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Abbott's gun-violence plan reaches 30-day threshold

A little more than 30 days after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued eight executive orders in response to back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso and Odessa that killed 29 people, there’s debate about whether the orders will help reduce gun violence or prevent future massacres.

At least two Galveston County residents deeply involved in the problem of school shootings since the 2018 Santa Fe shooting that killed 10 people and injured many more, have their doubts, they said.

Mike Matranga, director of security for Texas City public schools, believes his district is far ahead of the state in its efforts to root out would-be shooters, identify and capture them before they do damage to themselves or others, arguing the Texas Department of Public Safety doesn’t have the resources required to fulfill Abbott’s orders.

Rhonda Hart, former Santa Fe Independent School District bus driver and mother of Kimberly Vaughan, 14, killed in the Santa Fe High School shooting, characterizes Abbott’s initiatives as “shenanigans.”

“I call shenanigans on the whole thing,” Hart said. “He released a 41-page summary for school safety after the Santa Fe shooting and still refuses to address safe gun storage laws that might have prevented it.”

Abbott’s orders are aimed mostly at strengthening the state’s Suspicious Activity Reporting Network, a surveillance system run by the Texas Department of Public Safety. Suspicious activities can be reported online at the state-run app iWatch, a program mandated by Abbott to be made more familiar to the general public.

“Texas must achieve several objectives to better protect our communities and our residents from mass shootings,” Abbott said on Sept. 5, the day he issued the orders. “I will continue to work expeditiously with the legislature on laws to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous criminals, while safeguarding the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Texans.”

Orders No. 1 and No. 2 gave the Texas Department of Public Safety 30 days to develop clear guidance for law enforcement agencies across the state to report suspicious activity to the network.

The governor’s office on Monday said it has not yet received the report from the Texas Department of Public Safety, whose deadline was Saturday.

The Texas Department of Public Safety doesn’t have adequate resources to fulfill the governor’s orders, Matranga said.

“They’re definitely the agency to do it, but this is the perfect example of a politician not having first-hand knowledge of what it takes to make something like this happen,” Matranga said.

Within 60 days, the department is required to come up with training for law enforcement officers about how to effectively use the reporting network.

The governor’s office on Monday couldn’t immediately answer questions about whether the governor has allotted additional funding and resources to the department to meet his mandates.

The Texas Department of Public Safety also is charged with creating threat assessment teams in school districts, with providing additional personnel to monitor social media and online forums through the state’s fusion centers and with launching an initiative to increase public awareness of the network.

Calls and emails to public information officers at the Texas Department of Public Safety last week about the Suspicious Activity Reporting Network and its iWatch app, went unanswered.

Abbott also charged leaders in the House and Senate to appoint select committees on mass violence prevention and community safety.

Sen. Larry Taylor of Galveston County serves on the Senate select committee, scheduled to begin work in October by meeting with families and community members affected by mass shootings at multiple shootings around the state, including Santa Fe.

Hart said she has been blackballed from participating in such forums because of her advocacy for more restrictive gun safety laws.

“If you look at what came out of the 86th Texas Legislative Session, the new laws that went into effect the day after the El Paso shooting, they loosened gun laws across the state,” Hart said.

“I knew those laws were coming down the pike, but that just shows their priorities,” she said.

“I call BS on it all. If they really were willing to work on reducing gun violence, they’d work with gun violence prevention groups, but they don’t want to hear from us.”

Neither Taylor nor the lieutenant governor’s office could be reached for comment on his participation on the committee and whether Hart was invited to participate.

The Senate and House committees are charged with monitoring implementation of the governor’s executive orders and to study the state’s ability to deter violence through several means. Those include:

• prohibiting people from wearing masks while intimidating others;

• examining laws on reporting criminal history and other threat indicators;

• considering the role of digital media in mass violence;

• and assessing ways to keep firearms from people who would fail a federal firearms background check, while protecting Texans’ right to bear arms, including asking whether stranger-to-stranger gun sales should be subject to background checks — a measure that might have prevented the Odessa shooter from purchasing the weapon he used to kill seven people.


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Texas City police hold 16-year-old in deadly shooting, carjackings

TEXAS CITY

A spate of violence Sunday, including two armed carjackings and a deadly shooting, ended Monday afternoon with a 16-year-old boy in custody and facing possible capital murder charges, police said.

The chain of events began Sunday evening at a cell phone store at 5320 FM 1765, police said.

Two victims reported a young male wearing blue jeans and a white hooded sweatshirt approached them in the parking lot, pulled a handgun and demanded they hand over their keys, said Cpl. Allen Bjerke, spokesman for the Texas City Police Department.

The victims complied, and the suspect drove away in the van, according to police.

Less than an hour later, at 8:30 p.m., Curtis Lee, 45, was shot dead outside Building 12 at the Costa Mariposa Apartments, 7555 Medical Center Drive, where he resided, police said.

Lee died of a single gunshot wound to the head, said John “D.J.” Florence, assistant medical examiner for Galveston County.

A witness at the apartment complex told police he’d heard a noise, had gone outside and had seen a young man next to Lee, Bjerke said.

The gunman had gotten into a white Nissan Maxima, later confirmed to be Lee’s, and drove off, Bjerke said.

At the apartment complex, investigators found the red Honda Odyssey reported carjacked from the cell phone store about a half-hour earlier, Bjerke said.

Lee’s stolen white Nissan was found at a residence in La Marque early Monday morning, based on a tip police received about the previous night’s case, Bjerke said.

“When police approached the young man, who was at the residence of family members, to ask questions about the car, he fled into the surrounding neighborhood on foot,” Bjerke said.

Police cordoned off a perimeter in the area and waited for about three hours before they were able to find the young man hiding beneath a house in a field about 25 yards off Main Street, FM 519, near the intersection with Franklin Street in La Marque.

“SWAT teams from La Marque, Galveston and Texas City police departments conducted a systematic search, sweeping the area,” Bjerke said.

A Texas Department of Public Safety helicopter searched the area from overhead but was not able to find the suspect. A drone flown overhead by police also proved not to be useful, Bjerke said.

“An officer spotted the suspect after searching the area surrounding a small house and negotiators moved in and talked to him for about 45 minutes before he finally surrendered,” Bjerke said.

There was no one in the house, which Bjerke said was possibly abandoned.

Police retrieved a handgun from beneath the house where the suspect was hiding, Bjerke said.

No charges had been filed Monday evening, and police continued to question the teen. If charges are filed, the 16-year-old will be remanded to custody at the juvenile holding facility at Attwater Road in Texas City until the courts decide whether he will be prosecuted as an adult, Bjerke said.

“Today we saw a cooperative effort among several law enforcement agencies that ended peacefully,” Bjerke said.


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Cause of death ruling premature, ME's investigator says

HITCHCOCK

John “D.J.” Florence, chief investigator of the County Medical Examiner’s office, said Tuesday he had misspoken Monday when he reported that blunt-force trauma had caused the death of Kevin Darnell Norman last week in Hitchcock.

The cause of Norman’s death still was undetermined Tuesday and medical examiners were awaiting test results to make a final determination, Florence said.

Norman, 50, was found Thursday beside state Highway 6, not breathing, according to Hitchcock Police. He was transported to a University of Texas Medical Branch hospital in Galveston, where he was pronounced dead, police said. Police declined to say what time Norman was found.

Police Chief Wilmon Smith of Hitchcock initially reported Norman was believed to be in poor health at the time of his death. A subsequent autopsy, however, revealed his death was caused by blunt-force trauma, said John “D.J.” Florence of the medical examiner’s office.

Smith on Monday would not divulge any details of the investigation into Norman’s death, saying only that all agencies initially called on to investigate were still involved. Those agencies include the Texas Department of Public Safety, Texas Rangers, the Galveston County Sheriff’s Office and the Hitchcock Police Department.


Coming Thursday

In Political Buzz: What’s the secret program the sheriff doesn’t want to talk about in an open meeting?


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Clear Creek de-snagging project could take years

LEAGUE CITY

A $2.3 million series of projects to de-snag four tributaries of Clear Creek might increase their capacity by as much as 29,000 gallons per second, but could take several years before construction begins, city administrators said.

League City is the latest Galveston County community to consider a de-snagging project as a means to reduce flooding. Some area leaders have favored the method, which clears some vegetation and other obstructions from along the banks of a creek because it can be done without approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, they’ve said.

But, as part of the project, crews would de-snag a total of more than 18,960 feet of channel in Magnolia Creek, Cedar Gully, Landing Ditch and Newport Ditch in League City with approval from the corps, said Christopher Sims, the city’s director of engineering.

The city has been eying the tributaries since January, when administrators hired Houston-based Kimley-Horn Engineering to determine whether improvements could help with drainage issues into the Clear Creek watershed, Sims said.

The firm eventually determined a de-snagging project would increase the capacity of Magnolia Creek and Newport Ditch by more than 50 percent, from 1,555 cubic feet per second up to 2,204 cubic feet per second and 2,715 cubic feet per second up to 4,210 cubic feet per second, respectively, Sims said.

De-snagging could also increase capacity for Cedar Gully and Landing Ditch by more than 30 percent, from 2,321 cubic feet per second to 3,095 cubic feet per second and from 2,908 cubic feet per second up to 3,873 cubic feet per second, respectively, Sims said.

The council in September approved a design contract for the project with Kimley-Horn for as much as $362,900, records show. City officials estimate that, once the firm completes design work, it will take about six to nine months to receive the necessary permits from the corps.

Once the city receives the proper permits, construction will take from 12 months to 15 months, Sims said.

City administrators are planning to advertise the Landing and Newport ditches work together in 2021 and the Magnolia Creek and Cedar Gully work together in 2022, officials said.

Funding for the projects will come through the city’s capital improvement plan budget, said Sarah Greer Osborne, spokeswoman for the city. The study of the tributaries wasn’t complete in time for the projects to be included in the May bond propositions.

Voters on May 4 overwhelmingly approved $145 million in bonds, the city’s first propositions in 27 years, for traffic and drainage repairs. The first measure was a $73 million bond for flood protection projects and drainage improvements.

The propositions, along with the proposed de-snagging project, are the result of residents calling for more flood mitigation since Hurricane Harvey dropped more than 50 inches of rain on some parts of the county and flooded more than 8,000 homes in the city in late August 2017.


kelseywalling / KELSEY WALLING/The Daily News  

Greg Abbott in Dickinson

Gov. Greg Abbott discusses recovery efforts that will be made by the state in Dickinson at Dickinson City Hall on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017. Abbott promised that Dickinson would see its fair share of state funds for Hurricane Harvey recovery.