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Jurors get Amber Sorensen case (w/video)

EDNA – According to her own version of events, Amber Sorensen killed her abusive boyfriend after he had beaten her, strangled her and threatened her life by holding a gun to her head.

“Her life was in danger,” said Sorensen’s attorney, Stephen Cihal, during his closing arguments to jurors Monday afternoon.

But according to prosecutors’ understanding of the evidence, Sorensen was not only a merciless killer but also an adept manipulator who had deceived her community and the law enforcement officers tasked with investigating her.

“You have a young woman, and a bunch of men, who are incapable of thinking a woman can be violent,” said former Victoria County district attorney Stephen Tyler, who is acting as an assistant district attorney in the case.

“They assumed her cooperation meant she was cooperating honestly,” said Assistant District Attorney Tom Dillard, who once served under Tyler.

Monday afternoon, jurors began considering which version of events had more credibility, beginning deliberation at 4:20 p.m.

Jurors received the case on the 11th day of trial after eight days of testimony.

About 100 people attended the trial, which was in a packed upstairs Jackson County courtroom.

Sorensen did not elect to take the stand.

With a verdict not reached by 5:30 p.m., District Judge Bobby Bell dismissed jurors, asking them to return at 9 a.m. Tuesday.

The 37-year old mother is charged with murder, aggravated assault of a family member with a deadly weapon, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon causing serious bodily injury and manslaughter.

If convicted of murdering Parker, she would face between five and 99 years or life in prison with up to a $10,000 fine.

Until Monday afternoon, prosecutors had not laid out an explicit motive.

After the two met at high school baseball games in 2016, Parker moved in with Sorensen and her children.

Pointing to bitter arguments and disagreements over money, Tyler said Sorensen had killed Parker out of anger and resentment.

That resentment, he said, was the result of her own financial failures and Parker’s increasing role with her children.

Sorensen, who was drunk on the night of Parker’s death with a 0.164% blood-alcohol level, wanted to have the final say in their relationship.

“She is being diminished and disregarded,” Tyler said, adding motive was not necessary for prosecutors to prove.

Those relationship woes came to a deadly culmination Feb. 7, 2017, when Sorensen shot and killed Parker at their shared Edna mobile home.

“It ends in gunfire,” Tyler said of their relationship.

For prosecutors, the entire case came down to two questions.

“Did the defendant shoot Mr. Parker, and if she did, is that OK?” said Dillard to jurors.

Self-defense, Dillard said, is a valid defense for killing only when a person’s life is immediately threatened.

Forensic evidence and testing were crucial in supporting prosecutors’ claims that Sorensen was motivated by malice and not self-preservation.

Analysis of blood spatters, the angle of the fatal bullet that entered Parker’s chest, the position of his body and other evidence, they said, poked holes in Sorensen’s various, differing accounts to investigators and grand jurors.

That analysis, much of which was conducted by Texas Ranger Drew Pilkington, showed Parker was probably doing situps when he was killed, they said.

“Her stories did not match the physical evidence and are ... highly suspect,” Tyler said.

Wielding a telescopic pointer, Tyler emphatically led jurors through his conclusions, repeatedly striking a television screen that showed the results of various trigonometric ballistic calculations and other forensic testing.

The title to one page of his presentation read “Girl that cried wolf.”

Cihal, who spoke to jurors quietly but with confidence, chose his words slowly and carefully.

Sharply contradicting prosecutors, Cihal saw more continuities than discrepancies in Sorensen’s versions of events.

“In every interview, she shot the gun to stop violence,” he said.

He also said he saw plenty of evidence to cast doubt on prosecutors’ claims that Sorensen was the perpetrator rather than the victim.

Pointing to testimony from Sorensen’s loved ones, he noted that bruises had been seen on her arms at several family gatherings.

He also reminded jurors about a text message conversation in which Parker did not refute Sorensen when she accused him of abusing her.

“How am I strong enough to get the s--- beat out of me and say nothing to my parents,” reads one of the quoted texts.

“I’m not proud of myself ... I’m doing what I can to fix myself,” reads one of Parker’s replies in that conversation.

And he asked jurors to consider Sorensen’s frantic state of mind in the minutes after Parker’s death.

In the courtroom, jurors heard recordings made by an apparently panicking Sorensen to a 911 operator and investigators.

“I’m not sure Ms. Sorensen acted in self-defense, but I have a reasonable doubt,” Cihal said to jurors.

But it was those recordings, prosecutors said, that showed that she was a calculated killer and liar.

In one recording, she told investigators Parker would never have actually shot her.

Tyler said the timing of her 911 call was another indication of Sorensen’s guilt.

During their closing arguments, prosecutors repeatedly referred to a 15-20 minute delay between when Parker was killed and when law enforcement officers arrived.

“What does a hunter do? ... (She) lets (the deer) bleed out,” said Tyler. “I would submit to you she let him bleed out.”

First United Methodist Church hosts pumpkin patch

The First United Methodist Church pumpkin patch is open 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and noon-7 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 31.

Activities for children include a corn table, a ring toss, a corn hole toss, a ball toss, putt-putt and tic-tac-toe.

Purchases from the pumpkin patch help to support youth mission trips, children’s summer camps and Boy Scout Troop 363.

The pumpkins are grown on a Navajo Reservation in New Mexico and transported by truck to Victoria.

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Victoria residents petition to extend splash pad season

During hot summer months, Victoria families flock to the city’s three splash pads to get outside and play while staying cool.

Victoria resident Ariel Carmona said she loves taking her two toddlers to the splash pad at Ethel Lee Tracy Park, which also has a new playground. But when she went recently, she was disappointed to see it was closed until spring.

“The splash pad is so nice that we didn’t think twice (about) going to it on another recent hot day, and we’re sad it was just closed,” she said. “I think many people feel the same.”

Carmona has started a petition to extend the use of the city’s three splash pads, which are at Ethel Lee Tracy Park, Community Park and Lone Tree Creek Park.

Currently, the season for the splash pads runs from spring break in March to early October. When the splash pads open during spring break, they are open on weekends only until the school year ends. Then, they are open daily until Labor Day, when they return to being open only on weekends until they close for the season.

During the season, the splash pads do not open if the weather is not expected to be above 65 degrees.

Carmona said she wishes the splash pads could stay open later in the year because the weather is often far hotter than 65 degrees past Labor Day. She also said she would like to see one or two of the splash pads stay open during the week after Labor Day, too.

“Because it revolves so much around the school schedule, it’s then not very available for people with kids who aren’t in school,” she said. She said if the splash pads were open, she would the take her two toddlers during the week, and other kids would likely come after school during the week, too.

Colby VanGundy, the director of the city’s parks and recreation department, said every year residents ask about keeping the splash pads open longer. However, he said, the weather plays a big role in deciding when to close them for the season, and in most Octobers, there is a cold front that “becomes a clear closing date.”

“We buy enough chemicals to last into early October, and that’s when the weather gets colder and usage of the splash pads goes down,” he said.

VanGundy said “it’s a dilemma whenever you have to figure out closing the splash pads.” He said the timing doesn’t ever feel perfect, and it becomes “almost trial and error and partially a guessing game with the weather” to find the right time.

Victoria resident Amanda Crump supports the petition. She said for her daughter and two nephews, the splash pads are “a perfect way to get outside and not be too concerned about the heat.”

“I do hear rumors of a cold front coming through, but it’s so hot, so I wish we had the option to take kids to the splash pad longer,” she said. “Rather than having to keep kids inside in the AC, I think many people would rather take them outside and to a splash pad.”

Crump said she would be thankful if the splash pads schedules were extended. She said it would be “fantastic” even if the splash pads were open just three days a week and on the weekends.

Carmona said she plans to reach out to city officials after she gathers more support for the petition and hopes to get a positive response. As of Monday evening, the online petition had more than 75 signatures.

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Virtus Group to perform ‘extensive review’ of its work in Victoria County

Both Victoria County officials and representatives of the Virtus Group, the company facing scrutiny over the county’s spending and management of Hurricane Harvey recovery money, are scrambling to verify what work was done after the storm.

Luis Garcia, a national project coordinator with the Virtus Group, now called Commercial Restoration Company, and Doug Kerr, a national project coordinator and superintendent with the company, were present at Monday’s Victoria County commissioners court meeting.

County Commissioner Kevin Janak introduced the representatives after updating the court on the progress of the work group. He said that back in March when the work group started, it “didn’t know where we were, what needed to be done.” He said the group has been conducting an extensive review that includes reviewing insurance documents, scopes of work, invoices and supplemental change orders.

Evan Lewis | elewis@vicad.com 

Victoria County Commissioner Kevin Janak addresses the audience before a representative from the Virtus Group speaks to the commissioners court during Monday’s meeting.

He said while it has been a slow process, and a “frustrating” one for some members of the public, the work group does not want to rush it.

“We’ve accomplished a huge feat, and we’re still not done,” he said.

In late September, Janak asked all county departments for input regarding work that is left undone but was possibly paid for after Harvey. He said among the responses, he has been told about projects that are not actually hurricane-related.

“There’s lots of misconception there, that ‘this was hurricane-related, this is what Virtus was supposed to do, but Virtus didn’t do it,’ while, that’s not really the case,” he said.

Janak said the work group will communicate with department heads to clarify any misunderstandings. Then, it will supply the court with remaining projects, and the court will determine if the work will be done by the county’s facilities manager, by airport maintenance or the Virtus Group.

Moreover, when the work group met recently with Virtus Group representatives, Janak said, it asked the company to perform an extensive review as well.

Garcia said he and his team have been “diligently” going through scopes of work. He said he realized some things were on lists early in the recovery process, while “there were some changes that were made either as the work was being done or during different types of meetings.” He said he and his team will review what work the Virtus Group did in every county building and compare it to an accurate scope of work.

“So we are presenting the documentation that we need to support the findings between our team and their team,” he said.

Then, he said, Virtus will submit a bill that reflects an agreed-upon scope of work and completed work within the county.

Janak said previously that the county is withholding an additional $352,000 likely owed to the company to “protect the taxpayers as we confirm that we owe it to them.”

County Commissioner Danny Garcia asked Janak for clarification on work the Virtus Group was supposed to do but didn’t complete. He said there were items on the list for Virtus to repair in his precinct, but the county ended up doing the work.

“Decisions were made prior to February to not put that on Virtus’ list,” he said.

Janak assured him that the company has not been paid for any work it did not perform.

“We’re here to get it right, and we will get it right,” Janak said Monday.

Also during the meeting, Victoria County commissioners celebrated local youth in honor of National 4-H Week.

Logan Johnson, 17, was among numerous local 4-H ambassadors present to share information about 4-H and thank the court for its support. Johnson told the court that more than 6 million people around the county will celebrate 4-H this week.

Evan Lewis | elewis@vicad.com 

Logan Johnson, 17, a Goliad senior, speaks to Victoria County commissioners about the denim recycling program they have organized as a 4-H community service project. Items can be dropped off at the county extension office, 528 Waco Circle. Donations are being accepted through Oct. 15. After the success of a similar denim recycling drive by the Inez 4-H Club in April, the Victoria County clubs decided to join for this donation drive. Farmers Crop Insurance will pay the shipping costs to send the denim for recycling.

“This is a week for our youth to showcase the great things 4-H has to offer to young people and highlight the incredible 4-H youth in our community who work each and every day to make a positive impact in our community,” he said.

The ambassadors also thanked the many volunteers, supporters and donors to 4-H, and said they will deliver homemade baked goods to groups that have shown their support to the program throughout the year.

Additionally, 4-H families have been collecting old denim donations in coordination with the Blue Jeans Go Green program, which recycles blue jeans into something new, for this year’s “One Day 4-H” event. Donations of denim can be dropped off at the extension office until Oct. 15.

“You all are the future of Victoria County,” Janak said to the ambassadors.

County Judge Ben Zeller was not present at Monday’s meeting.

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Congressman Michael Cloud to appear in live interview

U.S. Rep. Michael Cloud, R-Victoria, is scheduled to appear at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday in a live interview with Victoria Advocate Editor and Publisher Chris Cobler.

If you have questions you’d like to ask the congressman, please email them by 5 p.m. Monday to ccobler@vicad.com.

The interview may be viewed live on the Victoria Advocate’s Facebook page. A recording also will be posted at VictoriaAdvocate.com.