Jesse Dean Kersh took the stand in his own defense Monday to assert his innocence against three murder charges from 40 years ago.
In an unusual move, defense attorney Kevin Rekoff opened his client, Kersh, 64, of Spring, up to cross-examination from prosecutors. Kersh faced a sometimes contentious cross from First Assistant District Attorney Kevin Petroff as he answered questions related to his alibi and relationships with the victims.
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 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.
Rekoff asked Kersh about his relationships with Wilburn and McGraw, who were dating at the time of the killings. Kersh testified that he and Wilburn had a good relationship and McGraw was a nice guy and very outgoing.
Kersh testified that on the night of Nov. 2, 1983, he left the shop about 7 p.m. and Wilburn and Oatis were still in the building. Prosecutors claimed the killings were triggered by complaints of sloppy work by Kersh, who “snapped” when Wilburn yelled at him. Rekoff asked Kersh directly whether he killed Wilburn for yelling at him and subsequently killed McGraw and Oatis.
“Beth never said anything about the customers being frustrated with the work," Kersh said. "But that would be no reason to kill somebody anyway. I am not that kind of person.
“Tommy never showed me any disrespect. I did not kill anybody.”
That same night, Corvette Concepts employees, including Kersh and the victims, joked about co-owner Bob Currie having a date. Kersh stopped at several bars to see whether he could find Currie’s vehicle, before continuing on to “Rockers” to see a band, Kersh testified. Kersh also testified he was asked to leave the club after falling asleep and “had too many.”
Kersh said he stopped for food on the way home, noting the exact meal — red beans and rice — he had nearly 40 years ago, before returning to the home he shared with Currie and Currie’s brother, who were not back at that time.
Kersh continued to work at the shop for about another year before moving on and said he needed a change, going back to school and getting into the computer field. He was interviewed on Feb. 21, 1985, and told investigators that when he left work on Nov. 2, 1983, Wilburn, Oatis and McGraw were all in the building and alive. He also told Rekoff he didn't believe he was a suspect at that time.
Petroff asked Kersh about his relationships with the victims. Kersh said he worked well with them and socialized with his co-workers. But Kersh said Wilburn could be condescending to employees, although he didn’t experience that any more than anyone else.
Questioning between Kersh and Petroff became heated as Petroff grilled him about the four bars he said he stopped at before reaching the show he intended to go to. Kersh appeared frustrated as Petroff rhetorically asked why he could remember his meal 40 years later but not the bars and the order in which he visited them.
The case stayed cold until October 2006, when Darryl Krogman told FBI agents he had been present when Kersh bought a .22-caliber pistol at a gun show, according to an affidavit.
Krogman also told investigators that, at Kersh’s request, he had made a “silencer” for a handgun shortly after that purchase and about six months before the murders.
Kersh had previously denied owning a .22-caliber handgun.
Felony Division Chief Assistant District Attorney Kayla Allen and Petroff are representing the state, while 122nd District Court Judge Jeth Jones presides over the case.
The jury could be handed the case as soon as Tuesday.
As many as 100,000 people in an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 vehicles converged on Crystal Beach for Jeep Weekend, which led to 234 being arrested, three people being wounded by gunfire and two people being critically injured by means other than gunfire.
Jeep Weekend, or Go Topless Weekend, is an annual beach party that started as a gathering for Jeep owners and enthusiasts. The event has grown to be an annual beach party held the weekend after Mother’s Day. It can draw tens of thousands of people and be as busy for public safety officials as a major holiday.
As of Sunday afternoon, The Galveston County Sheriff’s Office had arrested 234 people on 283 charges, Galveston County Sheriff’s Office Maj. Ray Nolen said. Last year, there were 175 arrests resulting in 198 charges filed during Jeep Weekend.
On Saturday alone, the sheriff’s office fielded 168 personnel, which was double compared with last year, Nolen said. More than 300 law enforcement shifts were scheduled between Thursday and Saturday.
The sheriff’s office was assisted by the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Galveston County constables’ offices, Nolen said.
Five major vehicle incidents happened during the weekend, Nolen said.
“On Friday night, a female was either thrown from a vehicle or she jumped from the vehicle on her own accord,” Nolen said.
The woman was transported to the University of Texas Medical Branch John Sealy Hospital where she remained in critical condition Monday afternoon, Nolen said. The case still is under investigation.
On Saturday night, an impaired driver hit a pedestrian on state Highway 87, Nolen said. The man was flown to John Sealy Hospital, where he remained in critical condition as of Monday afternoon.
A man was robbed of his wallet at gunpoint, Nolen said. The sheriff’s office still is investigating the case.
During the event, there were two separate shootings that left three people with non-life threatening wounds, Nolen said.
Also during the event, a man was arrested for pointing a light beam at a DPS helicopter and was charged with illumination of aircraft by intense light, Nolen said.
Galveston County Emergency Services District No. 2 received 90 calls for service, Doug Saunders, director of the emergency services, said.
Seven people were airlifted, he said.
“It’s called Jeep Weekend, but the ‘Jeepers’ weren’t the problem,” Saunders said. “Most of the people who ride Jeeps are respectful and cordial.”
Despite the event being called Jeep Weekend, there weren’t a lot of Jeeps at the beach, Nolen said.
Jeep clubs no longer participate in the event and have moved to other coastal towns, he said.
No first responders were injured during the event, Nolen said.
“It was incredible to see the magnitude of people and vehicles concentrated in such a small area in 5 to 6 miles of beach,” Nolen said. “People were congregating all up and down on the beach. It was overwhelming.”
Despite what could best be categorized as mayhem, the sheriff’s office saw the event as a success, Nolen said.
“When you have 80,000 to 100,000 people and only 234 were arrested, which the majority were misdemeanors, and only two critical injuries with no deaths, the sheriff’s office sees this as a successful event,” Nolen said.
Vacationers seeking island accommodations through the popular booking site Airbnb are paying some of the highest add-on fees in the nation, according to Forbes.
A recent Forbes study ranked Galveston 33rd worst in the nation for fees, with vacationers paying 39 percent of their bill toward fees such as hotel occupancy taxes, cleaning fees and service fees. Houston was the only Texas city ranking worse at No. 8.
Many of the island’s Airbnb offerings are beachfront properties, so sand is the primary culprit responsible for necessitating rigorous cleaning and a pricey cleaning fee, Ron Venable, vice president of the Short Term Rental Owners Association of Galveston, said. The association is a non-profit that promotes responsible rental operation through education, advocacy and networking.
“I think our fees are high because we have to pass on our costs to the renter,” Venable said.
Venable, who owns one property and manages seven others, pointed to high property taxes and steep city fees as two of the costs short-term rental owners pass on to customers.
Short-term rental owners this year faced a fee increase for annual registration. The city council voted Oct. 27, 2022, to increase the annual registration fee for short-term rentals to $250 from $50 a year, a 400 percent hike. It used to be a one-time fee of $50, Venable said.
“Where is that money going?” Venable said.
Other short-term rental operators such as Ana Draa, social media director of the owners association, also were in the dark about how the city is spending that money.
The increase was necessary to afford new technology to collect taxes and better regulate a booming industry of nearly 4,500 rental units, Mayor Craig Brown said. About 792 of those properties appear for rent on Airbnb. The fee is also being spent on police and marshals to enforce short-term rental ordinances, Brown said.
Short-term rental owners, however, argue it was part of a city-led money grab, Venable said, echoing the thoughts of other owners who spoke to The Daily News. The council over the past several months has urged city staff to seek methods of increasing annual revenue without raising taxes.
“We’ve been saying it from the beginning, and the term I keep hearing over and over is money grab,” Venable said. “It looks like they’re doing it with the park board. They’re doing it with the Wharves Board. So, I think a lot of it is that the city needs money and wants money.
“And we’re an easy target.”
Emily Root, who owns a trio of island short-term rentals available on Airbnb, agreed. Root found the fee increase upsetting.
“That’s a ridiculous increase without our knowledge when we’re already paying 15 percent,” Root said. “Several of us are upset because we don’t see where that money is being used.
“The city is absolutely trying to squeeze money out of the money makers on the island.”
Airbnb stays generated about $5.3 million in hotel occupancy taxes, or 34 percent of the $15.7 million hotel occupancy taxes collected by the park board in 2022, CFO Bryson Frazier said.
In total, transactions on Airbnb and Vrbo, another booking site, accounted for 54 percent of total hotel tax revenue collected from short-term rentals, Frazier said.
The city is looking into increasing marshal and police service around the island’s short-term rentals, Brown said when asked where the registration money was going.
“When the city discussed the registration fee, the important thing was not to just make money for the city but to support registration and management of short-term rentals,” Brown said.
The city has personnel and software fees it had to pay to track short-term rentals, Brown said.
Few other island businesses are taxed as harshly as short-term rentals, Root, who also owns the restaurant Sugar & Rye, 2401 Church St., said.
“The $250 on top of the 15 percent, so we’re taxed at like 20 percent,” Root said, referring to the 15 percent hotel-occupancy tax rate.
“My restaurant isn’t taxed like that on the island. It’s a ridiculous taxation. Our sales tax is 8.25 percent, but every rental I have is 15 percent.
“My ultimate wish would be that if we’re going to be taxed so heavily we would see exactly where our money is going.”
People are veering away from Airbnbs because of the fees, Root said. Root would absolutely consider taking her rentals off of Airbnb if she had millions to market her rooms, she said.
Airbnb charges owners 3 percent for the privilege of using their marketplace, as well as another 15 percent fee, Draa said. That means rental owners are paying 33 percent of their earnings to Airbnb, Draa said.
The Forbes study found customers are facing an average of 36 percent in fees on top of nightly rates, which averaged $245 in Galveston. The island was ranked 69th in terms of its nightly rate. The Airbnb destination with the highest fee percentage was Atlanta, Georgia, at 48 percent. Galveston’s cleaning fee makes up 12 percent of the total cost to stay at an Airbnb. Airbnbs in Phoenix, Arizona, charge 20 percent for cleaning fees, which was ranked as most expensive in the nation.
Part of that cost comes from the small cleaning market island owners have to choose from, Root said.
“Well, we’re on an island, and the people who help us clean live on the island,” Root said. “Because there’s so few people who can help us clean, because people living off the island aren’t willing to drive down, they can kind of mark their price.
“It’s a tight community, one cleaner is going to have similar prices to another. They’re able to ask these very high prices because they’ve got a unique product on our island. It’s difficult to find a cleaning service. Living on the island is expensive, so they’re just passing on their costs.”
One woman had to carry her baby, missing much of her skull, for months knowing she’d bury her daughter soon after she was born. Another started mirroring the life-threatening symptoms that her baby was displaying while in the womb. An OB-GYN found herself secretly traveling out of state to abort her wanted pregnancy, marred by the diagnosis of a fatal fetal anomaly.
All of the women were told they could not end their pregnancies in Texas, a state that has enacted some of the nation’s most restrictive abortion laws.
Now, they’re asking a Texas court to put an emergency hold on some abortion restrictions, joining a lawsuit launched earlier this year by five other women who were denied abortions in the state, despite pregnancies they say endangered their health or lives.
More than a dozen Texas women in total have joined the Center for Reproductive Rights’ lawsuit against the state’s law, which prohibits abortions unless a mother’s life is at risk — an exception that is not clearly defined. Texas doctors who perform abortions risk life in prison and fines of up to $100,000, leaving many women with providers who are unwilling to even discuss terminating a pregnancy.
“Our hope is that it will allow physicians at least a little more comfort when it comes to patients in obstetrical emergencies who really need an abortion where it’s going to effect their health, fertility or life going forward,” Molly Duane, the lead attorney on the case, told The Associated Press. “Almost all of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit tell similar stories about their doctors saying, if not for this law, I’d give you an abortion right now.”
The Texas attorney general’s office, which is defending the state in the lawsuit, did not immediately return an email seeking comment Monday.
The lawsuit serves as a nationwide model for abortion rights advocates to challenge strict new abortion laws states that have rolled out since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year. Sixteen states, including Texas, do not allow abortions when a fatal fetal anomaly is detected while six do not allow exceptions for the mother’s health, according to an analysis by KFF, a health research organization.
Duane said the Center for Reproductive Rights is looking at filing similar lawsuits in other states, noting that they’ve heard from women across the country. Roughly 25 Texas women have contacted the organization about their own experiences since the initial lawsuit was filed in March.
The women who joined the lawsuit describe being elated about finding out they were pregnant before the experience turned catastrophic.
Jessica Bernardo and her husband spent years trying to conceive, even consulting fertility doctors, before finally become pregnant with a daughter, Emma, last July.
Almost immediately, Bernardo was coughing so hard and often she would sometimes throw up. Fourteen weeks into the pregnancy, test results revealed her baby likely had Down Syndrome, so she consulted a specialist who gave her devastating news: Emma’s heart was underdeveloped and she had a rare, deadly disorder called fetal anasarca, which causes fluid to build up in the body.
“He handed me a tissue box,” recalled Bernardo, who lives in Frisco. “I thought maybe the worst thing he was going to tell us was that she’s going to have Down Syndrome. Instead, he said, ‘I can tell you right away...she wouldn’t make it.’”
The doctor warned her to watch out for high blood pressure and coughing, symptoms of Mirror syndrome, another rare condition where a mother “mirrors” the same problems the fetus is experiencing.
With Bernardo’s blood pressure numbers climbing, her OB-GYN conferred with the hospital’s ethics board to see if she could end the pregnancy but was advised Bernardo wasn’t sick enough. Bernardo spent $7,000 traveling to Seattle for an abortion a week later.
Even if Emma made it through the pregnancy, doctors would have immediately needed to drain excess fluids from her body, only for her to survive a few hours or days, Bernardo said.
“Reading about everything they would do sounded like complete torture to a newborn that would not survive,” she said. “Had I not received an abortion, my life would have very likely been on the line.”
Other women facing similar situations have not had the financial resources to travel outside of the state.
Samantha Casiano, a 29-year-old living in eastern Texas, found out halfway through her pregnancy last year that her daughter, Halo, had a rare diagnosis of anencephaly, where much of the skull and brain is missing. Her doctor told her she would have to continue with the pregnancy because of Texas law, even though her baby would not survive.
With five children, including a goddaughter, at home she quickly realized she could not afford an out-of-state trip for an abortion. The next next few months of her pregnancy were spent trying to raise money for her daughter’s impending funeral, soliciting donations through online websites and launching fundraisers to sell Mexican soup. Halo was born in April, living for only four hours.
“I was so full of heartbreak and sadness, all at the same time,” Casiano said.
Women in the lawsuit say they could not openly discuss abortion or labor induction with their doctors, instead asking their doctors discreetly if they should travel outside of the state.
Dr. Austin Dennard, an OB-GYN in Dallas, never talked about her own abortion with her doctors after they discovered anencephaly on the baby’s ultrasound during her third pregnancy last year. She worried her out-of-state trip to end the pregnancy could jeopardize her medical license or invite harassment against her and her husband, also an OB-GYN. Dennard was inspired to go public with her case when one of her own patients joined the original lawsuit filed in March after traveling to Colorado to abort a twin fetus diagnosed with a life-threatening genetic disorder.
“There was an enormous amount of fear that I experienced afterward,” Dennard said. “It’s an additional way of feeling silenced. You feel you have to do it in secret and not tell anyone about it.”
Dennard is expecting another child later this year.
Ball High School student Tate Burchfield, 17, will walk the stage Thursday to receive his diploma with an associate degree already in hand.
He’s one of 14 students in Galveston Independent School District’s dual-credit program with Galveston College who graduated during the college Commencement ceremony May 12.
But while the other 13 students finished the program during the 2023 spring semester, Burchfield had completed the degree program in August last year.
Out of about 454 students enrolled in the program in the 2022-2023 school year, Burchfield was the only one to finish his degree that early, Alisha McCracken, student success advisor for Dual Credit at the college said.
“He is actually the first student to do that in the dual-credit program,” she said. “Tate was an exceptional student.”
Most dual-credit students who earn associate degrees finish the program during the semester that they graduate, McCracken said.
The college has one commencement ceremony a year, so Burchfield had to wait until May this year for the graduation ceremony.
He graduated with his associate degree in General Studies.
In the dual-credit program, eligible high school students can enroll in college courses and receive credit for the courses from both the college and high school, according to The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.
The school district is trying to recruit more students to participate in the dual-credit program, district spokeswoman Stephanie Fontenot, said.
The college also is working to grow the program. This year, 454 students enrolled and the college is aiming to have at least 550 students enrolled in program next year, McCracken said.
The dual-credit program offers 30 courses largely funded by grants from the Moody Foundation, officials said. Many of the courses are free to students in the program, officials said.
“It’s great that we have the dual-credit program at Ball High through Galveston College that has allowed me to do this basically debt-free,” Burchfield said. “I don’t have to pay 10 times as much and it was an economical option I tried out and it paid off.”
The deadline for the 2023 fall semester dual-credit program already has passed, but students can apply for the 2024 spring semester later in the year, officials said.