Although officials and employees of a shuttered Children’s Center facility blamed high blood lead levels on the county, health and building experts assert staying safe from the ever-present pollutant is a matter of cleanliness.
The Children’s Center descended into scandal last month when health officials found its family crisis shelter filthy, infested with vermin and contaminated with lead. Health officials evicted people from the facility, which operated for decades in the county-owned buildings.
County Commissioners on April 17 ratified a health district order evicting the Children’s Center from the property, officials said.
The Galveston County Health District in late March became concerned about the residential facility, 4428 Ursuline St., when the University of Texas Medical Branch reported a child living there had high blood lead levels, Dr. Philip Keiser, the county’s top public health official, said.
The test result led to the the testing of 19 people at the shelter, which housed nine families totaling 21 people, including 16 children, Keiser has said.
Of the residents, 19 people agreed to testing, of which four had high blood lead levels, Keiser said. Three were children ages 1 year to 11 years belonging to two families, he said.
Lead levels in the soil around the Children’s Center facility was 1,400 times higher than the natural level, Keiser said.
Hilda Garcia, executive vice president of the Children’s Center, said at an April 18 news conference that lead is everywhere in Galveston and the Children’s Center was not at fault.
Keiser, however, asserted lead was just the beginning of the long list of problems at the center.
“They’re right in that there’s a lot of lead in Galveston,” Keiser said. “And that part isn’t unusual. But when was the last time we had four people in the same house get lead toxicity?”
Almost everyone alive has grown up around lead paint, David Watson, a Galveston architect who has worked on numerous historic downtown buildings, said.
“It’s present everywhere,” Watson said. “It’s going to be in any historic building, or any building that isn’t brand new. It’s almost impossible to fully abate.”
The source of the lead is old houses and buildings painted with lead-based paint, Keiser said. People can get lead poisoning in two ways: chipping the lead paint of a building or through soil.
Much of the soil in Galveston has become contaminated over the years, Keiser said.
Natural soil contains lead concentrations of less than 50 parts per million, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The highest level we found was about 70,000 parts per million,” Keiser said.
Health officials believe people were tracking in lead from the ground outside and onto floors where children came into contact with it, Keiser said.
General uncleanliness was the real problem, Keiser said.
“It’s all the dust and dirt on the floor they never bothered to clean,” Keiser said. “How do you clean it up? You just use a wet mop. Simple mopping would’ve cleaned all the lead up.”
When children become 1 years old, they are tested for blood lead levels, Keiser said.
In 2021, there were 5,000 children born in the county who were then tested in 2022, Keiser said. Of those 5,000, 23 tested positive for high blood lead levels.
The infants with high blood lead levels equal to 0.46 of the population. When the health district tested the 19 people at the center, four came out positive for high blood levels, which is a 21 percent.
Children center clients were at 45 times higher at risk of being exposed to lead toxicity, according to the statistics.
Lead poisoning can lead to nerve and brain damage, anemia, slow growth, hearing and speech problems and delays in mental development, Keiser said.
Putting mulch on the soil could also have prevented the problems, Keiser said. The playground didn’t have traces of lead because of the padding that covered the ground.
And the lead was not the reason the heath district evicted the center from the facility, Keiser said. It was the fleas and rats that infested the building and might carry diseases such as typhus, which has been on the rise in the county, he said.
Typhus is caused by a bacteria transmitted through fleas and lice from animals to humans, Keiser said.
Typhus symptoms include fever and chills, headache, rapid breathing, body and muscle aches and rash.
The disease can even be fatal in some cases, he said.
“The list of diseases that rats can carry is as long as my arm,” Keiser said.
In effort to offset costs of booming growth, the city council in a 6-1 vote Tuesday adopted a 93 percent increase in capital recovery impact fees charged to developers for connecting to municipal water and wastewater systems.
Councilman Tommy Cones cast the dissenting vote.
The impact fees will increase from just less than $8,000 for each connection to a state-allowed maximum of about $15,000.
Revenue collected from the fees helps offset the city’s cost to provide water and wastewater infrastructure to meet the demands of growth, officials said.
The fees are part of the cost developers have to consider with new commercial and residential building and are passed on to homebuyers and commercial tenants.
Although the fees developers face in League City are among the stiffest in the state, it’s just part of doing business in a desirable city, Randy Hall, CEO of Windy Hill Development and a League City resident, said.
“It is a real plus when you have a very attractive community,” Hall said. “The city has a lot to offer and has yet to be developed along the west side.”
“I think it’s important for the city to take a very broad-based approach on what is quality growth,” he said.
Despite booming growth over the past 10 years, the city is only about 40 percent developed, officials said.
Application fees alone are $3,000 in League City, which is just the ante, John Baumgartner, city manager, said.
“That means you’re looking at about $25,000 a home just in fees, and that’s before you even start building it,” he said.
Despite that, there’s no sign of slowing in the residential growth that drove League City’s population to 116,000 people in 2020 from a mere 83,500 in 2020, officials said.
In fact, the city was projecting 600 new homes would go up this year, Baumgartner said.
“When you look at a city that is growing rapidly, when you talk about citizens and growth, this is an example,” Baumgartner said. “Developers like the lowest fees. Citizens don’t want to contribute more of their funds to support the growth.
“At the end of the day, the person who pays the real fee is the person who buys the new home,” Baumgartner said.
Although not opposed to the fee increase, one developer said the city should get more creative in attracting commercial building.
“The city could make an outward expression of how they want to work with developers in a partner relationship,” James Brockway, broker and owner of League City-based Brockway Commercial, said.
After complaints about concrete, rusted metal and bricks emerging from the site of a recently completed $6.8 million West End beach construction project, the Texas General Land Office is sending its deputy director of coastal resources to meet with the city, Park Board of Trustees and homeowners.
Homeowners and vacationers at the SeaScape Condos, 10811 Termini-San Luis Pass Road, have found toddler-sized chunks of concrete, rusted and jagged metal, bricks, rock-hard clay chunks and countless sharp seashells on the beach just west of the seawall.
The land office representative is meeting with Kimberly Danesi, interim CEO of the park board, and city staff at the beach Wednesday afternoon. Park board staff members said they still couldn’t comment on the matter until requests had gone through the land office.
Land office officials couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.
The park board is charged with maintaining the island’s beaches through remediation projects.
The land office is the state agency responsible for preserving Texas’ lands and natural resources. The entity oversees all beach remediation projects and has the final say on beach-related projects and changes to many beach rules.
In February, Beaumont-based Apollo Environmental Strategies completed an $6.8 million construction project that resulted in about 119,000 cubic yards of sand placed along a span of West End beach at the end of the seawall. The company hauled trucks of sand from Texas International Terminals, 4800 Old Port Industrial Road.
The project was a part of a Federal Emergency Management Agency claim in conjunction with a land office Coastal Erosion Planning and Response Act grant.
Texas lawmakers revealed Tuesday a monthslong corruption investigation into Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton, going public with the probe shortly after Paxton accused the GOP House speaker of being drunk on the job.
Hours after Paxton’s claim, House Speaker Dade Phelan announced the House General Investigating Committee has been looking into “alleged illegal conduct” by Paxton, who is already under FBI investigation over accusations of corruption by former staff. Phelan brushed off Paxton’s allegation as a desperate attempt “to save face.”
Both jolted the Texas Capitol near the frantic end of a legislative session that has again laid bare the raw divisions between Republicans who control every level of power in the state goverment.
At stake for Paxton in the final days of the session is whether lawmakers will approve using $3.3 million in taxpayer dollars to settle a lawsuit brought by the attorney general’s accusers. Paxton, who also separately remains indicted on securities fraud charges from 2015, has denied wrongdoing.
Phelan has previously expressed reservations about using state dollars to allow Paxton to settle the lawsuit. On Tuesday, after Paxton accused Phelan of being intoxicated while presiding over the Texas House and called on him to resign, Phelan revealed that a House General Investigating Committee has been looking into the settlement and accusation of bribery and abuse of office from Paxton’s former top deputies.
“Mr. Paxton’s statement today amounts to little more than a last ditch effort to save face,” Phelan said in a statement.
The committee was scheduled to meet Wednesday. The full scope of its investigation is not clear but members sent a letter to Paxton ordering his office to preserve documents and communications surrounding the settlement.
Since April, the committee has issued at least 12 subpoenas for testimony and information to people and entities as part of its probe of Paxton’s office, according to meeting minutes that note the parties were left anonymous to “prevent reprisal and retaliation.”
This month, a committee lawyer began asking people questions about the allegations made in the whistleblower lawsuit by four of Paxton’s former staffers, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss details of the investigation that had not been made public.
The group that sued was among eight of Paxton’s staff members who reported him to the FBI in 2020 on accusations of breaking the law to help one of his campaign contributors. The donor, Austin real estate developer Nate Paul, employed a woman with whom Paxton acknowledged having had an extramarital affair. In February, the federal criminal investigation of Paxton was taken over by the U.S. Justice Department’s Washington-based Public Integrity Section.
Each of Paxton’s accusers later quit or was fired. In the years since, his agency has come unmoored by disarray behind the scenes, with seasoned lawyers quitting over practices they say aim to slant legal work, reward loyalists and drum out dissent. But until now GOP lawmakers had shown little appetite for looking into a member of their party who’s kept up a steady stream of constrictive legal challenges to the Democratic Biden administration.
Tuesday’s dust-up between two of Texas’ top Republicans came as the House was in the middle of a marathon day of trying to pass bills before a key midnight deadline. The legislative session ends on Memorial Day.
Paxton, a former state lawmaker, tweeted that Phelan had been presiding over the Texas House “in a state of apparent debilitating intoxication.” He cited no specific evidence, but the tweet came days after conservative critics of Phelan circulated video on social media that appeared to show the speaker slurring his words while presiding over the Texas House on Friday night.
Phelan’s statement did not address the video or the accusations that he was intoxicated. No House members have called for Phelan to step down.
Earlier this month, the same legislative investigative committee recommended the expulsion of GOP Texas state Rep. Bryan Slaton for inappropriate sexual conduct with a 19-year-old intern. Slaton resigned before a planned vote to kick him out.
Tuesday afternoon was going fine for Galveston resident John King until he drove his SUV inadvertently into a sinkhole he thought was just a puddle.
King was on his way home after getting groceries and took an alternate route to avoid construction on 23rd Street, he said.
“When I turned left, my car just went down,” King said. “I knew something was wrong. I tried to open my door and I didn’t realize how far the car was in the ground. Mud started to pour in and I said, ‘Woah, this is definitely not right.’”
King had to escape the SUV through a window, he said.
Shortly thereafter, crews were hauling King’s SUV out of a giant hole at the intersection of 22nd Street and Avenue M.
King was uninjured but lost all the groceries he had just bought.
He was planning to talk to his insurance company Tuesday afternoon, he said.
The sinkhole was caused by a broken water main, which the city is investigating, spokeswoman Marissa Barnett said.
The traffic department has blocked off the area, and municipal services had isolated the water main to prevent further damage, Barnett said.
“Homes and businesses in the immediate area may experience a loss of water while crews work to fix the water line,” Barnett said.
Jury deliberations began Tuesday in a 40-year-old triple-homicide that shocked League City and remained a cold case for decades.
After 13 days of trial, the fate of Jesse Dean Kersh, 64, of Spring, will go to a jury that must decide whether the homicides were related to shoddy work on a car or a jilted lover’s jealousy.
Felony Division Chief Assistant District Attorney Kayla Allen was first to give closing arguments seeking a guilty verdict.
On Nov. 3, 1983, the bodies of Beth Yvette Wilburn, 25, Thomas Earl McGraw, 28 and James Oatis, 22, were found at the auto shop Corvette Concepts on West Main Street in League City.
The Galveston County Medical Examiner’s Office determined Wilburn, a co-owner of the shop, had been stabbed 114 times in the torso and shot in the head.
McGraw, a Halliburton employee who apparently just happened to be at the shop, was shot seven times and stabbed 15 times.
Oatis, a Houston electrician who was there just to repair a light, was shot eight times in the head.
“Admit what you cannot deny, deny what you cannot admit,” Allen said. “There is undisputed, corroborated evidence against the defendant. He tried to distance himself from the Meyers’ vehicle.”
The Meyers’ vehicle was an important piece of the state’s establishment of a motive. The claim was that Kersh did shoddy work on their vehicle and they called to complain and Wilburn yelled at Kersh, causing him to “snap” and commit the crimes.
Defense attorney Kevin Rekoff opened his arguments saying investigators had tunnel vision, focusing entirely on Kersh, and that the passion, anger and motive of the crime pointed toward another assailant. Rekoff argued that Wilburn wasn’t upset after she spoke to the Meyers and asked them to bring their vehicle in the next day. Rekoff also pointed out that Kersh did not care enough about the job to kill for criticism of his work.
Allen argued the defense’s alternate suspect, Bob Currie, had left the shop about 7:15 p.m. Nov. 2, leaving only Kersh, Wilburn and Oatis in the building.
In an interview with Kersh on Feb. 21, 1985, he told investigators that when he left work on Nov. 2, 1983, Wilburn, Oatis and McGraw were all in the building and alive.
Kersh said in his testimony he heard about the Meyers’ frustration directly on Nov. 3 and not from Wilburn. But Allen argued that when Meyers came to the scene 8 a.m. that day, police asked him to leave and he didn’t speak with Kersh, or even know he did the work on the car.
Kersh testified Wilburn wasn’t confrontational or disrespectful toward him as she was with others. But Allen took issue with that assertion, arguing Kersh was the least experienced worker there. Allen argued Kersh downplayed Wilburn’s treatment of him, because if he said he was angry with her, it would show the jury he could have been the assailant.
Allen argued against defense efforts to push suspicion onto Currie, arguing he would need to be some kind of mastermind and come up with the perfect time to commit the crime, create a good alibi and obtain a gun with a silencer. Allen pointed out there was no evidence Currie was upset with Wilburn and he was excluded based on DNA under her fingernails. Prosecutors in the trial said Kersh’s DNA was found under Wilburn’s fingernails.
Allen also pointed out Darryl Krogman, a high school friend of Kersh’s, testified he was with him at a gun show when he obtained a .22-caliber handgun six months before the murder and helped him build a silencer.
Rekoff argued it would have been unlikely for Wilburn to be the first to be attacked, because Oatis would have heard her scream as she was stabbed 114 times.
“Who had the greatest passion for Beth?” Rekoff asked. “Currie told investigators that he was hurt when he found out she was dating McGraw and still loved her. Witnesses testified that he followed her around like a puppy and accepted her disrespect.”
Rekoff also argued there was a financial incentive for Currie, who had sold his home and took out loans to keep the business afloat. A month before the killings, Currie also taken out an $11,000 loan and with Wilburn gone, he would get back 51 percent of the business. Currie also denied multiple requests to search his home, quickly got a lawyer and only helped law enforcement when the investigation shifted away from him, Rekoff said.
Rekoff laid out a series of “hints” he argued Currie left that pointed to his involvement in the killings. Blood spatter from the stabbings indicated a left-handed person committed them; Currie was left-handed, Kersh was right-handed, Rekoff said. Someone had ripped off a necklace from Wilburn’s neck post-mortem and Rekoff pointed argued McGraw bought her a lot of jewelry and Currie never did. Rekoff also argued the DNA under Wilburn’s nails was inconclusive and that Kersh had no marks or abrasions on his body.
There also was a gap in Currie’s alibi from 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., Rekoff said.
“Do not buy this bill of goods, use your common sense,” Rekoff said. “Bob left hints. We know who did this. It was Bob. Bring your common sense to the jury room.”
First Assistant District Attorney Kevin Petroff was allowed to give a rebuttal to Rekoff’s arguments before the case was handed to the jury.
“It is not surprising that this case got so much interest from the police,” Petroff said. “League City was a small town then. This was the brutal murder of three innocent people.
“Of course, in a 40-year-old case, there will be unanswered questions. Make your decision based on the facts.”
Petroff worked to poke holes in Rekoff’s arguments, pointing out Currie was excluded by the DNA under Wilburn’s nails, that the medical examiner could not determine whether the assailant was left or right-handed and that the necklace could have been torn off as she was stabbed 114 times. Petroff also argued the use of a silencer is very uncommon.
The smoking gun in the case was the .22-caliber handgun with a silencer and only one person had that, Petroff said.
“Follow the facts and finally, after all this time, find the defendant guilty of all three murders,” Petroff said.