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Veterans, family give tearful testimony about slain Edna man (w/video)

EDNA – After leaving the military, Jarrett Parker devoted his life to helping returning veterans find their way home.

“I didn’t have anybody, but I had him,” testified Ryan Normandin, an Army Rangers staff sergeant and combat veteran who spent four deployments in Afghanistan.

Tuesday, Normandin offered poignant testimony, telling jurors that Parker had helped him through his depression, divorce, PTSD and difficulties in returning to civilian life.

“He was the only one I could call late at night,” said Normandin, his voice cracking with grief.

Guilty verdict

That testimony came on the first day of the sentencing phase and 12th day of trial for 37-year-old Edna mother Amber Sorensen.

After almost four hours of deliberation, jurors returned a guilty verdict Tuesday morning for Sorensen, convicting her of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon causing serious bodily injury to a family member.

The first-degree felony carries a sentence of between five and 99 years or life in prison with up to a $10,000 fine.

Sorensen also was indicted for murder, manslaughter and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

Unlike murder, jurors could sentence her to probation rather than prison time for the first-degree aggravated assault conviction.

To find Sorensen guilty of first-degree aggravated assault, jurors had to find that she may have killed Parker recklessly rather than knowingly or intentionally.

In one statement, Sorensen said she had aimed at a bathroom window behind Parker and did not mean to shoot him. She also told investigators she had acted in self-defense.

In trial, prosecutors disputed that claim.

But they added if Sorensen was aiming at the window, Parker’s positioning directly in front of it would have meant any shot at him was a reckless endangerment of his life.

Prosecutors compared such a shot to aiming for an apple on a person’s head.

Although jurors refuted Sorensen’s claims that she killed Parker in self-defense, prosecutors called additional witnesses during sentencing who described the man as nonviolent and compassionate.

Helping veterans

Like other veterans who testified Tuesday, Normandin told jurors post-traumatic stress disorder does not necessarily cause violent behavior.

But it can result in severe mental anguish with various symptoms, including hyper-vigilance, nightmares and depression.

Normandin met Parker after leaving the Army, and the two became best friends within the span of two years, he said.

To cope with their PTSD and other stressors, the men exercised together, rode motorcycles and attended veterans’ events.

Those activities as well as Parker’s friendship were instrumental in finding a way back to civilian life, Normandin said.

“I didn’t have a lot when I got out. I didn’t have anyone who understood,” he said.

But Normandin was hardly the only veteran to find support in Parker.

After leaving a 12-year career that ended in the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations, Parker returned to Edna and devoted himself to supporting veterans.

Normandin estimated Parker had helped hundreds, if not thousands, through his work with veteran nonprofits.

Jared Bonvell, Parker’s former mentor and supervisor in the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations, said serving others came naturally to Parker.

“People who needed compassion were drawn to him,” he said.

Bonvell, a master sergeant, took the stand with his service dog, Recon, at his side. The dog, he said, is an important part of his treatment plan for PTSD.

“I believe he would have put (everyone else) ... before himself,” Bonvell said. “It was always about making sure they were taken care of.”

Sorensen’s attorney, Stephen Cihal, who had few questions for prosecutors’ witnesses Tuesday, questioned Bonvell about a military reprimand Parker had received during training.

Although Bonvell admitted his knowledge of the matter was limited, he said Parker had been disciplined for having an extramarital affair while in training.

In the course of an investigation, Bonvell also had questioned Parker’s ex-wife. During that questioning, he looked for bruises on the ex-wife but found none.

Minutes into interviewing her, Bonvell determined the woman’s accusations against Parker were wholly not credible, he said.

“There was no suspicion at all,” Bonvell said.

‘Husks’ and ‘shells’

In the wake of Parker’s death, grief has torn the man’s family apart, testified his stepsister, Christina Fox.

“I lost my mom, my dad, my brother,” she said. “An atomic bomb went off ... and just shattered us. There’s no family left.”

Although Fox and Parker do not share a father, they grew up together thinking of one another as blood siblings.

“We never had the label of ‘step,’” she said. “It was always ‘brother.’”

To Parker’s younger stepbrother, Alex Taylor, who testified before Fox, the man was not only his brother but also his hero and idol.

“He was somebody I wanted to be,” he said.

Parker’s death, he said, has crippled his mother and father to the point that they withdrew for a while from their family and daily life.

“It feels like for the last two and a half years, my life has been on pause,” he said.

Fox agreed, saying her large family once gathered constantly for barbecues, parties and other events.

In fact, her family even made up their own holidays as excuses to meet, Fox said.

After Parker died, she has limited those visits to about once a year, she said.

Fox, also an Air Force veteran, began struggling with depression after Parker’s death, she said.

That depression caused her to quit her job as a wedding cake designer because she could no longer find joy in the job.

For her and her children, facing her grieving family is simply too painful a reminder of the brother she lost.

Parker’s death, she said has transformed her family into pale reminders of their former selves.

“We’re husks,” she said. “They’re shells.”

Restaurant owner honored for going beyond day-to-day obligations

Minerva “Minnie” Bennett grew up in a poor family of 12 that survived on hand-me-downs. Now, she dedicates her life to silently paying it forward.

“I’m not a person to advertise,” said Bennett, 73. “That’s between me and God.”

Bennett owns a local Mexican restaurant, VeraCruz, at 3110 N Navarro St. She is one of three people being recognized by the DeLeon Club of Victoria for the work they do in the community in honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month, which concludes Oct. 15. The Hispanic Recognition Celebration is 7-8:30 p.m. Wednesday at the University of Houston-Victoria North Multipurpose Room.

Benny Ruiz and Daniel Martinez are also being recognized.

The DeLeon Club of Victoria members wanted to recognize “silent heroes” in the community, club president Mike Rivera said.

“They don’t seek glory,” Rivera said.

He said it is important for Victoria to recognize strong Hispanic community leaders as they help day-to-day.

It’s important for the younger generation to see the work being done in Victoria so they feel inspired to continue it, Rivera said.

Customers went in and out of VeraCruz, which is nestled between a Papa John’s Pizza and a Sonic Drive-In, as Bennett sat at a table with six chairs and a plate of Mexican food in front of her. She relaxed to the sound of Latin music after a busy lunch rush Tuesday afternoon.

Bennett has owned the restaurant since 1988 and moved to its current Navarro location in 1993.

The Victoria resident has been in the restaurant business for most of her life. She started as a waitress 54 years ago at a cafe in Tivoli and moved to Victoria in 1972. She continued as a waitress until 1988, when her boss approached her and asked whether she wanted to buy the restaurant from him.

“I thought he was joking,” Bennett remembered.

After a week of thought, she decided to become an owner.

“Sometimes it’s good. Sometimes it’s bad,” she said with a chuckle, her eyes gleaming behind her glasses.

Bennett said she wasn’t sure whether moving to Navarro Street would be a good idea. The property owner was asking for $200,000, which she didn’t have, but she knew the location would be good for business.

She spoke to her lawyer, who said she was crazy and advised her to stay at her Airline Road location, she said. Bennett couldn’t shake it, so she went to pray at Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church.

“I sat there for an hour, praying,” she said.

Now, 26 years later, she’s grateful for the move.

Bennett’s daughter, Ida Caballero, works alongside her mother in the restaurant as the general manager.

“We’ve come a long way,” Caballero said.

She said it’s great seeing her mother living her dream as a restaurant owner and making an impact in the community. Caballero, 54, said her mother was the perfect person to recognize.

“It’s awesome,” she said. “She is truly deserving of the award.”

Bennett isn’t just a business owner. She volunteers at her church as a youth minister and makes silent donations to organizations throughout Victoria.

Area residents who are homeless know if they are hungry, they can go to VeraCruz, and Bennett will happily give them a hot plate of food. She said the homeless may be mean to some people, but they show nothing but respect to her.

The moments that set her apart from others happen in the restaurant. Most recently, she remembers some young men sitting in the restaurant who told her they were hungry. Without a second’s hesitation, she grabbed them a plate.

“I was surprised,” said Bennett about her recognition. “I didn’t know anyone was paying attention.”

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Public Safety
Multiple agencies search for missing 19-year-old fisherman

Officials continued searching throughout Tuesday for a 19-year-old fisherman who went missing Monday night near Powderhorn Bayou in Indianola.

The man was wade fishing when someone saw him go underwater and not resurface, said Chelsea Bailey, a spokeswoman for the Texas Parks and Wildlife game wardens.

Game wardens responded to the possible drowning about 8 p.m. Monday but had to stop the search at 10 p.m. because of darkness. The search resumed at 7:30 a.m. Tuesday with the assistance of the Calhoun County Sheriff’s Office and the U.S. Coast Guard, which also helped Monday night.

As of 6 p.m., the man’s body still had not been found.

An air boat is being used to search the shallow area as well as a skiff boat equipped with a side scan sonar to detect objects underwater, Bailey said.

“It will let us know if there is anything underneath the water that needs to be looked at,” she said. “It won’t be completely clear, but it will show you if there is an object or a body or something that needs to be recovered.”

Tuesday’s high tide made searching shallow waters difficult, she added.

Watchstanders with the U.S. Coast Guard Sector/Air Station Corpus Christi issued an urgent marine information broadcast and launched Air Station Corpus Christi HC-144 Ocean Sentry and MH-65 Dolphin aircrews to assist with the search, as well as a Port O’Connor-stationed shallow-water boat crew, according to a news release.

The name of the fisherman will not be released until he has been found, but Sheriff Bobby Vickery said Monday night that the man recently moved to Calhoun County from Baltimore with his family and was probably not too familiar with the waters or the rip tides.

Officials have blocked off a perimeter by Powderhorn cut and will continue to make passes near where the man was last seen until he is located, Bailey said.

“We’re going to continue (searching) until we get to the bottom of this,” she said. “We’re going to stay out until we cannot see, and if we still are unable to locate him today, we will be out there again at 7:30 a.m.”

Bailey anticipated that if the man’s body was not found by about 10 p.m. Tuesday, recovery efforts would resume at 7:30 a.m. Wednesday.

As the search continues, the game warden urged the public to remember to always take precautionary safety measures.

“We don’t know all the facts yet, but even something as simple as wade fishing on the banks near the water – you never know what you’re going to get into, so regardless of the situation, it is always important to wear a life jacket,” she said.