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Neely's lawyers demand release of body camera images

GALVESTON

The city has 30 days to release body camera recordings of Donald Neely’s arrest or else activists will plan a large march through the city’s streets, his attorneys said Monday.

In a press conference attended by Neely’s family, attorneys Benjamin Crump and Melissa Morris announced they had filed a public records request with the city for the release of the body camera recordings.

The tapes can definitively show whether the two Galveston Police Department officers who arrested Neely on 23rd Street on Aug. 3 had acted inappropriately, he said.

“If these officers are good people of good character, then the Galveston Police Department should have no problem releasing the police body cam video,” Crump said.

Neely did not attend the press conference.

In a statement sent after the press conference, the city said the body camera footage would be released after investigations into Neely’s arrest are completed by the Texas Rangers and the Galveston County Sheriff’s Office.

“This review is now with those agencies and we have full confidence they will thoroughly and justly evaluate the incident,” city spokeswoman Marissa Barnett said. “We anticipate the body camera footage will be released after the investigations are concluded.”

If the city doesn’t release the video, a coalition of civil rights and mental health advocacy groups would hold a march in Galveston on Sept. 15, Crump said.

Two mounted police officers arrested Neely, 43, for trespassing outside the Galveston Park Board of Trustees building, at 601 23rd St.

During his arrest, Neely, who is black, was handcuffed and attached to a lead, and then walked between the officers’ two horses to a staging area about four blocks, or 400 yards, from where he was arrested.

Passersby took pictures and video of Neely’s arrest. After being posted on social media last week, the photos drew worldwide attention to Galveston and its police department.

Critics have called the way Neely was treated racist, and compared the images of his arrest to historic images of slavery. Other people have questioned whether the officers were properly trained to interact with a person with a mental illness.

Neely is homeless and has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, his attorney said. He also experiences schizophrenic tendencies, Morris said.

Galveston Police Chief Vernon Hale apologized for causing Neely “unnecessary embarrassment” and said his officers used poor judgment while arresting him.

The police officers’ actions are now under investigation by the Texas Rangers and the Galveston County Sheriff’s Office, which will determine whether any laws or administrative policies were violated during Neely’s arrest.

The Daily News and others have independently requested copies of the body camera recordings of Neely’s arrest. As of Monday afternoon, the city had not responded to the News’ request.

City officials have reviewed the body camera footage, but have not publicly described what it shows.

A witness last week told The Daily News one of the officers told Neely “If you don’t keep walking, I’m going to drag you.”

When given the opportunity to deny the officer made that statement, the city said the arrest was being reviewed by the outside agencies and that “one statement must be evaluated within the context of the entire encounter.”

Public agencies generally have 10 business days after a public records request is made to decide whether to release a public document, or challenge the release by appealing to the Texas Attorney General’s Office.

Although some people have raised the possibility of a lawsuit against the city over Neely’s treatment, Crump and Morris both said no civil lawsuit had been filed as of Monday.

The family’s intent was not to get a payout from the city, Neely’s sister said.

“We love our brother,” Taranette Neely said. “We’re not out here for money. We just want justice for him.”

Taranette Neely said her family had tried to take Donald Neely home before, but that he refused to leave the island. He’s been arrested seven times for trespassing this year, according to court records. Six of those times, including the most recent one, were at the same building.

Crump is originally from Florida, but has an office in Houston. Morris is a candidate for a state Senate seat in Houston. On Monday, she said she also was a longtime friend of Neely’s sister-in-law, which is how she became involved in Neely’s case.

Also appearing at the press conference was Sam Collins, a community leader, and Erin Toberman, the former organizer of The Galveston Kindness Project and the person who first posted photographs of Neely’s arrest on social media.

The attorneys also were joined by the families of Pamela Turner, a black woman who was shot and killed by police in Baytown in May, and of Danny Ray Thomas, a black man who was shot and killed by a sheriff’s deputy in Harris County in 2018.

In both case, the families said police did not do enough to help people going through mental health crises.

The announcement of plans for a potential protest in Galveston stand in contrast to the way some local groups have reacted to Neely’s arrest.

On Aug. 5, hours after the first photographs of Neely’s arrest, the Galveston chapter of the NAACP said it fully supported Hale and trusted him to handle the investigation into the incident. The NAACP held a community meeting with Hale on Aug. 6.

The differences in reaction could be because of local groups’ familiarity with Hale since he took over as police chief in January 2018, said E.R. Johnson, the pastor of Galveston’s Avenue L Baptist Church.

As a practice, Hale regularly meets with local faith leaders to talk about issues in the community, including incidents between the officers and residents.

“Protests have their place, but mostly we need to make sure we address the issues,” Johnson said. “Protests have their appeal to a certain group of individuals, to bring awareness to the issue at hand. But also we need to sit down at the table.”


News
Galveston's West Enders prepare for major 2-year FM 3005 project

GALVESTON

A two-year project to reconstruct and raise the main highway in and out of Galveston’s West End is set to begin next week, leaving some residents concerned about navigating the road work.

The state agency in charge of reconstructing FM 3005 has assured residents it will work to mitigate any negative effects the construction has on traffic, but some people are concerned that traffic in the increasingly popular island’s West End will only get worse with the two-year project.

The $35.3 million project is slated to begin Monday with some preliminary work in the culverts and placing of barricades, said Danny Perez, spokesman for the Texas Department of Transportation, the state agency overseeing the project.

Crews over 30 months will raise the roadway to 7.5 feet above sea level and clean or replace the existing storm sewer, Perez said.

“The road raising will help keep water off the roadway during times of severe weather and while folks are trying to leave the area,” Perez said.

If the project can help with the drainage issues, that would be great, but people are concerned about how long the construction will last, said Ginger Robinson, general manager of the Sea Isle subdivision.

Robinson lives in Texas City, but she’s driven to Sea Isle for work every day for 13 years, she said.

Her commute is about 40 minutes right now, but she’s worried that could double with the new construction, she said.

“Thank goodness they’re waiting till the end of this particular summer, but come next summer, it’s going to be a nightmare,” Robinson said.

The West End is growing as a popular destination for beach-bound tourists who don’t want to pay entrance fees for East End parks, a trend that’s driving more weekend and summer traffic down FM 3005.

Tommy Harrison, owner of Seven Seas Grocery, 17523 FM 3005, sees many tourists in his store, but worries people won’t be able to reach the grocery store easily with all the construction, he said.

“Now, with the traffic line, it takes several hours to evacuate the West End, just people leaving and going home,” Harrison said. “It is going to cause problems.”

Residents will have access to their homes and businesses at all times during the construction, Perez has said. If crews have to make a brief closure, residents will be notified ahead of time, he said.

But crews should always maintain both directions of traffic, and the project shouldn’t require any flaggers, he said.

The construction will probably be a challenge, but residents should be hopeful that the state can resolve the streets’ drainage problems, said Jerry Mohn, president of the West Galveston Island Property Owners Association.

When there’s heavy rain, FM 3005 does have problems draining, with water running down the sides of the road, he said.

“The road’s getting bad,” Mohn said.

Although she’s concerned about how the construction might worsen traffic, it’s time for the improvements, Robinson said.

“I think it’s long overdue,” Robinson said. “It definitely needs to happen.”

The project also includes replacing traffic signals at 12 Mile Road, Park Road 66 and San Jacinto Drive, Perez said.

The state agency expects to complete construction by spring of 2022, he said.


Free
Pagourtzis lawyers ask for competency evaluation

GALVESTON

Attorneys representing Dimitrios Pagourtzis want an independent psychiatrist to determine whether he’s competent to stand trial in the shooting deaths of 10 people and injury of more than a dozen at Santa Fe High School last year.

The attorneys argue Pagourtzis’ mental health has been questionable from the start and has declined to an extent that he’s unable to comprehend the legal proceedings underway against him.

An evaluation of Pagourtzis’ mental health could delay a trial on state capital murder charges set to begin early next year.

Pagourtzis’ attorneys filed a motion Monday seeking the evaluation.

The documents claim that since the day of his arrest, Pagourtzis has “shown signs of mental illness” and that he lacks the acuity to consult with his attorneys.

“Mr. Pagourtzis’ mental state has fluctuated and more recently deteriorated,” said Nick Poehl, a defense attorney, in an affidavit regarding Pagourtzis’ competency.

“His mental state has degraded to the point where there is no understanding of the matter and the proceedings,” Poehl said in the affidavit.

Defense experts already had evaluated Pagourtzis and experts working for the prosecutors were doing so now, Poehl said in an interview Monday.

The defense wants Pagourtzis evaluated by an expert independent of the two sides, he said.

Asking for a competency hearing is not the same as pleading insanity, Poehl said.

An insanity defense is about a person’s mental state at the time a crime is committed, Poehl said.

“Competency is about your ability to stand trial,” Poehl said. “He’s deteriorated and it’s not at all evident he understands what’s going on.”

Pagourtzis is accused of killing 10 people inside Santa Fe High School on May 18, 2018. He’s been charged with capital murder of multiple persons and of aggravated assault against a public servant.

The public servant in the latter charge is Santa Fe Independent School District Police officer John Barnes, who was one of 13 people injured during the shooting, prosecutors said.

Pagourtzis was arrested inside the high school May 18 and has been in custody, segregated from other inmates in the Galveston County Jail, ever since, officials said.

The Galveston County District Attorney’s Office declined to comment Monday afternoon. Poehl didn’t expect prosecutors to oppose his motion.

If Pagourtzis were judged incompetent, he might be transferred to a state mental health facility to receive treatment for six months before being reevaluated, Poehl said.

That would delay his trial, which is scheduled to begin in February in Fort Bend County.

Pagourtzis’ fate could ultimately be tied to whether he’s also ruled incompetent to stand trial for 11 federal charges leveled against him in April. Those charges are sealed, because Pagourtzis, under federal law, was considered to be a minor when the shooting happened.

Pagourtzis is being represented by a federal public defender. It’s unclear whether that attorney also is asking for a competency hearing.


News
League City day care under state scrutiny acquired by former NFL player

LEAGUE CITY

A former professional football player and his wife have taken over operation of two day care centers in town, including one that was the subject of a state investigation after an infant died in August 2018.

James and Brittany Ihedigbo late Friday acquired both Kiddie Academy of League City East, 2010 E League City Parkway, and Kiddie Academy of League City West, 1820 Butler Road, from the previous owners, Cory and Summer Bullock, James Ihedigbo said.

Ihedigbo on Monday declined to comment on what his acquisition of the day care centers means for the scrutiny the eastern location has faced since 4-month-old Skylar McNeel died Aug. 27, 2018, but said he looked forward to bringing a revitalized energy with the takeover.

“We are just excited,” he said. “This is a celebratory time for us in the family. We are really excited for what’s ahead.”

The Ihedigbo family lives in Friendswood and already owned one Kiddie Academy in Rosharon, called Kiddie Academy of Lakes of Savannah, and had been looking for other opportunities to expand the academies, James Ihedigbo said.

“The opportunity just presented itself for us to step in and take over the academies,” he said. “We are excited about the new venture. We are right here in Friendswood, so this is down the road and close to home. We are already part of the community, so it is easy to jump right in.”

State officials in late January reached a deal with the Bullocks to postpone plans to revoke the business’ permit to operate until administrative hearings concluded, as long as its operators fulfill several stipulations, according to the agreed filing in the 10th District Court.

The district court lists the case as abated until Jan. 1, 2020, or until both parties finish administrative proceedings, court records show.

Representatives for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, which is overseeing the review, did not respond to multiple requests for comment by deadline Monday to discuss how the change in ownership might affect that case.

The child’s parents, Jared and Lindsey McNeel, also filed a lawsuit against Kiddie Academy International and Bullock’s Bright Beginnings LLC over Skylar McNeel’s death, asserting negligence allowed their daughter to smother and that center operators had attempted to deceive them and state investigators with false and misleading information.

But the McNeels in a late April filing requested the lawsuit be dropped against the Bullocks and their associated businesses, and the case against the day care business was moved to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, court records show.

James Ihedigbo, before becoming a day care center operator, had an almost decade-long career in the NFL, playing for the Detroit Lions, Buffalo Bills and New York Jets, among other teams. He won a Super Bowl ring while playing for the Baltimore Ravens.


Coming Wednesday

Seawolf Park is raising much more income than it did before Hurricane Ike. Where is all the money going?