Harris County prosecutors on Monday charged 11 people in connection to dozens of armed robberies that happened over the course of a year in the Houston and Galveston area.
The charges stem from investigations into 41 robberies that happened from July 2018 to February 2019, including a robbery at La Michoacana Meat Market in Galveston in January, prosecutors said.
Tom Grant, 18, and Jacquez Keli, 17, were both charged in connection to crimes in Galveston, according to the Harris County District Attorney’s Office.
They and nine other men are accused of being parts of crews of masked men who would target meat markets that caters to Hispanics.
During the Galveston robbery on Jan. 4, masked men entered the store at about 9:15 a.m. and fired shots into the air, striking a sign above a service counter. The men fled the store and escaped despite a police manhunt in the vicinity of the store.
Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said a similar strategy was used by groups of men in other area robberies.
“The evidence shows these crews robbed everywhere but their own neighborhoods, as they preyed on businesses and terrified innocent people,” Ogg said. “Now they will have to stand in court and face judgment.”
The robbery was one of more than a dozen armed robberies in Galveston that occurred in late 2018 and early 2019 that prompted the Galveston Police Department to create a task force to investigate them and to make arrests.
Multiple agencies worked together to makes the arrests announced Tuesday, including the Houston Police Department; the Harris County Sheriff’s Office; U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas; the Galveston Police Department; the Beaumont Police Department and the Harris County District Attorney’s Office.
Residents across Galveston County are calling for neighborhood drainage improvements, but the most effective way for local leaders to reduce flooding is by improving flow along Clear Creek, according to a report by a Friendswood committee.
“The issue with flooding is Clear Creek,” said Steve Rockey, a councilman and chairman of the Friendswood Drainage Subcommittee, which recently presented its findings to the city council. “But any fixes are going to be expensive and take a lot of time.”
The committee’s results focused solely on possible flooding solutions in Friendswood itself, but its findings echo what many local leaders and officials have said in the months since Hurricane Harvey dropped more than 50 inches of rain in some parts of the county and badly flooded many houses and businesses in August 2017.
“We’ve had extensive development along the entire watershed,” said County Commissioner Ken Clark, who represents the northern parts of the county and served on the drainage subcommittee. “That means a lot more water is coming down at higher velocities from places like Pearland. But there haven’t been improvements to Clear Creek. At some point, the community here has to decide what is priority.”
The committee — composed of residents, local officials and city administrators — worked with Rice University professor Philip Bedient to develop modeling for the creek during Hurricane Harvey and project what difference various proposals would have made to peak water surface elevation levels during the storm, according to an April 1 presentation.
“The report gives us a vast toolbox of methodology to be able to address Clear Creek,” Clark said. “Whether it’s detention ponds, buyouts or new development requirements or elevating houses.”
The report projects how much each of several different possible solutions might have reduced the water level during Harvey. The best possible combination would be raising the bridge over FM 2351, de-snagging along the creek and creating a terrace around it, according to the report.
Under the terracing method, crews would build a 200-foot terrace on both sides of the creek without straightening the channel, according to the presentation. That method alone could have reduced water levels near the FM 2351 bridge during Harvey by more than 3 feet, according to projections.
The results of the drainage study are incredibly helpful, but a complicating factor is how expensive solutions might be, Rockey said.
All told, the solutions projected in the report could cost more than $300 million, records show.
“You’re going to have to spend money from other agencies to fix some of this, whether it be federal, state or county,” Rockey said. “But you can’t attract that funding without using some of your own — you have to put money on the table first.”
Though the committee’s findings and recommendations speak directly to Friendswood officials, leaders at other county cities said they were paying attention to the results and that it echoes calls for regional solutions.
“All of us have an interest in this,” League City Mayor Pat Hallisey said. “We’re all working on this together.”
Much of the drainage committee’s report is meant to prepare Friendswood for a bond referendum, like the one League City has planned for May 4, Councilman Larry Millican said.
“What they’re doing now is what League City did last year when we went through that series of engineering studies,” Millican said.
But while much of Friendswood’s research is limited to Clear Creek, the same might also be true of Dickinson Bayou, Clark said.
And Dickinson Mayor Julie Masters told The Daily News she thinks the region was closer to working together on solutions.
“We know we can’t do it alone,” she said. “It takes a partnership. And I think we are getting closer to that, as opposed to all the individual drainage districts. We had a meeting where everyone came to the table and realized this will take a group effort to do this regionally based on watersheds.”
The drainage committee’s report calls for the city to present voters with a $32 million bond proposition, the money from which would be spent over 15 years for projects along the main channel of Clear Creek, according to the April 1 presentation. The committee also recommends hiring a full-time drainage coordinator to create a long-term strategy, among several other recommendations.
“I am encouraged council will direct staff to take action on a number of the recommendations made,” Friendswood City Manager Morad Kabiri said Monday. “In fact, I will be presenting them with an item on their next agenda in May seeking that direction.”
Divisions rattle Hitchcock as mayoral election and future planning decisions loom.
Except for the possible sighting of unusual numbers of people carrying binoculars around Galveston this week, residents likely wouldn’t know there’s a festival in town. FeatherFest, Galveston’s annual celebration of bird life in the region, opens on Thursday for its 17th year, bringing with it nature tourists from around the country.
Some 600 people from 32 states have pre-registered and on-site registration, which normally sees a lot of people coming in from the surrounding area, opens at 4 p.m. Wednesday at FeatherFest headquarters, 4700 Broadway.
With FeatherFest, Galveston also enjoys its role as a nature tourism destination, an identity the city’s Park Board and Galveston Island Nature Tourism Council have been trying to cultivate and grow.
In recent years, the idea of developing and promoting nature tourism as an essential component of Galveston’s tourist economy has become more and more talked about among residents as well as at government levels. But nature tourism hasn’t yet become established as a major driver of Galveston’s tourist economy in the same way that, say, Mardi Gras has or the annual Biker Rally or Dickens on the Strand, officials say.
Julie Ann Brown, executive director of the Galveston Island Nature Tourism Council, is encouraged by a number of things that indicate growing commitment on the part of the city to the kind of tourism that doesn’t require extra police patrols or cordoned-off streets or earplugs, she said.
FeatherFest, put on by the Galveston Island Nature Tourism Council, is the island’s signature nature tourism event with more than 100 scheduled birding tours and activities over four days, led by a panel of birding experts familiar with the area and its birding treasures.
Birders are like birds, they have site fidelity, Brown said. That means they’ll come back year after year for habitat and food. Galveston Island, the Bolivar Peninsula and High Island are among the first sights thousands of spring migratory birds see after crossing the Gulf of Mexico every April, and tourists will return again and again to see them drop in for a rest before flying north.
“It’s remarkable how many people come back here over and over because this is where the birds come,” Brown said.
Promoting nature tourism means developing it, ensuring there is sufficient community and governmental investment in its infrastructure to sustain it, tourism officials said. For Galveston, that means dedicating resources to protecting established bird habitat, said Jim Stevenson, director of the Galveston Ornithological Society, who leads birding tours around the world each year.
“To make nature tourism successful here, for one thing, you have to make birds a priority,” Stevenson said. “In many cases, we’ve lost birds by destroying their habitat and they’ve moved off island.”
Still, Galveston is one of the rare places in the United States where a birder might see as many as 200 bird species on a good spring day, making it a choice spot for birders seeking elusive species to add to their life lists, Stevenson said.
In recent years, Stevenson has seen more birding tourists on the island from Middle Eastern countries, especially Pakistan, and more Asian tourists traveling to Galveston and the surrounding area to look for birds, he said.
Just a ferry ride away, birding spots on the Bolivar Peninsula and at High Island extend island visitors’ bird-watching range.
On Monday, Houston Audubon announced a $2.3 million nature tourism enhancement plan for its Smith Oaks Bird Sanctuary in High island, which will feature an elevated boardwalk for birders, taking them at eye level through the forest canopy and sub-canopy.
Already a prime bird-watching spot, the sanctuary will draw even more nature tourists with the feature, along with an improved visitors center, according to Houston Audubon.
“We want to promote nature tourism because it’s reliant on a green infrastructure,” said Richard Gibbons, an ornithologist and conservation director for Houston Audubon. “When you add this revenue stream to the mix of tourism, there’s more initiative to save habitat.”
Nature tourists are generally well-educated and pay attention to where in the world communities are working to preserve bird habitat, Gibbons said.
“I thing nature tourists like to reward those places that have taken steps to preserve their natural resources,” Gibbons said.
Nature tourism offers an opportunity to build and diversify the local economy, Brown said.
“It builds public support for wildlife conservation,” she said. “And I believe it instills pride in the community for its unique natural assets.”
Despite an agreement that guarantees beach cleaning in the event of seaweed inundation, residents of some West End communities still worry their beaches won’t be clean enough this summer.
After a move last year that disallowed private contractors from operating under its beach cleaning permit, the Galveston Park Board of Trustees last month agreed to clean West End beaches of seaweed under specific conditions.
According to the agreement, the park board will clean the beaches of neighborhood associations who sign up when seaweed builds up to 2 1/2 feet high and 10 feet wide or covers 50 percent of a property.
But that would not be frequent enough for some residents, said Bob Dolgin, president of the Sandhill Shores Property Owners Association.
“Why is it that Florida beaches, even on the Gulf Coast, can go ahead and clean their beaches on a daily basis?” Dolgin said.
Beaches that look dirty can deter tourists, he said. Members of his neighborhood would rather hire a contractor to clean beaches as often as they want, he said.
The park board cleans beaches under a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit, which involved a costly, lengthy process to obtain, park board officials said.
Although it previously allowed private companies to operate under its permit, the board revoked that privilege last year amid claims a company had violated terms of the permit.
The permit is required for using heavy equipment that might cause environmental harm and requires the permit holder to take steps to prevent that harm.
Sargassum, a type of seaweed, does provide some ecological benefits to Galveston beaches, but the positives might not outweigh the economic losses associated with decreased tourism, said Rusty Feagin, a professor at Texas A&M University.
He studies coastal ecology and published a 2007 article about potential costs and benefits of sargassum on beaches and conducted new research last year, he said.
“It doesn’t really affect the beach elevation over time in a significant way,” Feagin said.
In the short term, seaweed build-up protects the shore against erosion from the waves, but he’s not sure that effect lasts years over years, he said.
Sargassum does provide ecological benefits, but pushing it off the beach, closer to the dunes, could have benefits for tourism that are more significant than any environmental costs, he said.
“I don’t think it’s the end of the world,” Faegin said.
But sargassum in Galveston is an essential part of the ecology, said Joanie Steinhaus, program manager with Turtle Island Restoration Network.
The nonprofit promotes sea turtle and beach health.
“These homeowners think that seaweed is a health hazard and it’s not a health hazard,” Steinhaus said. “There’s no need to clean daily.”
No matter what people want, the beach cleaning has to stay within the bounds of the park board’s permit, said Peggy Zahler, vice president of the West Galveston Island Property Owners Association.
“I understand if you’re in for the investment, you want a pristine beach,” Zahler said. “I understand that seaweed does serve a very productive purpose on the beach.”
Some states have much more pristine beaches than Texas does, but those states have different rules, she said.
The Sandhill Shores association will likely sign the park board permit because otherwise, no one will be able to clean the area beach at all, Dolgin said.
The Army Corps of Engineers is working on a cheaper permit that homeowners associations or companies could obtain to clean beaches, but that permit likely won’t be ready for several years, park board officials said.