Category Archives: Local

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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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.

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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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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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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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How much are property taxes in Houston going down next year?

The Houston City Council on Wednesday voted to lower the city’s property tax rate, despite Mayor Sylvester Turner’s call to hold the rate steady.

The council voted to decrease the 2018 tax rate from 58.642 cents to 58.421 cents per $100 of assessed property value. That means that on a home valued at $200,000, the owner would pay about $4 less in taxes on that property.

Turner had asked that the rate be kept flat for the upcoming year. Alan Bernstein, Turner’s spokesman, said keeping the rate the same would have resulted in an increase of $7.8 million in revenue for the city, as property values were projected to increase.

However, some expressed concerns about staying below the voter-mandated revenue cap. Other council members said they were worried that property owners affected by Hurricane Harvey will have their property devalued, but would still be paying the same tax rate on the previous value.

The decision comes after Turner backed off his call for an emergency tax hike to help cover the costs of Harvey recovery efforts.

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Three teens charged with murder after missing teen’s body found

A 17-year-old boy was arrested and charged Tuesday in a Bay City teen’s death.

Michael Allen Trevino Jr. 17, has been charged with murder. A 16-year-old and another teen were detained on the same charges.

The body of Devin Lee Davalos was found Friday during a separate investigation of a robbery at a local school, according to police.

Davalos had been reported missing Thursday by his family. Police said his body was recovered near a boat ramp in Brazoria County. His vehicle was found burned out near Old Van Vleck Road in Bay City.

Bay City police developed information on Davalos’ whereabouts after an after-hours aggravated robbery Monday at a Bay City Independent School District school campus.

Officers served a warrant in connection to the case at a residence in the 2000 Block of Herreth Avenue.

Investigators said they determined several suspects drove Davalos in his car and dumped his body.

Texas Rangers are assisting in the investigation.

A GoFundMe account has been created to help Davalos’ family pay for his funeral expenses. Click link to donate.

Anyone with information about the case is asked to call the Bay City Police Department at 979-245-8500.

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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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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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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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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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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?”

https://www.flickr.com/photos/dopey/

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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