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Police: Officer shot and killed sword-wielding man

A La Marque police officer shot and killed a man Sunday who police said had threatened a resident with a sword during a burglary attempt and later attacked an officer and a police dog, officials said.

Officer Jose Santos, 29, was on paid administrative leave Monday pending the results of multiple investigations, police Chief Kirk Jackson said.

Santos has been employed by the La Marque Police Department since October 2014 and has been a police officer since June 2010, Jackson said.

Police responded to reports of a burglary in the 800 block of Retama during which a resident was threatened with the sword, Jackson said.

A 55-year-old woman told police Gregory Ray Ham, 62, pushed a sword in her face after forcing his way into her house and barricading her in a room using furniture, Jackson said.

Police freed the woman who told them Ham had fled to another structure in the same block, Jackson said.

Police warned Ham to come out of the structure or they would send in a police dog, Jackson said.

Ham refused and the dog and its handler went into the structure, Jackson said.

Ham is accused of attacking Santos and the police dog when they entered the structure, Jackson said.

“Once the armed suspect was located, the officer engaged him and subsequently discharged his firearm striking the suspect,” according to a police department statement.

Investigators don’t yet know how many times Ham was struck or how many shots were fired during the exchange, Jackson said.

Ham was pronounced dead at the scene by the Galveston County Medical Examiner’s Office, police said.

Both Santos and the dog were injured in the incident and were treated and released from medical care, Jackson said.

La Marque police received several calls about incidents on Retama in the week before the shooting, ranging in seriousness from criminal mischief to burglary, Jackson said.

The Galveston County District Attorney’s Office and the Galveston County Sheriff’s Office are conducting investigations into the shooting, along with a third internal investigation by the La Marque Police Department, Sheriff Henry Trochesset said.

Officials from the District Attorney’s Office Monday declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation.

Santos was wearing a body camera at the time of the shooting and that footage is being reviewed as part of the investigations, Trochesset said.

The footage will not be released until at least after it is presented to a grand jury, Trochesset said.


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NOAA: No need for turtle safety device testing next year

GALVESTON

Ben Higgins on Monday hovered over a blue crate containing a swimming loggerhead sea turtle, one of about 60 he’s helping to raise.

Higgins has worked at the Galveston Laboratory of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, informally known as the “turtle barn,” for more than 20 years. He’s never seen the space as empty as it is now, he said.

Most years, the crates contain almost three times the number of loggerhead hatchlings than they currently have, Higgins said.

“This is the fewest number of turtles we’ve ever had,” said Higgins, the laboratory’s sea turtle program manager. “It’s kind of sad, but it is what it is. You go through cycles.”

The change should be temporary, Higgins said. Federal officials this year ordered the laboratory not to capture sea turtle hatchlings for rearing and eventual release, departing from a practice underway for nearly 40 years.

Since the late 1970s, workers based at the Galveston laboratory, 4700 Ave. U, have annually picked up loggerhead hatchlings from Florida and brought them back to the island to be raised. The laboratory has returned the turtles back to Florida each year since the mid-1980s to test shrimp-net safety devices and release the loggerheads back into the ocean, according to the laboratory.

The decision not to rear a new set of hatchlings this year is owed to a lack of devices ready for testing next year, Higgins said.

The laboratory typically collects the loggerheads every year to raise them until they are big enough to test with turtle excluder devices, which are components of a shrimp trawl. The device connects to the trawls — large nets pulled behind shrimp boats — and allows sea turtles to escape, while still minimizing the number of shrimp lost in the process, according to the administration.

Three types of trawls don’t require turtle excluder devices, or “TEDs,” as long as they have “tow-time” restrictions, or limits on the amount of time the net can be dragged in the water, according to the administration. Exceeding the tow-time risks drowning any turtles caught in the nets, according to the administration.

The administration in December proposed to withdraw the tow-time rule and to require skimmer trawls, pusher-head trawls, wing nets and butterfly trawls to use certified turtle excluder devices. That change hasn’t gone into effect but is being reviewed, said Allison Garrett, media specialist for the administration’s National Marine Fisheries Services.

Turtle-exclusion device testing should continue sometime after the new rules are implemented, Higgins said. The turtles that would have been collected this summer most likely wouldn’t have had any devices in time for 2018 testing, he said.

“We don’t have a need for them in 2018,” Higgins said. “Once a new piece of gear is introduced to the fishery, they can use it and give feedback. When we get that feedback, that’s when we start making modifications.”

The administration’s fisheries service made the devices mandatory for most shrimp trawls in 1989. Thousands of turtles drowned each year before that and trawls had been identified as a major cause of death, according to a 2016 administration environmental report.

Even though turtle excluder devices are already certified, the administration continually tests new and existing designs.

Many environmental advocates have continued to push for turtle-exclusion devices across all types of trawls. Joanie Steinhaus, campaign director for the Gulf Coast office of the Turtle Island Restoration Network, said she hopes no trawls, fisheries or boats are excluded from the regulations.

“As we see an increase in the sea turtle population, we’re going to see smaller turtles in the areas the vessels work,” Steinhaus said. “I hope if they do come out with regulations, which they should, that they are required across the fleet with no exemptions.”

While Higgins said he hopes testing can continue in the future, Garrett said the administration hasn’t made any decisions on whether the laboratory will collect turtles next year. The laboratory will focus for now on other efforts, Garrett said.

“For now, we are continuing to take in and rehabilitate stranded, sick and injured sea turtles,” Garrett said.


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County to repay Santa Fe EDC $1.1M for FM 646 project

GALVESTON

Galveston County will reimburse the Santa Fe Economic Development Corp. more than $1 million it borrowed years ago for a project extending FM 646.

The Galveston County Commissioners Court voted unanimously Monday to reimburse about $1.17 million to the city of Santa Fe, which will forward the money to the economic development corporation.

That amount is about 90 percent of what the corporation had advanced the county to acquire right of way in Santa Fe several years ago, officials said.

The city’s economic development corporation in 2011 agreed to advance the county $1.3 million to purchase right of way within the city for a FM 646 project between FM 1764 and state Highway 6, according to an Oct. 3 letter sent by the Santa Fe Economic Development Corp. to the county.

Between June 2011 and December 2012, the corporation made seven payments of $185,715 to the county, according to the corporation.

The plan was that the county would pay the money back if the state’s transportation department reimbursed the county, said Robert Cheek, president of the economic development corporation.

The Texas Department of Transportation reimbursed the county in September, Cheek said. In October, Cheek sent a letter requesting the balance of $1.17 million, which the county voted to reimburse Monday.

The state transportation agency began construction to widen FM 646 between FM 1764 and state Highway 3 in spring of 2016.


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Where are vacationers most likely to go in Galveston?


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Texas City to consider deal for ammonia plant

Texas City could soon be home to an $800 million ammonia plant.

City commissioners Wednesday will consider approving three separate agreements that would allow for Gulf Coast Ammonia to begin developing a plant at the Eastman Chemical Co. site, 201 Bay St. S., Mayor Matt Doyle said.

Gulf Coast Ammonia was formed in a partnership between Miami-based Agrifos and Borealis AG, Europe’s second-largest producer of polyethylene and polypropylene.

In forming Gulf Coast Ammonia, the two groups announced in May 2015 plans to build an ammonia plant along the Texas coast.

“The deal has probably been in the works for two years,” said Nick Finan, Texas City director of management services. “Maybe a little bit longer.”

Representatives for Gulf Coast Ammonia did not respond to requests for comment Monday.

Texas City’s agreement with Gulf Coast Ammonia begins with $450 million in development, but includes language for $800 million or more in development at the Eastman facility in Texas City, Finan said.

“They signed an agreement with Eastman for leasing space within the facility and will construct a dock in conjunction with this,” Finan said.

Representatives with Eastman Chemical Company did not respond to requests for comment Monday.

Commissioners Wednesday will consider a 10-year tax abatement agreement with Gulf Coast Ammonia that would also include a stipulation that the company pay the city a lump sum of money during each of those years, Finan said.

Those payments each year could range between $750,000 and $1 million depending on the value of development, Finan said.

Gulf Coast Ammonia officials didn’t specify how many jobs would be created by the facility, but it could range between 25 and 50 full-time positions, Finan said.

“It’s a nice deal,” Doyle said. “We are looking forward to moving that forward.”

The dock and facility are scheduled to be complete and open for business sometime in 2020, with construction starting sometime in 2018, Finan said.

Once completed, the facility would produce about 1.35 million metric tons a year of ammonia, according to documents released to The Daily News.

Ammonia plants have come under increasing scrutiny as of late following well-documented explosions, including the one that rocked West, Texas in 2013. Officials in Crosby following Hurricane Harvey were concerned about potential explosions when an Arkema ammonia plant was damaged.

The proposed Gulf Coast Ammonia plant would produce products for the chemical industry, making it different from other plants, Doyle said.

“This is not to be confused with ammonium nitrate,” Finan said. “Ammonia nitrate is very combustible. We don’t want to alarm people, because with the 1947 Texas City explosion, they were hauling ammonium nitrate. As with most chemical processes, I won’t say there is no danger or hazard, but it’s not as serious as ammonium nitrate.”

The West fertilizer explosion was producing ammonium nitrate.


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GOP chairs vote to wrest control from Gustafson

A group of Republican precinct chairs gathered last week in the parking lot of the Galveston Central Appraisal District building in Texas City.

They had intended to meet in the building, but it was locked on the order of Galveston County Republican Party Chairman Carl Gustafson. So, the group met in the parking lot and voted to create a new bylaw forming a steering committee that would assume control of many party functions from Gustafson, one committee member said.

The committee, made up of elected precinct chairs, is empowered to prepare the party’s annual budget, appoint officers and subcommittee members and set the executive committee agenda, according to the newly created bylaw.

Gustafson, however, said he would not recognize the group’s vote.

“The meeting was called out-of-order,” Gustafson said. “I’m the duly elected chair of the Galveston County Republican Party.”

The steering committee, he said, is “nothing.”

Whether the vote will mean anything remains to be seen. Gustafson said he would refuse to recognize the action. But it signals a split in the county party between Gustafson and a group of precinct chairs who said they are unhappy with his leadership before the 2018 elections.

The exact cause of strife is unclear. Gustafson blames a group of “self-serving individuals” trying to grab power from within the party. His critics list grievances about the party’s public messages, say Gustafson does not communicate with other party leaders and that pre-election groundwork isn’t getting done fast enough.

Gustafson did ask county officials not to allow the group to use the appraisal district space under the party’s name. He said he was concerned over insurance issues that might arise from a group having an unapproved meeting in the party’s name.

But Janis Lowe, a precinct chair and member of the steering committee, said the group made concerted efforts to call a legal meeting.

“I worked really hard to let the meeting commence,” Lowe said. Because it was posted as being at the county building, she believed the meeting in the parking lot was proper, she said.

The parking lot meeting was attended by 26 precinct chairmen, according to meeting minutes obtained by The Daily News. All but one voted to create the committee, according to the minutes. There are 45 Republican precinct chairs in Galveston County, according to the Texas Secretary of State’s Office.

The party’s bylaws allow an official meeting to be called if 25 percent of precinct chairs are present, Lowe said.

“We all have a responsibility and we all have a duty and we’re going to start doing that more than relying on someone not doing that,” Lowe said.

Gustafson, an engineer by trade, was elected to his position in December 2015 as an interim chairman, and was elected to a full two-year term in March 2016. He also is on the Friendswood City Council. His election came at a time when Republicans control almost all of the elected positions in the county.

Party grievances against Gustafson date back to before the 2016 presidential election, when the party’s executive committee, which includes all of its elected precinct chairs, voted to pay for billboards urging people to vote.

Some in the group wanted the billboards to feature then-candidate Donald Trump, and other conservative icons, one precinct chairman said. But what was ultimately purchased was a more staid, red, white and blue sign with the words “Vote Republican” and the party’s website address.

Other complaints followed. Precinct chairs voted in March to disapprove of a Clear Creek Independent School District bond proposal. The resolution called for the referendum to be postponed or for voters to reject it. In April, however, Gustafson was quoted in news reports downplaying that decision.

He was not, to some precinct chairs, sufficiently explaining the party’s vote.

Later, Gustafson stood in the way of a resolution calling for censure of Texas Speaker of the House Joe Straus. It was similar to ones made in other counties by conservatives upset by Straus’ performance during the 2017 Legislative Session. Straus blocked several socially conservative pieces of legislation, such as a bill that attempted to regulate which public bathrooms transgender people could use.

The resolution to censure Straus, like the steering committee vote, was improperly taken, Gustafson said.

Gustafson defended the way he has communicated the county party’s position on political issues. There have been fights over messaging, he said. He had to work with Facebook to take control of the party’s official page, for example, and also created a new party website.

“My position is, and always has been, that the party web and social media presence should be upbeat and informational, not a source of negative and controversial communication,” Gustafson said. “Negativity does not inspire.”

But his critics said they see a lack of leadership.

“There’s no leadership in the party at all,” said Sandra Tetley, a precinct chair who was not among the group at the parking lot meeting. “There’s nothing happening; there’s nothing going on. He does just the minimal to get by.”

Gustafson and the precinct chairs contacted by The Daily News insisted the opposition against Gustafson didn’t indicate internal splits or blocs forming around local politics. The coming Republican primaries include multiple Republican candidates for county judge and for the District 23 state representative seat, among others.

Instead, Gustafson’s detractors said their move is over a lack of performance and communication before the elections and the party’s major fundraising events, which they said is being organized more slowly than in the past years.

“Those of us who are experienced precinct chairs are aware of the deadlines and timing and all the duties that we have,” Lowe said. “We just see the clock ticking and many of the duties and tasks need to be done, and they’re not getting done.”

Gustafson said that if the dissident group intends to replace him, they should work to vote him out during the March primary. He intends to run for a second term, he said.


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