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Hoteliers hope busier port raises weekday occupancy

GALVESTON

The Port of Galveston will see 17 more ship departures in 2019 than it did in 2018, a traffic increase that has hoteliers hoping to boost occupancy during the week.

As traffic at the port is expected to more than double by 2038, hotel industry leaders have expressed concern that concentrating that visitation on the weekend could leave their rooms empty on weekdays.

Ships will depart from both terminals on 297 days this year, compared to 280 last year, according to port schedules.

This year, a slightly smaller proportion of those ships will depart on weekends. In 2018, 201, 71.8 percent, of the cruise ship departure days were Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, according to cruise ship calendars.

This year, cruise ships will depart 203 weekend days, 68.4 percent of the departure days, according to port schedules.

That’s good for hotels, which are trying to increase occupancy levels during the middle of the week, Galveston Hotel & Lodging Association President Willis Gandhi said.

“When they increase more cruise ships on the weekend, it doesn’t really benefit,” Gandhi said.

That’s because hotels already are full on the weekend, he said. Hoteliers across the island could benefit from more traffic during the week, he said.

This year, the port will see ships on every day of the week but Tuesday, Wharves Board of Trustees Chairman Ted O’Rourke said. The wharves board governs the port.

This increase in weekday port traffic is a natural evolution of an increasingly popular cruise industry and is independent of whatever peaks in visitation will come from the third terminal, when it’s built, O’Rourke said.

The third terminal, near Pier 10 and owned by Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, is scheduled for completion in 2021.

“It’s all good business,” O’Rourke said.

And people already are spending money in Galveston hotels before and after their cruises, he said.

“They’re not coming just to go jump on a ship,” O’Rourke said. “They’re going to spend a few days after or a few days before and visit the island.”

Last year, the largest share, 54.9 percent, of the 51 full weeks on the cruise calendar were three departure day weeks, according to calendars.

This year, the largest share, 69.2 percent, of the 52 full weeks scheduled will be four departure day weeks, according to the calendars.

That’s a step in the right direction, said Spencer Priest, chairman of the Galveston Park Board of Trustees.

The park board maintains island beaches and promotes tourism.

“Spreading the arrival and departure of the critical mass of cruise passengers out is exactly the kind of leverage we would like to see the port continue to push for as we grow the cruise industry,” Priest said.

More weekday departures help businesses, as well, he said. The focus should be on sustainable tourism for hotels, businesses and residents, he said.

Sending weekday business to the hotels isn’t necessarily the job of the port or the cruise ships, O’Rourke said.

But the port’s strategic plan is to take into account traffic measures that push business into the downtown area, he said.


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Federal authorities work to jail Dickinson doctor

DICKINSON

Federal authorities tried unsuccessfully Monday to incarcerate a Dickinson-based doctor while they adjudicate his case, asserting he has been billing Medicare for services he didn’t perform while free on bond.

“He remains on bond,” said Angela Dodge, spokeswoman of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, toward the end of the day Monday.

Dodge’s comments came hours after a judge heard arguments about revoking bond and jailing Dr. Gary Spangler, of Texas City.

A federal grand jury in March 2018 indicted Spangler on one count of health care fraud and several counts of wire fraud and money laundering, alleging he tried to defraud Medicare by billing for unnecessary chelation therapy, federal authorities said.

His attorney, Houston-based Wendell Odom, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Spangler owns and operates several health care businesses, including Spangler Medical Enterprises PA, which operates as Bay Area House Calls in Dickinson, Dodge said.

While federal authorities pursued the case, however, they allowed Spangler to continue to practice medicine so long as he didn’t bill Medicare for chelation procedures, U.S. Attorney Jim McAlister wrote in a motion to revoke Spangler’s bond.

“However, the United States has probable cause to believe that Dr. Spangler continues to defraud Medicare by billing for services that he did not perform, and that Dr. Spangler is making referrals to home health and hospice providers without a proper patient examination, as required by Medicare regulations,” according to the motion to revoke bond.

Between Spangler’s indictment in March and November 2018, he referred 214 patients to home health services — unusual because he doesn’t have a history of it — and sometimes traveled to eight locations a day and billed more than 10 hours for services, the motion asserts.

“This data is common for practitioners involved in ‘kick-back’ schemes because a home health agency simply pays the doctor to certify new patients that have no history with the physician,” the motion asserts.

The motion also asserts federal authorities have opened a new investigation into Spangler’s activities.

Spangler was initially indicted in connection to his use of chelation therapy, which has been used for many years as a treatment for mercury and lead poisoning.

In chelation therapy, medical professionals deliver a dose of a medication called ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid into a patient’s bloodstream through an intravenous line, according to the Mayo Clinic, an academic medical center based in Rochester, Minnesota.

This medication seeks out and binds to minerals in the bloodstream. Once the medication binds to the minerals, it creates a compound that leaves the body in your urine, according to the Mayo Clinic.

The Federal Drug Administration has long approved chelation as a treatment for removing heavy metals from blood, but in recent years, some doctors have asserted the therapy might be useful in preventing cardiovascular disease.

Spangler is accused of asking his staff to order blood tests and administer chelation therapy to patients who didn’t have toxic levels of lead in order to bill Medicare and Medicaid for the services, according to a March indictment filed against him.

Spangler billed Medicare more than $69 million for unnecessary chelation therapy between 2011 and 2017 and received more than $13.2 million from Medicare and $112,000 from Medicaid based on the false claims, Dodge said.


News
Coming Wednesday

A plan developed by students at Texas A&M University at Galveston calls for creating a city center along state Highway 6 in Hitchcock.


Free
Police release identities of two Calder Road victims

LEAGUE CITY

More than 30 years after their bodies were found in a field near Calder Road, Jane and Janet Doe finally have their stories back.

The women — two among four bodies found in the field over a seven-year period — are now officially identified as Audrey Lee Cook, of Memphis, Tennessee, and Donna Prudhomme, of Port Arthur, League City police announced Monday.

Cook was about 30 when she died, Prudhomme was about 34, police said.

Cook’s body was found in 1986, while Prudhomme wasn’t discovered until 1991.

Police officials said the purpose of the news conference was mostly to identify the women, and the information helped detectives eliminate Mark Stalling as a suspect in the killings, said Lt. Michael Buffington, who heads the department’s investigation division and helps work on the cold cases.

Stallings, who is serving a life sentence for an unrelated crime, had confessed to several killings in the area at the time, but many of the things he has said don’t agree with what investigators know, Buffington said.

The League City Police Department has known the identities of Cook and Prudhomme for several weeks, Chief Gary Ratliff said. Detectives hope the public release of that information will help jog the memory of people who knew them, he said.

Investigators had been in contact with relatives of the two women, Buffington said.

“We’ve had some emotional conversations with the family members,” Buffington said. “This has been not unlike telling someone their family member was murdered yesterday.”

Cook, born in Tennessee, lived in the Houston and Channelview areas between 1976 and 1985, police said. She worked for a golf cart company in 1979, a business called Harrison Equipment Co. in about 1980 and one called Balloon Affair in 1981, investigators said.

Investigators provided no other details about those businesses. They said Cook also had worked for National Rent-A-Car, but when was unknown.

Cook’s family last spoke with her in December 1985, investigators said.

Investigators suspect she sold and used cocaine, Buffington said.

“We wanted to put all the facts we could out there, because we want to jog everyone’s memory,” Buffington said. “We even want people to come forward who might have associated with her at that level.”

Prudhomme, meanwhile, moved from her birthplace in the Beaumont area to Houston in 1986 and later moved to the NASA Road 1 area of Seabrook in 1988, police said. Her last known residence is Nassau Bay in 1991, police said.

Police are withholding the identities of the women’s relatives at their request, Buffington said.

Prudhomme had two sons — only one of whom is still living — and detectives had spoken to him and Prudhomme’s sister, Ratliff said.

“Donna was trying to escape an abusive relationship when she moved to the area and her children went to live with their grandparents,” Buffington said.

Prudhomme was charged with one crime in Galveston County, according to court records. In October 1990, she pleaded guilty and was sentenced to seven years’ probation for possession of cocaine, according to court records.

In identifying the two women, detectives used a process similar to the one used to track down the suspected Golden State Killer, Ratliff said. The Golden State Killer committed more than 13 rapes and murders in California during the 1970s and 1980s.

After years without any developments, officials in August charged Joseph James DeAngelo in the California crimes based on DNA evidence.

League City police recently worked with Virginia-based Parabon NanoLabs, which specializes in phenotyping, to analyze DNA samples from Cook and Prudhomme, officials said.

The company uses the DNA to ascertain a person’s ancestry, eye, hair and skin color, freckling and face shape, among other characteristics.

The two women’s bodies were found in the Calder Road field more than five years apart and are two of four bodies found in the area between 1984 and 1991.

Two of those bodies were identified. The first, found in 1984, was Heide Fye, 25, of League City, who had disappeared in 1983. The second, found in 1986, was Laura Miller, a League City teenager who went missing in 1984.

Cook had been shot in the back with a small-caliber bullet, according to police.

A group of people riding horses found Prudhomme in September 1991, police said.

She had numerous old rib and spine injuries before her death, police said. She might have had problems moving her head or back because of those injuries, police said.

People who knew Cook between 1985 and 1986 and Prudhomme between 1990 and 1991 will be especially helpful in advancing the investigation, Ratliff said.

“We want to get as much information out as possible,” Ratliff said. “This is the first time we’ve all four of the girls’ identities.”

The new information provides detectives many new angles to work the case, but investigators still haven’t singled out a primary person of interest, Buffington said. Detectives are considering several people in connection with the killings.

The four bodies found near Calder Road have been grouped into a larger number of bodies found in the region that together have become known as the Texas Killing Fields, Ratliff said. That has increased exposure, but also led to a few unrelated tips, he said.


Shown is a League City Police Department poster of Audrey Lee Cook. She is one of two women whose bodies were found in a field near Calder Roa…


Shown is a League City Police Department poster of Donna Prudhomme. She is one of two women whose bodies were found in a field near Calder Roa…