$5,000 reward being offered in shooting that caused man to lose his legs

A $5,000 reward is being offered for information that leads to the arrest of the people responsible for a shooting earlier this year that resulted in the victim’s legs being amputated.

The shooting was reported about 11:40 p.m. July 21 at 10601 Sabo Road.

Houston police said Monday that Samuel Bonilla parked his car and opened the door when he was approached by a man with a gun. The man fired at Bonilla, hitting him six times, police said. Bonilla was able to crawl away from the scene, but collapsed, police said.

Witnesses reported that three people stole Bonilla’s wallet, car keys and cell phone before they jumped into his car and fled, investigators said.

Bonilla’s car was later found burned in Margaret Jenkins Park in southern Houston.

Anyone with information about the case was asked to call Crime Stoppers at 713-222-8477.

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Tornado leaves trail of damage in two Dickinson neighborhoods, NWS says

An EF-O tornado passed through Dickinson early Friday morning, according to the National Weather Service.

An EF-O is the weakest category for a tornado. It had winds around 70 mph.

It caused damage in two subdivisions near FM 646 and Highway 3. One home had roof damage, and high winds ripped off the cover of a pickup truck, Emergency Management officials said.

VIDEO: Sky 2 over storm damage in Dickinson

There were downed trees, toppled power lines and one homeowner’s shed was damaged, according to officials.

PHOTOS: Trees, fences toppled after storm rips through Dickinson

Investigators are working to see if there was any other damage in the area.

Check the forecast any time by visiting the weather page of Click2Houston.com or by downloading Frank’s forecast app on Apple or Android devices.

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Former HPD officer indicted in 2016 shooting of unarmed neighbor

Jason Loosmore, a former Houston Police Department officer, was indicted for an off-duty incident in which he shot and wounded a neighbor following an argument over a dog.

Loosmore, 32, is charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

“He used his badge and gun to try and settle a personal score,” Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said. “The community, through a grand jury, decided the officer broke the law.”

Loosmore was not in uniform during the Oct. 13, 2016, incident, but he did have a badge hanging around his neck.

Loosmore shot Casey Brown three times with a 9mm handgun while Brown was in his own yard, investigators said.

WATCH: Press conference held after former HPD officer indicted on charges

Brown, who was unarmed at the time, is still recovering from his wounds.

Loosmore, who had been an officer for seven years at the time of the shooting, resigned from HPD in April 2017.

If convicted, Loosmore faces two to 20 years in prison and a fine up to $10,000.

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State Rep. Victoria Neave pleads no contest to June DWI charge

Mugshot of state Rep. Victoria Neave, D-Dallas, arrested for DWI in Dallas late Tuesday, June 6.

State Rep. Victoria Neave, D-Dallas, said Friday she had pleaded no contest to a June charge of driving while intoxicated.

Neave was arrested June 6 in Dallas after she struck a tree in the Lakewood neighborhood, police said. Court documents say her blood-alcohol level was almost twice the legal limit.

Neave tweeted Friday that she will pay a fine, be put on probation for 12 months, have her license suspended, submit to random alcohol testing, take a DWI education class and attend a victim impact panel.

“Earlier this year, I disappointed my family, my constituents, my supporters, and myself,” the tweet read. “I said then the responsibility was mine and that I would accept the consequences … I accept full responsibility and will continue to work to demonstrate that I have learned from my past.”

The 36-year-old lawmaker represents parts of Dallas, Mesquite and Garland, and she serves on the House Committee on Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence as well as the House Committee on County Affairs.

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Texas attorney general opens investigation Into Harvey debris removal companies

Myles Broussard tosses pieces of drywall into a pile of trash and storm debris outside his home in Beaumont, Texas on Sept. 4, 2017. 

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has opened an investigation into debris removal companies who may be “overpromising and underdelivering” their post-Harvey clean-up services.

“Texans are working hard to clean up after Hurricane Harvey and these companies should do the same,” Paxton said in a written statement. “They cannot sign contracts with local governments, and then change the price or not deliver services.”

His office announced Friday that it was “examining agreements between companies and local governments relating to professional debris removal efforts” in areas affected by Harvey. The investigation came at the request of Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp, who is overseeing the state’s recovery efforts as chair of the Governor’s Commission to Rebuild Texas.

“I have asked General Paxton to open an investigation into some debris haulers’ activities in the wake of Hurricane Harvey,” Sharp said in a written statement. “While some haulers have done a remarkable job, I have serious concerns about others’ activities that I have relayed to General Paxton. It’s time to find out why some are moving too slowly, and why some are refusing help that would remove debris faster.”

So far the Texas Department of Transportation, which is working alongside local contractors, has removed more than 461,096 cubic yards of debris from areas affected by Harvey. Local officials in Houston and other cities have expressed concern with the speed of the clean-up process, which has been delayed in some areas because of prolonged waits to dump materials at landfills.

“It is unacceptable for me for this debris to be on the ground that long,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said at a mid-September press conference, where he noted that some subcontractors had chosen to go to Florida, hoping to find better pay there as the state recovers from Hurricane Irma’s devastation.

Public health officials have also warned of the health risks posed by the uncollected piles of garbage and debris still lining neighborhood streets in southeast Texas. Some doctors are reporting increases in patients seeking treatment for respiratory symptoms in areas hit by flooding from Hurricane Harvey.

Dr. A. Cecil Walkes, Jefferson County’s public health authority, called the remaining debris a “deadly conglomerate, an incubator for bacterial growth, parasite multiplication, fungi generation, protozoan and rickettesial replication, rodent and other small animal infestation and flies breeding” in an Oct. 2 letter he wrote to county officials.

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Police: 3 Texas men arrested after shot fired at Richard Spencer protesters

A Texas man who fired a shot at a group of protesters after Thursday’s Richard Spencer speech at the University of Florida and the two men who encouraged him to open fire have been charged with attempted homicide, Gainesville police said.

Tyler Tenbrink, 28, fired the shot, after he and two brothers in a silver Jeep shouted obscenities, threats and chants about Hitler at the protesters, who were at a bust stop on SW Archer Road, police said. Tenbrink has also been charged with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.

According to the arrest report, William Fears, 30, and Colton Fears, 28, both of Pasadena, Texas, shouted “I’m going to f****** kill you,” “kill them” and “shoot them,” before Tenbrink fired the shot, which missed and hit a nearby building.

Police said that as the Jeep sped off, one of the protesters was able to get the license plate and reported it to investigators, who relayed it to law enforcement in the area. An off-duty deputy with the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office spotted the Jeep with the matching Texas tag around 9 p.m. on I-75 about 20 miles north of Gainesville.

Units from the Alachua Police Department, the High Springs Police Department and the Florida Highway Patrol conducted a high-risk felony stop on the Jeep at the 405 Mile Marker of I-75 North and took the three men into custody, police said.

“I am amazed that immediately after being shot at, a victim had the forethought to get the vehicle’s license number” Gainesville police spokesman Officer Ben Tobias said. “That key piece of information allowed officials from every level of multiple agencies to quickly identify and arrest these persons. This was an amazing team effort by everyone involved.”

According to police, just before 5:30 p.m. Thursday, the men in the Jeep stopped to argue with the group of protesters on SW Archer Road and one of the passengers yelled “Hail Hitler” and other chants.

The protesters argued back and one of them hit the rear window of the Jeep with a baton, according to the arrest report.

The Jeep then pulled about 10 feet away, stopped again and Tenbrink got out and pulled a handgun on the protesters as the Fears brothers egged him on, police said.

At least two of the three have shown connections to extremist groups, according to Gainesville police.

The three remain in the Alachua County Jail. The Fears brothers are each being held on $1 million bond and Tenbrink is under a $3 million bond.

Tenbrink’s previous conviciton was for assault on a family or household member in 2014. He pleaded guilty/no contest.

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Perry pursuing policy on coal, nuclear power at odds with Texas record

Secretary of Energy Rick Perry testifies at a Committee on Energy and Commerce hearing in Washington, D.C. on Oct 12, 2017.

An unusual coalition of fossil fuel interests, environmentalists and free-market adherents has criticized a proposal from U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry that would prop up coal and nuclear plants across the country. And some of those familiar with Texas politics are wondering if the Perry that served as state governor for 14 years would have opposed the plan, too.

In a 2011 interview, then-Gov. Perry told blogger and radio host Erick Erickson, “Get rid of the tax loopholes, get rid of all of the subsidies. Let the energy industry get out there and find — the market will find the right energy for us to be using in this country.”

That statement was par the course for Perry, who as governor helped oversee the deregulation of Texas’ electrical sector and has championed competitive markets and opposed federal interference.

But to some, his views have shifted since he became President Donald Trump’s Energy Secretary in March.

“The boot is on the other foot,” Perry said at an event in April. “Are there issues that are so important to the national security of this country that the federal government can intervene on the regulatory side? I’ll suggest to you that there are.”

Perry raised eyebrows in September when he urged the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to give certain fuel sources what amounts to a subsidy, but one borne by consumers rather than the government. And at a hearing on Capitol Hill last week, Perry called the notion that there’s a free market in electrical generation a “fallacy.”

“We subsidize a lot of different energy sources. We subsidize wind energy, we subsidize ethanol, we subsidize solar, we subsidize oil and gas,” Perry said at the hearing. “Government’s picking winners and losers every day,” he said later.

Lawmakers on the committee were quick to point to the disparity between Perry’s current position and those during his tenure leading Texas.

“It seems like with your new effort you are gaming the system and not doing what we did when you were governor in Texas,” U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, said at one point.

U.S. Rep. Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land, warned Perry that he was creating the impression that “you prefer government control over the free markets.”

“We both know that’s a pile of Bevo longhorn poo-poo,” Olson said.

Threat of energy outages

Perry’s proposal says generators that can store 90 days’ worth of fuel onsite — like coal and nuclear plants — should be shored up because they can keep the electric grid running in the event of a disturbance.

Many of these generators face premature retirement, Perry wrote last month. Referencing a 2014 “polar vortex” and the hurricanes that have battered Texas and other coastal areas, he said, “It is time for [FERC] to issue rules to protect the American people from the threat of energy outages.”

If approved, critics say the plan would increase residents’ electricity bills, penalize other sources of energy and signify a break from FERC’s free-market tendencies. Perry has asked the independent commission to make a decision on his recommendation in 60 days — a timeline some say is too fast.

But opponents have taken issue with more than the proposal’s pace. A broad coalition has criticized the plan as an ineffective solution put on too hasty a path. Some criticize it as pollution-causing and backward-looking; others say it amounts to a bailout and argue against government putting its thumb on the scale.

Industrial Energy Consumers of America, a group that represents Koch Industries and is supportive of nuclear and coal power, penned a letter saying the proposal would “distort, if not destroy, competitive wholesale electricity markets.”

Pat Wood, a former chairman of Texas’ Public Utility Commission, expressed his antipathy in more colorful language, likening the plan to a “lovely little Christmas turd” while at an industry conference, according to news reports.

Perry “clearly is acting based on what his boss, Trump, would like him to do,” said Lenae Shirley, a senior director at the Environmental Defense Fund. “When institutes that represent the Koch brothers are aligning with environmentalists on this, that sends a pretty strong message that this is not the right move.”

On the campaign trail, Trump promised to revive the coal industry, and his administration has already dismantled some policies favored by renewable energy advocates.

Even companies that support reforming wholesale electricity markets disagree with the specifics of Perry’s proposal.

“DOE is saying we need to have fuel security in the event of some catastrophic failure of the transportation or natural gas systems,” said Abraham Silverman, vice president and deputy general counsel at NRG Energy, which owns the retail electricity business of Reliant Energy in Houston. “That’s not crazy.”

“That said,” he added, “we are not proponents of bailouts. We’re not proponents of subsidies to targeted generators. We think the DOE was on the right path in highlighting the problems, but the specific proposal that they put forward was, I think, problematic.”

“Good for American energy”

At last week’s hearing, Perry said he’s committed to an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy — and pointed to his “real track record” as governor. “But the wind doesn’t always blow,” he added. “The sun doesn’t always shine. The gas pipelines, they can’t guarantee every day that that supply is going to be there.”

He suggested the Obama administration had been biased toward renewables and, in April, he commissioned a study to see if regulations, mandates or other tax policies are “responsible for forcing the premature retirement of baseload power plants” such as coal and nuclear generators.

That report, which had been highly anticipated by both members of the energy industry and environmentalists, noted 531 “coal generating units” closed across the country between 2002 and 2016 and laid most of the blame for those closures on the “advantaged economics of natural gas-fired generation” — with regulations and rising output from wind and solar energy as lesser factors. The study’s authors did not find that such closures had made the grid unreliable.

That trend has been largely borne out in Texas, where Perry, as governor, helped oversee the deregulation of the state’s electricity market. Under Perry, natural gas production surged thanks to technological advances like hydraulic fracturing, and Texas became the nation’s leader in wind energy generation. Data from the state’s largest grid operator shows wind capacity grew from 116 megawatts in 2000 to more than 11,000 megawatts by 2014.

“If we go back in time, I’m sure we could find a dozen quotes from Gov. Perry very excited about these kinds of developments,” said Chrissy Mann, a senior representative of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.

Brandy Marty Marquez, one of the state’s Public Utility commissioners who previously served in the governor’s office as Perry’s chief of staff, said Perry “probably was among the first people to coin the phrase ‘all-of-the-above approach’ because Texas is one of the early adopters of renewable energy, specifically wind.”

While Perry long touted free-market principles as governor, he also championed spending millions in tax subsidies for firms relocating or expanding in Texas, programs critics derided as “corporate welfare.” And as governor, he did push for the permitting of new coal plants while other states were scaling back amid pollution concerns.

But those facilities, or Perry’s lobbying for them, weren’t highlighted in a December 2016 op-ed from a former state regulator about why Perry becoming Trump’s Energy Secretary would be “good for American energy.”

Barry Smitherman, the former chairman of Texas’ Public Utility Commission and Railroad Commision, cited the building of new transmission lines for wind energy, the encouragement of more competition in the electric market and the “shale revolution” as “three particular areas where Perry’s leadership led to significant benefits for working Texans, energy consumers and the broader energy industry.”

Coal plants closing

Marquez said Perry’s proposal is a responsible and reasonable way to approach issues with the grid — and that he’s consistently advocated for a diversified energy portfolio. Anybody surprised by his plan “hasn’t been paying attention,” she said. “He sent it over to FERC so that there can be a transparent dialogue, an open dialogue about it,” she said.

But even if FERC adopts Perry’s plan as is, it would largely not impact nuclear or coal-powered plants in Texas.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the state’s largest grid operator, is not under the purview of FERC. “Only action by the Texas legislature or the [Public Utility Commission] would affect our rate structure,” said Robbie Searcy, an ERCOT spokesperson. Diverse energy sources, she added, have helped ERCOT maintain a reliable system and competitive market.

According to ERCOT data, coal made up 22 percent of the state’s generation capacity last year. But the coming closure of several coal-powered plants in the state has set the stage for wind to overtake coal in Texas’ overall energy mix in 2018, according to Joshua Rhodes, a research fellow at the University of Texas at Austin’s Energy Institute.

Vistra Energy’s subsidiary, Luminant, announced earlier this month that three of its Texas coal plants will shutter next year, if ERCOT gives the okay. In environmental groups’ crosshairs for years, the Monticello, Big Brown and Sandow plants have earned the dubious distinction of being among the “dirtiest” in the country. But the plants succumbed to financial, not activists’, pressure, according to company officials.

“The long-term economic viability of these plants has been in question for some time,” Curt Morgan, president and CEO of Vistra, said in a statement. Because a few of the retiring plants were built in the 1970s, Rhodes said they probably needed some capital investment just to upgrade and maintain the facilities.

If ERCOT determines the plants aren’t needed to keep the state’s energy grid reliable, their retirements could prompt the elimination of more than 800 jobs.

“Coal’s powered America for a long time,” Mann, the environmental advocate said; but the closures align with Perry’s proposal. Natural market forces — and for some, an inclination toward renewable sources — means “coal has to get phased out,” Mann said. “Perry’s report recognizes that and is looking for a way to artificially prop up a dying industry rather than finding ways to help transition communities that have relied on coal.”

Bill Peacock, vice president of research at the conservative-leaning Texas Public Policy Foundation, said a better solution is to rid the market of subsidies, rather than adding more. “We support markets as a way to decide which fuel is best to meet the energy needs of America,” he said. “To that extent, we don’t believe in subsidies for wind or solar or coal or nuclear or natural gas. It’s across the board. We’re not trying to pick winners and losers and we don’t think anybody else ought to either.”

Disclosure: The Environmental Defense Fund, NRG Energy, Vistra Energy and the Texas Public Policy Foundation have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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Cornyn: Trump assured me more Harvey aid for Texas coming in November

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn speaks at the Texas State Rifle Association general meeting in Round Rock on Feb. 25, 2017.

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Senate will not add more funds earmarked for Texas’ recovery to a new disaster spending bill slated for a vote this week, the state’s senior senator said on Thursday.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn told reporters on a conference call Thursday afternoon that he spoke with President Donald Trump and his budget director Mick Mulvaney and was assured that a separate spending aid bill would come soon.

“It’s coming in November, and it will be for Texans recovering from Harvey,” Cornyn said. 

Few Texans were pleased with a $36.5 billion disaster relief legislation that passed the U.S. House last week, with some including Gov. Greg Abbott arguing the bill did not do enough for Texas. That is now the bill moving through the Senate chamber and will likely be up for a vote Thursday night or Friday morning.

Many in the delegation worry that the majority of the bill’s funds will go to the most dire hurricane-devastated theater, Puerto Rico. The legislation also largely ignored an $18.7 billion request most of the delegation and Abbott had requested from Congress.

In September, Trump signed into law a short-term, $15.25 billion measure to address the immediate emergency in Texas and in Florida, which suffered serious damage from Hurricane Irma.

Cornyn suggested earlier in the week he would band with colleagues in other areas affected by disasters to add additional relief spending to the current bill. 

“In talking to a number of my colleagues from Florida, some from out west where the wildfires are creating a lot of devastation, I think there’s some interest in seeing whether the Senate should add to what the House has done,” Cornyn said on Tuesday.

In the end, though, he said he would keep the pressure on the president and Congress to act soon on additional Texas aid.

“We don’t want the federal government to kick the can down the road, because as time goes by,” he said. “I don’t want people to forget about Hurricane Harvey.” 

 Claire Allbright contributed to this report. 

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Dallas Fed CEO: Technology, not trade or immigration, is main reason for job loss

A truck travels on TX-281 Military Highway in Pharr, Texas.

SAN ANTONIO — If policymakers and elected officials keep buying into the misnomer that trade and immigration are the keys to job loss, the state’s and country’s leaders are going to craft policies that hinder growth and prosperity, the president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas told business leaders in San Antonio.

“A lot of these job dislocations are being publicly blamed on trade and immigration. Our analysis at the Dallas Fed is 15 years ago, maybe. Today, no,” Robert Kaplan told members of the Texas Business Leadership Council. “More likely, if your job is being disrupted it’s because of technology.”

Kaplan said instead business and education leaders should look at the issues of unemployment and education through an apolitical lens if they don’t want to risk Texas and the rest of the country becoming less competitive.

“We have a big skills gap, not only in Texas but in the United States. This is a big problem because every one of these jobs that goes unfilled [means] lower GDP, lower productivity, lower prosperity,” he said. “If we get that diagnosis wrong, for obvious reasons, we’re going to make very poor policy decisions, which will cause us to grow less quickly than we would otherwise.”

Kaplan also touched on the North American Free Trade Agreement and how further discussions over how to modernize the 1992 trade deal will spill into next year. Mexico’s constitution allows a president to serve one six-year term, so negotiations could take on a new dynamic during Mexico’s 2018 election season if voters rally around a  candidate who has different views on NAFTA than current President Enrique Peña Nieto.

It’s especially noteworthy for Texas because trade with Mexico is predominantly intermediary, Kaplan said. That means some goods and products pass back and forth between the two countries several times.

“That is different than the trade relationship with China. So it pays to segment the trade relationships and think about them in a very strategic way,” he said.

Texas would be the most-affected state if NAFTA is reworked in a way that decreases trade between the two countries. From January to August of this year, more than $366 billion in two-way trade has passed through ports in the United States and Mexico, according to WorldCity, a Florida-based economics think tank that uses U.S. Census data to track trade patterns. That figure represents a 5.85 percent increase compared to the same timeframe in 2016.

About $193.4 billion of 2017’s trade has passed through the Laredo customs district, with another $61.5 billion passing through the El Paso customs district. The ports of Houston and Port Arthur are also in included in Mexico’s top 10 trading partners, ranking fifth with $13 billion and eighth with $3.5 billion, respectively.

On Hurricane Harvey, Kaplan said the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas estimates the costs of damage to homes ranges from $45 billion to $55 billion and damage to businesses is between $15 billion and $20 billion. He said that means the affected areas, especially Harris County, will need an influx of workers to rebuild — causing concerns for leaders because of the current debate over unauthorized migration. He said the bank estimates that as many as 50 percent of the construction workers in Harris County are undocumented.

“Let me put it this way: It’s a concern among leaders in Houston. They are very aware of it,” he said. “One of the big issues in rate of rebuilding is you need a construction force. And you probably need some migration of construction workers to your state. So they’re concerned about it.”

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Immigrant Workers in Texas Could Fill Farm Vacancies, but They’re Trapped in the Valley

For the last two years, Bernie Thiel has watched yellow squash rot in his farm fields outside of Lubbock. The crops weren’t diseased, and they weren’t ravaged by pests or pelted by hail, he said. There just wasn’t anyone to pick them. Though Thiel has consistently lowered the acreage he plants to squash — from 160 acres seven years ago to 60 acres now — his aging immigrant workforce just can’t keep up anymore. And there’s no one to replace them.

“It’s very, very frustrating because we can move this product. The demand is there,” Thiel told the Observer. “The labor is just not available.”

Along with squash, Thiel also grows other labor-intensive crops, such as zucchini, tomatoes and okra, which must be hand-picked. He has 35 employees working six or seven days a week. It’s hard, backbreaking work that most Americans aren’t willing to do. That’s why he, like many farmers, largely relies on immigrant labor to get the work done.  

But there’s a problem: Between 50 and 70 percent of immigrant farmworkers are in the country illegally. Texas is home to an estimated 1.6 million undocumented immigrants, and many of those who are available to work on farms live in the Rio Grande Valley, near the Texas-Mexico border. Though large populations of immigrants are clustered in Houston and other urban areas of the state, many already work in non-agricultural industries.

The Valley, however, has a surplus of undocumented labor — Hildalgo County alone has an undocumented population of approximately 100,000, according to the Migration Policy Institute. But to get to Thiel’s Panhandle farm, workers would have to travel on a major highways, past  immigration checkpoints and risk being deported. That’s a chance many of them aren’t willing to take.

Permanent border checkpoints in Texas  Yale Law Journal

Thiel said most of his current workers are beneficiaries of the Reagan-era Immigration Reform and Control Act, which granted amnesty to immigrants who entered the country before 1982. But the workers are getting old (some of them are in their 70s and 80s), and they don’t move as quickly as they used to. Thiel said he’s advertised for domestic workers but has had little luck. If he can’t find more labor soon, “I may just bow out and ride off into the sunset.”   

The pressure to find adequate labor is increasingly being felt across agricultural industries, Texas producers say. In July, Erath County dairy operator Sonja Koke testified to the U.S. House Agriculture Committee that she was struggling to hire year-round help for her 200-cow dairy. “Every day, we try to get people to come work for us,” she said. Proponents of the horse and beef cattle industries have also bemoaned worker shortages.  

Several factors, including relatively low pay and sometimes dangerous work conditions, contribute to farm labor shortages statewide. But especially outside of the Rio Grande Valley, they can also be tied to enhanced immigration enforcement by federal, state and local authorities. In June, the Associated Press reported deportation fears were driving labor shortages in several Texas industries, including agriculture, which has an annual economic impact of $100 billion here. Those fears are exacerbated by the “show me your papers” or “sanctuary cities” bill that was signed into law this year.

President Donald Trump has made it clear he does not welcome immigrants to the U.S. He’s promised to build a border wall, signed executive orders banning travel to the U.S. by people from certain countries, and most recently has held hostage hundreds of thousands of immigrants protected under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals in an effort to pass other hardline immigration proposals.

For undocumented workers who dare to travel outside the Valley for farmwork, the stakes are high. If caught by immigration authorities, they could be separated from their families and sent back to their home countries where they have fewer economic opportunities and may face violence, said Daniela Dwyer, managing attorney for Texas RioGrande Legal Aid’s farmworker program.

Jen Reel

“I have heard of workers deciding not to migrate out of the Valley to migratory jobs they used to take,” she said, giving the example of one “migratory stream” that once saw immigrants harvesting crops through Texas and into the Midwest. That stream, and others like it, are in jeopardy. “I have heard of some people, especially because they’re concerned about the checkpoints leading out of the Valley, deciding not to migrate.”

There’s at least one immigration checkpoint on three major highways leading out of the Valley: U.S. 281, U.S. 77 and U.S. 83.

The H-2A visa program, which allows employers to hire foreign nationals for temporary agricultural jobs, is designed to alleviate such labor shortages. But some of the growers interviewed by the Observer said the program’s requirements — that employers provide transportation to the jobsite and nearby housing — are too expensive, and the paperwork that comes with participating in the federal program is a hassle. Despite the fact that Texas has more agricultural production than almost any other state, it doesn’t even break the top 10 in certified H-2A workers.  

This month, U.S. Representative Robert Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican,proposed a bill that would create a new visa program, called the H-2C, that would allow workers to stay in the U.S. for longer but would not require employers to provide transportation and shelter. The bill has been met by opposition from both pro- and anti-immigrant groups. Immigration hawks fear that allowing laborers to work in the country for longer than a year might encourage them to overstay their welcome, while farmworker advocates say the bill would further erode workers’ rights.

Bloomberg reported that a markup on the bill was scheduled for October 4, but pressure from an anti-immigrant group has stalled the measure. Meanwhile, Democrats have introduced their own legislation that would revamp the visa system and offer undocumented farmworkers a path to citizenship.

The post Immigrant Workers in Texas Could Fill Farm Vacancies, but They’re Trapped in the Valley appeared first on The Texas Observer.

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Texas Cities Embrace a Softer Approach to Pot Possession as State Reforms Stall

State Rep. David Simpson speaks to the Texas House.  Patrick Michels

Remember David Simpson? He was a peculiar kind of conservative lawmaker, about as fundamentalist Christian as they come, while also passionately articulating the Christian case for legal weed at the Texas Legislature.

“The Bible warns about excessive drinking, eating and sleeping,” Simpson wrote, “but it doesn’t ban the activities or the substances or conditions associated with them — alcohol, food and fatigue. Elsewhere, feasting and wine are recognized as blessings from God.”

Simpson’s House Bill 2165, which would have purged any mention of marijuana from state law and left the plant totally unregulated, actually helped make 2015 a banner year for pot reform in Texas. While HB 2165 didn’t pass, Simpson’s bill was one of two measures decriminalizing cannabis that session that got enough votes to make it out of a legislative committee — the first time pot bills had ever cleared a major hurdle in the state lawmaking process. The most significant victory that session came when Governor Greg Abbott signed Texas’ first, extremely limited medical marijuana law. Reformers figured they’d build on those successes in the 2017 legislative session.

Instead, as Heather Fazio with the Texas Marijuana Policy Project put it, “2017 turned out to be a circus.” With the Texas Legislature fixated on “sanctuary cities” and “bathroom bills,” the clock simply ran out on marijuana reform, despite what Fazio called unprecedented support from conservative lawmakers.

At a state legislative committee this past session, families hold up photos of their kids who suffer from debilitating ailments, who they say could be helped by legalizing medical marijuana.  Sophie Novack

But amid state inaction, and with much less notice, reform has finally started to take root at the local level. Over the past year, officials in Texas’ biggest counties and cities have embraced policies that blunt the impact of strict marijuana laws that Texas politicians won’t change. Prosecutors in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and elsewhere are increasingly refusing to charge or jail people caught with small amounts of pot.

“How harshly you’re treated for possessing cannabis in Texas now varies city by city, county by county,” Fazio said.

Even though criminal penalties for marijuana possession in Texas remain some of the most draconian and nonsensical in the country, lawmakers actually gave local law enforcement agencies the option to change how they handle small-time pot possession a decade ago. In 2007, the Legislature passed a bill allowing police to give people charged with certain misdemeanor crimes, such as marijuana possession, a court summons instead of taking them to jail. Austin adopted this policy early on, but years after it went into effect the city’s cops were still arresting and jailing three out of four people caught with marijuana.

The so-called cite-and-release law gave police departments the discretion of whether to arrest people for marijuana, but it didn’t erase the possible six-month jail sentence for low-level pot possession in Texas. Over time, however, that kind of punishment has become much less likely in Texas’ largest counties, where prosecutors now generally offer to drop or reduce your charge if you comply with community service, attend a substance abuse class or pay a fine. After mulling it over for years, Bexar County District Attorney Nico Lahood last month announced that the county — home to San Antonio — would couple pre-trial diversion with a cite-and-release policy that keeps low-level marijuana offenders out of jail. Dallas County commissioners voted to adopt the same policy earlier this week.

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg in her office in Houston.  Michael Stravato

In Harris County, the state’s largest jurisdiction, marijuana has been a kind of gateway reform. After making it central to her campaign for office, Harris County DA Kim Ogg announced soon after her swearing-in this year that her prosecutors won’t charge people with misdemeanor pot possession if they take a class and pay a $150 fine. Local officials cheered the county for moving “away from wasteful and inefficient policies of mass incarceration.” Ogg followed up with even more sweeping reforms last month, saying her office would now stop prosecuting so-called “trace cases” involving miniscule amounts of any illegal drug. This week, she outlined even more plans to keep people out of lockup and find them help if necessary. As the Houston Press reports, Ogg called it “more diversion, less jail.”

Fazio sees Harris County as evidence that at least some officials in Texas are starting to see marijuana as the low-hanging fruit of criminal justice reform, something local cops and prosecutors don’t even want to waste their time on anymore. But the result of state inaction, Fazio says, is now an uneven and unfair patchwork of policies across Texas, where the consequences for possessing small amounts of a plant — one that more than half of states have legalized in some form — largely depend on where you live. She says her group will keep pushing for cities and counties to do damage control.

That is, until enough lawmakers in Texas agree with the words of their former colleague David Simpson: “I don’t believe that when God made marijuana he made a mistake government needs to fix.”

The post Texas Cities Embrace a Softer Approach to Pot Possession as State Reforms Stall appeared first on The Texas Observer.

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This man robbed woman who was 9 months pregnant, shot her husband, authorities say

Authorities are searching for a man who they say robbed a pregnant woman as she stood outside her north Harris County apartment complex in September.

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office said the 26-year-old woman saw a man walking toward her in the 900 block of Cypress Station at around 11:00 p.m. on September 10.

The woman, who was nine months pregnant, walked toward her front door, but the man ran up behind her and knocked her down. He then demanded her cellphone.

The woman screamed outside her front door, and her husband who was inside, confronted the robber.

Authorities say the robber pulled a pistol from under his shirt and shot the woman’s husband, striking him in the upper torso.

The robber got away on foot. It’s unclear whether he got away with the cellphone.

The husband drove himself to a hospital and was admitted in stable condition.

The woman had minor cuts. She was transported to an area hospital for observation.

Investigators believe the suspect may live in the area of the robbery. He is described as 5 feet, 6 inches to 5 feet, 7 inches and weighs 150 to 160 pounds. He wore a black hoodie, a black baseball hat, and jeans.

Anyone with information is urged to call the Harris County Sheriff’s Office Robbery unit at 713-274-9210.

Crime Stoppers will pay up to $5,000 for information leading to the charging and/or arrest of the suspect in this case. Information may be reported by calling 713-222-TIPS (8477) or submitted online at www.crime-stoppers.org.

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Ex-KIPP Explore Academy staffer arrested after accusations of child indecency

A former KIPP Explore Academy staff member was arrested Wednesday after being accused of indecency with a child.

Brandon McElveen was fired from the school after the allegations surfaced, according to a letter sent home to parents Monday.

A spokesman for the Victoria County Sheriff’s Office said that McElveen was in custody at the county jail. Houston police said McElveen was arrested by U.S. Marshals on Wednesday night.

It was not immediately clear when McElveen will be brought back to Houston.

Stay with KPRC 2 and Click2Houston.com for the latest on this developing story.

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U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson walks back comments on sexual assault

U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas.

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, on Thursday walked back controversial comments about sexual assault she made a day earlier.

The issue has become a topic of national conversation since dozens of prominent women accused film producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment and assault.

Johnson acknowledged her initial comments on the matter “regarding behavior and attire come from an old school perspective that has shaped how some of us understand the issue.”

The flare-up started on Wednesday, in an interview with the Dallas NBC affiliate.

“I grew up in a time when it was as much the woman’s responsibility as it was a man’s — how you were dressed, what your behavior was,” Johnson said. “I’m from the old school that you can have behaviors that appear to be inviting. It can be interpreted as such. That’s the responsibility, I think, of the female. I think that males have a responsibility to be professional themselves.”

In a follow-up question in the same interview, Johnson insisted she meant for the comments to empower women.

“I think we also need to start talking about the power that women have to control the situation. There’s law enforcement, you can refuse to cooperate with that kind of behavior,” she added. “I think that many times, men get away with this because they are allowed to get away with it by the women.”

Johnson’s Wednesday comments met scathing online criticism, both on news sites and on Twitter.

On Thursday afternoon, her office released a lengthy statement pulling back from those sentiments.

“Sexual assault and harassment has no place in our society,” the statement said. “This is something I believe deeply. And at each turn of my professional life, I have made it my mission to fight for women’s rights. I do not blame the victims of sexual assault for the actions of their assailants.”

Johnson came to Congress in 1992. Democrats branded that cycle “The Year of the Women,” as a reaction to the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee panel that held now-U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings.

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Who is this mystery man? Galveston woman begins search to find apparent veteran’s identity

Angel Tinnon’s search for a children’s book for her step-daughter at a Galveston Goodwill has morphed into a search of an entirely different kind.

Inside a book Tinnon had her eye on, she found two photos.

“I was just shopping at Goodwill in the book section and when I opened up the book, these pictures fell out,” Tinnon said.

Both pictures featured the same young man: In one photo, he wore in a military uniform, and in the other, he wore a suit.

Now, Tinnon is trying to figure out who the mystery man is and when the pictures were taken.

The only other clues offered from the photos are an old-style phone in the background and a couple of numbers on the back of the photos.

Tinnon has since taken to Facebook in hopes of finding the rightful owner of the pictures.

She says she’s moved to do something because her own father served in the military, and she’d want others to do the same for her.

“Anybody who could be related to this man would recognize him, so that way they can go back to the family,” Tinnon said. “I’m sure that they would want pictures like these. I know I would.”

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U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz, Bernie Sanders face off in tax code debate

U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders.

WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, defended the recently unveiled GOP plan to overhaul the tax code in a Wednesday night debate against U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

“This debate is very very simple, Bernie and the Democrats want every one of you to pay more taxes,” Cruz said during the program, which was hosted by CNN. “And the Republicans want to lower the taxes for each and every person watching this debate.”

The Republican tax framework would reduce the number of tax brackets from seven to three at rates of 12 percent, 25 percent and 35 percent, increase the Child Tax Credit and eliminate most itemized deductions as well as the estate tax.

Sanders argued the plan would cut taxes by $1.9 trillion dollars for the wealthiest 1 percent, increase the national debt and cut welfare programs.

“I do not believe that America is about giving tax breaks to the very, very wealthy and cutting life-and-death programs for the working class,” Sanders said.

Cruz, a polished debater who looked comfortable behind the podium, delivered a practiced message that ultimately promoted every aspect of the GOP’s plan.

Sanders said while his plan might raise taxes, it would be so that more people have access to affordable health care, child day care services and better education.

“We are talking about taxes today, but … this isn’t just about taxes, it’s about a vision for America,” Sanders said.

Their respective visions often took the attention away from discussion over the merits of rewriting the tax code throughout the evening, with the moderators often having to redirect the focus back to the questions at hand. The two senators, standing only three feet apart, constantly interrupted one another, waved hands in each other’s faces and made snide comments.

At one point, Cruz told Sanders that he should “curb his enthusiasm,” and that Larry David’s impersonation of him is “spectacular.”

After Cruz replied to an audience question saying repealing the estate tax would encourage more people to keep their businesses open, Sanders paid Cruz a compliment: “That’s a good speech, but it has nothing to do with reality.”

The town hall was a rematch of sorts for Cruz and Sanders after a previous CNN debate in February over health care. Since their respective runs for president in 2016, the two have become megaphones for their brand of party politics.

Republican president leading the country, Cruz said his party must act.

“We have got to deliver on our promise to cut taxes for working families, for small business, for farmers, for ranchers,” Cruz said. “I’ll tell you what I believe: that you know better how to spend your hard-earned money than the government does.”

Before Congress can even take up the details of rewriting the tax code, they must pass a budget. That vote may come as soon as the end of this week.

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A look back at Colt Stadium, the home of the Colt 45s

As Astros fans cheer on the team’s quest for the World Series, memories from the team’s early days tell a tale of humble beginnings, in what marked Major League Baseball’s first expansion.

Before they were called the Astros, the Houston Colt 45s marked the Space City’s first foray into the national league. From 1962 to 1964, the Colts, as they were also known, played at Colt Stadium, a temporary space, south of what became the Astrodome.

Houston Astros legend Larry Dierker played at Colt Stadium, first as a pitcher for the Houston Colt 45s.

“I was 17 years old when I got there, fresh out of Rookie League,” Dierker said.

Dierker pitched one game at Colt Stadium, on Sept. 22, 1964 — his 18th birthday.

“I didn’t think I was going to get to pitch, but my birthday came up on the 22nd, and so I guess they had an idea to promote it. So, I got to pitch,” Dierker said.

These days, one can find Colts memorabilia here and there. Todd Nelkin, a collector of items from baseball’s past, gave KPRC2 a look at his collection.

“25,271 see Houston wallop the Mets in National League debut,” Nelkin read from a newspaper from The Colt 45s first game against another expansion team, the New York Mets.

“There’s Colt Stadium. Look, it was built shadeless,” he said, turning through the pages of an old program.

Shadeless, hot, and a mosquito trap made Colt fans diehards and players ready for anything.

“Colt Stadium didn’t even have a canopy over it. I’m not sure how they designed an open air stadium in Houston without some sort of shade,” said Mike Acosta, manager, authentication, Houston Astros.

After two years, construction of the Astrodome was completed and the Colt 45s became the Astros.

Dierker had very few memories from the old stadium. Still, he remembers what most do about it, as he cheers the current team on to success.

“It was so hot and humid here. And I remember that.”

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After Failing to Prop Up Coal in Texas, Rick Perry is Trying Again Nationwide

Rick Perry
Governor Rick Perry speaks at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland.  Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons

In late 2005, then-Governor Rick Perry was in the middle of a protracted battle with a coalition of environmentalists, renewable energy advocates, mayors and local leaders. TXU, the state’s largest utility, had announced that it wanted to build 11 new coal plants. At the time, natural gas and coal made up about 46 and 39 percent, respectively, of the energy mix of Texas’ main grid. The fracking boom had not yet hit Texas, and wind power provided a tiny percentage of the state’s energy needs.

TXU was betting big on coal having a bright future. John Wilder, the utility’s controversial CEO, claimed the new investments would shield Texans from spikes in natural gas prices, in particular because the volatile commodity’s price had quadrupled and experts projected the low prices of the 1990s would not return. The U.S. also had an abundant coal supply, he noted.

Perry loved the plan. It probably didn’t hurt that he was running for re-election at the time and had received about $200,000 from TXU since 2000. On the campaign trail, Perry claimed the coal plants would be cleaner than the national average and ordered the state environmental agency to expedite their review.

Now, 12 years later, Perry and TXU’s plan to invest in coal seems shortsighted. While TXU is moving away from coal investments, as energy secretary Perry is continuing to prop up old and dirty coal plants at a time when scientists are warning that countries need to reduce carbon pollution to stave off the worst effects of climate change.

Texas’ energy mix  Data courtesy ERCOT/Graphic by Naveena Sadasivam

Natural gas prices, of course, dropped considerably and coal has become more expensive to mine. Today, coal only makes up about 29 percent of the energy mix in Texas and the cost of building wind farms has decreased dramatically. Last week, Luminant, a subsidiary of Vistra Energy formerly known as TXU, citing “an oversupplied renewable generation market and low natural gas prices,” announced that it will retire three coal plants — Monticello, Big Brown and Sandow — by early 2018. Once those plants shut down, for the first time, wind will generate more power in the state than coal.

Ultimately, in 2006, facing pressure from environmental groups and business interests, TXU dropped its plan to build eight of the 11 coal plants. Perry’s order to fast-track the environmental reviews was also blocked by a court. And now one of the coal plants Perry wanted to see built — Sandow 5 in Milam County — is among those facing closure. Another, Oak Grove Plant Project in Robertson County, has low cash flows. The plants began operations in 2009 and 2010, respectively.

But Perry doesn’t appear to have learned from his experience in Texas. As energy secretary, Perry has proposed guaranteeing profits to plants in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and Midwest that stockpile coal. Perry claims the plan is necessary for grid reliability and cites the 2014 polar vortex as an example of why the government should subsidize coal plants. If the plan is implemented, it will cost taxpayers between $800 million and $3.8 billion every year through 2030 regardless of whether the plants are making money, according to one estimate.

“It’s basically putting your thumb on the scale in favor of coal and nuclear plants,” said David Schlissel, director of resource planning at the Institute for Energy Economics & Financial Analysis. “It’s a gift from the Trump administration to their friends in the coal industry.”

For Perry, the costs are secondary. “I think you take costs into account, but what’s the cost of freedom?” he testified before the House energy subcommittee recently. “What’s the cost to keep America free? I’m not sure I want to leave that up to the free market.”

Even if Perry’s plan to guarantee profits to the coal and nuclear industry is implemented, he won’t be helping Texas coal plants. That’s because the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), Texas’ primary grid, is the only major wholesale electricity market that doesn’t fall under the supervision of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which will be responsible for implementing Perry’s plan.

In 2016, Schlissel authored a report that seems prescient now. He analyzed the economics of running seven Texas coal plants and predicted that the Monticello and Big Brown plants were bleeding money. Continued operation of the two “will be extremely unprofitable for Luminant,” he wrote.

Graph from the Institute for Energy Economics & Financial Analysis

Schlissel based his analysis on two main drivers: the increasing cost of producing coal-fired power and the decreasing price of power on the energy market. As natural gas plants and renewables produce energy at a cheaper rate, there’s less demand for coal-fired power. Since the cost of operating and maintaining coal plants doesn’t change dramatically when they produce less power, utilities then make less money per megawatt of coal energy. The double whammy has made coal uneconomic in Texas, Schlissel said.

“What’s killing these coal plants is not the Obama war on coal,” said Schlissel. “It’s the natural gas’ war on coal and all the wind available on [the grid].”

Schlissel wasn’t alone in predicting Luminant’s decision to shut down the three coal plants. In a 2016 report, ERCOT projected that between 8,000 and 18,000 megawatts of coal-fired plants will be shut down between 2017 and 2031. The group modeled eight scenarios and found that in all cases the Monticello and Big Brown plants would be shuttered.

Robbie Searcy, a spokesperson for ERCOT, said her group will study whether the three Luminant plants are needed for reliability and will make determinations about them by December. Luminant has said it hopes to close the plants by early 2018, but when they’re shut down will depend on ERCOT’s recommendation.

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Potential new murder confession delays Texas serial killer’s execution

Larry Swearingen (left) and Anthony Shore

The execution of Houston serial killer Anthony Shore was rescheduled hours away from his pending death after officials began to worry he would confess to another murder.

Shore, 55, was set for execution after 6 p.m. Wednesday, but the district attorney from Montgomery County sent a plea to Gov. Greg Abbott and Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, asking for more time to look into rumors that Shore would confess to a murder in which another death row inmate was convicted.

“This office is in possession of evidence suggesting that Shore has conspired with death row inmate Larry Ray Swearingen and intends to falsely claim responsibility for the capital murder of Melissa Trotter — the crime for which Swearingen is currently scheduled to be executed on November 16, 2017,” Montgomery County DA Brett Ligon said in his letter to Abbott.

Ogg filed a motion to withdraw Shore’s execution date after receiving Ligon’s request. It has been reset for Jan. 18. She said in a statement that Shore’s execution is still “inevitable.”

“It is always the first responsibility of prosecutors to see that justice is done,” she said.

In his letter, Ligon explained that a folder containing items on the Trotter murder were found in Shore’s cell this July. When his office discovered this in September, he called Shore’s lawyer, Knox Nunnally, who said Shore would answer questions from the Harris County District Attorney’s Office regarding other murders on the condition that his written responses would only be revealed by his lawyer after his execution.

A Montgomery County investigator also interviewed a death row visitor, who said Shore told her he murdered Trotter and would not let Swearingen be executed for it, Ligon wrote.

“We remain absolutely certain of Swearingen’s guilt of Melissa Trotter’s murder, but permitting Shore to claim responsibility for that crime after his execution would leave a cloud over the judicial proceedings in Swearingen’s case,” he wrote.

Shore was known in Houston as the “Tourniquet Killer.” In 2003, he confessed to four murders of young women and girls in the 1980s and 1990s, strangling them with rope or cord and leaving their unclothed bodies behind buildings or in a field.

Swearingen was convicted in the death of 19-year-old Trotter, after her decomposing body was found in a forest nearly a month after she was last seen with Swearingen, according to court documents. He has insisted on his innocence in the murder.

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Texas court halts execution to review claims that co-defendant lied at trial

Clinton Young was sentenced to death in the 2001 murder of Samuel Petrey.

The execution of a man who insists he was framed in a 2001 murder was halted by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Wednesday, one week before he was set to die.

The court sent the case of Clinton Young back to trial court to look into claims that Young’s co-defendant, a main witness for the state at trial, lied in his testimony. Young’s lawyers claim four jailhouse witnesses have sworn they heard the co-defendant, David Page, brag about killing Samuel Petrey and blaming it on Young.

“I’m very grateful to the Criminal Court of Appeals for granting this stay and for giving me a chance to prove my innocence in court,” Young told his attorneys on the phone, according to a statement.

In November 2001, Young and Page, ages 18 and 20, took part in a drug-related crime spree that involved fatally shooting Doyle Douglas and Samuel Petrey and stealing their cars over two days on opposite ends of the state, according to court documents. Douglas was shot in Longview on Nov. 24. The next day, Petrey was killed in Midland, more than 450 miles away.

Young was convicted and sentenced to death in Petrey’s murder in 2003, with Page testifying against him. Page took a plea deal and was given 30 years in prison under an aggravated kidnapping conviction, according to court filings. He is currently eligible for parole but was denied release last year.

At trial, Page said Young shot Petrey, but Young has said he was sleeping off a methamphetamine high when the man was killed. Seeking to prove his innocence and stop his upcoming execution, Young’s lawyers filed an appeal earlier this month claiming Page’s testimony was false based on the new witness statements. The statements all include Page mentioning how the gloves he was wearing while shooting Petrey allowed him to blame Young for the murder.

The appellate court sent the case back to trial court to resolve this new claim of false testimony.

“We are confident the court will conclude that Page lied under oath to save himself and that our client is innocent of the crime that put him on death row,” said Margo Rocconi, one of Young’s lawyers, in a statement.

The Midland District Attorney’s Office did not immediately respond to comment on Young’s case Wednesday.

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