Category Archives: Local

Trial dates set for ex-deputy, husband charged in John Hernandez’s death

The trial dates have been set for a former Harris County deputy and her husband who were arrested in connection with the death of John Hernandez.

Chauna Thompson, who was fired from the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, and her husband, Terry Thompson, were in court Thursday, where a judge set the trial dates – May 18, 2018, for Terry Thompson, and June 1, 2018, for Chauna Thompson.

There was a heavy presence of law enforcement at the courthouse as the Thompsons arrived. The couple ignored questions from reporters as they walked to a waiting elevator.

Family, friends and supporters of Hernandez were also present. They said they believe the trials could take up to two years to complete, and are willing to be there every step of the way.

The Thompsons were each charged with murder in connection with the May 28 confrontation with Hernandez outside of a Denny’s restaurant. Video of the incident appeared to show Terry Thompson using a chokehold and lying on top of Hernandez while Chauna Thompson held down one of Hernandez’s arms.

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Cities race to annex land before new Texas law goes into effect Dec. 1

A road sign outside of Mesquite city limits in Dallas County. Mesquite has rushed to annex land outside its city limits before Dec. 1, 2017, when a new law would require some cities to get the consent of residents before annexing their property.

DALLAS COUNTY — On a recent afternoon, Michelle Singleton played with her dogs behind her house. The pets’ barks and the chirps of crickets were the only sounds on the 15-acre property, which Singleton and her husband, Stan, bought more than 30 years ago. There, outside the North Texas city of Mesquite, they have hosted bonfires, hunted doves and watched their three children grow up.

But now, Mesquite plans to annex their land, and the Singletons are afraid it will ruin their way of life.

Mesquite is among several cities across Texas, including McKinney and Pearland, that have tried to annex land before a new law goes into effect Dec. 1, requiring certain cities to get the consent of a majority of property owners before annexing their land. City governments have said they are responding to the needs of urban growth and normal development. But residents say they just want to be left alone.

“We’ve survived this long without them,” Michelle Singleton said of city officials. “And we don’t need them to survive now.”

Against the clock

City officials in Mesquite and Pearland acknowledge the law has rushed their annexation plans but say annexation had been on their radar long before Gov. Greg Abbott signed the bill into law in August. Mesquite Mayor Stan Pickett said developers who own land outside the city asked early this year to be annexed in order to provide city services to future subdivisions.

Mesquite City Council members added that the annexation was aimed at controlling inevitable development in the area, not taking over current residents’ homes. The city has dramatically reduced the amount of land under consideration for annexation in response to the negative outcry from private landowners. During an Oct. 26 public meeting, Mesquite City Council member Bruce Archer said if he could annex land without any independent homes, he would.

“Our desire has never been to take in a bunch of homes out here,” Archer said at the meeting. “But I think all of our desire is to do something very nice out here and to make sure things we don’t want don’t come out here.”

Pickett said Mesquite has reached out to residents, offering city staff to help them navigate the annexation.

But state Rep. Lance Gooden, R-Terrell, a House sponsor of the new law, Senate Bill 6, said he and his constituents in Kaufman County would not negotiate with city hall because “they don’t have anything we want.” Gooden said the point of the measure — which applies to cities in nine of the state’s most populous counties, plus Henderson County — was to protect Texans who do not want to be annexed by neighboring cities.

“This is the first issue in my three terms of office that I have ever seen 100 percent of people on the same side,” Gooden said. “There’s not one person in this area in Kaufman County that wants to be annexed.”

City codes on country homes

In the Houston area, Caye and Gerard Hauser are in a situation similar to the Singletons’. The couple first moved to a plot of land outside of Pearland almost 40 years ago to escape the city and start afresh. They, like most of their neighbors, started with a small mobile home on a few acres and eventually constructed a house.

Like the Singletons, the Hausers have raised their children on their land and hope to pass it on to future generations. Caye Hauser said they also have livestock and fear annexation could force urban codes on a rural setting.

“These are not just places that we just popped out two or three years ago and lived and hoped that somebody would annex us,” Hauser said. “We’ve been out here. And we’ve been surviving on our own all this time.”

Mesquite Mayor Stan Pickett speaks during a public meeting on annexation on Oct. 26, 2017.
Mesquite Mayor Stan Pickett speaks during a public meeting on annexation on Oct. 26, 2017. Laura Buckman for The Texas Tribune

Residents around Mesquite have similar concerns over potential city regulations. At the city council meeting about annexation last month, property owner Mack Beam said that after his land was annexed into Mesquite 11 years ago, officials cited him for violating codes based on “city living.”

“Within 72 hours after we were annexed, we got our first heaping helping of city services, which were code enforcement people coming in up and down the road out there because our hay meadows weren’t cut to suit the city,” Beam said.

Pickett said that was before his mayoral tenure and that he has no desire to change people’s ways of life. Pickett added that it’s “just not practical” to enforce the same codes used in the Mesquite city center out in rural areas.

In Pearland, however, council member Keith Ordeneaux had a different take. In an email to Hauser’s family obtained by the Tribune, Ordeneaux disputed Hauser’s characterization of their land as “country.” While he said people in annexed areas will have to abide by city codes, prohibiting bonfires and fireworks, he disagrees there will be a serious effects on residents, as the land has already developed into a suburban area. Ordeneaux said in an email to the Tribune that the land had always been subject to possible annexation and the new law simply sped up the process.

Several residents have said annexation will increase their taxes for services they will not use. Property taxes for both Mesquite and Pearland are about 69 cents for every $100 of property value, so about $690 per year for the average Mesquite household, in addition to county and school district taxes.

Ordeneaux added that areas planned for annexation already receive some city functions, such as fire and emergency medical services, without paying city taxes.

“I … do not understand the argument of country living ending once you are annexed into a city,” Ordeneaux wrote in the email to the Hausers. “Besides having to pay city taxes, what concerns do you have about your way of life?”

The state intervenes

The office of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has intervened in some annexation efforts. The office sent a letter on Nov. 6 to officials of the North Texas city of McKinney, arguing they did not properly follow state annexation procedure. McKinney has since canceled its annexation plans.

Pickett received a similar letter on Nov. 9 from Paxton’s office, arguing Mesquite may have failed to properly notify residents and hold public meetings with sufficient notice. Some property owners said they never received notifications and learned of the annexation efforts through friends and neighbors. Pickett said the city mailed notifications to property owners in early September and posted announcements on its website, as required by state law.

Shortly after Paxton’s office sent the letter to Pickett, a state district court ordered Mesquite to delay its annexation efforts in Kaufman County. But the order does not apply to Dallas County, including the Singletons’ property.

This week, a Texas appeals court denied a request from Mesquite to cancel the order. A delay could cause the city to miss the Dec. 1 deadline — precisely what residents and Gooden hope will happen.

“They say you can’t fight city hall,” Gooden said. “But we are, and we’re winning and we plan to win.”

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Man fights to prove he’s alive after bank reports him as deceased

Jose Antonio Lopez is not only alive and well, he invited Channel 2 into his home in Cypress to prove reports of his death by a credit card company have been greatly exaggerated.

“I even asked them, Synchrony Bank. I said, ‘Do you have on record my death certificate?’ And even, ‘You don’t have a death certificate because you are talking to me on the phone. How are you going to be talking to a dead person?'” he said.

For Lopez and his family, the last 10 months have been no laughing matter.

He showed us paperwork from Synchrony Bank — from which he has several credit cards — that mistakenly reported him as deceased in January.

The mix up has caused Lopez’s credit rating to plummet because over the past several months his accounts have accumulated interest and late fees — but he couldn’t pay them because he was listed as dead.

“They have charged me interest, they have charged me late fees,” he said. “And like I say, they report on the credit bureaus charge off, which is a negative.”

Ironically, Lopez is a loan officer and understands the implications of a poor credit rating. All he’s asking for now is a clean slate.

“Is somebody there? Anybody that I can call or anything that I can do to fix this situation?” Lopez asked. “Because it’s really affecting me. Affecting me … and I don’t know what else to do.”

Channel 2 reached out to Synchrony Bank on Monday evening and are waiting for a response on Lopez’s situation.

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Scam costs Friendswood man thousands of dollars

It’s a scam that started with a simple voicemail followed by a phone call.

The scam ultimately cost a Friendswood senior citizen thousands of dollars.

The victim who was scammed said, “A little over $12,000. It even hurts me to say it.”

The caller said they were looking to refund the victim $500 from a software company that was going under that he had recently purchased a product from.

But in order to do that, they needed access to his computer.

“Of course he had a code and everything, to get in the computer I had to type in the code he gave me, my computer. Which meant he was in there,” said the scam victim.

Little did the victim know the scammers had also accessed his personal information and ultimately his bank account.

Something else the victim says he didn’t realize, the scammers moved $5,000 from his savings into his checking account claiming they had deposited.

The victim said, “I made a mistake it’s suppose to be $500, you’ve got to send me that $4,500 right away.”

The victim was then told to purchase thousands in gift cards to send the money back to them.

And it happened more than once.

“I was scared to the point I was trembling. I felt like if I don’t do what he tells me, I’m going to get wiped out,” the victim said.

When the victim finally realized it was all just a big scam, he contacted authorities and froze his bank accounts, but not before being out a lot of money.

He now has a warning for others.

“They’re very good at what they do and people need to be aware that this stuff is going on,” the victim said.

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Another woman accuses former President George H.W. Bush of groping

Another woman has stepped forward to accuse former President George H.W. Bush of inappropriately touching her.

Roslyn Corrigan told Time magazine that she was 16 when Bush grabbed her buttocks as she posed for a photo with him in 2003 at a gathering of CIA officers north of Houston. She attended the event with her mother and father, who was an intelligence analyst.

“My initial action was absolute horror. I was really, really confused,” she told the magazine. “The first thing I did was look at my mom and, while he was still standing there, I didn’t say anything. What does a teenager say to the ex-president of the United States? Like, ‘Hey dude, you shouldn’t have touched me like that?'”

A spokesman for the 41st president, Jim McGrath, said in a statement Monday that Bush regrets any offensive actions.

“George Bush simply does not have it in his heart to knowingly cause anyone distress, and he again apologizes to anyone he offended during a photo op,” he said.

Time spoke with seven people who said they had been told by Corrigan about the encounter in the years afterward.

Corrigan is at least the fifth woman to claim Bush groped her. Time reports that a sixth woman, a retired journalist in Pennsylvania, posted to Facebook last month that Bush touched her from behind during a 2004 photo opportunity.

The stories came to light after television actress Heather Lind said last month that Bush, now 93, touched her from behind and told a dirty joke while they were posing for a 2014 photo. McGrath at the time explained that Bush has been in a wheelchair for about five years “so his arm falls on the lower waist of people with whom he takes pictures.” Bush, who served as president from 1989 to 1993, has vascular parkinsonism, a rare syndrome that mimics Parkinson’s disease, and he uses a wheelchair for mobility.

“To try to put people at ease, the president routinely tells the same joke – and on occasion, he has patted women’s rears in what he intended to be a good-natured manner,” McGrath said.

Bush was standing alongside Corrigan for the photo taken in 2003. McGrath’s statement Monday did not elaborate.

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Student sent home from school bruised, claims PE teacher slammed him onto concrete

The mother of a child with special needs alleges a PE teacher attacked her son, slamming him onto concrete, leaving bruises from his face to his hands.

“This scar that’s right here. He has scratches on his chest,” said Ashley Degrate, describing the bruises over her son, Cavontrell Smith.

Smith, 10, is enrolled in fifth grade at the Aldine Education Center at 1702 Aldine Bender Road. The center is considered an alternative school. Cavontrell is there, his mother says, because of a behavioral and emotional disorder.

“Whenever he has an outbreak from his emotions they’re supposed to be trained to deal with it in a proper manner,” Degrate said.

It was not her son that caused a problem, Degrate alleges. Rather, it was a PE teacher, who allegedly whispered obscenities into Cavontrell’s ear during the attack. Cavontrell said the attack occurred after a run-in with another student on the playground.

“Blood was coming out of my eye because he hit me multiple times and then when I put my hand here there was a big old knot,” Cavontrell said.

The alleged attack occurred Thursday. Degrate told KPRC2 the school’s principal called her to tell her about Cavontrell’s injuries, but left details short.

“He told me that my son had fractures and bruises on his face that it might look bad but it’s not as bad as it looks,” she said.

Degrate said what the principal told her on the phone could not have been further from the truth. She said she saw the extent of her son’s injuries once the school bus dropped him off at the end of the day.

“When he got off the bus — oh my god!” she said.

A spokesman for Aldine ISD released a statement to KPRC2, which read, “Aldine ISD is aware of the allegation and the incident is currently under investigation. Once the investigation is complete, the district will take appropriate action.”

While the school district would not go into further detail, Degrate said the teacher was suspended, a ruling Degrate thinks was not strong enough.

“I just want them to take action. It’s not right. Nobody’s child should have to deal with this. No parent should have to deal with this. It’s just not right,” Degrate said.

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Police dogs trained to ignore marijuana

Special K-9 Unit training dogs in San Leon

Police dogs in Rifle, Colorado, are being trained to ignore marijuana in order to sniff out other drugs.

Departments all over the state will soon be taking part in this program, and the older dogs, trained to track pot, will soon be phased out.

Rifle police officer Garrett Duncan spent the last 10 years working alongside their top drug-sniffing dog, Tulo. Duncan said Tulo is so good he even has his own publicity pictures.

Of course, as they say, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks and it seems Tulo cannot be retrained to ignore marijuana.

Now Jax and Makai will have their moment. These young and very cute puppies can sniff out drugs without getting excited over the smell of pot.

“We’re just not going to train them with marijuana so they won’t know the odor. They won’t have any reason to indicate or tell us there is marijuana around cause they won’t know,” Duncan said.

Read more:

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Former HPD officer accused of tampering with evidence makes first court appearance

Julissa Diaz has gone from HPD officer to former officer after she was accused of tampering with evidence related to narcotics.

Diaz made her first court appearance early Friday morning.

A source told Channel 2 News that a SWAT team arrested the 11-year veteran, who lives in the city of South Houston, during her overnight shift Thursday morning.

Thirty-seven-year-old Diaz was no ordinary officer. According to the Houston Police Officer’s Union, she was recognized as Patrol Officer of the Month in 2015 for apprehending two major drug dealers during a routine traffic stop. Her commendation said Diaz “has always demonstrated a passion for making a difference and her dedication to duty.”

According to our source, Diaz worked the night shift at HPD’s Clear Lake Station. She was arrested by SWAT officers after a lengthy investigation by HPD’s narcotics division.

In response, Chief Art Acevedo said in a statement:

“Ms. Diaz’s betrayal of the public trust and oath of office is inconsistent with the dedication of the men and women of the Houston Police Department (HPD) and their tireless, honorable service.

“While we cannot overstate our depth of disappointment, we take solace in the fact the investigation that led to Ms. Diaz’s arrest was conducted by men and women of the HPD, the same organization and co-workers she betrayed.

“We look forward to working with the Harris County District Attorney’s office to ensure she is held to the highest level of accountability under the law. Ms. Diaz’s peace officer powers have been suspended and she has been placed on administrative leave pending the completion of an internal affairs investigation.

“I urge anyone with information regarding her criminal misconduct or misconduct by any member of the Houston Police Department to contact us.”

Diaz is being held in a Harris county jail on $100,000 bond. Charged with tampering, fabricating evidence, she is set to appear in court again on Nov. 13.

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Rent-to-own complaints spur investigation by federal agency

A Rent-A-Center in Newport News, Virginia on Sept. 22, 2017. 

A U.S. government consumer watchdog agency is investigating the $8 billion rent-to-own industry and related companies over questions about unfair, deceptive and abusive practices, NerdWallet has learned.

Investigators for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau are asking specifically about Rent-A-Center, the nation’s largest rent-to-own enterprise with more than 2,400 stores selling furniture and appliances mostly to low-income Americans.

A months-long investigation by The Texas Tribune and NerdWallet last month found that rent-to-own companies have used a little-known Texas law to press criminal charges against thousands of customers who fell behind in their payments in Texas and other states.

NerdWallet also reported in a joint investigation with Raycom Media that Rent-A-Center customers nationwide have complained their credit had been harmed and they were badgered by bill collectors over accounts they had paid off.

Five days after the stories appeared, Rent-A-Center’s top executive, Steven L. Pepper, resigned amid a continuing power struggle on the board of directors. Shares of the publicly traded company, headquartered in Plano, Texas, have declined nearly 75 percent in the last four years as it has struggled to increase revenue.

The CFPB sent Rent-A-Center a civil investigative demand in late July, requesting details about customer accounts it had sold to a debt buyer and other information about its business practices.

Investigators have interviewed people familiar with Rent-A-Center’s record-keeping. They asked about the company’s ability to credit customer payments properly and to report accurate information about consumers to credit reporting agencies, say people the CFPB interviewed.

Bureau staff members have also inquired about complaints that Rent-A-Center store managers pocketed consumers’ money instead of applying it to their accounts, one person interviewed by the agency told NerdWallet. He asked not to be identified because of a nondisclosure agreement he signed with the CFPB.

The CFPB declined to comment on its investigation.

Errors in customer accounts

The NerdWallet-Raycom investigation detailed the account errors and mistreatment of customers, including people who say they were threatened with criminal prosecution and had their doors kicked in. NerdWallet provided guidance to consumers harmed by the company.

Shareholders filed a federal lawsuit against the company in December 2016 over problems with its system for tracking customer payments. The complaint said Rent-A-Center had difficulty starting a new point-of-sale system in 2015, causing “severe harm” to company operations.

The company introduced the system despite repeated internal warnings about its flaws, leading to outages that caused customers to fall behind on their rental agreements, the shareholders allege in court filings. Rent-A-Center conceded its system had flaws. The company failed in an attempt to get the lawsuit dismissed.

A former senior information technology employee who helped with the rollout told NerdWallet that Rent-A-Center’s system had glitches that could show up in any account.

“There was no way to assure the veracity of any specific transaction,” said the former employee, who asked not to be named because of a nondisclosure agreement he signed with the company.

Gina Hethcock, a Rent-A-Center spokeswoman, said in an email this week that the company had received an inquiry from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau regarding a prior debt sale. She said the accounts involved in the debt sale, and the CFPB’s inquiry, are unrelated to the rollout of the point-of-sale system the company uses in its 2,400 stores.

Rent-A-Center has long pushed to keep federal regulations at bay, spending more than $7.2 million lobbying Congress in the past decade, according to data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Rent-A-Center petitioned the CFPB in August to modify or set aside its investigative demand. The company argued in a 30-page letter that the purpose of the investigation, and the broad nature of the bureau’s questions, exceeded the agency’s jurisdiction. The CFPB responded by agreeing to modify certain questions and document requests but said it has the authority to investigate the company.

Many of the complaints against Rent-A-Center detailed in the NerdWallet-Raycom report came from customers who signed lease agreements with the company for furniture sold at independently owned furniture stores.

Those transactions occurred through a Rent-A-Center subsidiary known as Acceptance Now, which operates inside nearly 1,300 furniture showrooms, including Ashley Furniture and Rooms to Go. In those showrooms, customers pick out furniture they want, but instead of buying it from the store, Acceptance Now buys it for them and leases it back to them. This process removes the store from any responsibility in disputes.

The Federal Trade Commission received 2,779 complaints about Rent-A-Center and Acceptance Now between January 2016 and June 2017.

Customers say credit reports were affected

Nearly one-third of the 674 consumers who filed complaints against Acceptance Now said they had asked the company for a record of their payment history or verification they owed money.

The company’s representatives failed to provide it, often saying they had no way of doing so, former customers said.

Ten percent of those 674 customers said errors ended up on their credit reports.

In late 2014, as Rent-A-Center was expanding its Acceptance Now program, it deemed more than 18,000 accounts seriously in arrears and sold them to a debt buyer.

At least 20 percent of the debts were invalid, says Branden Vigliotti, president of Lismore Holdings, who purchased the accounts. Customer after customer told collection agents he worked with that they had paid off their debt, sometimes voluntarily, sometimes under duress, sometimes as the result of a civil court action, Vigliotti said.

Vigliotti is in mediation with the company, which has disputed his claims.

Companies that mishandle customer records can be subject to penalties by state or federal regulators, says Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine.

Companies have also been fined or forced to offer restitution to consumers for violating the law. The investigative demand Rent-A-Center received says the purpose of the CFPB’s investigation is to determine if rent-to-own and related companies have violated the Consumer Financial Protection Act, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act or the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

DeWine led a 2015 push by state attorneys general to force credit reporting agencies to fix inaccuracies on consumers’ credit reports.

He urged consumers who have been harmed by Rent-A-Center to contact their state attorney general.

“This is an industry that needs regulation,” he said in an interview. “This is an industry that is really hurting poor people.”

Jill Riepenhoff, an investigative producer at Raycom Media, contributed to this report.

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HPD officer accused of tampering with evidence

A Houston police officer who works the night shift at the Clear Lake patrol station has found herself on the wrong side of the law.

HPD officer Julissa Guzman Diaz is behind bars in the city jail. She’s charged with tampering with evidence related to narcotics.

Sources told KPRC 2 Diaz was arrested early Thursday morning while on duty after a lengthy investigation by HPD’s narcotics division.

We are working to confirm the details and specifics of her arrest with Houston police.

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Joel Osteen impersonator breaches security at Los Angeles event

A Joel Osteen impersonator is making waves after a video he posted went viral.

The impersonator is a comedian — pretending to be Osteen at an Osteen event in Los Angeles last month — but no one is laughing after an apparent security breach at the LA Forum.

In the video, you witness comedian and Osteen-lookalike Michael Klimkowski getting free parking and breaching security measures by entering the event without getting checked.

Along the way, he poses for pictures with fans.

The incident happened in October.

We have reached out to the Forum, but so far, haven’t gotten any comment.

The real Houston pastor, and his wife, Victoria, were in California for a night of worship open to the public.

A spokesman with Lakewood Church says Osteen never met the imposter.

The spokesperson also says Osteen’s security never confronted Klimkowski — it was Forum security and the Los Angeles Police Department that handled Klimkowski.

The Lakewood spokesman also adds that they are unsure if Osteen has ever met Klimkowski — but they have seen him in at least one book signing in Los Angeles.

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Former ‘All My Children’ star arrested in Galveston

A former star of the soap opera “All My Children” was arrested in Galveston early Sunday, according to police.

Shane McDermott was charged with public intoxication, Galveston police said, after he was running in the middle of a street and refused to cooperate with officers who stopped him.

Police said McDermott had just left one of the downtown bars after some type of altercation.

An officer asked McDermott if there was someone at his house who could come get him, otherwise they would have to arrest him, police said. McDermott replied, “Arrest me,” according to police. He paid a small fine, police said.

McDermott, who played Scott Chandler on the popular ABC daytime drama in the mid-90s, did not reply to a request for comment.

According to his real estate website, McDermott moved to Galveston in the early 2000s.

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Family’s beloved pony shot to death in Liberty County

Before the Brett family had any children, they had Chicken Nugget: A pony with dwarfism.

He stood 25 inches tall and weighed no more than 80 pounds. But for eight years, he was the perfect companion, and larger than life.

“Local celebrity, local favorite, people came and took their pictures with him,” Kylee Brett said. “And he would just hang out with us! I’m serious, he would just lay down and watch TV.”

Nobody loved Chicken Nugget more than Kylee’s 5-year-old daughter, Rylee. At 6 months old, she was already riding him at the rodeo. They did everything together.

Early Wednesday morning, authorities said someone entered the Brett family ranch in Hull, Texas, in Liberty County, and shot Chicken Nugget in the head at close range. The Brett family found him when they woke up, and buried him later that morning.

“Rest in Peace,” Kylee wrote on Facebook, “You now have your wings and are flying high. You will never be forgotten, you will forever be missed. My heart is absolutely shattered as I try to find the words. The way you were taken from us was the act of a coward.”

“On another note,” the post continued later. “Whoever stepped foot on our property and point blank shot him in the face will pay.”

The post quickly received thousands of responses, comments and shares.

“We’re going to catch him, whoever did this,” Rylee said. “And he’s going to get in big, big, big trouble.”

“He never ever had any kind of a bad day,” Kylee said. “He never had a moment to where you just had to worry about him. He just, he was there. He was our best friend. And he was just, he was special to everybody.”

The Bretts told Rylee that Chicken Nugget is now in heaven, watching over their family.

“Our hearts are broken,” Kylee said. “Very broken, and we’ll always miss him, we’ll always have that piece of our heart that’s broken. But good memories always help the heart heal a little faster.”

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Coastal officials say feds failing Harvey victims on short-term housing

Fulton Mayor Jimmy Kendrick told the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Disaster Impact and Recovery that he's had suicidal thoughts as he tries to lead his city through its recovery from Hurricane Harvey. 

Coastal Texas officials whose counties and cities bore the brunt of Hurricane Harvey’s deadly blow this summer unleashed a barrage of complaints about recovery efforts at a Texas House subcommittee hearing in Corpus Christi on Wednesday.

The mayors and county leaders voiced frustration — and one shared a vivid account of suicidal thoughts — stemming from what they described as a woefully inadequate federal response to the storm’s vast destruction.

With winter coming, they told stories about residents still living in tents and hotels more than two months after the storm battered southeast Texas. Their criticisms were largely focused on the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is in charge of initial recovery efforts.

“They rank high on promises and way low on promises kept,” Port Aransas Mayor Charles Bujan said.

FEMA officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

The local leaders also told the Texas House Appropriations Subcommittee on Disaster Impact and Recovery that the state has not funded all communities’ relief efforts in an equitable way, an apparent reference to $50 million Gov. Greg Abbott gave Houston after a public dispute with Mayor Sylvester Turner.

And although the storm impacted communities across a wide swath of the state differently, they said one immediate need stands above the rest: securing more temporary housing for residents who will spend years recovering.

“You can’t rebuild a community unless your citizens have a place to live, and our citizens don’t have a place to live,” said Nueces County Judge Loyd Neal.

Their comments come on the heels of housing advocates and experts expressing worries that state leaders’ push for up to $121 billion in federal recovery money is focused more on public works projects like flood control than on individual assistance like rebuilding Texans’ flooded houses.

More than 886,000 Texas households applied for some sort of disaster aid after Harvey swept through a large swath of the state. As of last week, more than 51,000 southeast Texans were still displaced and living in hotel rooms, according to FEMA data, and at least 26,000 are handling temporary housing on their own, which could include living in damaged homes, staying with loved ones or paying for short-term housing needs out of pocket.

The state says more than 7,000 families still need government-subsidized temporary housing such as apartments or trailers while their homes are rebuilt. Mayors and county officials on Wednesday issued several criticisms about the bureaucracy residents must contend with as they seek immediate disaster aid.

“These people have gone through four steps and still don’t get any help,” said San Patricio County Judge Terry Simpson.

He also said that residents will begin the process with one FEMA worker only to have another one give them different instructions or explanations about aid qualifications or requirements weeks later.

“The system is broken,” he said. “The system doesn’t work the way it was planned to work.”

Bujan said more than 100 residents in Port Aransas lost their homes and only five families have been approved for temporary trailers.

“Those five trailers have never arrived,” he said. “They’re not there. I don’t know where they’re at.”

The hearing also featured state and local education officials detailing the high cost of displaced students and damaged school buildings. City, county and school officials also told lawmakers they expect to also face extreme budget woes once the value of damaged properties are reappraised and tax revenues plummet.

Fulton Mayor Jimmy Kendrick drew a spattering of applause after he testified that the stress from trying to recover with inadequate federal response keeps him from sleeping some nights. He said frustrated residents have focused some of their ire on him, lobbing unfounded accusations about him on social media.

“There’s been times I’ve sat there and thought about putting a gun in my mouth and pulling the trigger,” he said.

A two-pronged approach

Abbott split long-term recovery into two initiatives, each overseen by a different state entity vying for limited federal funds. A commission headed by Texas A&M University Chancellor John Sharp is focusing on securing money for infrastructure projects. The Texas General Land Office is spearheading efforts to find temporary housing for displaced Texans and also plans to oversee billions in federal dollars that will help them rebuild or renovate their homes.

But the land office is also seeking money for infrastructure projects — and doesn’t want the federal Housing and Urban Development department to limit how much long-term disaster relief money can be spent on public works projects versus housing recovery.

“The key to this is not thinking of it simply as rebuilding, but rebuilding to prevent damage from future storms and thus make Texas more resilient,” said Brittany Eck, a land office spokeswoman.

Land Commissioner George P. Bush said at Wednesday’s hearing that helping Texans is of primary importance. But he also said recovery money should be used to protect economic development and the private energy industry from the next disaster.

“We can’t lose sight of long-term resiliency,” he said.

Abbott’s two-pronged approach is similar to the state’s playbook after Hurricanes Ike and Dolly. But housing advocates complained about how the state handled those funds, and HUD eventually forced Texas to rework its plans for the money and required more spending on housing for lower income residents.

Nearly 10 years after those storms, more than $500 million in disaster relief funds remains unspent. About $297 million of that is earmarked for housing.

“No positive headlines”

Local officials on Wednesday also complained that FEMA says privacy laws prevent the agency from sharing why individual residents are declined assistance or asked to provide more information.

“We can’t exactly share the criteria by which applicants are being declined,” Bush said.

As his agency begins steering those approved for short-term assistance toward five different federal programs, Bush said he has lobbied for a moratorium on home foreclosures in impacted counties.

He also suggested that his office’s hands are tied on some matters by an “extensive, voluminous” agreement with FEMA to oversee short-term housing programs.

“People are going to be frustrated,” Bush said. “There are going to be no positive headlines as it relates to temporary housing.”

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22 Houston gang members indicted for multiple violent crimes, officials say

Investigators say 22 people have been indicted in an alleged street gang operation in Houston involving human smuggling, brothels and drugs.

Federal prosecutors say a 37-count indictment was returned earlier this month in Houston and partly unsealed Wednesday.

Authorities said the defendants are accused of operating several brothels in apartments throughout Houston, plus in Mexico. Prosecutors say some female immigrants were promised they could pay off the cost of smuggling them into the U.S. by working in Houston restaurants. The immigrants were instead forced into prostitution.

Those arrested during the enforcement actions on Tuesday include Houston residents Giovani Alecio aka Whiteboy, 26, Victor Javiel Gonzalez, 29, Maria Angelica Moreno-Reyna aka Patty, 51, Gabriela Gonzalez-Flores aka Gabby, 46, Eddie Torres aka Monterrey 38, Jose Luis Moreno aka Lucky, 23, Gilberto Espinoza Garcia, 49, Hector Reyna aka Pantera, 26; Jimmy Mejia Chavez, 33; and Grisel Salas aka Cris, 34, of Donna; and Jose Ruben Palomo-Martinez, 48, of Mission.

Two more defendants – Erik Ivan Alvarez-Chavez aka Casa, 39, and Denis Amaya Calballero aka Keiko, 25, both of Houston – were already in custody on related charges and are expected to make their appearances in federal court in the near future.

Nine others are also charged but not as yet in custody. Bianca Stephanie Reyna aka Troubles, 20, Claudia Soriano-Hernandez, 26, Juan Carlos Contreras Cervantes, 25, all from Houston; Raul Moreno Reyna aka Coney, 53, William Alberto Lopez, 27, Anadalit Duarte aka Paola, 25, and Walter Lopez, 26, all originally from Houston but believed to have fled to Mexico; and Israel Juarez Sifuentes, 43, and Melissa Dominguez aka Missy, 50, both of Donna; are considered fugitives and warrants remain outstanding for their arrests. Anyone with information about their whereabouts is asked to contact the FBI Houston field office at 713-693-5000.

All of the defendants are indicted in the criminal scheme as alleged members or affiliates of the Southwest Cholos. All are charged in varying counts to include multiple conspiracy counts; sex trafficking by force, fraud or coercion; sex trafficking of a minor by force, fraud or coercion; transportation to engage in prostitution; enticing or coercing another to travel in interstate commerce for prostitution; transportation of illegal aliens; importation of aliens for immoral purposes; possession with the intent to distribute heroin; possession with intent to distribute methamphetamines; illegal dealing of firearms; felon in possession of a firearm; illegal re-entry; false statements; and aggravated identity theft.

According to the indictment, the defendants operated several brothels in apartments throughout Houston as well as in Mexico. The primary location was the Carriage Way Apartment Complex on Dashwood in southwest Houston, which was also home to their base of operations for drug and firearms trafficking, according to the allegations.

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Execution date set for Sugar Land man on death row

An execution date has been set for a Sugar Land man on death row for arranging to have some of his family members shot and killed so he could collect a $1 million inheritance.

Bart Whitaker is set to be executed on Feb. 22, 2018.

Investigators said that on Dec. 10, 2003, Whitaker arranged to make the shooting look like he and his family members interrupted a burglary as they returned home from dinner.

A masked gunman inside the home shot and killed Whitaker’s 19-year-old brother, Kevin, in the front room of the house. Then the gunman shot and killed Whitaker’s 51-year-old mother, Tricia. The shooter also wounded Whitaker’s 54-year-old father, Kent. A bullet hit Whitaker in his arm.

The gunman and a third person in the crime are also in prison, serving sentences.

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Clara Harris granted parole for husband’s murder

Clara Harris, the woman who was convicted for running over her husband in an infamous murder in the Clear Lake area, was granted parole Friday.

Court records show Harris has not yet been scheduled for release as of Monday.

She was expected to stay in state prison through 2023.

Her parole was denied in 2016 because of the brutality of that crime.

In an interview with KPRC 2 the night of the murder, 15 years ago, she said, “It was an accident.”

The Lake Jackson dentist repeatedly drove her silver Mercedes over her husband, stopping the car on top of his body in the parking lot of the Hilton NASA Clear Lake in Nassau Bay.

Her orthodontist husband, 44-year-old Dr. David Harris, died. The crime was caught on tape.

Earlier on the day of the attack, Clara Harris hired a private investigator to trail her husband, whom she suspected of having an affair with one of his former employees.

That investigator ultimately videotaped David Harris’ dying moments after Cara Harris confronted her husband and a woman inside the hotel lobby.

The fight moved outside, where Clara Harris drove the car over David Harris three times.

She was convicted of murder and sent to prison for 20 years.

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Coast Guard searching area near Freeport after boat catches fire, sinks

The Coast Guard is searching for possible missing people after a boat caught fire and sank Monday afternoon about 3 miles south of the San Bernard River, near Freeport.

Around 2:45 p.m., flames and smoke were reported just south of the San Bernard River.

A Coast Guard helicopter found a 25-foot-long vessel burned beyond identification. The vessel sank shortly after crews arrived.

“Our No. 1 priority is the preservation of human life,” said Lt. Mike Hart, chief duty officer at Sector Houston-Galveston. “We have several assets actively searching for any possible missing persons.”

Coast Guard crews said they would continue searching throughout the night.

Anyone with information regarding the vessel fire is asked to contact Coast Guard Sector Houston-Galveston at 281-464-4853.

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Explosion at vodka distillery burns 3 in north Harris County

Three people were burned Monday in an explosion at a vodka distillery in north Harris County, authorities said.

The incident was reported about 10 a.m. at a warehouse in the 1200 block of East Richey Road.

According to fire officials at the scene, one of the victims was flown to the hospital, while the other two were driven there.

Officials are working to determine the cause of the explosion, but an investigator said it may have happened during a transfer of the flammable alcohol.

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

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Police increase reward for information in case of child’s body found on Galveston beach

The Galveston Police Department and the FBI are still searching for more information in the case of a boy’s body found on a Galveston beach.

Monday, the two entities said they have chased down hundreds of leads, but none have been useful. The reward for useful information has been raised to $10,000.

Meantime, investigators have named the little boy “Little Jacob” while they continue to search for his real identity. Investigators say this will help the departments, and the public, with the association of the case.

Police say they continue to waiting for a complete autopsy and when the autopsy is complete, the details of that report will not be made public to protect the integrity of the investigation.

The parents of the child are expected to be alive, police say.

“This is extremely unusual for any part of the country and extremely unusual for Galveston Island,” Capt. Joshua Schirard with the Galveston police said.

The Galveston community has come together to support each other in these two weeks, Schirard said.

Police have released a sketch photo of a 3- to 5-year-old boy who was found dead on a beach in Galveston in late October.

A passerby spotted the child about 5:35 p.m. while walking on the beach near 7th Street and Seawall Boulevard, authorities said.

At the time of the boy’s discovery, there were no recent missing children cases in Galveston, police said. Investigators commissioned renowned forensic sketch artist, Lois Gibson, to draw a sketch of the child for police.

“I want to reach out to that grandmother or the relative or the mommy or the daddy or some neighbor. Somebody who knows the baby,” Gibson said at the time.

Police said no one has come forward to report a missing child in the surrounding area. The medical examiner has not released a cause of death.

The area where the boy was found is not heavily trafficked, police said last month, adding that the particular area is mostly grassland.

Police describe the child as 3 feet tall with a slender build, black hair and brown eyes.

Officials said this is an extremely unusual case and the circumstances surrounding the child’s death have grown more suspicious during the investigation.

“We are throwing every resource we possibly can at assuring we identify this child,” Capt. Joshua Schirard with Galveston police said.

Investigators said they were looking into a missing person’s case in Hawkins County, Tennessee, involving a boy whose picture is similar to the composite sketch of the boy found dead in Galveston. On Monday, investigators said that the cases are not related.

The Police Department is asking anyone who may have any information concerning this case to call 409-765-3702 or Galveston County Crime Stoppers at 409-763-8477.

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