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Crime
Courts
Investigator: Text messages corroborate accuser's claims against former constable

A former Victoria County constable’s text messages did not corroborate his version of events about sexual assault allegations.

But the messages did align with allegations from a Victoria County woman who accused former Precinct 1 constable Jesse Garza of sexually assaulting her during a 2017 ride-along, Texas Ranger John Lingle testified Wednesday.

Wednesday marked the third day of trial for Garza, 38, who faces a second-degree felony sexual assault charge that carries a two- to 20-year prison sentence and up to $10,000 in fines. After finishing testimony with its final witness, investigator Lingle, the prosecution rested its case.

Defense attorney, former Victoria County district attorney Dexter Eaves, called a single witness, a Victoria County sheriff’s investigator who described the woman as “not very credible” although he admitted he had only known her for a “very short time.”

After that witness, District Judge Bobby Bell recessed court early to allow Garza ample time to consider whether he should testify.

“It’s a very complicated decision. Like I explained to my client, I am not looking at 20 years in prison. You are,” Eaves said after court had recessed.

Earlier in the day, prosecutors continued their testimony with the ranger who investigated allegations against Garza.

Details from the woman’s accusations, Lingle said, matched text messages obtained from Garza’s phone through a search warrant.

Garza’s accuser, who was 18 at the time, had participated in the ride-alongs because she was interested in pursuing a career in law enforcement.

The Victoria Advocate does not identify potential victims of sexual assault.

But numerous parts of Garza’s account of his interactions with the woman, Lingle said, did not match text communications between them.

After playing for jurors the entire 1.5-hour, video- recorded 2017 interview of Garza by Lingle, Special Prosecutor Tim Poynter questioned the ranger about his investigation.

In the video-recorded interview with the ranger, Garza said he and the woman had sex twice in his personal truck and not the official patrol pickup provided to him by Victoria County officials.

On the stand Tuesday, the woman said that and other specific and sexually explicit claims from Garza were lies.

Garza had also told the ranger that he had never texted the woman about sex, drugs or alcohol.

In fact, the text messages obtained from the search warrant revealed he had.

Finally, Garza and his attorney have stood by the claim that any sex between the former constable and his accuser was consensual. But one text message in particular refuted that claim, the prosecutor said.

“You said no that night but you gave into papi (daddy),” the text read.

Although Eaves repeatedly questioned the credibility of Lingle’s investigation, the ranger held strong, saying he had performed an unbiased and thorough examination of not only Garza’s version of events but also his accuser’s.

Nevertheless, the ranger said, the woman’s accusations never changed.

“I actually questioned her pretty hard and made her cry,” Lingle said about his third and final interview of the woman.


Lavaca
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Education
Ezzell school district argues its case against cell tower in court

HALLETTSVILLE – The staff, parents and supporters of the Ezzell school district left a Lavaca County District Court hearing Wednesday with no answer from a judge about whether a cell tower will continue construction next to their school.

“We’re not trying to kill the tower – we just want it moved away from us,” Ezzell Superintendent Lisa Berckenhoff said during the hearing.

Berckenhoff was one of several witnesses who testified in the courtroom of Lavaca County’s 25th District Court Judge Jessica Richard Crawford.

The Ezzell school district, located on Farm-to-Market Road 351 south of Hallettsville, has requested a temporary injunction to force an unfinished AT&T cell tower to move to another location. The school district was granted a temporary restraining order in May that stopped work on the cell tower.

The cell tower is not located on school property, but on privately owned land next to the school. The private property is owned by Frances Elaine Heinemann of Cuero.

Heinemann is listed as the defendant in the temporary restraining order issued to the school district and on court documents; however, the land is leased from her to the phone company for construction of the tower.

At the hearing, witnesses for both sides of the issue stood in front of the judge to offer their testimony without a microphone, which had courtroom spectators straining to hear what was being said.

Attorney Kelley Kalchthaler argued on behalf of Ezzell that the school could face several issues if construction is completed on the tower, which is fewer than 350 feet from the school.

Parents are concerned about the possible health risks of the tower being near children because they believe the electromagnetic fields produced by cell phones is possibly carcinogenic to humans.

If the tower is built, Kalchthaler said, parents may pull their students out of the small, rural school district.

“Several district parents have threatened to take students out of the district ... 38 students are considered transfer students who chose to go to Ezzell,” Kalchthaler said. “Students leaving could affect sports and funding.”

Kalchthaler also told the judge that the school was never notified by AT&T or Heinemann about the construction of the cell tower.

The attorney representing Heinemann, Andrew Abrameit, presented the judge with a copy of a legal notice of the tower’s construction that was published in the Hallettsville newspaper in February 2018.

Berckenhoff said she does not consistently read the Hallettsville newspaper and that no one in the district was aware of the construction until the tower was being built.

During her testimony, Heinemann told the judge she did not personally attend the Ezzell school or live in Ezzell. Heinemann also said she did not object to the placement of the cell tower.

“After I signed the lease, I did not have control over what happened after,” she said.

An engineer with AT&T also testified for Abrameit, who said he was not aware of any studies that indicate any harm that a cell tower can cause near a school. The engineer also said the tower was designed to work with several cell phone carriers and was only given one site location to run an evaluation.

When asked about the integrity of the tower during inclement weather, the engineer said there would be no concern of the tower falling onto the school.

“The way the tower is built, they do not fall over – it crumbles into itself,” he said.

The engineer’s name was told to the judge during the public hearing, but Abrameit declined to disclose the name of the engineer when asked after the hearing. Abrameit also did not comment about the hearing.

Jessica Rosas, a parent with the Ezzell school district, presented a petition to the judge that included almost 200 signatures from parents and community members. Though the petition was notarized and verified, Abrameit dismissed the authenticity of such a petition.

When presenting her concerns to the judge, Rosas was cut off by Abrameit and told the judge that Rosas’ concerns were not valid because she was not an expert.

Rosas said Wednesday night that she has several concerns about the tower. She said the structure could invite unpredictable events such as criminal activity and death, which the children would witness because the tower was in plain view of the school.

And, she said, there are no studies that say cell phone towers are safe.

“I beg to differ with what the other attorney said. I am a parent, and all of the parents’ concerns are real and valid,” she said.

Abrameit said the Ezzell community would benefit from having the cell tower at the current location, for not just cell phone service to residents but for first responders as well.

“There’s nothing unreasonable about the cell tower,” he said.

Crawford is expected to rule on the issue, possibly this week, Kalchthaler said.

Several Ezzell staff members and teachers also attended the hearing but were not witnesses. The teachers said they fear the future of the school district if the tower is allowed to stay in the same location.

“We’re a family. We’ve taught siblings, and we’ve taught the parents of some of the students. It’s a very close community at Ezzell,” said second-grade teacher Joan Stock. “It takes a village to raise and teach a child, one that we don’t want to lose.”


Local
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Public Safety
DPS releases details in death investigation of Inez boy

An official said a Jackson County deputy was not involved in the shooting of an Inez boy who was struck with a BB from an air-powered rifle last week at the deputy’s home in La Salle.

The deputy was off duty at the time of the incident, said Sgt. Ruben San Miguel, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Hunter Smith, 12, died Friday, according to the notification submitted to the Advocate by Rosewood Chapel Funeral Homes. He was shot by another youth.

An autopsy was performed Tuesday on the boy at the Harris County Institute of Forensic Science, San Miguel said.

The results are unknown because the examination has not been completed.

“This is an ongoing criminal investigation and upon its completion, the Texas Rangers will present their findings to the Jackson County District Attorney for prosecutorial review,” he said.


Calhoun
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Business
Calhoun port discusses how to handle contracts, conflicts

POINT COMFORT – Newer Calhoun Port Authority board members admonished its staff after they had to change the scope of a contract not once, but twice.

The change amounted to a 36% increase in the contract price.

“When we’re doing over 30% change orders, we need to go back and look at: Are we doing enough pre-work to determine our contracts? A 30% change order is ridiculous,” said Jasper “Jay” Cuellar.

“36%,” Luis De La Garza said, correcting him.

This is Cuellar and De La Garza’s third meeting as board members after they beat longtime incumbents by large margins last month.

The incumbents endured about a year of public scrutiny after the port hired former Congressman Blake Farenthold as the port’s first, full-time lobbyist.

Farenthold resigned in January.

The contract discussed Wednesday involves piling maintenance.

It was first changed last month after a 4-to-1 vote, so that maintenance could be performed on an additional 19 pilings that Port Engineer David Knuckey said he had inadvertently left off the bid documents. That initial change amounted to an estimated $102,000 increase in the contract price. De La Garza voted against the change.

Wednesday, port staff recommended the contract be changed again to repair pilings that had rusted so much their structural integrity could be compromised. They said the contract change was also necessary to replace 19, 8-inch braces for the pilings that had rusted through, too.

Knuckey said he and staff visually inspected the pilings for about two hours before going out for bids, but they weren’t able to see the damage to them because marine growth covered it.

“My recommendation would be to go ahead and modify this contract; otherwise, we’re probably going to end up spending $100,000 more to mobilize and demobilize the equipment if we go back out for bids again,” Knuckey said.

Wednesday’s change amounted to another $107,765 and was approved unanimously despite the admonishment. De La Garza said he voted in favor of the change Wednesday because Knuckey assured him it was the last of the piling maintenance the port would have to perform for a while.

Cuellar and Johnny Perez, who was appointed to the board in September 2018, suggested ways to avoid change orders on contracts in the future.

“I want to know if we consider doing more frequent inspections? Do we need to do something that would better determine the job scope?” Cuellar asked.

“I don’t know about inspecting, but blasting and re-coating, that may have to be done more often than it actually is,” Perez said. “Because it was inspected and they didn’t see it.”

J.C. Melcher Jr., who nows serves as the board chairman, said this is the reality of maintaining a port now in its 30s.

Next week, Port Director Charles Hausmann and all but one of the board members will travel to San Francisco to attend the American Association of Port Authorities conference. Board member H.C. “Tony” Wehmeyer Jr. has chosen not to attend.

Although the board has traditionally disclosed very little publicly about this annual conference, De La Garza made a point of doing so Wednesday.

He said the conference consists of two days of presentations and a third day spent touring the port in that city.

“Some of the topics we’ll talk about that I’m looking forward to hearing is discussions on global marketing for the port, security for the port and infrastructure super projects. There’s a lot of lessons learned out there from other ports that hopefully we’ll be able to look at for our own port,” he said.

Last year, the port spent about $19,000 to send board members to the conference. Then, the conference was in Chile, and the port also paid for the board members’ wives to attend.

Some people were critical of that as well as the board’s benefits. The port still pays board members $400 for attending a meeting and $125 for their retirement each month, but De La Garza said Wednesday that he plans to present to the board bylaws next month that could change some of that.

The port does not currently have bylaws.

It was created by the Legislature in 1953 and is governed by the special district local laws code, although the board has passed resolutions over the years regarding how long the chairman serves, how much the board gets paid and under what circumstances the public can address it.

After the meeting, De La Garza said the other board members are looking at how they can apply bylaws used by other Texas ports to meet the Calhoun Port Authority’s goals. They are also asking staff to compile the resolutions that the board has passed.

“What bylaws do for us is they remove emotions,” he said. “In the past, you never really knew how a decision was going to be made, how an agenda was going to be drawn up.”

Cuellar, who is the human resources manager for Seadrift Coke, which uses the port, said in an interview with the Advocate after the meeting that he thinks the bylaws should lay out a defined procedure for any kind of conflict of interest. He posed a hypothetical situation in which this procedure would be helpful.

“If the plant (Seadrift Coke) ends up with an agreement to send 20 ships a month to the port, and it gets it for half the price as Formosa, that’s going to look pretty sad with me being on the board,” Cuellar said. “I want to make sure there’s a process that shows that I’m not included in the decision-making, and I’m not unduly influencing the board.”

Although they are being paid for attending meetings, both De La Garza and Cuellar chose not to accept the port’s $125 payment toward their retirement each month.

The port is also not paying for their wives to attend the conference in San Francisco.

The Advocate reached out to all board members to ask them their thoughts about bylaws, benefits and the conference, but did not hear back from all by deadline.

Deputy Port Director Forrest Hawes said the port currently has about $29 million in the bank while Hausmann said about 4.6 million tons of product have come through the port during the past 11 months. The port’s fiscal year ends June 30.

“4.9 to 5 million (tons) is where we’re hoping to end up,” Hausmann said.

This is about the same amount as last fiscal year.