Houston serial killer faces execution this week

Death row inmate Anthony Shore.

Houston’s “Tourniquet Killer” is on his way to the Texas death chamber.

Anthony Shore, the confessed serial rapist and strangler whose murders in the 1980s and 1990s went unsolved for more than a decade, is scheduled for execution Wednesday evening. The courts have shot down his latest appeals that argued a traumatic brain injury decreases his culpability, and a plea for relief to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles was denied Monday afternoon.

Shore, 55, has been on death row since 2004, when he was convicted and sentenced to death in the 1992 rape and murder of 21-year-old Maria Del Carmen Estrada. The killing was one of four similar murders of young women and girls and one aggravated sexual assault where the girl was able to escape.

The murders took place between 1986 and 1995, according to court documents. All became cold cases in the years after the bodies of Estrada, 14-year-old Laurie Tremblay, 9-year-old Diana Rebollar and 16-year-old Dana Sanchez were found, dumped behind buildings or in a field, partially naked with rope or cord fastened around their necks like tourniquets.

Finally, in 2003, Houston police matched Shore’s DNA — on file from a 1997 no-contest plea of sexually molesting his two daughters — to Estrada’s murder, according to a court ruling. After hours of interrogation, Shore confessed to all of the killings, telling police he had an “evilness” in him.

“I think if I tell you what I’ve done that it will release the evilness, and I would feel better,” Shore told a police sergeant.

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said Shore was a “true serial killer” after the trial court set his upcoming execution date in July.

“His crimes were predatory, and his victims the most vulnerable in society — women and children. For his brutal acts, the Death Penalty is appropriate,” she said in a statement.

Recently, Shore’s legal team has pointed to a previously undisclosed traumatic brain injury, likely obtained in a 1981 car accident, as a reason to stop the execution. Knox Nunnally, Shore’s court-appointed appellate lawyer, said he is not arguing that Shore is innocent or undeserving of punishment, but that courts should look at people with brain injuries the way they look at minors and the intellectually disabled — ineligible for execution based on decreased reasoning skills and culpability.

“We think if a jury had heard that evidence … that it is possible a jury could at least change their decision that Mr. Shore deserves life instead of death,” Nunnally said, referring to the alternative sentence in a capital murder conviction. “Because by no means are we claiming that … a head injury was the only reason he committed these crimes, we’re saying it was a contributing reason.”

The courts rejected Shore’s appeal and the broader argument that brain-injured people are ineligible for execution. It’s a rejection that concerns Nunnally as a combat veteran, he said.

“My fear is that if we’re denying this for Anthony Shore, what’s gonna happen if we have a combat vet who comes up five or six years from now and he has suffered a severe injury from combat?” he said. “The state’s going to use Anthony Shore’s case as an example of precedent.”

On Monday morning, Nunnally said that his team was still looking at other possible appeals in the next two days before the execution but that nothing was currently pending. If it proceeds, Shore’s execution will be the seventh in Texas this year and 21st in the nation.

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Insurance company accused of delayed response to storm claims

“You can’t fix anything until insurance comes through. Well, we haven’t heard anything from insurance, so how do you keep moving on? You’re just frozen.”

The sentiments of Jeni Kite are common for many in the aftermath of Harvey.

Talk to anyone in Rockport and Port Aransas and they will tell you rebuilding is at a virtual standstill.

“It’s so slow it’s unreal,” is how David Lee describes the process.

The culprit according to them?

Not so much Harvey, but rather TWIA, the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association. TWIA is an insurance provider serving counties along the Texas coast with more than 234,000 policies totaling $67.6 billion.

TWIA policies only cover wind and hail damage.

While their mission statement touts being committed and reliable, policy holders like Kevin Baker in Rockport told Channel 2 Investigates they have been anything but that.

“I’m on my third claims examiner, my second field adjuster and I have yet to receive their report,” he said.

Baker is not alone.

Kite said TWIA does not have answers — even after an adjuster came to their home and told them to gut it.

“We went to get the information, the adjuster didn’t turn it in, they thought maybe, he took off maybe he moved on we don’t know,” she said.

TWIA scheduled a new adjuster for Sept. 25.

There was one problem, though.

“I have not heard a word from him,” said Kite while standing in the skeleton frame of what is the first home she purchased.

It all comes as blue tarps are now landscape fixtures. Public adjusters like Clay Morrison out of Kemah said TWIA has failed to deliver for customers who paid policies for years.

“We have a lot of files down in Port Aransas and I know numerous people down there and very few have even gotten their first check a month after the storm,” he said.

Morrison represents home and business owners when insurance companies fail to step up.

He is also the former president of the Texas Association of Public Insurance Adjusters, and while he and other adjusters like David Lee are shocked by what they say are grossly low estimates, they say they are more stunned by the actions of private onvestigators hired by TWIA, “I’ve been through several of these storms and I have never, ever seen an investigation unit like this.”

TWIA admits it has been working with Veracity Research Company (VRC) Investigations for years — to investigate fraudulent claims. However, Channel 2 Investigates discovered these private eyes are asking to see contracts between public adjusters and the clients who hired them, “My problem is if they are a private investigation group, they have zero authority in any kind of process of getting any kind of information like that.”

Several Public Adjusters tell Channel 2 Investigates this is simply harassment to disrupt the process and ultimately delay a payment. Morrison says it is also TWIA wasting its customers’ time, many of whom have paid thousands in premiums over the years, “I don’t know why they would be investigating the claims themselves when there are so many people with so much damage that need so much help, it seems counterproductive to me.”

Kite is one of those waiting for help, while she and others feel they should be moving forward at time when their lives are turned sideways, stopped dead in their tracks.

“A normal day is so far out there that you can’t see a normal day coming and that breaks your heart,” Kite said.

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Some Texas Republicans in Congress again outraised by challengers

U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, speaks at a town hall meeting in Houston on March 25, 2017.

After Democratic challengers outraised four Texas Republicans in Congress earlier this year, some Republicans recaptured fundraising momentum in the third quarter – but not all of them.

Campaign finance reports for federal candidates covering July through September were due on Saturday. The reports show signs of of Democratic enthusiasm continuing, though U.S. Reps. Pete Sessions of Dallas and Will Hurd of Helotes, both Republicans, posted strong third quarters.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, barely outpaced his challenger, U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, and two GOP congressmen saw Democratic challengers raise more money.

Hurricane Harvey may have depressed fundraising overall, with many incumbents and challengers posting lukewarm quarterly hauls.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate and certainly not tasteful to raise money from people who’ve been devastated and lost everything,” said U.S. Rep. John Culberson, a Houston Republican who was outraised by two of his Democratic challengers.

Democratic numbers were also smaller, suggesting candidates who announced earlier this year picked off the low-hanging donors in their previous campaign reports. And candidates who entered races only recently had less time to raise money.

But also, there was a larger dynamic at work. Ali Lapp is the operative who oversees the super PAC that supports Democratic House candidates, said donors are holding back from challengers because of the crowded nature of the Democratic primaries.

“With so many good Democratic candidates running in primaries, it’s no surprise that many Democratic donors are waiting to give direct candidate donations until after the field shakes out a bit, or even until after the primary is concluded,” she said.

Here’s a look at how campaigns fared in some closely-watched races:

U.S. Senate

Last week, O’Rourke announced he would report $1.7 million in fundraising. Cruz promptly announced a $2 million haul – but that included his individual campaign, his leadership PAC and a joint fundraising account.

Cruz’s campaign filing to the FEC, obtained by the Tribune Monday, offers an apples-to-apples comparison between the two candidates. It showed that his individual campaign raised $1.76 million, or $52,042 more than O’Rourke. Cruz reported a $3.58 million cash-on-hand advantage.

Texas’ 7th District:

Culberson is one of two Republicans in Congress from Texas – the other is Sessions – drawing high interest from Democrats because Democrat Hillary Clinton carried these two districts last fall, even as Republican Donald Trump won the state by 9 points.

Culberson was again outraised by two Democratic challengers, Alex Triantaphyllis and Lizzie Pannill Fletcher. Culberson posted a $177,000 haul, while Triantaphyllis drew $217,000 and Fletcher $185,000.

The two Democrats not only raised more than the incumbent during the period, but they also emerged from the quarter with larger war chests. Culberson had $389,000 in the bank, while Triantaphyllis had $536,000 — the most of any Democratic congressional challenger in the state — and Fletcher $403,000.

A third Democrat looking to take on Culberson next year – Laura Moser – came close to also outraising Culberson, taking in $167,000.

Texas’ 23rd District:

Hurd posted a $400,000 haul and now has $870,000 in cash on hand. The national GOP is all in for him and have underscored his re-election as a top priority. Hurd’s sprawling district, which spans most of Texas’ border with Mexico, is widely viewed as the most competitive in the state.

The Democratic side is murkier. Former prosecutor Jay Hulings raised $200,000 in about six weeks’ worth of campaigning, while former Air Force Intelligence Officer Gina Ortiz Jones raised $104,000.

Hulings leaned in part on donations from several members of his Harvard Law School class, like U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio. There are early signs that other members of Congress are beginning to coalesce behind him: Two members of Democratic House leadership – U.S. Reps. Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Joe Crowley of New York – also donated to his campaign.

Texas’ 32nd District:

Sessions ramped up his fundraising a bit in the third quarter, raking in $437,000 after raising $401,000 during the last period. Democratic challenger Ed Meier emerged as the fundraising leader in the crowded primary to challenge Sessions in 2018, taking in $242,000 in the third quarter — the biggest quarterly haul of any Democratic congressional challenger in the state.

At the same time, another Democratic candidate, Colin Allred saw his fundraising sharply drop to $62,000 for the third quarter after debuting with a $206,000 haul during the previous period. The drop came as Allred spent big on online fundraising consulting — nearly $70,000 to one firm alone during the third quarter.

A third, newer Democratic challenger, Lillian Salerno, received $133,000 in donations from supporters during her first 18 days of campaigning. Sessions still has much more cash on hand — $1.2 million — than any of his Democratic challengers, with the closest war chest — $438,000 — belonging to Meier.

Texas 2nd District:

Non-profit executive Todd Litton surprised many in Texas politics when he outraised U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Humble, in the second quarter this year. He came up short this time around, but not by much. Litton raised $116,000 to Poe’s $132,000.

With a historically Republican DNA, this district is not considered a top-tier race. But Litton is running a professional, if long-shot, campaign and some political observers have speculated that this district could come into play if a major Democratic wave sweeps the country.

As for Poe, mega-donor John Nau III gave to the incumbent, an indicator that more money could pour into the district at the first sign of trouble. But even as Poe had the upper hand in raising money this cycle, Litton had a low burn rate on his money and ended the quarter with more cash on hand.

Texas 21st District:

U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, was one of two incumbents who found himself outraised this cycle, marking the second time it has happened this year. Challenger Joseph Kopser raised $213,000. just above Smith’s $199,000 and well ahead of several other Democrats vying to challenge Smith.

Smith is the chairman of the House Space, Science and Technology Committee and should be able to kick his fundraising up if he senses trouble. Moreover, he has nearly a $1 million in cash-on-hand.

Open seats:

Texas’ 3rd District:

State Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, raised over $1 million in the first five weeks of his campaign to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Plano. The haul included a combined $500,000 in loans from the candidate, who is independently wealthy. Taylor has $916,000 in the bank heading into the fourth quarter. He faces a lesser-known primary rival in Roger Barone, a Plano businessman who has not filed any campaign finance reports with the Federal Election Commission since he launched his bid in April.

Texas’ 16th District: 

Democrat Veronica Escobar, the former El Paso County judge, pulled in $333,000 in just over the first month of her bid to replace O’Rourke who is running for U.S. Senate in 2018.

Escobar’s most prominent primary opponent is Dori Fenenbock, the former El Paso school board president. Fenenbock, who has been in the race longer than Escobar, raised $257,000 in the third quarter, $50,000 of which came from the candidate. Entering the next quarter, Fenenbock has $405,000 to spend versus Escobar’s $297,000.

Claire Allbright contributed to this report. 

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To fund bid against Ted Cruz, former mayor puts up building as prize in “essay and rib contest”

Former Corpus Christi Mayor Dan McQueen resigned after 37 days in office.

Dan McQueen is an unconventional candidate for unconventional times.

Months after wrapping up a 37-day stint as Corpus Christi mayor that saw him frequently lash out at critics over social media, McQueen is trying to unseat U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in the Republican primary.

Now, he is rolling out a fundraising strategy that involves concise writing and a 12,000-square-foot commercial building about a block from Corpus Christi City Hall. Also, Texas beef short ribs.

McQueen is hoping to fund his long-shot campaign by selling a two-story brick and cement property that was “rumored to have served [late acting star] Steve McQueen” during its early days as a five and dime store, according to postings on his campaign website. The building will go to whoever wins the candidate’s “McQueen MotorCycle Café Essay & Rib Contest.”

By submitting a fee of $250, an essay of no more than 300 words about job creation and an original recipe for a half rack of ribs (“Think Wings, but applied to TEXAS BEEF SHORT RIBS!”), someone could claim McQueen’s building and assume its property tax bill, according to a contest entry form posted on McQueen’s website.

“Dan McQueen has placed his down town Corpus Christi Texas business on the market and also formed this contest to help fund the purchase for some who may have lost everything,” the website says, referencing Hurricane Harvey’s devastation to the Gulf Coast. “He wants all American’s to have a shot at the American Dream while also helping the Texas Coastal Region.”

McQueen instructs participants to send their entries to a Jefferson City, Mo. address that is listed as a UPS Store.

In launching the essay contest, McQueen is joining a national trend — with a few examples in Texas — of those who have sought to sell property in such a way, though McQueen may be the first to do so to fund a political campaign. The idea is to draw enough entries to earn the seller a healthy payout while giving the winner property at a rock-bottom price. The essay portion is supposed to inject skill into the contest, keeping organizers from running afoul of state lottery laws that ban certain games of chance.

Property sales by way of essay contest don’t always go smoothly. Media reports in recent years have detailed contests that failed to gain enough entries and others that triggered accusations of rigging.

It’s not clear any other organizers of such contests have added ribs to the equation. Experts said McQueen should be careful about how he documents any contest entry fees — if he’s truly using them to fund his campaign.

“If he’s taking all of these $250 interests into his contest, he would have to report [to the Federal Election Commission] every $250 person who enters his contest and sent out an essay,” said Randall “Buck” Wood, a longtime ethics attorney in Austin and a Democrat. “It sounds like it’s not going to be successful anyway.”

McQueen would refund contestants if he fell short of 1,500 entries “or adjusted lower if desired,” according to the contest rules. A flyer posted on his website advertises the property at $525,000. The Nueces County Appraisal District values the property at $138,290.

Unlike the campaign website, the contest entry form makes no mention of McQueen’s Senate campaign. Wood and other experts said McQueen — if he’s to follow best practices — should add several pieces of information to the form: that the contest is funding his campaign, for example, and that federal law requires candidates to report information on those who contribute more than $200.

Brendan Fischer, director of federal and FEC reform at the Campaign Legal Center, said McQueen should be careful not to accept bids from foreign nationals or other parties barred from contributing to U.S. political campaigns.

“You can see how this creates a situation where you can run afoul of the law,” Fischer said. “A much better way of raising money for his campaign is to sell the property and just donate money to his campaign. It seems like it’s a much more tortured effort to create this sort of convoluted lottery.”

Reached by phone while driving to a campaign stop, McQueen declined to discuss his fundraising efforts.

“Once you start fixing some of the damage that you guys created, because of bad journalism,” McQueen told the Tribune, “man, I would love to have a conversation about it.”

McQueen announced his Senate bid in August, but as of Friday, his name did not show up in a Federal Election Commission database of candidates who filed paperwork to run. Candidates for Congress are required to officially declare their candidacy within 15 days after they’ve raised or spent $5,000.

He is one of at least two heavy underdogs challenging Cruz in the Republican primary next March. He’s arguably better known than the other hopeful — Houston energy attorney Stefano de Stefano — thanks to a whirlwind tenure as Corpus Christi mayor.

Sweeping into office last year, McQueen touted himself as an engineer, entrepreneur, Navy veteran and political outsider, and he promised to fix the city’s problems himself while creating jobs. He ultimately shut out local news media and launched Facebook tirades following reports that questioned his credentials and behavior. McQueen resigned last January, weeks after being sworn in.

McQueen, also a karate instructor, has since embarked on what he calls a “100 board breaks across Texas” campaign — an effort to “break addiction” by karate-chopping wooden boards in various cities.

Additionally, he self-published a stream-of-consciousness book called “37 Day Mayor: Truth – FAKE NEWS – America’s Future (Volume 1).” Sprinkled with words in all-caps, McQueen defends his credentials, excoriates journalists and discusses ideas he’d bring to Washington. For instance, he would offer undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship if they volunteered to build a U.S.-Mexico border wall. McQueen also advocates cutting taxes.

“NO, NO, NO. When did No mean yes. If I say no, it means no,” McQueen writes. “But we continue to tax.”

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U.S. House passes hurricane relief bill after tense day for Texas delegation, Abbott

Members of the Texas congressional delegation from both parties discuss funding for recovery from Harvey at a press conference in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 7, 2017.

WASHINGTON — It was a tension-filled 24-hour scramble for Texas’ congressional delegation before the latest disaster relief spending vote, as Gov. Greg Abbott entered the fray in the effort to secure more funds to help the state rebuild after Hurricane Harvey.

The bill, which the U.S. House overwhelmingly passed Thursday afternoon in a 353-69 vote, is expected to be taken up by the U.S. Senate next week when that chamber returns from recess.

All House Democrats — including Texans — voted for the bill. Six Texas Republicans – U.S. Rep. Joe Barton of Ennis, Louie Gohmert of Tyler, Jeb Hensarling of Dallas, Kenny Marchant of Coppell, John Ratcliffe of Heath and Roger Williams of Austin – voted against the spending measure.

But ahead of Thursday’s vote, there was more than a day of frustration and second-guessing. Some in Texas’ 36-member House delegation questioned whether their state’s needs were being neglected as Puerto Rico, ravaged by Hurricane Maria, and California, which is combating devastating wildfires, faced more dire situations. An all-hands-on-deck late-night meeting with key members of the delegation and House leadership focused on a letter the delegation sent to leadership last week requesting $18.7 billion in aid.

“We were anxious to see those items included,” said U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston. “When they were not, we were concerned, but we understood this bill was essential to keep the flow of federal funding intact and uninterrupted.”

Thursday’s bill included $18.7 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s main relief fund and the cancellation of $16 billion in debt owed by the troubled National Flood Insurance Program, which thousands of Texans are expecting payouts from after Harvey.

“If this did not pass, the flood insurance program would run out of money  and would not be able to pay off insurance claims, and that would not be acceptable,” Culberson said.

While the vote was far from a nail biter, there was discussion as late as Thursday morning that the bulk of the Texas House delegation could vote against the bill to protest a lack of funding for the Texas rebuilding effort.

The scramble began Wednesday afternoon, when Abbott publicly urged the Texas delegation to oppose a spending plan that probably would direct most of its money to the relief efforts for Puerto Rico. After a late-night meeting and call with the U.S. speaker of the House, Abbott backed off on his opposition  — but the flare-up left many in the delegation concerned about future aid.

With most of the $36.5 billion directed to FEMA’s main relief fund, Abbott and some in the delegation assumed most of the bill’s funding would go to Puerto Rico, much of which remains without power.

Abbott initially argued that the Texans should have fought for the standalone $18.7 billion request that he and nearly all of the state’s members of Congress had officially requested last week. 

“I am disappointed that most members of the Texas congressional delegation have agreed to go ahead and vote for this bill, from what I know at this time, when Texas needs this money,” Abbott told the Houston Chronicle in a Wednesday interview. “It appears the Texas delegation will let themselves be rolled by the House of Representatives.”

U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan spoke with Abbott about his concerns Wednesday night, a conversation first reported by The Dallas Morning News.

Ryan and two other members of House leadership – U.S. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and U.S. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise – also met with Houston-area Republican members and several Texas Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee.

Ryan and other House leaders assured the Texans, including Abbott, that more federal money is on the way.

“Governor Abbott was assured by House leadership that as soon as November, Texas will get the disaster assistance funding we’re requesting for Army Corps of Engineer projects, Community Development Block Grants, and funding for dredging Texas ports, expanding bayous and critical flood mitigation projects, among other priorities,” Abbott spokesman Matt Hirsch said in a statement.

“The Governor will hold House leadership to that promise on behalf of Texans whose lives were devastated by Hurricane Harvey. In the meantime, the Governor and the Texas delegation will continue working together as a team to help Texans recover and rebuild.”

Delegation split

There were essentially two camps in Congress over Abbott’s last-minute lobbying, according to interviews with about a dozen sources inside and beyond the Texas delegation.

One group agreed with the governor that Texas was losing out on major funds as dire straits in Puerto Rico took precedence over efforts to rebuild in areas ravaged by Harvey.

While few in the delegation begrudged funding for Puerto Rico, there is a growing concern that the recent onslaught of natural disasters in other parts of the country will cause memories of the calamity in Houston to fade in the minds of other members of Congress and their constituents.

In this camp, Abbott’s sentiment was privately cheered as giving voice to a frustration that is bipartisan and stretches beyond Texas. Members of the Florida delegation told the Tribune that they, too, were concerned about their state’s capacity to rebuild, particularly with the citrus industry, given the federal aid offered thus far.

In the other camp, there was obvious ire with Abbott’s comments to the Chronicle, particularly his urging the delegation needed to get “a stiff spine,” which was interpreted by some as accusing Texans in Congress of being spineless.

Culberson pushed back against that notion.

“We still don’t have a complete account of the scale of the damage,” said the Houston congressman, who added that providing a comprehensive account of the cost at this point was “not possible.”

Some of the tensions over the version of the bill that reached the House floor Thursday emerged from an impression that the chamber’s GOP leadership took marching orders from the White House and cut House appropriators out of the process.

“Leadership forced on the committee a funding bill that lacked enthusiastic support from seven committee members from states affected,” a senior Appropriations Committee member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk more freely, told the Tribune.

Despite the unease within the delegation Thursday, there remains hope that Texas will ultimately secure tens of billions of more dollars in federal funding in the coming months. Since the storm, some estimates for what’s needed for a full recovery have reached as much as $150 billion.

Patrick Svitek and Claire Allbright contributed to this report. 

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It’s Time to End Austin’s Failed Experiment in Police Oversight, Activists Say

Richard Munroe  Legacy.com

Richard Munroe just wanted to talk to someone when he called 911 at 3:48 a.m. on July 5, 2015. Sobbing and drunk, the 25-year-old Austin man unloaded on the dispatcher. He hadn’t talked to his mother in months, he’d recently quit his job and had spent time in a mental hospital. He asked if police could track his address from the call, saying more than once he didn’t want the cops to come; the dispatcher assured him they couldn’t track him. “What you’re doing is what we teach people to do from the time they’re little,” the dispatcher told Munroe. “When you have an issue, if you need something, you call 911.”

Munroe realized police were outside his door when, 20 minutes into the call, his dogs started barking. He grew more upset when officers started shouting at him. Among the dispatcher’s last words to Munroe: “Let me tell them they need to slow it down.” Instead, one officer rushed Munroe with a Taser when he came out of the house wielding what turned out to be a BB gun. The officers claim they fired 23 bullets toward the house, six of which struck and killed Munroe, because they heard a popping sound and saw him raise what looked like a real gun. Just minutes earlier, Munroe and the dispatcher had talked about Fourth of July fireworks that were exploding across the city that morning.

The BB gun Richard Munroe was carrying when shot by Austin Police in 2015.  Courtesy/Texas Criminal Justice Coalition

A Travis County grand jury cleared all three officers who shot Munroe. The Austin Police Department’s internal affairs investigation concluded that they didn’t violate any department policies, and none were disciplined. The city’s investigation into Munroe’s death would have ended there if not for the Citizen Review Panel that Austin had created years earlier for an independent look at such incidents. The panel is supposed to identify problems and make recommendations the department can implement to prevent future tragedies.

The Citizen Review Panel’s analysis called Munroe’s case “an example of what not to do” during a mental health call. That’s in part because the three officers who shot Munroe only had a combined 26 months on the job. Police summoned a helicopter to fly around Munroe’s neighborhood but never called for a crisis response team or mental health officer trained to deal with people in emotional distress. Cops fired nearly two dozen rounds toward Munroe’s house without even knowing whether anyone else was inside.

In all, the city-sanctioned panel of police watchdogs submitted eight recommendations to former APD Chief Art Acevedo aimed at preventing future needless police killings. If nothing else, wrote review board chair Dominic Gonzales, Munroe’s death should be a teaching moment for the department.

Austin’s Citizen Review Panel made at least 18 different recommendations to reform policies, procedures and training at APD in letters sent to the chief throughout 2016. According to the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, which obtained those letters and shared them with the Observer this week, none of those reforms have yet been incorporated. Some of them, such as revamping department policies in order to emphasize de-escalation in mental health calls, are recommendations that the board has made time and time again.

APD hasn’t responded to the Observer’s questions about the letters.

 

 

Gonzales says he’s frustrated that cases like Munroe’s continue to happen, despite the panel’s recommendations. “Actually, frustrating doesn’t go far enough to describe how it feels when you continue to see this pattern, particularly with people who are mentally ill.”

To Kathy Mitchell, a policy advocate with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, APD’s refusal to act on the recommendations suggest that Austin’s 16-year experiment in police oversight has failed. In 2001, the city created the Citizen Review Panel, along with Austin’s Office of the Police Monitor, as part of the city’s contract negotiations with the local police union. The bargain was supposed to create independent police oversight in exchange for a 22 percent pay increase for officers, according to the Austin American-Statesman. In a recent statement, Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday said the agreement created “the most transparent police department in the state, hands down.”

Mitchell and others say that transparency has not led to accountability. Watchdogs insist that police oversight in Austin isn’t working, not because review board members aren’t doing their jobs but because APD higher-ups aren’t listening. “What good is citizen oversight if police won’t listen to it?” Mitchell told the Observer.

Members of the Black Student Alliance demonstrate against police brutality at the University of Texas at Austin.  BSA-Texas/Twitter

Citizen oversight boards exist in some form in most large police departments across the state, often as the result of contract negotiations between cities and their police unions. In addition to Austin, citizens sit on panels in Dallas, San Antonio and Houston that review police shootings and allegations of police misconduct but only make nonbinding recommendations that police officials are free to ignore. Activists say Austin’s track record demonstrates the limitations of that system.

For example, Austin review board members recommended that police interview all witnesses to a police shooting, not just other cops. (In several letters, the board questioned why police didn’t take statements from civilian witnesses at the scene of a shooting.) Mitchell says none of the recommendations have made it into APD’s policy manual for officers. Some suggested changes can likely only be addressed by changing the city’s police union contract, which currently includes a rule barring officer suspensions for misconduct after 180 days have passed.

That’s in part why Austin Justice Coalition founder Chas Moore and others are urging Austin officials to make radical reforms to that contract this year, such as ending a policy that effectively sweeps some officer misconduct under the rug after enough time has passed. City officials and police union reps are in a final round of negotiations for the contract this month. Otherwise, Moore and others want city leaders to blow up the contract.

That would end the Citizen Review Panel, which Moore says isn’t working anyway. “These people get to see their internal investigation after a person is killed,” he said. “If their urgent recommendations are simply ignored, then we need a completely new approach.”

The post It’s Time to End Austin’s Failed Experiment in Police Oversight, Activists Say appeared first on The Texas Observer.

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Prosecutors drop 1 of 13 felony charges against Rep. Dawwna Dukes

State Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, has a laugh with State Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, during afternoon debate on the budget  April 6, 2017.  

Prosecutors dropped one of their felony charges against state Rep. Dawnna Dukes on Wednesday, acknowledging that their case against the Austin Democrat has weakened since a grand jury indicted her on that and 12 other felony counts earlier this year.

The Travis County district attorney’s office wrote Wednesday that evidence they had used — gathered from Dukes’ cell phone — was incorrect. Originally, prosecutors claimed Dukes’ cell phone data showed she was out of Austin on a day when she received payment for working at the Capitol. But, according to Wednesday’s filing, a crime analyst from the Department of Public Safety, in at least one instance, mixed up the data she extracted from Dukes’ phone, using information from the wrong calendar date.

That means prosecutors will abandon one felony charge alleging Dukes had falsified travel information to collect a state official’s daily pay on a day when she did not work at the Capitol. The Travis County District Attorney’s office has until Oct. 30 to say whether it will continue to pursue the other 12 felony charges.

“When analyzing the correct data … [the Department of Public Safety] stated Ms. Dukes’ cell phone indicated activity near downtown Austin, Texas, which puts her within range of the Capitol building,” prosecutors wrote.

A lawyer for Dukes praised the decision.

“The prosecution made the right decision by dropping this charge,” Shaun Clarke, the attorney, said in an email. “Now they need to drop the twelve remaining charges.”

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League City mayor hospitalized after heart attack

The mayor of League City was in the hospital Wednesday.

According to the League City Police Officers’ Association Facebook post, Mayor Pat Hallisey had a heart attack and underwent surgery Tuesday night.

They are asking for prayers for his recovery and his family.

We are still working to get an update on his condition.

Hallisey was elected to office last march.

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ICE Detained a Pregnant Rape Survivor for Six Months, Records Show

Joe Corley Detention Center in Conroe, Texas  Joe Corley Detention Center/Facebook

Carolina Ramirez had spent three weeks locked up in a prison-like detention center north of Houston when she discovered she was pregnant. It had taken the 23-year-old two months to travel from El Salvador to Texas, a difficult journey during which her smuggler raped her multiple times. Now, she was carrying his child. Ramirez desperately wanted out. Her mental health was deteriorating, and she wasn’t ready for an impending court date. But it would be six months before she was finally released.

Documents obtained by the Observer show Ramirez, who requested a pseudonym, repeatedly asked Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for parole on medical grounds so she could stay with family in Missouri as her case advanced. Federal policy encourages release of pregnant women and her attorney, Raul Tovar, was sure officials would let her go. Instead, immigration agents kept Ramirez locked up in the Joe Corley Detention Center, a for-profit facility that’s been the site of a hunger strike and rape allegations. Advocates say Ramirez’s story is part of a troubling trend of prolonged detention of pregnant women in ICE custody.

In September, seven organizations filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, accusing the agency of “failure to abide by its own policy against detaining pregnant women.” The complaint includes stories from 10 pregnant women who were locked up in recent months, including Ramirez. The women reported bad food, nausea, vomiting, depression and inability to get specialized care. In the last year, at least five women have miscarried in detention, according to the Huffington Post.

Multiple Obama-era ICE directives, the latest in 2016, prohibit detaining pregnant women absent “extraordinary circumstances” due to their “particular needs and vulnerabilities.” Under that guidance, pregnant women who arrived at the border were typically assigned a court date and released within days. But advocates say these directives are increasingly ignored under Trump.

“Suddenly, starting in July or August, we started to hear of more and more cases [of pregnant women in detention],” said Katharina Obser of the Women’s Refugee Commission, a national organization. And some advocates noted a change as early as last November.

Jennifer Elzea, an ICE spokesperson, wouldn’t confirm whether Obama’s 2016 directive is still in effect, saying release decisions are made based on the “individual facts and circumstances of the case.” Elzea also provided statistics: 525 pregnant women were detained since October of last year, with 33 in detention as of September 13. Elzea said she couldn’t provide complete figures for the previous year and didn’t provide a month-by-month breakdown, making it impossible to identify a trend.

Ramirez spent six months of her pregnancy locked up in the Joe Corley Detention Center, a 1,500-bed facility surrounded by razor-wire fencing on a dead-end road in Conroe. Until two years ago, it was an all-male facility. Owned and operated by the for-profit prison corporation GEO Group, the center holds detainees at three levels of security concern, including men who are violent offenders. (The groups are housed separately according to gender and security level, said Houston ICE spokesperson Gregory Palmore.)

In 2014, more than 180 detainees took part in a hunger strike at the facility over poor food and telephone access, according to an internal ICE review. A Salvadoran man has alleged he was raped twice at the facility in late 2013 and called “stupid” by an ICE official when he reported it. And, in April 2016, the Women’s Refugee Commission toured the facility and criticized conditions in a report released last week.

In that jail-like setting, Ramirez discovered on February 17 that she was pregnant, records show. Ramirez requested to be released by ICE, but the agency said she had to pass an initial screening first. Ramirez failed the interview in late February, but her attorney challenged the results, and two months later, the decision was reversed without explanation. Meanwhile, she stopped eating, began sleeping excessively and was diagnosed with major depressive disorder, according to medical records.

When her attorney asked ICE to release Ramirez again in early May, the government refused for a new reason: Ramirez had entered the country illegally before.

immigrants, migrants, refugees
Photo of Border Patrol agent in McAllen in 2016. Ramirez was apprehended by Border Patrol in late January near Falfurrias, where she was left by a second smuggler.  Jen Reel

In 2014, Ramirez had come to the U.S. without documentation and was detained in Cameron County. While in detention, according to her parole request, she learned her mother had suddenly died back home, leaving her 12-year-old niece with no one to care for her. Ramirez abandoned her legal case and returned to El Salvador to take care of her niece, who then migrated to Missouri a year later. Ramirez’s father and five siblings all live in Missouri, and being alone in El Salvador left her an easy target for the gangs, said Tovar.

In late April, ICE surprised Tovar by saying they couldn’t release Ramirez because of her previous entry. Again, he disputed the decision, and after another two months, Ramirez was released in July without explanation — when she was more than seven months pregnant.

In total, Ramirez’ detention likely cost U.S. taxpayers about $22,000.

Now, Ramirez is finally with her family in Missouri, and Tovar said they’re working to find her a new lawyer in the area. She’s due to give birth any day now.

The post ICE Detained a Pregnant Rape Survivor for Six Months, Records Show appeared first on The Texas Observer.

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Husband, wife each lose leg after hit-and-run crash in Waller County

For anyone who knows Angie and Lance Mundkowsky, they also know the kindhearted couple loves to ride their motorcycle.

That’s what they were doing early Sunday morning after leaving the Waller County Fair. They were driving along FM 1488 when the unexpected happened.

“A car had passed a truck. Lance was the driver and he seen the car coming and went to move the bike. The car hit them head-on to the left side,” Sandra Williams, a close family friend, said.

The driver of the car that hit them did not stop.

Family friends said they weren’t sure how bad the accident was until they got to the scene.

“The cop told us it was Angela, her and her husband were life-flighted to Memorial Herman,” Williams said.

And that’s where the couple has been ever since undergoing countless hours of surgeries.

Angie and her husband have each lost a leg.

“Somebody just selfishly destroying two lives. Left alone in the dark by themselves. They don’t deserve it. Nobody does,” Williams said.

“They will go out of their way, put their self and their family out just to help sombody else,” Candy Schrader, a family friend, said. “Anybody that has a heart would have come forward and said what happened.”

Friends have set up a GoFundMe page to help the family with medical expenses.

The friends also said they are praying the person responsible is caught.

“Turn yourself in. Do the right thing,” Williams said.

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Temporary bans placed on fishing near site of busted cap

For Jeremy Phillips, the senior director of infrastructure for Harris County Precinct 2, concern began to rise when news from the EPA emerged late last month.

“We saw the stories where they had elevated levels of dioxins detected in some of the tests,” he said.

Phillips is referring to stories like one which aired on Sept. 29 on KPRC Channel 2 News where the EPA revealed that a cap at the San Jacinto River Waste Pits, a superfund site, busted causing highly elevated levels of dioxins to seep into the water.

“You can’t help but think of the potential impacts that are maybe upstream or downstream from the pit site if there is a breach to the waste pit containment and that is obviously what led us here today,” Phillips said.

As a result, signs have been erected that clearly state fishing and crabbing are not allowed.

Twelve signs have been placed at and around small ponds and inlets at four parks within Harris County Precinct 2. The parks that were impacted are Meadowbrook Park, Moncrief Park, Rio Valley Nature Trail and River Terrace Park.

Phillips helped oversee the implementation of the signs as well as enforcement.

“We’ve notified our law enforcement, park patrol they are going to help us as they see people fishing that they advise them we have a temporary ban in place,” he said.

Cathy Bolton has lived in the area for 45 years.

She told KPRC Channel 2 News that not being able to fish with her grandson is troubling.

“I think it’s very sad, because it’s a natural thing and it’s something you can do with your family and it’s free,” Bolton said.

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Texas man travels to Orlando to sexually assault 9-year-old girl, police say

A 64-year-old man from Texas was arrested Saturday after Orlando detectives foiled his plans to meet a 9-year-old girl for sex, according to the Orlando Police Department.

An Orlando police detective was working undercover online in September and posted an advertisement on an e-commerce website as the Orlando parents of a 9-year-old girl. The ad referenced meeting “experienced parents to learn new things from about raising little ones,” according to the arrest report.

Mark Andrew Nichols, of Austin, Texas, responded to the detective’s post the same day it went live. He said he was “very interested” and wanted to talk more, the detective said. During the course of a week, Nichols sent several emails and texts to the fictitious parents expressing his interest in meeting, according to the arrest report.

About eight days later, the detective responded to Nichols posing as the father of the girl. The fake father explained to Nichols that he and his wife were trying to get their 9-year-old daughter into modeling and asked him what types of “interests” he had about the girl, the detective wrote in the report.

“When you say interests, are you asking generally? Or sexually?” Nichols responded to the father.

The suspect added that he was “fascinated” with incest and it was an “extreme turn on” for him. Nichols told the detective that he wanted to have sex with the 9-year-old but wanted to make sure the girl’s parents were “comfortable’ with it first. He told the detective posing as the father that he would love to “watch” or participate, according to the report.

Nichols added, “I am extremely respectful about all of this,” and said he was planning a trip to the Orlando area soon and would like to meet the family, according to the report.

The detective, posing as the father, asked what Nichols would like to do with the girl.

According to the arrest report, Nichols responded:

“I would like to visit you all. I am interested in having sex with (child decoy’s name) and (the child decoy’s mother’s name). I am bi so I am open to some bi play with you if you are interested. If you are not, that is fine. I would maybe like to watch you have sex with (the child). Be there. Touch and re-assure her. Then have sex with her myself. Would (the child) want to watch me with mom?” He further texted, “I want to be respectful and just provide you all with a fun, safe experience.”

Further text messages between the decoy parents and the suspect were graphic.

The detective, posing as the mother, asked Nichols if he had a daughter or had ever done any of the things he described to his own children. Nichols said he “enjoyed bath time” with his own daughter, but “back then, I would just never do anything,” according to the report.

On Saturday, Nichols flew to Orlando and when he arrived to meet with the girl and her parents he was arrested. He brought Skittles and Sour Patch Kids to the meeting, according to the report.

Nichols is charged with attempted sexual battery on a child under 12, attempted lewd or lascivious conduct, solicitation of a minor via a computer, obscene communication, traveling to meet a minor and unlawful use of a two-way device.

Nichols was booked into the Orange County Jail. According to jail records, he is being held without bail.

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Mom, older brother charged after 11-year-old found smoking meth

An 11-year-old boy was rushed to the hospital after smoking meth with his 21-year-old brother and a 16-year-old friend, according to the Baker County Sheriff’s Office.

That older brother, Brandon Vankuren, was arrested on drug charges, and the boys’ mother, Angela Ritter, was charged with child neglect and possession of drugs.

The arrests came after a Baker County deputy noticed Vankuren with his brother and the teenager acting strange at 5:30 a.m. last Monday outside the Macedonia Convenience Store, north of Macclenny. While he was questioning the boys, the deputy noticed a baggie in one of their pockets with a substance that looked suspicious.

The arrest report shows Vankuren and the 16-year-old admitted to possessing methamphetamine. And all three of confessed to smoking the drug.

Paramedics rushed the 11-year-old to a hospital.

“I couldn’t believe it. Deputy knocked on my door and told me,” Ritter’s father-in-law, James Wilkerson, said. “I went down to the hospital and his heart rate was real high, and I sat with him until he was OK and I brought him home.”

Detectives say they arrested Vankuren and Ritter during the investigation on a previous drug warrant. After questioning Ritter, deputies charged her with child neglect.

Wilkerson told News4Jax it’s Vankuren’s fault that his younger brother got involved with drugs.

“She honestly, really didn’t know that they had snuck out of the house that night,” Wilkerson said. “And I knew that his brother was on drugs real bad, but instead of running him off, I was kind of respecting her by letting him stay here.”

Wilkerson said the 11-year-old is doing fine after he was released from the hospital. Wilkerson said, for now, he’ll help take care of the boy and hope the drugs stay away from his house.

Deputies said the 11-year-old will not face charges because he did not have any drugs in his possession, just in his system.

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Days from execution, man convicted in prison guard’s murder insists on innocence

Robert Pruett was sentenced to death in 2002 for the murder of prison guard Daniel Nagle. Pruett says he was framed by corrupt guards and inmates while the prison employee union says chronic understaffing led to Nagle's murder.

A man convicted in the 1999 murder of a Texas prison guard faces execution Thursday for the sixth time in a case where DNA testing has taken center stage.

Robert Pruett was sentenced to death in the stabbing of Daniel Nagle, a 37-year-old guard at a prison in Beeville. Pruett was a 20-year-old inmate serving a 99-year sentence at the time for being an accomplice in a murder committed by his father when he was 15.

Nagle was found lying in a pool of blood, stabbed repeatedly with a makeshift knife next to a torn up disciplinary report he had written on Pruett, according to court records. The prosecution argued that Pruett killed Nagle in retaliation for the report, and the jury agreed, but Pruett has consistently denied his involvement in the crime. He said he was framed by corrupt guards and inmates, and his lawyers have argued against the testimony used at trial.

“The only supposed eyewitness testimony came from inmate informants. Such so-called snitch testimony is notoriously unreliable,” wrote attorney David Dow in Pruett’s latest filing to a federal appellate court.

For years, he has sought multiple rounds of DNA testing on clothes, the weapon and the torn-up report in an attempt to prove his innocence. It has saved him from execution multiple times since 2013.

But in April, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals finally ruled that the results of two rounds of DNA testing were inconclusive and therefore would not have changed the result of his conviction. A new execution date was set for Oct. 12.

“You’ve got to have faith in your juries and the many courts that have scrutinized the evidence and the claims here, and I just don’t see any room for there being a claim of innocence here,” said Jack Choate, executive director of the Special Prosecution Unit, which prosecutes Texas prison crimes.

Still, Pruett is fighting.

The Court of Criminal Appeals and U.S. Supreme Court denied his latest claims in state court last week, but he has also sued in federal court, claiming recent refusals by the trial court and prosecution to proceed with further DNA testing violates his due process rights.

The DNA evidence that was tested and deemed inconclusive by Texas’ high appellate court needs more examination, Pruett argues in court filings. The testing looked primarily at the murder weapon, where a partial female profile had been found in the latest examination.

Pruett argues that the court should further investigate the profile, to see if it could identify a culprit, but the state argued the weapon was likely contaminated by people on the defense team and journalists who have handled it without gloves since the trial. The court denied further testing.

“Even if there were contamination, that conclusion would only demonstrate that the State had violated another provision of state law by failing to ensure the weapon is properly preserved,” Dow wrote to the court.

Pruett’s latest federal appeal was rejected by the appellate court Friday, but he could still appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Choate said that he expects the execution to proceed.

“I would be surprised to see the courts take a different position this late in the game,” he said.

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Truck involved in multiple accidents leaves 1 dead, 1 injured in Texas City, police say

One person is dead and another is critically injured after an accident in Texas City at about 5:50 p.m. Friday.

Police officers said a gray Dodge Ram 2500 truck was involved in a series of accidents before being involved in a head-on major accident in the 2500 block of State Highway 146 South.

Authorities said the Dodge was northbound in the southbound lanes when it side-swiped another vehicle in the 900 block of Highway 146. The truck continued northbound in the southbound lanes until it hit a concrete retainer wall and the beginning of the North Loop overpass. The truck then re-entered the southbound lanes where it collided head-on with a white Ford truck.

The driver of the Dodge was pronounced dead at the scene.

The driver of the Ford was taken to a hospital with possible life-threatening injuries, according to authorities.

The identity of the drivers is not being released at this time.

KPRC will provide updates when they become available.

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$1M worth of iPads mostly unused after being purchased for local elections

The Harris County Clerk will test custom-modified iPads at 100 polling places during the Nov. 7 election.

The 2,400 tablets have been sitting in a warehouse since July 2015, unopened and unused.

Channel 2 Investigates first revealed the existence of the unused technology in October 2016.

The iPad models in question were first released in November 2013, so by the time they are pressed into full service next year, the base technology will be nearing five years old.

“We had to get the application what I call, essentially perfect. We had to do all the testing and that did take longer than we anticipated,” Stan Stanart, Harris County clerk, said during a press conference this week.

Stanart has said the implementation of the so-called “electronic pollbooks” will make the check-in process at polling locations vastly more efficient.

Unsatisfied with the iPad stands currently on the market for this application, the County Clerk engineered custom stands.

Stanart spent $3,500 on a 3D printer to make prototypes of his creation.

Stanart, through a spokesperson Friday, declined an interview request with Channel 2 Investigates to further discuss costs associated with the project.

However, we did receive the following statement from his office Friday:

“During the November 7 election cycle, the Harris County Clerk’s office will be introducing the use of electronic pollbooks on election day at 100 polling locations. The electronic pollbook pilot experiment is a small scale preliminary trail of the use of new technology at the polls. The goal is to fully implement the use of electronic pollbooks at every election day polling location for all elections starting with the 2018 March Primaries. Currently, on election day, the official list of the registered voters for a given voting area are maintained in hard copy poll books. The electronic poll book will automate and speed up the voter check-in process at polling locations.

“The Harris County Clerk’s goal is to use new technology on election day to provide all voters access to the voting process in a timely manner as well as increase the efficiency and integrity of the election process.

“The County Clerk is not available for an interview. However, as election day (Nov. 7) gets closer, the County Clerk’s office will be addressing the electronic poll book pilot.”

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Woman caught on camera stomping small dog inside elevator

A South Florida woman has been arrested after surveillance video inside an elevator in Aventura showed her repeatedly kicking and abusing a small dog, authorities announced on Thursday.

Police said the incident happened Sept. 20 inside an elevator at Artech Condominiums at 2950 NE 188th St.

Police said employees at the building saw the surveillance video and notified police.

Detectives identified Keevonna Wilson, 24, as the woman in the video and arrested her Sept. 26 on an animal cruelty charge.

“There’s no excuse at all to do that to a small innocent animal. None,” Aventura police Sgt. Chris Goranitis said.

According to an arrest report, Wilson was upset with her dog because she went to the bathroom in the elevator.

“You never take it out on an animal. That’s horrible,” neighbor Paula Riordan said.

The dog, Chasity, was removed by Miami-Dade Animal Services investigators and received medical treatment.

According to the dog’s medical report that was taken Sept. 27, the dog appeared to generally be in good health, but appeared to be in pain when her abdomen and lower back were touched.

The report stated that the dog had bruises on her abdominal area and the outside part of her ears.

Miami-Dade County Animal Services spokeswoman Lilian Bohorquez said in an email that the dog is being cared for at a Miami-Dade Animal Services-approved foster home.

Once Miami-Dade County Animal Services is legally granted custody of Chasity, they will place her up for adoption.

Local 10 News reporter Michael Seiden reached out to Wilson, but she stopped responding to his text messages once he identified himself.

***WARNING: Video contains footage that some may find disturbing***

 

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How much has been raised for Harvey relief — and how’s it being spent?

Debris from Harvey flooding is removed from a Port Arthur neighborhood on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017.

After Hurricane Harvey dumped up to 50 inches of rain on parts of southeast Texas and caused historic flooding, an outpouring of financial support and charitable contributions has flowed to Harvey-related causes.

Almost a month and a half later, floodwaters have receded, leaving Texans in 39 counties to clean up rotting debris and destroyed homes. An estimated 1,100 people remained in eight different emergency shelters around the state earlier this week, and 62,304 Texas residents are still living in FEMA-paid hotel rooms.

Two weeks after the category 4 storm made landfall, Congress approved a $15 billion federal aid package. And donors have given hundreds of millions more to the Red Cross and a host of Harvey relief funds: one started by Houston Texans star JJ Watt has pulled in $27 million, while the Rebuild Texas Fund, spearheaded by the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, has raised $70.7 million.

“We are in that period where everyone is saying nice things and patting everyone on the back saying we understand your pain, we understand your needs, and sooner or later that’s going to get back to dollars and how those are spent,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said at a recent legislative appropriations meeting.

So how exactly is that money being used? Here’s an overview of what’s been spent at the state and federal level — and what hasn’t.

The Tribune will be updating these numbers regularly. Are there other relief efforts we should include? What else should we know about how Harvey relief money is being spent? Get in touch here.

Federal Funding: $15 billion

While lawmakers are expected to approve more money for disaster relief — Texas leaders on Thursday requested another $18.7 billion — the state won’t getting the full $15 billion because the money will be divided among the states and territories hit by hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.

About half of the money has gone to FEMA, which generally helps disaster victims with taking care of more short-term needs like food, water, medical care and temporary housing.

So far the agency has spent $886.6 million on assistance to Texans affected by Harvey, including $683.2 million on housing-related expenses — help paying rent, essential home repairs, some personal property replacement — and $203.4 million on “other needs assistance” that includes hotel rooms and $500 stipends for displaced people.

The agency has also approved an additional $327.8 million to local governments that have requested help rebuilding infrastructure like roads, bridges and levies.

The other half of the money flows through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to help finance long-term rebuilding. It’s intended to fill in the gaps after individuals or government agencies have exhausted all other sources of relief.

“We are the long haul-type responding agency, we aren’t the first responder,” said Brian Sullivan, a spokesman for the department.

None of the $7.4 billion the department has received from Congress has gotten to Texas yet, and it will be a while until it does because of a complicated process of assessing needs and developing a spending plan that must be approved by multiple layers of government.

Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush told state lawmakers Monday that it could take from seven to 32 months for the funds to work their way through that process.

The Small Business Administration’s disaster relief loan program, available for businesses and individuals, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food assistance program also provide aid during disasters. So far, the SBA has approved $784 million in low-interest loans in Texas, and the Texas Health and Human Services Commission has administered more than $209 million in USDA food assistance.

State of Texas: $103 million

Gov. Greg Abbott has awarded $103 million from the state disaster fund to pay for Harvey-related expenses, and just under half of that went to fund the Houston’s recovery efforts.

Another $43 million went toward deploying the National Guard during the storm, and the remaining $10 million went to the Department of Public Safety for costs incurred by the Texas Emergency Management Division.

Some local officials, including Houston mayor Sylvester Turner, have called on Abbott to tap the state’s $10 billion Rainy Day Fund to help with rebuilding and cleanup expenses, but the governor has said if that happens, it won’t be until the 2019 legislative session.

Red Cross: $300 million

Central Texas chapter spokesman Geof Sloan said the nonprofit, which partners with local governments to run shelters and provide disaster assistance, has given $148 million in direct financial aid — in the form of $400 stipends — to more than 370,000 Texas households as of Sept. 28. That number will increase as the Red Cross continues accepting applications for the stipends via its website through Oct. 10.

Sloan said the organization has deployed more than 7,300 workers to support efforts in Texas. Its emergency shelters, he said, have served more than 3.7 million meals and snacks and provided more than 421,000 overnight stays since Harvey hit. Sloan said that a cost breakdown for these services was not currently available.

A recent ProPublica investigation called the Red Cross’s role in Harvey disaster relief into question and uncovered records of local officials in several counties complaining that the organization did not provide promised support or help.

Rebuild Texas Fund: $70.7 million

A spokeswoman said the organization would be announcing the first round of recipients next week.

JJ Watt Foundation’s Harvey Relief Fund: $27 million

The Houston Texans player smashed an initial fundraising goal of $200,000. The foundation did not respond to a media inquiry asking how much of the money has been spent.

This story was produced in partnership with the Ravitch Fiscal Reporting Program at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

Disclosure: The Michael and Susan Dell Foundation has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.

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The Case to End Assembly Line Justice for Poor People in Harris County

Harris County hearing officer Jill Wallace (left) and Andrew Goodson  Screenshot/YouTube

On October 1, 2016, police arrested Andrew Goodson for carrying a knife just short of 6 inches long, a Class A misdemeanor in Texas. The next day, guards brought him and dozens of other inmates into a large room at the Harris County Jail, the nation’s third largest county lockup. One by one they walked to a red square tile situated below a screen that linked them, via video conference, to a prosecutor and a hearing officer who sets bail for the county’s misdemeanor courts.

According to court records, Goodson, 46, was living out of his car at the time and had only $29 to his name. He simply couldn’t afford the $250 bail bond payment that would buy his freedom.

In a video recording of the hearing, Goodson asked hearing officer Jill Wallace for a personal recognizance bond — an option for defendants too poor to make bail — but Wallace shut him down before he could even finish the sentence, citing a quarter-century-old arrest record out of Florida. (Court documents indicate he’s never been convicted of a felony, nor had he ever before been arrested in Harris County.) Wallace grew agitated when the defendant again tried to talk, telling him, “I’m not letting you talk because I’m going by what I feel is best for the community.” When he asked again if he could speak, Wallace yelled “No!” Wallace’s demeanor shifted once Goodson was out of sight. She laughed with the prosecutor after quipping that sending him back to jail “makes me feel better.”

Until recently, the bail process for low-level arrestees in Harris County functioned with the efficiency of an assembly line, sending poor defendants back to jail, sometimes for days or weeks, until they could resolve their cases. Last year, civil rights groups sued the county on behalf of those arrestees. In April, Lee Rosenthal, the chief federal judge for the Southern District of Texas, declared the county’s practice of using cash bail as de facto detention orders, regardless of someone’s ability to pay, an unconstitutional violation of poor people’s right to due process and equal protection.

Citing hearings like Goodson’s, Rosenthal found that Harris County’s attempts to reform the system haven’t gone far enough and this summer ordered that the jail release almost all misdemeanor arrestees on personal bonds after 24 hours if they can’t make bail. On Tuesday, lawyers for the county went to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans to argue there’s no constitutional right to “affordable bail” and that Rosenthal’s ruling risks throwing pretrial systems across the country into disarray. The case could change the landscape of American bail practices in ways that reverberate throughout the criminal justice system. Some even say Rosenthal’s ruling could be the beginning of the end of cash bail in America as we know it.

“Wealth-based pretrial detention is a key driver of mass incarceration,” said Elizabeth Rossi, an attorney for Civil Rights Corps, one of the groups that filed the lawsuit. “Ending the practice of keeping people in jail due to their poverty would make it more difficult for prosecutors to coerce guilty pleas and would help ensure that, whether rich or poor, arrestees can exercise their right to a fair trial and the presumption of innocence.”

In her exhaustive 193-page opinion, Rosenthal found that Harris County jailed hundreds of legally innocent people because they were too poor to pay a bondsman. Rosenthal concluded that the practice “exacerbates the racial disparities” that already exist in the criminal justice system. She cited research showing that defendants who fight their cases from behind bars are much more likely to plead guilty, be sentenced to jail and face longer jail sentences than people who can afford to pay for their pretrial release. Rosenthal labeled it “sentence first, conviction after.”

 

 

In Harris County, there’s ample evidence of those perverse incentives. For instance, starting in 2013, local prosecutors began notifying hundreds of defendants who took plea deals on drug possession charges that lab tests conducted months and even years after their convictions proved negative for drugs. In her ruling, Rosenthal found that Harris County prosecutors even sometimes threatened to seek harsher sentences if defendants wouldn’t take a guilty plea.

It’s obvious why someone would want to get out of jail as fast as possible, even if that means eating a criminal conviction that could cost them their job, public housing or scholarships. Consider the case of Patrick Joseph Brown, the 46-year-old man beaten to death in the Harris County Jail two days after he was booked for allegedly stealing a guitar. As the Houston Press reported, Brown got stuck in jail because he couldn’t pay the $300 premium on his $3,000 bond and, like 90 percent of the county’s misdemeanor defendants, wasn’t given a personal bond.

Against this backdrop, Harris County has made reforms in recent years that Rosenthal called laudable, such as giving bail hearing officers a more objective risk-assessment tool and providing public defenders at bail hearings. However, Rosenthal also called those reforms insufficient. It’s ultimately still up to individual hearing officers to decide whether poor people get personal bonds. Hearing officers and county judges regularly give people charged with crimes that indicate poverty — begging, trespassing or sleeping under a bridge — bond amounts that are clearly beyond their reach. Rosenthal said courts had an “unwritten custom” to deny all homeless people personal bonds, even for the pettiest of charges.

Even some local judges are fed up. Judge Darrell Jordan of Harris County Criminal Court 16 says that too many courts automatically equate poverty with risk and set unattainable bonds that keep poor people in jail. Jordan, who was elected to his seat last year after the bail lawsuit was already filed, testified on behalf of the plaintiffs that the county cannot fix the problem on its own. Since taking the bench in November, Jordan says he’s granted personal bonds to almost every defendant who appeared before him and couldn’t afford bail.

“Other judges are basically saying that a person is potentially violent or unsafe to the community if they’re unable to come up with that $500 to pay on a $5,000 bond,” Jordan told the Observer. “Somehow, that’s what all of a sudden makes them too unsafe to release. So I guess around income tax time, when everybody has a little bit of extra money, everyone becomes safe then, huh?”

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At the Fifth Circuit appeals court Tuesday, lawyers for Harris County argued that Rosenthal’s order went too far. Charles Cooper, the county’s appellate attorney, spent much of his time telling the judges that misdemeanor defendants can still contest their bail-setting through the proper legal channels.

Judge Catharina Haynes, one of three Fifth Circuit judges who heard the case, seemed to dismiss that argument, saying the lengthy process to contest bail would last longer than most jail sentences for misdemeanor convictions. “How can that really be a remedy?” she asked.

On the other hand, Haynes said she was “shocked” by Rosenthal’s order to release people on personal bond after 24 hours, calling it “chaotic.”

The Fifth Circuit could affirm Rosenthal’s decision, overturn it or send it back to her court for further evidentiary hearings on the impact of her ruling on the county’s ongoing reforms. Trisha Trigilio, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Texas, told the Observer that Rosenthal’s ruling, if it stands, should lead to fundamental changes beyond Houston. “The legal issues that are raised in the Harris County bail case are the same constitutional issues that we run into in jurisdictions across the state,” she said.

The post The Case to End Assembly Line Justice for Poor People in Harris County appeared first on The Texas Observer.

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Mother, son charged in murder-for-hire plot

A mother is behind bars and her son is on the run in connection with a murder-for-hire plot.

According to court documents, Romana Reyes and her son Ceasar Reyes-Rivera hired a man to murder someone they claimed set Ceasar up for another crime.

Court documents go on to say Romana paid the man $200 to “get things started.”

She promised to pay $4,000 when the job was done.

The alleged hit man, who cooperated in the investigation, reported the incident to law enforcement officials.

Romana was arrested. Ceasar is still at large.

Both are charged with solicitation of capital murder.

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