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Dickinson Festival of Lights urgently seeks volunteers to prevent delay

For the past 25 years, the Dickinson Festival of Lights has illuminated the night sky of the town with millions of twinkling holiday lights adorning numerous displays. In that span, festival organizers and a team of volunteers have never had to delay an opening night except for inclement weather, which has been a problem most of the week.

Ken Suderman, festival president, said the attraction’s Nov. 26 opening is in jeopardy because recent rains and a lack of volunteers have delayed its set-up.

The festival, which is free to attend, each year attracts an estimated 40,000 visitors to Paul Hopkins Park, 1000 FM 517, to walk among the brilliantly lighted Christmas displays, meet Santa and enjoy refreshments and music.

Suderman encourages anyone wanting to volunteer to go to the park between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. daily except on Thanksgiving Day, when the park will be closed. Volunteers are welcome to come and go as they like, he said. Work will pick back up on the Friday after Thanksgiving and continue until 2 p.m. on Saturday.

— Stuart Villanueva


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Victim's relatives unhappy over killer's 40-year sentence

GALVESTON

The family of a San Leon woman shot to death two years ago is unhappy with the prison term set for the man convicted of murdering her.

Anthony Castellanos, 23, of San Leon, was sentenced Wednesday to 40 years in prison for the murder of his former girlfriend, Megan Ficklen, 21, on Nov. 28, 2020.

Ficklen’s family said the sentence, which was part of a plea agreement, was not enough.

“He should have been given a much tougher sentence and never be able to be released,” Ficklen’s stepmother, Carla Hewitt-Ficklen, said. “He should not have been out of jail at the time to commit the crime in the first place.”

Castellanos had been paroled in Sept. 24, 2020, just six months into a two-year sentence for possession of a controlled substance. He, like many offenders considered to pose little risk to the public, had been released because of the COVID-19 pandemic. He was released with an ankle monitor, which he was wearing when Ficklen was shot to death.

He was arrested in Houston the day after the murder without the ankle monitor.

Castellanos and the victim’s relatives made statements during proceedings Wednesday.

“Words will never be enough to ease your pain and loss,” Castellanos said. “I robbed the world of Megan. I pray that God eases your pain and grief. I had no right to do what I did and I pray to God that you can find it in your heart to forgive me.”

Ficklen’s cousin then took the stand to give her victim impact statement.

“There are no winners in this case,” Deanna Hearn said. “Nobody should die the way that she did. Her kids miss her so much. She loved people and animals. I pray that you will never be able to do this again. I am working on forgiveness, but I am not there yet.”

Castellanos had also been convicted on a count of manufacturing or delivering a controlled substance on April 20, 2017 and sentenced to five years in prison. He was released on June 12, 2018.

Ficklen and Castellanos had previously dated and had a child, but were separated at the time of the crime.

“She had left him and moved on to somebody else and he didn’t like that,” Hewitt-Ficklen said. “On the night before she was killed, he invited her to a party. She dropped off her kids and that was the last time we saw her.”

During the party, which was held at Castellanos’ home in the 300 block of Seventh Street in San Leon, a friend of Castellanos attacked Ficklen, her family said. The invitation to the party was an orchestrated trap for Castellanos to kill her, they said. The family also asserts there were witnesses at the party who saw the crime occur.

Ficklen was shot multiple times before 7 a.m. Nov. 28, 2020, and was taken to Clear Lake Regional Hospital, where she died later that afternoon.

Castellanos was tried in the 212th District Court with Judge Patricia Grady presiding. Assistant District Attorneys Whitney Rasberry and Angelo Kao prosecuted the case. Castellanos was defended by Winston Cochran and Tot Le.


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Galveston Park Board plans name change, rebranding campaign

GALVESTON

As it spars with the city over control of millions of dollars in hotel tax revenues, the island’s tourism board is considering a name change and rebranding to better reflect what it does, officials say.

Galveston Park Board of Trustees CEO Kelly de Schaun said rebranding and the impending name change has been in the works more than a year and has nothing to do with heated politics of late. Still, it’s timely as park board leaders in recent weeks more publicly assert independence from what they characterize as micromanagement by the city.

The park board Monday announced plans for a name change at a VIP gathering to preview a 60-year anniversary campaign it intends to launch early next year. A little more than 50 people, including many former trustees of the park board’s governing board, attended the event at The Bryan Museum. The idea was to highlight accomplishments and visions for the future, de Schaun said Tuesday.

Attendees said the proposed name was Galveston Tourism Authority, which de Schaun declined to confirm on Tuesday.

Reports from the scene also were that park board representative urged attendees to contact city council members before a Dec. 8 meeting at which the council is expected to deliberate controversial ordinances that would change the relationship between the two organizations.

“We have been exploring a potential outwardly facing name-change after identifying misconceptions of our role in the community as a challenge during our strategic planning process last year,” de Schaun said in answer to emailed questions.

Through its strategic plan, the park board determined a name, or DBA change, would create cohesion across the organization and better identify the services it offers for visitors and residents, de Schaun said.

DBA stands for “doing business as.” A company or organization uses a DBA when the name it operates under is different from its legal, registered name.

‘DOING DUE DILIGENCE’

The city charter states the island organization is the Park Board of Trustees of the City of Galveston and that name will continue to be used in contracts and legal documents, de Schaun said.

“We are currently doing our due diligence in receiving feedback from our staff, current and former trustees and stakeholders,” she said. “It will go back before the board for approval after that process has been completed.”

The Park Board of Trustees of the City of Galveston is a governmental entity whose creation was enabled by a special act of the Texas Legislature in 1962. The park board’s purpose is to oversee all tourism efforts for Galveston, a city that today is visited by about 7 million people a year. Although legislation enabled the park board’s creation, it was island voters in 1963 who approved formation of a specialized unit of government called the Park Board of Trustees of the City of Galveston.

Texas requires that a nine-member board be appointed by the city council, with four members on alternate years for two-year terms and a city council representative appointed annually.

But the park board name creates confusion for residents and visitors about what the organization does, which is more than manage coastal parks, de Schaun said.

“A potential DBA was proposed over a year ago as a better way to describe our function,” she said.

“While we serve a vital role in operating six coastal parks, a majority of operations center around tourism-specific activities such as lifeguarding, beach maintenance, and preservation projects, and of course marketing and promotion of Galveston as a premier tourist destination. These services promote and support tourism on Galveston Island and foster an environment that establishes a great place to live, work and visit.”

LAW AND DISORDER

The park board is funded through a portion of the island’s hotel occupancy tax revenues, as well as beach parking fees and grants. The organization doesn’t receive local property or sales tax revenues. With the rise of short-term rentals and ever more tourists, park board trustees in September unanimously approved a $47.5 million budget.

The hotel occupancy tax, known as HOT, is a 15 percent tax assessed on people who rent hotel rooms and short-term rentals in Galveston and amounts to 15 cents on every dollar charged for a room or rental. And it has been a source of conflict in recent weeks, resurrecting long-festering questions about whether the park board is subordinate to the city.

Park board leaders frequently argue their organization is an independent governmental entity, somewhat on par with the city.

For years, the park board collected the hotel tax revenue and kept it in its own accounts. No one seemed to think that was a problem until early October, when District 3 Councilman David Collins said the city and the park board for years had inadvertently violated state laws and the local charter by not keeping the money in city accounts.

Collins also said the city should, by law, have been reviewing and approving the park board’s yearly budget and be receiving quarterly reports about the collection and expenditure of hotel occupancy taxes.

The last time the city council approved the park board’s budget was 2011. The city in 2014 began allowing the park board to keep hotel tax revenue in its own accounts, rather than transferring the money to city accounts. No one has been able to say how that happened without a clear, public vote of the city council. The best explanation was it was generally agreed during an informal meeting among the city staff and the park board.

During a city council workshop session Oct. 6, City Attorney Don Glywasky told council members allowing the park board to keep the tax revenue in its own accounts violated both the city charter and state law.

The park board countered with industry and legal opinions.

‘IT’S IMMATERIAL’

A long-awaited joint meeting of the city council and park board trustees on Nov. 17 failed to achieve conciliation and clarity about management of hotel occupancy taxes, descending into acrimony and ending in uncertainty.

The city council on Dec. 8 is expected to vote on ordinances meant to compel the park board to move about $14 million in hotel occupancy tax revenue into city accounts and require other administrative steps meant to get both organizations in compliance with the law.

The city would return hotel occupancy tax revenue to the park board to pay for its operations.

Park board leaders, including de Schaun, say they fear the city wouldn’t use the highly restricted hotel tax revenue for what it’s intended — promoting tourism.

Camps have formed and Monday’s VIP crowd at The Bryan Museum was a friendly one.

Park board representatives on Monday encouraged people at the gathering to let their elected city representatives know their thoughts on the matter, a person attending the event said.

Collins on Tuesday said the fight isn’t about how well a job the park board is doing. He thinks the Galveston Island Convention & Visitors Bureau, which the park board operates, is doing a good job, he said. It’s about taxpayer money and oversight, of which the park board isn’t immune, he said.

A different name or rebranding won’t change anything, he said.

“It’s immaterial,” he said. “Nothing is going to change what happens in December and it’s not going to change how things are going forward.”


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Coming Friday

Independent retailers around the county are gearing up for Small Business Saturday, a locally focused shopping day.


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Police step up drunk driving patrols ahead of holiday weekend

GALVESTON

As the holiday season swings into gear, more and more people hit the roads for travel or shopping, making the period that begins today among the most dangerous for alcohol-related crashes and deaths, officials said.

Between 2014 and 2018, there was a 38 percent increase in alcohol-related crashes during Thanksgiving, according to data from the Texas Department of Transportation’s Crash Records Information System query.

From Dec. 1, 2021 to Jan. 2, 2022, 48,641 traffic crashes occurred across Texas, 433 of which were fatal and 1,695 resulted in serious injuries, according to the Texas Department of Transportation. Nearly a quarter of these crashes, 23 percent, were the result of drunk driving, with 98 people killed and 236 injured in drunk driving crashed, the data found.

As a result, the Texas Department of Transportation has launched its “Drive Sober. No Regrets” campaign this week to remind drivers to find a sober ride and never get behind the wheel while under the influence.

To illustrate the consequences of drunk driving, the transportation department’s campaign produced several videos, featuring offenders and survivors and the harm one decision can make on their lives. Among these were victims who lost a family member and offenders who spent time in jail, were given large fines, or lost their jobs.

Impaired driving has been a matter of keen interest in Galveston after seven people died in crashes occurring over less than a month.

The Galveston Police Department will be out in full force for the Thanksgiving weekend to target dangerous drivers, Assistant Police Chief Andre Mitchell said.

An Aug. 6 crash between an SUV and golf cart killed four people.

On Aug. 13, a local man riding a scooter was killed by what police allege was a drunk driver.

On Sept. 2, a man who had been released that day from Texas Department of Criminal Justice custody after serving time for driving under the influence and, police allege, was driving under the influence again, struck a vehicle carrying several Ball High School students, killing one instantly and sending three to the hospital, one of whom died Sept. 17.

In response, The Galveston Police Department formed a special DWI task force, which kicked off its first weekend Aug. 20, with 25 DWI arrests. That number has since risen to 206 DWI arrests, Mitchell said.

“The impaired driving initiative has been very effective,” Mitchell said. “The Galveston Police Department works relentlessly to rid our streets of impaired drivers. This initiative will continue day in and day out.”


This weekend

Coast Monthly delivers a tail-wagging holiday edition featuring pampered pets and their parents.


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Houston man charged in deadly Kemah shooting, sheriff says

KEMAH

Law officers Wednesday arrested a Houston man in connection to a shooting death last week in Kemah and learned a second man had died from wounds suffered in the shooting.

Mark Anthony Vigil, 18, is charged with capital murder in the death of Richard Rocco, 55, of Kemah.

Rocco was shot about 11:40 p.m. Nov. 17 at the Summerbrooke Apartments in the 1200 block of Lawrence Road, the Galveston County Sheriff’s Office said.

“It appears that there may have been an altercation that led to the shooting,” Sheriff Henry Trochesset said.

Rocco was shot multiple times and pronounced dead after being transported to Clear Lake Regional Hospital, Trochesset said.

Investigators learned Joshua Rojas, 17, of Houston, who was accompanying Vigil also was shot during the altercation, Trochesset said.

Vigil drove Rojas to a home in South Houston, from which a family member drove him to a Pasadena area hospital, where he was pronounced dead, Trochesset said.

It was unclear Wednesday who shot Rojas, Trochesset said.

Vigil is charged with capital murder and being held in the Galveston County Jail on $500,000 in bonds.

“This is being charged as a capital crime because an additional death occurred,” Trochesset said.

The investigation still was underway and more arrests were possible, Trochesset said.

Anybody with information about this case should call the Galveston County Sheriff’s Office Criminal Investigation Division at 409-763-8477.


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