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Judge moves Santa Fe shooting trial out of county

GALVESTON

Dimitrios Pagourtzis will not face a Galveston County jury if and when he stands trial for capital murder over the mass shooting at Santa Fe High School in May last year.

Judge John Ellisor, of the 122nd District Court, on Wednesday informed attorneys that Pagourtzis’ trial would be moved to a jurisdiction outside of Galveston County. A written ruling on the motion is expected by Friday, officials said.

Pagourtzis is charged with capital murder of multiple persons and aggravated assault of a public servant and has been held without bond since his arrest on May 18, 2018.

He is accused of killing 10 people inside Santa Fe High School, and of shooting Santa Fe Independent School District police officer John Barnes.

Thirteen other people were injured in the shooting.

The decision to change a venue is rare, and typically is reserved for cases in which the court believes a defendant cannot receive a fair trial in the jurisdiction where the crime happened.

Pagourtzis’ attorneys filed a motion for a change of venue in January, and attorneys argued for and against the motion in front of Ellisor on Monday.

During that hearing, Pagourtzis attorneys compared his case to the trials of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and serial killer Ted Bundy, both of whom were granted changes of venue.

The attorneys argued the publicity around the shooting had created a situation in which Pagourtzis could not get a fair trial in Galveston County.

As evidence of prejudice, the defense pointed to comments made on local news sites and social media pages.

Nick Poehl, Pagourtzis’ defense attorney, said Ellisor’s decision would allow the trial to start from neutral territory.

“We’re very pleased with the decision and looking forward to finding out where we might go,” Poehl said. “The judge made the right decision.”

Ellisor has not decided where the trial will be held. That decision is not expected to be announced until the next hearing in the case, which is not scheduled until May.

While the trial will be moved, Galveston prosecutors will still present the state’s case against Pagourtzis, District Attorney Jack Roady said.

“We are ready to try this case wherever it needs to be tried,” Roady said.

The news of Ellisor’s decision reached the families of shooting victims by late Wednesday afternoon.

Sonia Lopez, whose daughter Sarah Salazar was shot and injured during the shooting, said she hoped the trial would be held as close as possible to Galveston County. But she believed Ellisor made a decision that was in the interests of holding a fair trial, she said.

“We’re willing to support the judge and the decision that was made,” Lopez said.

Pagourtzis faces up to life in prison. Because he was 17 at the time of the shootings, he cannot receive the death penalty.

No trial date has been set.


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Cold-case investigators come up empty at cemetery dig

SAN LEON

Sheriff’s office investigators spent much of Wednesday sifting through the clay around a grave site in east Galveston County.

But after hours of work, which was part of an ongoing cold case investigation, deputies found nothing, officials said.

Sheriff’s office officials declined to disclose details beyond that it’s a cold case that has been under investigation for about a year.

A caravan of sheriff’s office vehicles pulled up about 8:30 a.m. to the San Leon Cemetery, at the intersection of East Bayshore Drive and 22nd Street.

Investigators set up canopies, a table and a sifting box and got to work, placing pile after pile of dirt and clay into the device and then washing it away with water to see what they could find.

About 5 p.m., after about nine hours of sifting, the search was called off.

“We didn’t find what we were looking for,” Lt. Tommy Hansen said.

He didn’t say exactly what it was that investigators had been looking for, but offered a few details.

The sheriff’s office was led to the graveyard by a tip that came during a cold-case investigation that he’s been working on for about a year, Hansen said.

That case involves a person who disappeared in 1999, he said.

The investigators did not fully excavate a grave or exhume a body, Hansen said. They were searching the earth around a gravesite, he said.

It appeared to investigators on Wednesday that the gravesite had been disturbed sometime in the past, he said.

Investigators still were pursuing leads in the case, he said.

The crime-scene investigation drew the attention of San Leon residents who drove by the cemetery. The land is adjacent to Galveston Bay, and sea fog hung over the search area throughout the day. The wet made digging difficult, Hansen said.

People who pulled up to the search site on Wednesday morning said the cemetery is reserved for locals only, and some graves date back to the 1800s. People who own property in San Leon can be buried there at no cost, they said.

The sheriff’s office does not plan to resume searching at the site Thursday, Hansen said.


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City hopes new water plan brings more conservation

GALVESTON

Galveston’s new draft water conservation plan aims to reduce water use by 25 gallons per capita per day in the next 10 years, an effort that focuses both on decreasing the city’s lost water and urging residents to reduce use.

The city wants to reduce its water use from 233.3 gallons per capita per day to 208.2 gallons by 2029, said Brandon Cook, assistant city manager of development and municipal services.

The plan, which was last updated in 2009, is open for public comment.

While the city now has the rights to enough water to meet demand, conservation will be key to ensuring the city doesn’t have to buy more rights in the near future, Cook said.

The city estimates Galveston will need 4.3 billion gallons of water this year, according to the draft plan.

“We’ll be all right within the next 10 years,” Cook said. “But 20 years, who’s to say?”

Buying water rights and building the infrastructure to access it is expensive, Cook said.

The plan will get more serious about cracking down on customers who use excessive water during times of drought.

In December, the Gulf Coast Water Authority approved a plan that will surcharge its customers if they fail to meet certain conservation goals during times of drought or shortage, authority General Manager Ivan Langford said.

“Penalties in the form of surcharges on excess water use during shortages encourage our water supply customers to take measures to use less water,” Langford said.

Under the city’s new plan, those surcharges would get passed down to the city’s customers, only during times of drought, Cook said.

The city got a warning in November when a water authority pipe that supplies water to the island had to be shut off to repair a leak, Cook said.

“We didn’t really see a significant drop in consumption,” Cook said. “It definitely is concerning.”

A huge part of the water conservation battle has to do with public perception of a problem, said Sarah Gossett, water quality manager at the Galveston Bay Foundation.

The foundation, which advocates for the health of Galveston’s bays, helped the city with its conservation plan, Gossett said.

Convincing the public to conserve water can be tricky, depending on current weather conditions, she said.

“There was this perception that we have all of this water available because we’re a flood-prone city,” Gossett said. “Just five years ago, we were recovering still from a huge drought.”

People should want to conserve water because it will ultimately save customers money, she said.

The city’s plan also aims to tackle its own water waste challenges through a program that enhances metering and targets aging infrastructure.

In 10 years, the city aims to reduce its water loss from 55.4 gallons per capita per day to 30.6 gallons.

The city’s still assessing program costs, but it could be looking at about a $1 million investment over five years, Cook said.

Old meters that undercharge customers and aging pipes that leak are just some examples of problems in the current system, Cook said.

The Galveston City Council last month approved a water rate increase of up to 7 percent to pay for about $35 million in capital projects meant to enhance water and wastewater services.

From 2019 to 2023, the city’s slated $104 million to improvements for water infrastructure, according to city reports.

The city plans to bring the drafted plan before city council Thursday to receive comments from the public.

Galveston’s new water plan is due to the state May 1. City administrators hope the city council will approve the plan in March.


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Arson trailer discussion gets heated

LEAGUE CITY

After months of searching for different ways to pay for it, the fire marshal is finally getting a mobile trailer his office could use to investigate potential cases of arson.

The city council Tuesday approved spending almost $80,000 in grant money to buy the trailer.

But, during the vote, one councilman objected, saying he felt misled and that the trailer might end up costing the city in the long run.

“I thought we were spending $80,000 to buy a mobile office for the fire marshal’s office,” Councilman Larry Millican said. “Now, I’m hearing it will cost $200,000 instead of $80,000. It seems underhanded to me. And I question how much use it will get, and what the cost of maintenance will be.”

Officials with the fire marshal’s office first went before council about a year ago to ask permission to apply for a grant that would fund a mobile office to make it easier to investigate whether any fire was intentionally set, as well as for other purposes, Fire Marshal Tommy Cones said.

The department responds to about 30 fires in a given month, ranging in size from dumpster fires to house and grass fires and the city will need a trailer as it continues to grow in size, Cones argues.

City code requires the department to investigate every fire that occurs within the city limits to determine whether it was an arson, Cones said.

That grant request was for almost $200,000, but the city didn’t receive the full funding, Cones said.

An initial request for proposal returned two bids far above the $80,000 the city received in grant funding, but a second bid recently came back much cheaper, albeit without much of the technology the city would eventually need, Cones said.

So, the marshal’s office on Tuesday asked the council to approve buying that trailer, as well as for permission to file for an additional $131,000 in homeland security grant funding that could eventually be used to purchase equipment and electronics for the trailer.

“We might need this down the road, but I’m not sure we need it now,” Millican said. “And my concern is that the technology will be useless in five years. So, we’re spending $120,000 because it’s free, and then racking up maintenance costs until we need it. It seems inconsiderate to the taxpayers.”

Cones argued that investigating each fire takes other pieces of the department’s rolling stock out of operation.

But Millican pressed the issue, asking how many actual arsons the office determined in recent years.

Cones said he wasn’t exactly sure, but thought there were about six cases his office referred for criminal charges in 2018.

“It’s not that many, but we are hoping to keep it that way,” Cones said.

An arson command trailer could also be used for other purposes, such as cleaning up hazardous waste spills and in responding to surrounding department’s requests for service.

Ultimately, despite Millican’s opposition, the council voted 6-1, with Councilman Nick Long absent, to approve the purchase and also applying for the additional grant funding.

“We are paying you all not just to investigate fires, but also to find funding to get the supplies you need,” Mayor Pat Hallisey said to Cones. “We hire you to be our subject matter experts, and I’m going to support your effort. It doesn’t cost the city anything, and I applaud that.”

An arson command trailer would have an interview room, areas for computers and other technology and plenty of space to take specialized equipment and tools to the scene of fires, Cones said.