fellow attorney and Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom. Segerblom recalls the two discussing Telles’ plan for outreach by the office to local senior centers to encourage the completion of wills in an effort to minimize future probate complications. The commissioner was encouraged. He says Telles never followed through.

Now Segerblom says he wonders if he really knew Telles at all.

With a perspective that reaches into a care-free childhood and earliest memories, Santino Telles breaks into tears wondering about his troubled cousin, whether “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” on that branch of the family. He tries to fathom the awful violence that’s taken place.

“I think it’s a disgusting act,” he says. “But he is still my cousin, and I love him even though he’s become a monster in the public eye. Every day I pray for German’s family to find peace, but Rob is still my cousin, and I love him.”

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