Feature Stories from the Sheriff's Office

See below to read more on the following topics and others:

Safety tips
for kids in
summer

New
$2.69M City Hall

Anadarko
gas plant scenario

Human trafficking crimes

Emergency
Planning
Committee

This year's parade marshal for Cotulla...

Veteran surgeon looks back on military career

Dr. Richard Hood is honored
at Independence Day festival

By Marc Robertson
From a sleepy crossroads town in rural southwestern Kentucky to the frozen landscapes of the Aleutian Islands in the North Pacific, Dr. Richard Hood has known many homes in the 70 years he has dedicated to medicine.

The retired US Navy lieutenant and US Air Force colonel who gave two decades of service to his country in three conflicts and then fifty years to family medicine will be honored as the grand marshal of the annual Independence Day festival parade hosted by the Cotulla Main Street Program on Saturday, July 1. The day’s events kick off with the traditional parade through the city at 10 a.m. and continue at 5 p.m. with games, food, refreshments and live entertainment at Veterans Park downtown. The day concludes with a fireworks display over the La Salle County Courthouse after sundown.

This year’s parade honoree is the owner of the Hood Medical Clinic that has branches in Cotulla, Dilley and Pearsall, and is a nationally recognized thoracic surgeon and a founder of the practice’s nationwide society, as well as an experienced and frequently published professor who helped conduct some of the world’s first open-heart surgeries.

Dr. Hood looks back on his career and reminds his staff of the many changes that he has witnessed in medicine. There were few antibiotics, if any, available when he joined the service, and no medicines at all for blood pressure. A great number of the drugs and surgical procedures that are considered commonplace today were in their infancy during the Second World War.

Dr. Richard H. Hood, USAF Retd.

Hood was 17 years old when he volunteered to join the US Navy in 1943. At that time, the global conflict was at its peak, and it would be another two years before hostilities would end in the European and Pacific theaters of war. As soon as the war ended, however, Hood volunteered for Navy pilot training and went on to join an officer candidate school. When he returned to civilian life as a medical school student in Louisville, Kentucky, he was ahead of his peers by having accrued college credit in military service.

The young medical student graduated in June 1949 and immediately returned to the US Navy as a lieutenant in order to fulfill his internship in military service through a program available in the postwar years. He was undertaking his surgical residency when the Korean conflict escalated in the early 1950s. Hood was promptly dispatched overseas, eventually landing at his new posting on the Aleutians, a chain of inhospitable islands that mark the boundary between the North Pacific and the Bering Sea. The site between Alaska and the Soviet Union played a critical role in the early years of the Cold War, as the United States developed its atomic energy project and conducted tests. Hood recalls the island chain as being far from common perceptions of the Pacific. There were no sandy beaches and palm trees with hammocks, he says, and those stationed on the outpost experienced continual subzero temperatures and recorded 40 consecutive days of snowfall.

Upon returning from the Pacific, Hood asked for a transfer to the newly formed US Air Force, which had in 1947 become a separate branch of the US armed forces after being founded as the US Army Air Corps. Transfer in hand, Hood applied for and was accepted to the new USAF medical program. He promptly traveled to Riverside, south of Los Angeles, where he awaited his residency at the University of California.

Hood joined the US Navy at age 17 in 1943, and graduated from medical school in 1949, setting out on a 20-year service career in the armed forces and transferring to the
US Air Force

Hood spent the next five years at the US Veterans Hospital in Los Angeles, where he further developed his specialty in thoracic care and surgery. His California stint was followed by a series of military postings to air bases across the US, and by the time he arrived at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, its Wilford Hall Medical Center had become one of the largest and busiest in the country, with more than 1,200 beds and all medical specialties. It was during this period that Dr. Hood – who was by then a full colonel – attracted the attention of the US surgeon general, who sent him to California for extensive work on the development of the heart-lung machine that would save thousands of lives in the years to come. At the same time, Dr. Hood was called upon to speak and teach at countless facilities and medical schools across the country, and published vital papers on modern medicine. He went on to travel the world on behalf of both the US Air Force and American medical development, addressing audiences in Europe and Asia.

At Lackland AFB, Hood was put in charge of running the Wilford Hall training program and overseeing the facility’s heart-lung unit. It was the position that marked the pinnacle of a military career that was drawing to a close in the same year as conflict between North and South Vietnam was escalating. Again, Dr. Hood was sent into a war zone and again helped oversee medical services for armed forces personnel. Although he notes that he was not put in direct line of harm from enemy action in the conflict, his duties took him in and out of a war zone where perils prevailed and a number of his contemporaries became casualties.

Retirement day came in November 1968, but Col. Richard Hood was far from ready to hang up his stethoscope. A chance visit to Cotulla helped persuade him that he could serve further in civilian life, and for almost forty years his clinics have since helped improve the quality of life among a population in the South Texas Brush Country that was underserved for generations. Additionally, Dr. Hood established a nurse training program and maintained his affiliation with professional organizations that continued to rely upon his wealth of knowledge and experience. Ultimately, he was honored for service and innovation as well as his esteemed position as a founding member of the Society of Thoracic Surgeons.

Dr. Hood enjoys the company of his family. The Kentucky native says he is pleased to have settled in South Texas.

"Sometimes you ask yourself why you're the one who makes it through when others didn't...

...It's the one question I've never been able to answer."

While he appreciates the honor he is being accorded as grand marshal of the Independence Day Parade in Cotulla, Dr. Hood says he believes much credit is due to the hardworking men and women who have supported his drive to answer his country’s call and then to serve the needy in his later years.

The family doctor, business owner and published expert considers himself fortunate to have enjoyed good health throughout his career but often finds cause to stop and reminisce on those who have departed.

“When you’re in a conflict zone, or when you’re being moved from one military installation to another, you meet a lot of people who are given all the same chances and opportunities, and a great many who are less fortunate,” Dr. Hood says. “And then sometimes you ask yourself why you’re the one who makes it through when others didn’t, why the man who was just next to you didn’t come back. I find myself asking that often, and it’s the one question I’ve never been able to answer.”

Dr. Hood says he has always felt welcomed by the people of South Texas, despite being a transplant from Kentucky. His brother likewise joined the military and his two sisters married into the service. None of those from his generation, he says, ever returned to the little collegiate community of Murray in which they had been raised. The feel of a small town, however, the wholesome nature of the environment and the goodhearted soul of the people with whom he has worked and whom he has been able to serve have encouraged him to continue his practice for many years past the date at which others might have retired.

“I’ve been very happy,” the doctor says of both his successful career and his life in South Texas. “When I came here, I felt that this was the type of town I was born to live in.”             

Do you know where your children are?

Sheriff offers
Summer Safety Tips

'Stranger Danger' now also applies to Internet

By Marc Robertson
Social media, meetings with friends, the lure of indoor and outdoor recreation and weeks with nothing specific on the agenda may be appealing to all youths looking forward to their summer break, but they also bring new dangers of which families may be unaware.

La Salle County Sheriff Miguel Rodriguez said this week that he believes parents should take precautions to help prevent their children from becoming victims of crime.

“We want everybody to enjoy their summer, whether they stay in town or go on vacation,” the sheriff said. “There are lots of great activities for kids, and we have parks and sports facilities for everybody to enjoy.
  
"Real friends don't do anything in secret..."
- Sheriff Miguel Rodriguez
“At the same time, it is important for everybody to remember some basic safety tips,” the sheriff said, “because we don’t want anybody to get hurt.”

Known as ‘Stranger Danger,’ a caution against allowing unknown visitors or drivers to approach children at play or at home has been in use for generations and should now include social media, according to the sheriff and his staff. The message is especially appropriate in an age when many youths spend their summer days at home alone because both parents are at work.  

“Parents should monitor their children’s activities online and should remind them to be extra careful when
communicating with anyone they don’t know personally,” the sheriff said. “There are people who take advantage of children online and who might persuade them to do things or to go to places that they know are not appropriate.”

The 81st Judicial District Attorney’s Office hosted a series of educational seminars last year in which prosecutors outlined the means by which predators may approach minors online, through interconnected video games, over social media and at sites often used by youths. The ‘grooming’ techniques used by predators to lure teens away from their safe areas include invitations to parties, offers of drugs and alcohol, free cell phones, and even advertisements for lucrative jobs in modeling. In some cases, prosecutors said, predators have taken advantage of children by employing them for pornography or in the sex trade.

“It is never okay for a child to leave the house to go and meet someone that they only ever knew online,” the sheriff said. “This should be a red flag warning. Real friends don’t do anything in secret.”

As part of his office’s safety tips to the community at the start of the summer, Sheriff Rodriguez is recommending the following:




* Always keep track of what sites your children are visiting online and who they communicate with.

* Always ensure that your children are not text-messaging strangers.

* Watch for signs of predator grooming, such as expensive gifts or gadgets, extra cell phones, constant or secret text messaging, meetings with people you haven’t met before, and children staying out past curfew.

* Maintain a curfew and remind children to let you know where they are, who they are with and what time they expect to be home.

* Check with other parents to ensure that your children are with their friends.
Remind children to stay in groups and not to leave anyone behind while walking home or when leaving parks and sports areas.

* Never leave small children unsupervised. Always ensure that you personally know the adults who are supervising your children.

* Remind young children never to accept food, drinks, candy or gifts from strangers.

* Never allow children to swim in a pool or hot tub unsupervised. Always check with other children’s parents whether it is alright for them to swim in your pool.

* Keep the channels of communication open with your children; encourage them to meet friends, play sports, and enjoy recreational activities. Ask them about their friends and the pastimes they enjoy.

* If your children are licensed drivers, check their vehicles routinely for signs of misuse.

* Never provide alcohol or tobacco in your home to youths who are not your own children, even if you believe a ‘safe party zone’ is a better idea than allowing teens to celebrate elsewhere.

* If other children are visiting your home overnight, always confirm this with their parents and ask if there is any medication they need. Ensure that all parents know where their children are if they are at your house.



* Always remember your parents’ or guardians’ phone numbers and addresses.
Know how and when to call 911. Know how to describe your location at all times and give the names of people with you.

* Do not accept any invitations to ride in vehicles, even for a short distance, with any strangers. Never accept gifts, food or candy from strangers.

* Keep track of who is talking to you on social media. If someone says rude or inappropriate things, or if someone tells you to do something in secret, report them immediately, block them, and leave the site.

* Never accept invitations to parties, bonfires, get-togethers, barbecues or game nights at a stranger’s house, even if you believe your friends will be there.

* If you are licensed to drive, never let anyone else drive your vehicle. If you are unable to drive home, call a parent or guardian. When in doubt, call 911 and ask for help from a sheriff’s deputy.

* Always report any suspicious activity that makes you feel uncomfortable or unsafe, and always stay alert to activity that you feel might put your friends at risk.

“When the community comes together to help protect our children, everybody wins,” the sheriff said. “Our officers are here to help, and your safety is our priority.”

PARENTS

CHILDREN

The Sheriff's Office can be reached at (830) 879-3044 during regular business hours, Monday to Friday.
In an emergency, call 911 for assistance, 24 hours a day.

Emergency planners focus on training, shared resources

Chairman Dr. Jack Seals and Vice Chairman Sgt. JD Rodriguez preside over the May 17 meeting of the Local Emergency Planning Committee in the Larry Griffin Emergency Operations Center in Cotulla to discuss disaster preparedness and resources.
By Marc Robertson
Knowing who to call in the event of a disaster, what resources are available and what steps to take for the safety of the community were focal points of the May 17 meeting of the La Salle County Local Emergency Planning Committee, whose members include representatives of county government and law enforcement, responders, the energy industry and civilian organizations.

Chaired by Cotulla ISD Superintendent Dr. Jack Seals in the Larry Griffin Emergency Operations Center at Las Palmas, the meeting served to introduce key players in the county as they relate to an emergency response in the event of a manmade or natural disaster. Among those represented were oil and gas companies, service and equipment providers, crisis managers, the La Salle County Sheriff’s Office, the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Texas Department of Transportation, the American Red Cross, the La Salle Fire Rescue & EMS, Cotulla Airport, health and hospital services, the school district, and churches.
Changes in the committee since its last meeting included the replacement of law enforcement representative Malcolm Watson, who has retired as La Salle County chief deputy, with Lieutenant Mike Bostwick; and the return of La Salle Fire Rescue Assistant Chief Daniel Mendez, who serves as the committee’s secretary and treasurer. The LEPC is presently working with Soteria Solutions representative Michelle Joseph in drafting its bylaws, which will be presented for review at an upcoming meeting.

Reports from attendees included an update from Mendez on the status of grant applications for 15 computer tablets, which have been approved for purchase and will be distributed within 90 days to emergency responders in order to facilitate mapping, site identification and communications; and for a new ambulance that will be garaged at Encinal, where a county fire station is nearing completion. A new fully equipped fire truck has been delivered to the county for deployment in Encinal. Mendez reported that at least four medics will be posted to the Encinal station to
Byron Reynolds of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Cotulla Unit  (Photo, left) discusses emergency measures with La Salle Fire Rescue & EMS Assistant Chief Daniel Mendez at the LEPC meeting on May 17.
provide emergency medical response in the southern portion of the county. The grant award for a new ambulance is pending, Mendez said.

The Encinal Fire Station is scheduled to open on July 1.

Mendez also reported that a number of his newly hired personnel are presently attending a firefighting academy, among them several La Salle County natives, and that the trainees are earning a high grade point average at the school.

In a brief presentation on resources available across the region in the event of a disaster, American Red Cross representative Isis Sutton noted that she looks forward to improving communication between the county and state for the delivery of emergency supplies that may include cots for the accommodation of evacuees at a local shelter; and radios for those working in the field in the aftermath of a disaster. Sutton noted that Red Cross volunteers are available from as near as Webb County for deployment to La Salle to supplement local providers.

Both Dr. Seals and Cotulla – La Salle County Airport Manager ET Page reiterated that they believe access to transportation will be vital in helping evacuate citizens from target areas and for overflight of a disaster zone for threat evaluation. Dr. Seals noted that the school district is the only organization in the county with a fleet of buses available for immediate deployment.

In discussion on disaster response at the grass-roots level, First United Methodist Church Pastor Chad Chamness noted that he is establishing contact with other congregations in order to assess available resources, civilian assistance and shelter space as well as accessibility to kitchens for feeding emergency responders or accommodating evacuees. Chamness also said his church has a number of cots available for use in an emergency.

Church halls and the gymnasium and cafetorium facilities at Cotulla ISD are listed as emergency shelter sites and have been used for that purpose in the past, notably housing families fleeing Hurricane Rita on the Texas Gulf Coast.

Matthew Sealy, manager of the Las Palmas Skilled Nursing & Rehabilitation Center, said a recent sales tax election in La Salle County served to give the green light to a two-percent retail tax that will help support establishment of an emergency medical care center in Cotulla and may extend to providing a dialysis facility.

The May 6 sales tax election was open to residents living outside municipal city limits only and resulted in passage of the tax levy by a single vote.

Cotulla Volunteer Fire Department Chief Johnny Gomez reported that he is extending communication with the Cotulla – La Salle County Chamber of Commerce to establish a list of businesses and business representatives to contact in the event of an emergency and to help establish stronger community ties for additional resources.
Industry representative Pete Cordova reported that he hopes LEPC members will meet with their counterparts in neighboring counties and attend training sessions together in order to improve communication between stakeholders and emergency responders across the region. Such communication, he said, may play a vital role in an effective response to a disaster that affects more than one county or community or that may require additional resources.

Dr. Seals pressed the group to urge all energy industries to ensure that safety data sheets are updated routinely and remain accurate. Documents listing all chemicals stored at any site in the county should be made available to all emergency responders, he said. Committee members learned that the energy industry is required by law to make available documentation of its materials on demand. The assistant fire chief noted that La Salle Fire Rescue maintains such lists and makes them available to firefighters in the field via portable computers, including information on the capacity of all containers of chemicals at each site.
Cotulla ISD Superintendent Dr. Jack Seals, chairman of the Local Emergency Planning Committee, meets with Cotulla Volunteer Fire Department Chief Johnny Gomez at the organization's meeting on May 17. The Cotulla VFD operates in close collaboration with other emergency responders in the area, including La Salle Fire Rescue.
Dr. Seals reported that Chief Don Smith of Travis County, who serves as a consultant to La Salle, has determined that several of the posted telephone numbers at energy industry sites are either inoperative or are not answered. Seals said he believes the numbers are critical in the assessment of a site at which an accident or disaster may have occurred or from which an injured person may need to be rescued. Inability to reach a company representative at the posted telephone numbers may cause delays and may result in emergency responders being exposed to chemicals or other hazards with which they are unfamiliar, he said.

In a report on recent incidents involving emergency responders, Mendez said the fire department has been dispatched to tank battery fires and incidents in which gas flares have ignited nearby brush. In some of those incidents, he said, no emergency contact information had been posted at the unmanned energy industry sites, and firefighters had to resort to questioning nearby residents or relying on word of mouth to determine who owned or was responsible for the equipment at the sites.

“We will not enter a pad site until it is shut down and we have an incident action plan,” Mendez said, noting that a fire at a gas flare more than two months ago remains a mystery, as company representatives have yet to return phone calls.

Dr. Seals asked how emergency responders will gain access to an industrial site, and asked whether gates are locked or have access codes that may be unavailable in the event of an emergency.

“The rule of thumb is that we will not enter unless we have to effect a rescue,” Mendez said. “We will stand back until company personnel can get to the site to shut it down.”

“You don’t necessarily know if there’s someone in there,” Dr. Seals said. “You need to know who the supervisor is, and have a cell phone number for them. Who is the safety officer, and what is the entry code?”

Mendez said the fire department has begun listing what he described as “best access” routes to industrial sites in remote areas of the county, especially sites for which new roads have been built since the region was last mapped.

“We need to know the best way to reach a site,” the assistant fire chief said, “because directions like ‘the white pickup truck on the corner’ are not helpful when every company has white pickup trucks. We use coordinates to find a site, but there are new roads going in all the time.”

Meeting attendees learned that a number of energy industries have signed contracts for emergency response services with Emergency Site Protection (ESP), a Three Rivers-based company whose personnel is made up in large part of former firefighters and medics, and which can deploy communications centers and other resources on a long-term basis or in response to an emergency.

ET Page reported that the Chaparral Wildlife Management Area in southwestern La Salle County is equipped with some firefighting equipment and other materiel for use on the property owned by the Texas Department of Parks & Wildlife. Mendez said he hopes representatives of the WMA will attend the next LEPC meeting to share information on available resources.

Committee Vice Chair Sgt. JD Rodriguez of the Highway Patrol said he believes emergency management planning classes can be scheduled in Cotulla for local and regional agencies, and recommended classes hosted by the Federal Emergency Management agency, which are available online free of charge. 

Mendez expressed appreciation to government leaders from Frio County for attending the meeting to reinforce regional communication, including County Judge Arnulfo Luna, Commissioner Vicki Camacho and Emergency Management Coordinator Ray Kallio. He also noted that the South Texas Regional Advisory Committee is regarded as a valuable resource for equipment, personnel and support staff.

In a plea for improved awareness of disaster response planning between industry and local services, Dr. Seals asked that companies planning to host emergency drills or tabletop simulations invite local responders to attend for educational purposes.

“Bear in mind, when you have a drill, it’s an opportunity for emergency responders to have some training,” the committee chairman said.

In other business at their meeting, LEPC members learned from Assistant Fire Chief Mendez that there are fears the summer will bring prime conditions for wildfires in the region. Although conditions may appear wet at present, he said, grasses and other plants have been nourished by springtime rains and will be tall and dry when those rains are replaced by weeks of high temperatures.

“Very soon, it will be dry and brown,” Mendez said. “We have already had grass fires that were started by gas flares, and there is a risk of fire from people throwing out cigarettes. We need to remind ranchers and landowners to clear the brush and help prevent fires from spreading. There’s a lot of growth, so we all need to be aware.”

In preparation for the LEPC’s next meeting at noon on Wednesday, August 16, attendees concurred that there is a need for information on reporting suspicious activity and helping to prevent acts of terrorism. Members agreed to invite representatives of the US Border Patrol to the August meeting for an open discussion on anti-terrorist measures and ongoing concerns about undocumented immigrants trespassing on energy industry sites and putting themselves in danger because they may be unaware of hazards.

Those planning to attend the next LEPC meeting should notify Dr. Seals or Jeanette Ramirez at (830) 879-3073, ext. 1011.

Progress ahead for county road project...

Commissioners green-light loop builder

$14.2M development diverts heavy traffic,
opens land for business growth

By Marc Robertson
When oil and gas business returns to South Texas, Cotulla residents will be spared the downtown traffic jams that became synonymous with the last industry surge over the Eagle Ford Shale.

More than five years after first launching a plan to build a traffic relief route around the city and open up real estate for new development, La Salle County commissioners voted Monday, April 24, to grant a construction bid for more than $14 million.

The lowest of four bidders to build a four-lane bypass route between Hwy 97 and IH-35 on the northeast side of Cotulla, Anderson Columbia made an offer of $14,249,391 and was promptly awarded the job in a move by Commissioner Raul Ayala to accelerate the process. Comm. Erasmo Ramirez seconded the motion and was supported by Comms. Jack Alba and Noel Niavez.

Other bids opened for the first time in court on Monday included offers of $14,637,919 from SER Construction, $14,915,868 from Primoris Services Corporation, and $14,970,730 from IOC Company.

The project ranks alongside construction of IH-35 in the early 1970s and expansion of the local airport three years ago as one of the largest public works efforts in La Salle County history. Of particular significance to La Salle County government today is that the anticipated debt for the road building project is already paid off by half. County commissioners began making debt service payments four years ago and, by the time the road is finished in 24 months, will have only about a year left to pay for it.  

County Judge Joel Rodriguez, who first promoted the idea of building a truck relief route around Cotulla at the height of oil and gas development over the Eagle Ford Shale, noted that plans had been for commissioners to review all of the bids during the coming week and make a decision on Monday, May 1. Comm. Ayala’s move this week, however, effectively abbreviated the timeframe and signals the start of a process that will result in construction of the new road.

Commercial traffic through downtown Cotulla at the peak of the Eagle Ford Shale oil boom resulted in logjams as lines of trucks and service vehicles filled the city’s principal thoroughfares. In one testimony to commissioners in 2011, County Judge Rodriguez said he had heard repeated complaints from local residents who said they were unable to drive through town because of the throng of heavy trucks.

A number of senior citizens believed they were “trapped in their own homes,” unable to drive to the grocery store or to downtown businesses, because they couldn’t navigate between lines of 18-wheel freighters, the county judge said. Furthermore, oilfield trucks were passing directly in front of the Cotulla High School campus on Hwy 97, which Judge Rodriguez said local residents viewed as hazardous, creating traffic jams and increasing the risk of accidents between commercial and school traffic.   

After being turned down by the Texas Department of Transportation for funds to build a truck relief route in 2010, county commissioners went to the voters in a 2012 special election for permission to sell up to $20 million in bonds for road projects. Statistics provided by the state transportation department at the time showed that a survey conducted at key intersections in Cotulla had measured traffic flow through the city at more than 18,000 commercial vehicles per day. Readings had been taken on the IH-35 north- and southbound lanes, at the highway intersection with FM 468, and at the intersections of Hwy 97 with Main Street and FM 624.

Voters agreed overwhelmingly in late 2012 to allow the county to sell bonds for the road projects. Commissioners had stipulated that other road repair work would be given priority; several county roads were subsequently repaved or replaced entirely. A further $10 million bond sale was later also approved.

Today, the county is poised to make good on its five-year promise to build the relief route across a stretch of undeveloped land between the Cotulla – La Salle County Airport and the La Salle County Fairgrounds. Real estate alongside the new road will then be opened for commercial development, generating increased property taxes for the county.

At Cotulla City Hall, elected officials have been expecting word from the county on the start of construction. Although the territory along which the bypass travels is presently outside city limits, Cotulla expects eventually to annex the land, bringing its adjoining properties into the municipal utility system and drawing tax revenues from new businesses. Warehouses, travel-related enterprise, industrial properties, retail, airport-related business and housing are among the developments presently eyed by local government officials for the area.

Initially estimated at five million dollars, the first design of the bypass called for railroad grade crossings but was quickly upgraded to handle increased traffic flow and to carry vehicles over the Union Pacific, thereby reducing traffic jams and the risk of train-related accidents, the county judge said. Additionally, Union Pacific had asked that as many as three existing grade crossings be closed in the county if a single new grade crossing were to be built.

“That was almost a deal breaker,” the county judge said. “When we looked at the crossings that might have been closed, we realized immediately that a lot of landowners were going to be denied access to their properties. The landowners saw it, too, and they let us know about it. We were not going to do that.”

Ultimately, the county abandoned the idea of a grade crossing and sought permission from Union Pacific to build a railroad overpass between Cotulla and Gardendale. That permission was granted in 2015.   

Today’s construction plans for the new truck route include the four-lane road between Hwy 97 and the IH-35 east-side (northbound) access road with a bridge over the Union Pacific Railroad tracks. The project does not include an interstate overpass.

The county judge said he is pleased that the project has reached its next stage.

“It took a while to get to this point, but negotiations held us up for a while, and in the end we believe that we have reached a good understanding,” Rodriguez said. “The price went up over the five years we have been working on this, but it’s important to remember that we were granted some of the land that this road will pass through, and we were given clearance to go over the railroad tracks. This is a good deal for everyone involved.”

When contracted engineers gathered data for an estimated budget that would include the four-lane road and the rail overpass, county commissioners were told to brace themselves for a $19 million price tag, Rodriguez said.

“That was a tough one, for sure,” the county judge said of the estimated budget. “We had to work on bringing it down, and we ended up at an estimate of $17 million. I know that the commissioners are very pleased this is coming together under budget.”  

Comm. Ayala’s motion to give Anderson Columbia the go-ahead for construction is provisional and dependent upon an assessment of the bid itself.

County officials expect to host a groundbreaking ceremony for the new road when construction begins.

“The oil and gas industry is very volatile, and we believe that commerce will return to our area,” Rodriguez said this week. “World events can raise oil and gas prices any time, and when that happens, we will have the infrastructure in place.”

Energy industry traffic jams and hazards reduced when heavy trucks are moved to new Cotulla bypass

County and city expect new development will boost tax revenues, invite new businesses to Cotulla

"World events can raise oil and gas prices...
We will
have the infrsatructure in place"

- La Salle County Judge
Joel Rodriguez

  "Make the rural areas great again..."  

The former Cotulla Motors and Ford Garage on Main and Carrizo streets in downtown Cotulla has been saved from the wrecking ball and will be preserved as a historic building as part of a project costing over $2.6 million that includes building a new City Hall behind the vintage stucco and tile façade.

City kicks off new building project with $2.69M loan

By Marc Robertson
Cotulla city councilors and administrators met with representatives of the US Department of Agriculture, architects and bond counsel on Wednesday, April 12, to mark the start of a project that will result in the construction of a new City Hall in a historic building downtown.

“In order to make America great again, you have to make the rural areas great again,” City Administrator Larry Dovalina told those attending Wednesday’s meeting, adding that he believes the project enables Cotulla to restore one of its landmark buildings and to move the municipal government offices into a space more than five times larger than they presently occupy.
Representatives of the US Department of Agriculture, bond counsel and architect met with Cotulla city councilors, administrative staff and the Main Street Program on Wednesday, April 12, to kick off a construction project for a new City Hall.
Funding for the project will come through a loan of more than $2.69 million from the USDA, paid through a bond sale at an interest rate of a mere 3.75 percent over 40 years. The money will be used to build City Hall inside the remaining walls of a garage on the corner of Main and Carrizo streets, a building variously known locally as Muriel Garage, Ford Garage, Cotulla Motors and Vasquez Garage. The building features architecture from the early 20th Century with stucco and tile, a cross-corner covered driveway, and approximately 10,000 square feet of open space.

Preservation and restoration of the former garage has been a mission of the Cotulla Main Street Program, whose manager says she is relieved that the building’s recognizable façade will be saved. The building’s warehouse-style interior was used more than 80 years ago as an assembly site for automobiles whose components were shipped by rail to Cotulla and unloaded at a depot on Front Street. While that depot is long gone, the building that served local motorists and travelers along the Pan-American Highway for decades survives and has been transferred to city ownership.

Dovalina said plans drafted more than two years ago with architect Frank Rodnofsky for a new City Hall will be realized when offices are built behind the historic façade. Space is being allocated for a council chamber, administrative and clerical offices, the city’s various departments, utility payments, municipal court, and for the Cotulla City Patrol, a law enforcement arm of the La Salle County Sheriff’s Office. Future plans include pavement of the service alley behind the building, a parking area, and construction of a second building on an adjoining empty lot. Downtown beautification, featuring new sidewalks, landscaping and gas-fired streetlights, is also projected for two additional blocks of Front Street, according to the city administrator.

Present for Wednesday’s funding announcement with Dovalina were Mayor Javier Garcia, Councilors Tanis Lopez and Juan Garcia, bond attorney Juan Aguilera, Main Street Manager Patsy Leigh, USDA representatives Jaime Maldonado and Bernice Lopez, architect Ray Gonzalez, city secretary Bianca Maldonado and Sheriff Miguel Rodriguez.  

La Salle County, 81st & 218th Districts
and Justices of the Peace Courts
Code of Conduct for all proceedings 

The following code of conduct and rules for the courts of La Salle County are applicable and enforced as per the Texas Government Code and the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, and the constitutional, statutory and inherent powers of the courts to regulate proceedings before them and to provide for the orderly and efficient dispatch of litigation.

All persons entering courts in La Salle County are subject to the following
code of conduct, including members of the public visiting the courtroom:

DRESS - All persons shall be appropriately attired for court proceedings. All persons entering the courtroom shall be dressed in clothing reasonably befitting the dignity and solemnity of court proceedings. Tank-tops, shorts, thongs, and clothing that is tattered or soiled are among those items of clothing not considered appropriate courtroom attire. No hats, caps or sunglasses shall be worn in the courtroom.

PROPERTY – No person shall bring packages, suitcases, boxes, backpacks, duffel bags, shopping bags or containers into the courtroom without the prior approval of the bailiff; and no person shall bring into the courtroom any radios, tape recorders, cameras, cellular telephones, pagers, or any other recording equipment unless the devices are turned off, or unless they are required for the court proceedings and prior approval has been given by the bailiff or the court.

TOBACCO – No tobacco products are to be used in the courtroom in any form, including chewing and smoking.

FOOD & DRINK – No gum chewing is allowed in the courtroom at any time. No bottles, beverage containers, paper cups, or any edible items are allowed in the courtroom, except as permitted by the court.

SEATING – No one may prop their feet on desks, tables, benches, chairs or other furnishings at any time in the courtroom.

NOISE – No talking or unnecessary noise which interferes with court proceedings is permitted in the courtroom.

COMMUNICATION – No one is permitted to express approval or disapproval of any testimony, statement, or transaction in the courtroom by any facial expression, shaking or nodding of the head, or by any other conduct or gesture; and no person shall be permitted to make any verbal or physical contact with a prisoner without the prior approval of the bailiff.

ETIQUETTE – All persons shall rise when summoned to do so by the bailiff when the judge or jury enter or leave the courtroom, and at any other times as the bailiff may direct.

The code of conduct for the courts of La Salle County and for the 81st and 218th Judicial Districts is enforced by the bailiff of the court, who is a peace officer of the state of Texas, and by the court itself.

Those who violate the code of conduct are subject to immediate removal from the court and may face prosecution.

"Support crime prevention..."

Sheriff encourages association membership

La Salle County Sheriff Miguel Rodriguez is summoning support this week from among area residents keen on becoming involved in ongoing crimefighting efforts and in helping promote law enforcement through membership in a statewide association.

The sheriff said he is responding to the increased number of citizens wanting to assist law enforcement officials and build a stronger partnership in the fight against crime.

An associate membership in the Sheriff’s Association of Texas helps fund critical training, technical resources and legislative support on key criminal justice issues to law enforcement officers across the state, according to the organization in a prepared statement this week.

In addition, membership dues will be used to support crime prevention and awareness programs, promote public safety, fight drug abuse, provide additional training for sheriffs and their deputies, and provide scholarships for children of law enforcement officers.

Contributions to the Sheriff’s Association of Texas are tax-deductible. Members receive the organization’s quarterly publication, “The Lawman,” which includes law enforcement news and crimefighting tips as well as feature stories; a weekly E-newsletter, a membership card and a window sticker. Membership dues are $25 for individuals and $40 for families. Members may also make their own donations to the organization in addition to their annual dues to help boost training and scholarship programs.

“This membership drive helps provide the funding which is vital to our mission of making our communities safer places to live, work and play,” Sheriff Rodriguez said. He added that he believes there is an increasing need for stronger partnerships between the public and law enforcement agencies, and that programs such as membership in the Sheriff’s Association of Texas are growing in importance.

“I encourage every citizen to consider joining forces with us by becoming an associate member in the organization,” the sheriff said. “It is a valuable investment in our future.”

Membership is available by contacting the association at 1601 South Interstate 35, Austin, Texas 78741 or online at txsheriffs.org.

Founded in 1874, the Sheriff’s Association of Texas is a nonprofit professional and educational organization dedicated to the preservation of peace and the protection of the lives and property of the citizens of Texas. Steve Westbrook serves as the organization’s executive director.

The association does not make solicitations for membership or donations by telephone. Anyone receiving a telephone call from someone using the name of the Sheriff’s Association of Texas should report the offense to the local sheriff’s office.   

La Salle welcomes new DPS sergeant

By Marc Robertson
Area law enforcement agency representatives met in the La Salle County Courthouse Monday, January 30, to celebrate the promotion of Texas Highway Patrol Sergeant JD Rodriguez, who has taken command of the Department of Public Safety’s Cotulla office.

(L-R) La Salle County Lt. Mike Bostwick, USBP Watch Cdr. Rey Enriquez, DPS Highway Patrol Sgt. JD Rodriguez,
La Salle County Sheriff Miguel Rodriguez and USBP Patrol Agent in Charge Sammy Posada
Rodriguez is a 2003 graduate of Dilley High School and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in criminal justice with an emphasis on law enforcement from Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi in 2007. He joined the Texas Department of Public Safety the following year by attending the law enforcement academy, from which he graduated in 2008. He was promptly assigned to patrol duties as a trooper headquartered in the Cotulla station and has remained there his entire service career. For the past three years, he has operated as a trooper for the Commercial Vehicle Enforcement branch of the Highway Patrol.

Sgt. Rodriguez’ principal duties in the DPS Cotulla office include supervising all of the troopers assigned there and overseeing their investigations as well as the day-to-day operations of the law enforcement department. His promotion became effective Wednesday, Jan. 25.

“I’m looking forward to working with the troopers here and with all of the law enforcement agencies in the area, including the sheriff’s office and the US Border Patrol,” the sergeant said. “I believe that we have a commitment to serve all of the people of the local community, the region and the state in law enforcement for the protection of lives and property and for the safety and wellbeing of the people who depend on us, both in their neighborhoods and on the highways and byways of Texas.”

Sgt. Rodriguez added that he expects to work in close collaboration with county, state and federal agencies. He was joined in a brief welcoming ceremony in the La Salle County district courtroom by La Salle County Sheriff Miguel Rodriguez and Lt. Mike Bostwick, and by US Border Patrol Cotulla Station Patrol Agent in Charge Sammy Posada and Watch Commander Rey Enriquez.

"We want to warn people of the dangers..."

Scam artists target victims through social media, prey on vulnerable internet users

Prize offers and income opportunities are fake, investigators say

By Marc Robertson
The La Salle County Sheriff’s Office is issuing an alert this week to area residents who may be contacted by callers or through social media with offers of prize money or opportunities to earn extra income.

A company calling itself Global International has contacted a number of La Salle County residents in recent days to announce that prize winnings of between $3 million and $10 million can be claimed immediately.

The story, according to La Salle Cpl. Anthony Zertuche, is entirely fictitious, and leads promptly to a request that the potential prize recipient send $500 to a distant address in order that “identity and address may be confirmed” and the prize money claimed.

Cpl. Zertuche said he investigated the apparent scam and contacted a number that he was given by a potential victim, to find that the call led to Calgary, Alberta, Canada. An internet search, he said, subsequently revealed that the number belongs to a company by the name of Distributel, which operates in Canada.

“The person reporting the attempted scam told me that the caller was very persistent and demanding,” Cpl. Zertuche said. “We want to warn people of the dangers of these scams. This is a trick to get you to give up your money. There is no prize waiting for you.”

The sheriff’s office is reiterating a reminder to all area residents never to give banking information, social security numbers, or any personal information to callers, by email or over social media, when those callers are not known personally.

“Do not fall for a trick like this,” the officer said. “No one should ever have to pay up front to claim a prize or to become eligible for an award of any kind.”

The Western Union money transfer organization repeatedly reminds its customers never to wire money to strangers and not to wire money in advance for products or merchandise that they have been promised. Funds sent by wire transfer cannot be reclaimed and are often untraceable.

In a further scheme, scam artists have been advertising income opportunities on social media sites, including the popular Facebook network, offering to pay for a program in which privately owned cars are wrapped in vinyl advertising. That program, according to the sheriff’s office and several nationwide media sources, is a money transfer trick that involves cashing one check and paying with a second.

Callers who respond to the advertisement are told in a congratulatory email, phone text or social media message that they have been approved for the special program and should shortly receive a check that they may deposit in their bank account.

One of the organizations advertising on Facebook goes by the name of Imflash Technology Company, whose representative uses the name of Collins Anderson.

“Please confirm that you did receive this message so that we can process funds that would be sent to you for the Wrap Program,” the company notes in its email to potential scam victims. That email is then followed by another approximately three days later, including the message “Your silence has been giving me hard time at work because my boss has been raising eye up on me. Please feed me back about the check you deposited, so we can get your vehicle wrap this week.”

The messages include faulty English grammar and spelling, and indicate an unfamiliarity with the language. References are made to opportunities for income of $500 a month with advertising for products such as Subway, Coca-Cola and Red Bull. There is no regard for the age or condition of the client’s vehicle. 

A check is mailed to potential victims in the amount of $1,850 or more, and recipients are encouraged to deposit the money in the bank, keep their portion of the funds as payment and then to make a withdrawal to pay a company that will place advertisements on cars.

The checks are mailed from out-of-state companies, including Aurveda Wellness Corp. in Boonton, New Jersey, and are written on non-existent accounts, among them JP Morgan Chase Bank. When recipients deposit the checks and make withdrawals, they are held responsible for the funds. The money they have drawn from their accounts cannot be retrieved.

In most cases, scam victims are lured by potential prizes, easy income, or calls for help, according to investigators. Persistent calls and messages add urgency and indicate that deadlines are approaching, that such offers may not be made again, or that the person managing the prize money or business deal is under pressure to complete the transaction.

“You have to be vigilant and you have to trust your instincts,” Cpl. Zertuche said. “Be aware of what kind of tricks are being pulled out there, and remember the rule that if it looks too good to be true, it probably isn’t true.”    

"No one should ever have to pay up front to claim a prize"

"The trick is to get you to give up your
money"

"If it
looks too good
to be
true, it probably isn't true"

LEPC hears updates on grants, disaster response

By Marc Robertson
La Salle Fire Rescue & EMS Chief Les Simmons presided over a meeting of the Local Emergency Planning Committee on Wednesday, February 22, with news on grant awards for technology, equipment and personnel.

The LEPC was created in La Salle County under the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA) to help in the development of an emergency response plan, and in La Salle County this means coordinating the resources of fire, ambulance, school, county and municipal government, energy industry, healthcare and law enforcement. Meetings are held quarterly and involve key players from each area offering assistance in the overall improvement of a response to a disaster, natural or man-made.

In a brief update on plans for upgrades to the Larry Griffin Emergency Operations Center and its adaptability as a central command post in the event of a disaster, Simmons said the county has received a grant for interactive tablets that may be used by emergency responders in communications and for access to online resources. The funds from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, he said, were awarded after an application was filed with help from Travis County Fire Chief Don Smith and Soteria Solutions consultant Michelle Joseph. The new tablets, Simmons said, will be assigned to officers in the field and will be linked to the command post, where a new interactive projector has been installed.

Simmons also noted that airborne assistance from ET Page at Cotulla Airport will be vital in the coordinated response to an emergency, notably in the event of a wildfire or flood, and that overhead communications will likewise be linked via live feed to the command post.

“We have also applied for a grant for a new ambulance,” the chief said, noting that the county is experiencing a disadvantage in the closure of Dilley Community General Hospital, with medical transports now having to travel at least 36 miles to Frio Regional Hospital, which means longer patient transfer and equipment turnaround times.

Other grants have been applied for in the development of a command and first response station at Encinal, where a fire and ambulance station is being completed.

“We want the Cotulla station to become a quick-attack response station with a full-time staff,” the fire chief said, noting that he believes La Salle County needs to be able to deploy its emergency response manpower and equipment at a moment’s notice in the event of an industrial mishap, wildfire or other disaster. “Resources in technology and personnel will help us to improve the county’s ISO rating.”

The rating, which determines the level of risk at which any property stands in a fire department’s coverage area, thereby dictating the cost of property insurance, has improved by three points in the past three years with the development of the La Salle Fire Rescue & EMS, the purchase of new equipment, development of a comprehensive emergency management plan, and upgrades to firefighting equipment. The rating applies to commercial as well as residential property insurance rates.

LEPC attendees also learned that La Salle County commissioners have given the green light to an emergency notification system by Alert Sense, whose representatives gave a demonstration at a recent meeting in the county courthouse. The countywide warning system will function in the same way as the reverse-911, whereby area residents are notified of an emergency by a telephone or website alert.

“This is a more effective alternative to a siren, or to the emergency dispatcher having to call everyone,” Simmons said.

In other business at their meeting, LEPC members appointed spokespersons from represented areas of county government, public and private services, healthcare, emergency response, utilities, schools, transportation, media relations, law enforcement, technology and the energy industry to serve on a committee that will meet in May, August, November and February to share updates and improve coordinated emergency response tactics. An ad hoc committee of representatives was likewise created to draft the LEPC bylaws for La Salle County.
La Salle Fire Rescue & EMS Chief Les Simmons outlines the details of grants that he hopes will help enhance the county's emergency response equipment.
Pete Cordova, La Salle County Chief Deputy Malcolm Watson and Travis County Fire Chief Don Smith discuss emergency response management after the quarterly LEPC meeting.

Commissioners budget $20K for volunteer organization...

La Salle boosts
child
advocacy group
with funds

By Marc Robertson
The Court-Appointed Special Advocates of South Texas will benefit again this year from a fund injection by the La Salle County Commissioners’ Court, which voted unanimously on Monday, January 30, to provide $20,000 to the group whose volunteer members come to the aid of abused and neglected children.
SPEAK FOR THE CHILDREN – CASA of South Texas outreach coordinator Francie Gasch meets La Salle County elected officials on Monday, January 30, for the official notification of funding for the children’s advocacy group. Pictured with Gasch are (L-R) Commissioners Erasmo Ramirez Jr. and Raul Ayala, County Judge Joel Rodriguez, and Commissioners Jack Alba and Noel Niavez.
(Courtesy photo)

CASA of South Texas covers several counties in the region and is made up of a team of children’s advocates who help address the youngsters’ concerns in court and speak to a judge on their behalf in cases that may result in decisions affecting the children’s short- and long-term housing. The county government had planned ahead for the financial contribution in its annual budget.

Children who are moved from the custody of their parents and who may be sent into foster homes or who may be subject to adoption will meet with advocates who help them voice their concerns and help document offenses that may have been committed against them.

In La Salle County, CASA of South Texas works closely with Child Protective Services, county law enforcement, the 81st Judicial District Attorney’s Office and the Children’s Alliance advocacy center in Cotulla. Volunteer members of the organization will review children’s cases and meet the youngsters in a safe and supervised environment in order to provide emotional support and to reassure the children that their needs will be met if they are properly addressed in court.

Representing CASA, outreach coordinator Francie Gasch said that she believes La Salle County’s contribution of $20,000 will go a long way towards supporting the volunteer advocates’ work and will enable the organization to reach more children in need of supportive services.

“We have cases in which parents or step-parents may have been responsible for physically abusing children, and that includes very young children, and these cases are heartbreaking,” Gasch said. “Every case we see deserves our full attention, and every child in need deserves to have his or her best interests addressed in court.

“For some of these children, life has been nothing but disappointment, fear and uncertainty,” she said. “We are here to put an end to that, to make sure these children know that they will find a loving home, a forever home.”

In some cases, the CASA volunteers will work on a child’s case for more than a year, attending court hearings, meeting the child at least once a month and continually reviewing and updating the case folder.

“Our number one concern will always be the child’s welfare,” Gasch said. “It’s the reason we are here, and we want to see that child moved to a place of love and safety.”

CASA of South Texas volunteer advocates work in La Salle, Frio, Atascosa, Karnes and Wilson counties. The organization is part of a nationwide network of volunteer advocacy groups comprising more than 150,000 members. The organization is extending its thanks to the county commissioners for their support of the advocates’ work.

"For some of these children, life has been nothing but disappointment, fear and uncertainty...

We are here to put an end to that"

- Francie Gasch
CASA of South Texas

La Salle County Sheriff begins second term...

"We will
be ready"

Rodriguez looks to lessons from past four years
i n preparedness for the future

By Marc Robertson
The retired Texas Highway Patrol corporal aimed at leading the La Salle County Sheriff’s Office into a time of growth and change when he was elected to the top law enforcement job in 2012.

He began serving his constituents at the peak of the Eagle Ford Shale energy industry’s economic boom and has been re-elected to serve them another four years.

At the same time as he worked to stay ahead of increasing demands for law enforcement in La Salle County, Sheriff Miguel Rodriguez was seeing his community transformed and worked with a team of administrators to meet the challenges that the future would hold.

Those challenges would strike the community and its government from all sides.
“We had to deal with a huge increase in the number of traffic accidents on the highway and on other roads when I took office,” the sheriff said a week after being sworn into office for his second elected term this month. “We were still dealing with a lot of local issues, like drug-related crime, but then we had new issues that this county had never seen before. It wasn’t all good news.”

Rodriguez ran unopposed for re-election in the Democratic Party primaries in March 2016 and faced a write-in candidate on the ballot in the November general election. He prevailed in large part, he says, because his department had developed a close rapport with La Salle County’s residents and had succeeded in meeting the demands of a faster-moving economy and population shifts brought on by the energy industry.

“The days when a sheriff could employ just a couple of deputies in that old-fashioned small-town way of life were history,” the sheriff said. “The people of La Salle County want to keep the small-town way of life, which is a positive thing, and we have to protect that while the world around us is changing. Families need to know that we are patrolling their streets to keep them safe, and kids need to know that we will make sure they are safe on their way to school.”

During Rodriguez’ first four years as La Salle County sheriff, the local population grew to exceed 6,000 in Cotulla alone; City Hall estimates at the peak of the oil boom indicated that as many as ten thousand workers could be found in the city on any given weekday. La Salle County welcomed the economic boost; multiple family members were finding work, contributing to their household income; oil revenues and elevated property values were feeding the county and city with funds that would help pave streets, improve utilities and provide for better law enforcement, emergency response and local government services. When Rodriguez took office, Cotulla city councilors had approved establishing a law enforcement partnership with the La Salle County Sheriff’s Office for a city police department at a rate of $375,000 per year. The Cotulla Patrol Division is supervised by a sheriff’s sergeant and maintains a law enforcement presence for rapid response within city limits where none had been previously guaranteed.

"We had new issues that
this county
had never
seen before...
It wasn't all good news"

"We had to
plan ahead
at the same time as we
were dealing with the changes"

“It was as if the county changed overnight,” the sheriff said. “We had new hotels and businesses being built along the interstate, which meant that we had to provide extra manpower to deal with all the new traffic. On the highway, we were seeing many more accidents. Out in the field, there was the constant danger of an industrial accident that would occupy all of our forces. We had to plan ahead at the same time as we were dealing with the changes.”

The sheriff’s office grew to include more than two dozen law enforcement officers, plus the county’s emergency dispatch and a new crew of certified correctional officers to staff the La Salle County Jail, which reopened during Rodriguez’ first term. At the same time, La Salle County assumed control of the Regional Detention Center at Encinal, a facility that houses federal detainees from the US Marshals Service. In order to earn sufficient revenues to pay for its construction costs and daily operating expenses, the detention center must hold a break-even minimum of 300 inmates and earn $20,000 per day for the county. As chief law enforcement officer for the county, the sheriff took control of the facility and oversaw the hiring of all its jailers and support staff. He also had to work closely with county commissioners to ensure that funds were made available for urgent repairs to the ten-year-old detention center whose fixtures and fittings had deteriorated. 

“When we knew what we were going to be dealing with, we were able to set a plan in motion to get the job done, and I’m very proud of the administrators and staff who have kept both of these detention facilities in top running condition,” the sheriff said. “Each one of these buildings needs constant maintenance and has to pass inspection by state and federal authorities. You can’t open a detention center that isn’t fully equipped or doesn’t meet standards. You can’t allow yourself to slip. Not once.”

An industrial accident at a remote site in eastern La Salle County helped increase public awareness of the need for a fully equipped county fire and rescue service and served to justify the county’s expenditure in creating the La Salle Fire & Rescue, which now operates out of a new station on the east side of Cotulla and will soon open a substation in Encinal. As the county developed its emergency response services, the sheriff’s office kept the pace with officer training and equipment upgrades.

“You don’t train all your guys just once and send them out,” the sheriff said of the need to stay ahead of the curve in emergency response. “You have to keep up with changes in the industry and you have to know what’s going on out there. We have to work very closely with the Fire & Rescue to make sure we are all working on the same page and that we are prepared to deal with any incident.”

La Salle County law enforcement officers routinely attend training seminars and industry update workshops with the county’s firefighters and medics. Sheriff Rodriguez said he believes a close working relationship between departments is critical.

“You’re not just going out there to block the road or direct traffic, if there is an emergency,” the sheriff said. “You’re going there to make sure anyone that needs to be evacuated is safe and that the firefighters can do their job. When it comes down to it, this is a matter of life and death in an emergency.”

An incident on IH-35 during the summer of 2015, in which a gunman threatened officers and other motorists for more than ten hours before he was shot by local deputies, brought attention to the need for a law enforcement department that could respond to simultaneous events.
“By the time we had the standoff on the highway, we were already fully staffed, and that emergency showed we were ready to tackle something that was totally new to La Salle County,” the sheriff said.

"When it comes down to it, this is a matter of life and death in an emergency"

"Protecting the residents, ready to respond to emergencies, prepared to handle disasters"

“These things that have happened in the past few years have really been a wake-up call to everyone, that times have changed,” the sheriff said. “We were able to deal with these incidents because we were ready. We had the manpower, the training and the equipment.”

The sheriff looks ahead to his second term with hopes that the regional economy will stabilize, that employment levels will rise, that developers will continue looking to La Salle County for their business sites, and that traffic flow will be safer. Each factor, he believes, will affect the lives of La Salle County’s residents.

“The most important issue for us as a law enforcement department is the safety of the people of our communities,” the sheriff said. “That means protecting families in their homes, children going to school, businesses operating without fear of crime.

“Where do we go from here? We will continue to keep a fully staffed law enforcement agency that is ready to grow,” the sheriff said. “We will continue to serve the community by protecting the residents, being ready to respond to emergencies, being prepared to handle disasters, and keeping our manpower trained.

“We maintain a very close working relationship with the school district and with the agencies that take care of the children’s special needs, handle cases of abuse and neglect, and offer shelter to the needy,” the sheriff added. “We work together with the DPS, the US Border Patrol, the FBI and the US Marshals, and we are in touch with every other law enforcement agency in the region. I believe that when we work together for the betterment of all the people, we will be ready to face whatever the future holds.”

La Salle County Fire & Rescue Chief Les Simmons addresses an assembly of energy industry, state agency, local government and law enforcement representatives at the Local Emergency Planning Committee meeting in the Larry Griffin Emergency Operations Center at Las Palmas in Cotulla on Tuesday, December 13, outlining his department's capabilities, fleet components, and the demands put on the fire brigade and ambulance service.

"We need
to know what's happened..."

274K active wells currently producing oil and gas in Texas...

Touching base:
Key players in energy field
share emergency management updates

By Marc Robertson
With a focus on open channels of communication and accessibility to services, representatives of the energy industry met with emergency responders and community leaders in Cotulla on Tuesday, December 13, to share updates in their planning committee.

The committee involves members of pipeline companies, oil and gas industry drilling and pumping companies, regional and state agencies responsible for natural resource oversight, advocates for the energy companies, state and local government representatives, firefighters, medics, law enforcement agencies, area schools and the residential community. Hosted by Soteria Solutions in conjunction with La Salle Fire & Rescue in the Larry Griffin Emergency Operations Center at Las Palmas, the meeting included presentations by Fire Chief Les Simmons, Gaye Greever McElwain of the Texas Railroad Commission, Jack Lunday of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Bo Blackmon of S&B Infrastructure Ltd., and Soteria representative Michelle Joseph. Additional updates were provided by representatives of the South Texas Energy & Economic Roundtable (STEER), EMS Captain Daniel Mendez, and the La Salle County Sheriff’s Office.

Under the Emergency Planning & Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA), a nationwide network of Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPCs) must each develop an emergency response plan, review the plan at least annually, and provide information about chemicals in the community to citizens, Michelle Joseph told meeting attendees on Dec. 13.

Plans are developed by LEPCs with stakeholder participation, and these must include representatives of state and local government and other public entities; law enforcement, firefighters, civil defense and public health professionals; environment, transportation and hospital officials; facility representatives, in this case for the energy industry; and representatives from community groups and the media.
Fire Chief Simmons outlined his department’s call volume and addressed response times, fleet components and capabilities, the fire brigade’s dispatch in the event of simultaneous incidents, and the capability of all the Fire & Rescue EMS ambulances to serve as mobile intensive care units that provide advanced life support.

Simmons noted that the majority of the fire brigade’s calls are related to vehicle accidents on IH-35 and other principal roadways in La Salle County. He also urged energy companies who maintain contact with medical evacuation helicopter services to call 911 despite already having summoned an emergency airlift.

“We need to know what’s happened, even if you already have AirLife on the way,” the chief said. “We are able to provide the supplemental services that you need. If you have a contract with an air service, call them, but also call us.”

Simmons also noted that he believes close cooperation between agencies and the energy industry will help protect the lives of emergency responders in the event of a commercial mishap, spill, leak or other disaster that threatens the community and the environment. Knowing what materials have been stored at industrial sites and what chemicals or other potentially hazardous materials are present, he said, will enable emergency responders to act with appropriate caution.

Since the recent closure of the Nix Community General Hospital at Dilley, the La Salle Fire & Rescue has been required to transport patients over longer distances, according to Simmons, with the nearest hospital to Cotulla now being Frio Regional at Pearsall, at a distance of at least 35 miles. To the south, the nearest facility is Doctors Hospital at Laredo, at a distance of at least 70 miles from Cotulla.

Simmons has been named to serve as one of La Salle County’s new emergency management coordinators.

McElwain, who serves in communications and outreach for the railroad commission, said her organization’s mission is one of stewardship of Texas’ natural resources as well as a concern for public and environmental safety. The agency, she said, works closely with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and with elected government across its jurisdiction to oversee the registry and movement of all chemicals and hazardous materials (although not those carried by rail), and the up-to-date and detailed inventory of all materials stored at energy industry sites. She added that special attention is given to all storage, use and movement of the potentially deadly hydrogen sulfide gas and the training that is required for its safe management. 

McElwain demonstrated a mapping program used by the railroad commission that indicates where each of Texas’ active and inactive wells is positioned, its name and permit numbers, its size and depth, its production numbers and the quantities and identities of all chemicals stored at each site. The information, she said, is vital to emergency responders in the event of an accident.

Out of nearly half a million oil and gas wells that exist in Texas, more than 274,000 are presently active, according to the Texas Railroad Commission. Present production levels in Texas alone stand at 2.4 million barrels of crude oil per day.

“This is on a par with the height of production in the 1980s,” McElwain said of the latest figures on Texas’ revenue-generating oil extraction,
adding that the majority of wells presently producing crude oil lie within the Barnet and the Eagle Ford shales. Both regions also produce natural gas.

The Texas Railroad Commission also oversees well safety measures, promotes training and safety measures for spill prevention, waste management and disposal, according to McElwain, “all for the safety of the environment and the public.” The commission’s safety division over sees pipelines and alternate fuels. An oil and gas division responds to all spills, she said, “including those outside the railroad commission’s oversight.”

McElwain ended her presentation to the LEPC by reminding all stakeholders to promote use of the 811 calling service that all those who plan to dig in Texas should use in order to determine whether they will strike a buried pipeline. The number of pipeline miles underneath Texas’ soil, she said, indicates that there is a likelihood of a strike if any company were to dig without calling the mapping and safety hotline first.

There are presently over 440,000 miles of pipeline in Texas, which is a distance almost equivalent to a round trip from the Earth to the Moon.

On behalf of the TCEQ, Lunday said he works closely with regional emergency response coordinator Jose Salinas to provide a strike team for deployment in the event of any accident or disaster. The agency’s responses in recent years have run the gamut from monitoring wildfires at Bastrop to handling equipment that may have been exposed to the Ebola virus. Other action by the TCEQ has included response to and monitoring of hazards such as a sewer leak, the explosion of a fertilizer plant in the city of West, hurricane and other storm damage, flash floods, and the sudden death of thousands of birds in Travis County.

Lunday said the TCEQ is ready to mobilize any of its 130 strike team members at any hour in response to threats against residents and the environment, and that the agency’s mission focuses on protecting public health and natural resources.

“Our goals are clean air, clean water, and the safe management of waste,” Lunday said at Tuesday’s meeting. He added that team members train continually in the use of modern technology and equipment, and carry out drills to practice for multiple contingencies. The agency also ensures compliance with registry and storage requirements applicable to all hazardous materials.

The TCEQ deployed its responders to 214 chemical spills during 2015, Lunday said, and the agency is capable of mobilizing any of its fleet of heavy-duty trucks equipped with mobile laboratories, monitoring stations, communication equipment and living quarters for its strike team members. Some of those trucks, he said, are sufficiently equipped to operate independently and to sustain crew members “off the grid” for up to 72 hours at a time. Potential failures in ground-level communications, downed power lines or damage to communications towers, he said, necessitate the use of military-grade satellite phones.

On behalf of S&B Infrastructure, Blackmon said an interactive website is continually being updated to list all of the sites in Texas where the energy industry is active in the drilling, pumping transport, storage and other handling of the state’s natural resources, chemicals and related materials. Satellite imagery, he said, enables emergency responders to know in advance what terrain to expect when they are dispatched to a disaster. Tier 2 information related to energy industry activity includes detailed data on all facilities in the region, also listing what chemicals are stored at a site and in what quantity.

Significant to the work by local responders in the event of a disaster, Blackmon said, is mapping information on all structures in the area, and a satellite map may be overlaid with a projected “plume” of material either drifting through the atmosphere from a spill or flowing at ground level. That information, he added, is readily available over the website and assists emergency responders in their decision making when a civilian evacuation is called for.

Meeting attendees acknowledged that immediate focus in the response to a disaster will be public safety. Proactive moves by all members of the planning committee and those on scene in the event of a natural or industrial emergency are made in keeping with the LEPC guidelines and with the county’s emergency management plan.

The LEPC will hold its next meeting at noon on February 22.
 

With the program

La Salle County Deputy and Chief Bailiff Eddie DeLeon is conducting training courses for all of the department's officers this week as well as county jailers on updated security measures and precautions to be taken in the handling and transfer of defendants before, during and after court appointments, and additional measures to be taken in managing the public as well as overseeing the safe conduct of an inmate. Focusing on the safety of judges and attorneys as well as the general public, the bailiff's training course addressed issues specific to the La Salle County Courthouse. Sheriff Miguel Rodriguez also spoke during the training course, discussing the county's long record of courtroom safety and the diligence of the officers responsible for ensuring smooth courtroom proceedings

"We do everything we can to prevent this from happening"

Gas plant staff, local responders
run emergency scenario 

By Marc Robertson
While the possibility of a hazardous leak at the Anadarko gas treatment and distribution plant on the outskirts of Cotulla is remote, administrators and staff highlighted the risk in a tabletop scenario on Thursday, September 22 in collaboration with local law enforcement and emergency responders.

In a brief outline of a possible event that would result in the declaration of an exclusion zone, local road closures and residential evacuation, Anadarko compliance officer and plant operator Jon Springer showed that a pipeline rupture near the facility’s perimeter would cause a leak that would include flammable gases.

“We do everything we can to prevent this from happening,” Springer told his audience in the Anadarko operations building on Thursday, adding that gas flares are the most recognizable elements of a plant. “The plant releases some gases from its stack, where they are burned, and your dispatchers probably get calls all the time from concerned citizens.”

The main stack – known as Big Bertha - at Anardarko’s Brasada Gas Plant beside the IH-35 west-side access road south of the Nueces River is 115 feet tall and can issue a flame twice as tall, Springer said, causing a bright light at night. The gas flame, however, contains a minimal amount of the black smoke typical of other flares, because the gases burned at the stack are low in the contaminants that cause heavy smoking, he said.
The Anadarko gas plant control room at the company's operations building on the outskirts of Cotulla, where computer screens will demonstrate where a malfunction has occurred, enabling operators to close valves and reduce the risk of a hazardous leak
“In the event of a controlled release, we use the flare in the daytime if possible,” the plant operator said, “but it is more noticeable at night.”
The Anadarko plant does not own or operate any of the other gas flares in the area, according to Springer, and is not accountable for what is being burned in them.

Company representatives noted that the Anadarko site close to IH-35 is convenient for employee and company-related traffic, and includes access driveways from the highway and from Cochina Ranch Road, but its location is not ideal in a situation in which a pipeline rupture could result in a gas leak near interstate traffic or residential areas of Cotulla, depending on wind direction.

In their tabletop scenario, the Anadarko spokesmen outlined what could happen if a 16-inch diameter underground pipe ruptured near the facility entrance and near the interstate. Initial indicators, they said, would be a frozen area on the ground caused by the low temperatures of the gases, and a light haze or fog in the area above the leak. Most of the gases sold by pipeline from the plant are colorless and odorless, according to Springer.

Anadarko’s facility does not receive or treat hydrogen sulfide (H2S) gas, which is recognized by its “rotten egg” smell. The plant records levels of H2S at or below four parts per million in its products. The gas is detectable by smell at levels of ten parts per million or above.

Springer was joined by plant foreman Brian Ankrum and supervisor Vincent Pavlu in outlining what events would occur in the event of a pipeline rupture, beginning with a call to the county’s emergency dispatcher and simultaneous activation of Anadarko’s own incident response system, which includes plant evacuation and shut-down of relevant pipelines to prevent further leakage.
In the case of the 16-inch pipe leaking through the soil, however, shut-off valves at the plant would only eliminate further supply, and the material within the pipe would continue leaking.

The pipeline – whose contents are owned by Enterprise Products – stretches approximately ten miles from the Anadarko facility before it reaches a shut-off valve. The welded pipe carries an estimated 31,000 barrels of gases and liquids per day – more than 1.3 million gallons – at pressures of over 1,000 pounds per square inch. 

According to Springer and Pavlu, Anadarko has learned lessons in emergency response from an explosion that occurred at a plant in Orla, Texas, an event that resulted from a leak and from which scores of company employees ran in multiple directions.

Anyone entering or leaving the facility is logged in a registry, enabling emergency responders to know who is at the site and who has been accounted for. In the event of a leak at the Brasada Plant, Springer said, Anadarko will know which employees are present and will be able to control who, if anyone, enters the facility after an emergency has been declared.

Springer could not, however, vouch for other facilities having the same control over personnel movement.
Anadarko gas plant superintendent Vincent Pavlu outlines an emergency scenario in which flammable gases have begun leaking from a ruptured pipe, an event that would result in a 9-1-1 call to mobilize emergncy responders and might warrant evacuation of business and homes in the area 
While Anadarko employs around 16 people at its Brasada Plant outside Cotulla, the facility is primarily staffed by a crew of only two. When supervisors or other staff are present, the facility may have a mere half dozen employees on site.

“We hope to work with EMS and other responders on what to expect from local services,” Springer said. “We want to learn what emergency responders’ protocols are, such as distances from the gas for safety during the response.”

The plant foreman said he believes a safe zone perimeter with a radius of at least half a mile from the site of the leak – 800 meters – would be established at first detection and that wind direction, volume and contents of the leak would be taken into consideration.

Texas DPS Highway Patrol Trooper Philip Crain said his agency will be responsible for controlling traffic on IH-35 and, if necessary, ordering closure of the interstate and its access roads if company spokespersons indicated the gas leak could be hazardous to motorists.

La Salle County Fire & Rescue Assistant Chief Les Simmons said his firefighters and paramedics would be among the first to reach the perimeter of an exclusion zone in order to extract injured persons and to consult with company representatives on stopping a leak and determining the likelihood and threat of an explosion.

La Salle County Chief Deputy Malcolm Watson and Sgt. Rickey Galvan said their resources would be divided between blocking roads in the area and, if called upon, assisting with evacuation of nearby residents.
Company spokespersons acknowledged that there are several residents in travel trailers and other temporary accommodations in the vicinity but that Anadarko does not monitor their movement or have a means of alerting them to danger.

A 9-1-1 call to the La Salle County dispatch office, Sgt. Galvan said, should be regarded as a “one stop” call, notifying all area responders at the same time. The fire and rescue service, Assistant Chief Simmons said, maintains a minimum of two paramedics on duty at all times.

“Toxicity is not as serious as flammability” Springer said of the products sold through pipelines by Anadarko. “It will find an ignition point.”

Representing Enterprise Products, Sabas Garza told those attending the workshop that Anadarko is one of several companies whose materials are pumped into the 16-inch line. At least four other suppliers, he said, may have connections to the line and will also need to be notified of a pipeline rupture in order to cut off supplies to the possible ignition point at the leak.

Garza and Pavlu confirmed that Enterprise and Anadarko will be able to provide emergency responders with an accurate list of materials in the pipeline, thereby enabling responders to take appropriate safety precautions when approaching the site.

They also said elevated levels of flammable gas in the area will play a significant part in determining whether vehicles may be driven anywhere near the site. While strict enforcement of limits on vehicle movement will be applied on the property, the same must also be applied to nearby residents leaving their homes, according to La Salle Sgt. Galvan.

Pavlu noted that there will also be limits on aircraft movement in the area, adding that a no-fly zone would affect access by helicopters undertaking emergency medical airlifts. He said Anadarko does not maintain a helipad on its property and cautioned against allowing helicopters to approach the site, as rotor blade downdraft would stir up gases in the atmosphere.  

“They can land on the highway, because it’s close by,” Sgt. Galvan said, “but they can’t do that if your toxic cloud is moving in that direction.”

Responders agreed that other agencies would be deployed if the need for added manpower and resources arose, including the US Border Patrol and the Texas Department of Transportation. 

Company representatives agreed to maintain close communication with local law enforcement, firefighters and medics in order to coordinate an effective response to a leak. The sheriff’s office has indicated it believes communication between energy companies and local residents should be improved to include warning indicators that would prompt safe evacuation.

"We hope to work with EMS and
other responders on what to expect from local services...

We want to learn what emergency responders'
protocols are..."

- Jon Springer
Anadarko compliance officer

New approaches toward cases of missing children...

"There is no delay"

By Marc Robertson
Returning from specialized training at Laredo on handling cases in which children are reported missing, La Salle County Sheriff’s Office Investigators Esmeralda Gonzalez and Homar Olivarez hosted workshops for local officers and constables Wednesday and Thursday, Sept. 21 and 22.

Armed with data from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, the investigators showed that the likelihood is high there will be incidents of missing children in La Salle County.

Nationwide, 460,000 children are reported missing every year, making the daily average 1,260.

“We cannot lose any time waiting to register a missing child,” Sgt. Gonzalez said. “We need to know immediately which people to contact, besides family members. We need to know who the child’s friends are, who the child has met lately, and where the child has gone in the past. That includes other peoples’ homes, public places and businesses.”

Gonzalez and Olivarez reiterated that La Salle County’s position on IH-35, its proximity to Laredo and the Mexican border, and the presence of highwayside businesses such as restaurants and truck stops make the community’s young residents vulnerable prey to predators.

Those predators, according to Sgt. Gonzalez, may include persons with sexual interests in children and may include members of criminal organizations involved in human trafficking.

"What would you do if one of your loved ones was missing?"
- Sgt. Investigator Esmeralda Gonzalez

Fast response, gathering valuable information and examining all possibilities in the disappearance of a child will be key to a successful investigation, the sergeant said. Officers will be trained in ways to address the issue with parents, to look for possible indicators of foul play, and to ask questions that will provide insight into a child’s decision to leave voluntarily or the likelihood that the child has been abducted.

Sgt. Gonzalez indicated there are connections between cases of family violence and child disappearances, noting that parents may not be blameless in the loss of a child, that young runaways may have motives based on domestic experiences for wanting to leave, and that there have been reported incidents of parents being directly responsible for the disappearance of a child. Some of those cases, she said, have involved parents “selling” their children into human trafficking or being the children’s handlers in the sex trade.

In alternate scenarios, children willing to leave home voluntarily may have been encouraged by predators or lured away from their parents by temptations of gifts, money, food, independent living, freedom of expression and freedom from house rules.
Children who have chosen to run away from home have been recovered in the past, according to the officers, although both reiterated that the ease with which a runaway could leave the area by hitching a ride at a local truck stop or boarding an intercity bus means that the missing person could have left Texas by the time parents report the disappearance.

“Some people choose to drop their children off at truck stops to meet their friends or to buy food, and some parents allow their children to go to truck stops and restaurants unaccompanied,” Sgt. Gonzalez said. “We strongly discourage it, but it’s a parent’s choice.”

Disappearance cases of children with special needs or with limited mental capacity will be handled with additional attention to the child’s needs, tendencies and attractions, Gonzalez said, adding that some children may be drawn to sites where they have been entertained in the past, such as festivals or parties, but may have put themselves in danger by attempting to return to them.  

In the majority of cases, however, child disappearances that cannot be immediately solved are the result of malicious abduction or the withholding of a child by a custodial parent. The scope of those cases, the sergeant said, may be determined at an earlier stage through accurate investigation by the first responding officer.

“Our officers need to know what questions to ask, and we need to recognize red flags,” Gonzalez said. We need to know how to deal with autistic children, because they respond to different things. Our officers should be fully trained in how to interview parents or guardians.”

There are presently at least 21 registered sex offenders living permanently in La Salle County. The state registry of offenders shows a higher number because it also includes those presently serving prison time at detention facilities in the county. While the county maintains close watch over registered offenders, law enforcement officers cannot know whether an offender from another county is traveling through La Salle or has stopped at a local business, a motel or a truck stop.

"There is no delay; there is no twenty-four-hour waiting period. The sooner we know, the sooner we can get the word out"
- Investigator Homar Olivarez

“As soon as we learn that a child is missing, we enter that child’s details into the national system,” Sgt. Gonzalez said. “We could be dealing with a non-family abduction, a family abduction, or a runaway.”

The investigator added that any missing person under the age of 18 is listed as a missing child and will be treated as such, regardless of whether that child is living independently or has filed paperwork as an emancipated individual, living separately from parents.

“There is no delay; there is no twenty-four-hour waiting period,” Investigator Olivarez said of the need for immediacy in reporting and registering a missing child. “The sooner we know, the sooner we can get the word out.”

The investigators said they believe any law enforcement agency handling a missing-child case should avail itself of all media resources, including print and broadcast as well as social media, to help disseminate information.
Both officers, however, noted that it may be through social media that a child has been drawn from the home or has become vulnerable to predators. While sites such as Facebook and Twitter may be useful to officers in spreading news about a missing person, a child’s access to those sites and others may have contributed to exposing the child to strangers and may have attracted him or her into communication by text, video and photo with persons who may not be who they appear on screen.

In one incident, Gonzalez said, parents discovered that a so-called friend with whom their child was exchanging messages was a 40-year-old stranger.

La Salle County Victims’ Advocate Rosario Morales also addressed officers during the day-long training sessions and said she believes more than one generation of family members may be unaware of the means by which children can make contact with each other and with strangers from their cellphones, tablets, laptops and home computers.

“A lot of parents and grandparents don’t know about social media, the different kinds that are out there, and how people can contact children on them,” Morales said. “Parents need to monitor the sites their children use; they should be able to check phones and computers.

“When children say, ‘we’re just texting,’ parents should be able to say, ‘let me see,’” the advocate said.

“Children sometimes vent to strangers online or by text,” Sgt. Gonzalez said. “They feel they can talk to someone about whatever is going on at home, because sometimes they just want someone to talk to.”

Such behavior puts children at risk of abduction because they may inadvertently give out personal information that enables a predator to find them or reveals domestic details that would be useful to strangers.

"We work with all agencies involved in a child's case"
- Mikey Betancourt
Executive Director,
Children's Alliance of South Texas

“Perpetrators can reel children in easily through conversations online, and this is the beginning of the grooming process,” Gonzalez said, “preparing the potential victim for abduction. The invitations are what follows. There will be temptation and opportunity.

“Even though it has its obvious benefits, social media actually makes the world a more dangerous place for kids these days,” the sergeant said.

Morales noted that there is evidence predators may lure children though advertisements or promotional material online, including opportunities for earning income or achieving celebrity.

“People have posed as modeling agents to lure children to them,” Morales said. “There are also people who advertise items for sale or who offer to buy things, and these are advertisements that potential victims will notice.”

Also attending the training workshop on both days were Executive Director Mikey Betancourt and staff members of the Children’s Alliance of South Texas, which operates the Children’s Advocacy Center in Cotulla, where youths and family members may be interviewed in the wake of incidents involving domestic violence. Forensic interviews with children and therapy sessions are held at the center and may be part of criminal investigations that lead to the arrest of those responsible for harming children.

“Our center brings people together in an investigation,” Betancourt said. “We work with all of the agencies involved in a child’s case, including law enforcement and Child Protective Services.”

Betancourt stressed the value of strong communication between the agencies as well as between investigators and victims in a coordinated approach to ending family violence, intervention in a cycle of harm to children, and identification and prosecution of those responsible.

“Are we prepared? I believe we have to be,” Sgt. Investigator Gonzalez said of the Sheriff’s Office part in handling cases of missing and exploited children. “We have the resources and we have the ability to promote public awareness of the dangers. What would you do if one of your loved ones was missing? What would you go through?”

Addressing new wave of criminal enterprise in South Texas...

"People are paying to rape that child again and again"

District attorney describes 'dark-world problem' of human trafficking, sex slavery

By Marc Robertson
Lessons learned in the wars on drug traffic and organized crime over the past 30 years have been put to use in new combative action by South Texas law enforcement, whose officers are now coming face to face with a horrifying reality that reaches beyond the urban centers and has begun affecting rural communities.

Thousands of children may presently be enslaved in the sex trade as victims of human trafficking, and at least 85 percent of them are Americans, according to 81st Judicial District Attorney Rene Pena in a presentation to school, county and municipal leaders Tuesday evening, September 6 in Cotulla.

Turning their attention to new opportunities for fast financial gain at moderately low risk, criminal enterprises across South Texas have begun dealing in human lives, adding the new venture to their roster and finding it lucrative because of a continual demand, the district attorney said. Pena was joined in the presentation by 81st Judicial District Human Trafficking Victims’ Advocate Laura Alaniz.

In his presentation on how local authorities can recognize indicators of the crimes, DA Pena said he believes any family, urban or rural, can become a victim, either immediately through being targeted by those who kidnap and sell children and young adults for sex or as the parents or grandparents of a child that has been targeted.

“Human trafficking is modern-day slavery and a severe form of child abuse”

81st Judicial District Attorney
Rene Pena

Authorities are faced with a lack of public awareness and new methods of concealment by the criminal networks, factors that combine to make investigating and prosecuting those responsible for human trafficking doubly difficult, according to the judicial district.

“It’s something you don’t see every day, but it’s there,” Alaniz said in her introduction to the topic. “It’s lurking.”

“It’s a dark-world problem,” the district attorney said of the underground network whose principal goal is to earn maximum profit from the sale of a child. “We are getting away from the old ways of doing business. They are changing the name of the game.”

A SHIFT IN CRIMINAL PRACTICES

Criminal organizations have turned their attention to oil and gas theft, murder for hire, kidnapping and human smuggling and trafficking, Pena said.

In the drug trade, Pena said, traffickers’ profits were earned at high risk. As law enforcement agencies began closing in on the narcotic trade, dealers found themselves likely to be caught and prosecuted. In the human trafficking trade, however, the risk of being caught is lessened because of traffickers’ ability to conceal themselves and to move their operations from one community to the next, advertising almost exclusively on social media.

In South Texas, principal thoroughfares such as IH-35 and intersecting state and county roads present human traffickers with ample opportunities to operate virtually anonymously, according to the district attorney, and evidence indicates that child victims are often moved by their handlers from one town to the next.

Human trafficking, however, does not imply that a victim has been transported anywhere.

“You can become a human trafficking victim in your own home town,” DA Pena said. “You don’t even have to leave the house.”

The crime of human trafficking – differing from human smuggling – is the marketing for profit of any person who is enslaved. Human smuggling is the transport of persons illegally across boundaries or for ultimate profit through their enslavement.
TEENAGERS AT GREAT RISK

“Human trafficking is modern-day slavery and a severe form of child abuse,” the district attorney said. “Traffickers in our area largely target children younger than 18 years of age by luring, persuading, deceiving or forcing them into the sex industry.”

While some victims may be drug users, Pena noted that those at highest risk of being targeted by traffickers are single teens who are disaffected, prone to truancy, looking for companionship, members of the LGBTQ community or those easily attracted by such temptations as adolescent parties and what the district attorney described as ‘the pimp lifestyle.’

“There are even internet sites, parties and events promising to teach teens how to ‘be a pimp’ or how to ‘be a hoe,’” Pena said. “There are gala events for this.”

The district attorney added that victims of the child sex industry are often advertised for sale on a social media website called Back Page. The site, he said, shows young people in provocative poses, sometimes partially nude and sometimes with their faces covered or obscured.

“These kinds of images, where we can’t see the person’s face, make it hard for us to distinguish whether this is a child,” Pena said. “But it’s a good indicator that someone doesn’t want us to see that face.”

A NEW FOCUS IN TRACKING CRIME

The district attorney said he began observing new relationships between drug cartels and criminal gangs in 2009, and noted that what he described as a network of organized crime derived from the drug trade “is already in place and ready to go.”

“It's something you don't see every day,
but it's there”

81st Judicial District
Human Trafficking Victims' Advocate
Laura Alaniz

“Human smuggling and trafficking is the next step,” Pena said. “I understood that we had to engage them right now. We needed to get the Texas Legislature to understand what was going to happen.”

The Border Protection Unit, a state-sponsored law enforcement effort at assessing criminal tendencies, tracking patterns of organized crime and bringing cases to prosecution, covers more than 1,200 miles of the Texas border with Mexico and was recently granted a further $4 million by the state to increase its efforts.

“We started looking at Bexar and Harris counties,” the DA said, because San Antonio and Houston are destinations for human smuggling.”

TARGETS, SUPPLY AND DEMAND

At the same time, investigators were discovering that a high percentage of sex trade victims had not been smuggled into the United States from Mexico and other countries but were, in fact, American citizens who had been lured away from home.

The district attorney gave several examples of cases his office has investigated in which teenagers had run away from home and were quickly lured into the sex trade. In one case, he said, a girl had taken her mother’s credit card and had made her way from a rural community to San Antonio. Sitting at the Greyhound bus station in the city, the girl was approached by a man who offered help. When she asked him for a ride to a relative’s home, he took her there and appeared caring and concerned, Pena said. Then, the man had given the girl a telephone number to call if she needed help.

“She called that number the next day,” the district attorney said. “Within two hours, she’s being held against her will, and within a few hours of that, she’s had sex with six men.”

The supply of child victims for the sex trade is high because the demand is high, Pena said.

“Without a demand, there would be no supply,” the district attorney said. “Someone is always going to supply it.”

The demand, according to the district attorney, is greatest at sites where people are largely anonymous. Those include truck stops and motels along the interstate corridor.

“If you see a girl at the local motel and you recognize her as being from this town, you’re going to know immediately that something isn’t right,” Pena said. “If you see a girl from your community in the company of other men at the truck stop, you’re going to recognize that something’s wrong. This is why child victims are often moved to another town.”
There are presently at least 80,000 registered sex offenders in Texas, and more than 60,000 of them have been convicted of having had sex with children. Those statistics, according to Pena, indicate that demand is high.

Profits from the sex trade are also high, Pena said, and traffickers are not above kidnapping children and putting them to work in the sex trade for revenues of approximately a thousand dollars a day, each.

“Some people are paying to rape that child again and again,” the district attorney said, “three hundred and sixty-five days a year.”

From the trafficking of a single child, Pena said, a handler may expect to earn an annual revenue of $365,000.

In another case, Pena cited an incident in which drug dealers encountered a girl whom they promptly kidnapped and restrained, and whom they then offered to their narcotics clients.

“Two brothers were petty drug dealers in San Antonio,” the district attorney said of the case. “A girl came to them and they locked her in the bathroom. Then they decided to sell her for sex. The girl was tied down and abused. She was lying in her own feces and urine.

“A drug buyer came to that place and he saw that it was wrong,” Pena said. “He broke her out of there.”

The suspects in the case were ultimately sent to prison to serve four life sentences for their crimes.

DEVELOPING INTERVENTION

Cases in which trafficking victims have been rescued and their handlers successfully prosecuted, however, remained rare in the early years of intervention, according to the district attorney, because many law enforcement officers and investigators were unfamiliar with the indicators that would reveal abuse.

“We were getting so good at intervention in the drug traffic, but we were leaving human traffic completely alone,” Pena said of the early stages in the region’s awareness of the crisis. “So we started training our officers. Within a few months, we got our first human smuggling case in Moore, because an investigator followed what he had learned.

“We indicted an individual in that case,” the DA said. “A fifteen-year-old child had been put into the trade. The children we are dealing with here have had horrific experiences.”

Pena currently serves as chairman of the Texas Violent Gang Task Force, a position that he describes as being valuable to him in assessing the scope of the human trafficking network and recognizing signs of involvement. In a recent case, he said, officers intercepted a suspect at a motel after determining that the man was on his way to a paid sexual encounter with a child. The suspect, Pena said, was identified as a convicted felon in possession of a handgun, was listed as a person of interest in an unrelated murder investigation, and bore tattoos that helped identify him as a gang member.

“I know where we are going now,” the district attorney said of the direction his office is taking in the intervention of human smuggling and trafficking networks. “So far, we have rescued seventeen little girls. Teenagers. The majority had been sold for sex. Only one of them was an immigrant.”

Investigating organized crime elsewhere in his jurisdiction, Pena said officers working in Floresville discovered a teenage girl who had been victimized by traffickers and who had been fed at least three different types of drugs. Again, he said, a suspect in the case bore tattoos that gang task force officers recognized.

“People are learning from the gangs, and they’re learning from the drug cartels,” the DA said. “People are learning that there are ways to make money.”

PUBLIC AWARENESS

It is after he and other law enforcement officers have addressed community groups and brought awareness of the crisis to community members and civic leaders that parents are able to recognize some of the warning signs that their children may be targets of human trafficking, Pena said.

“People come up to us, after we have talked about this, and – to take an example – will say ‘Now I know what happened to my daughter,’” Pena said, adding that parents in many cases were unaware of how their children had disappeared or how they had been victimized.

In other cases, he said, children may be trafficked by their own parents or other family members. Pena cited a case in which a teenage girl was sexually abused by her own father, a man who had spent years in prison for sexually assaulting an 80-year-old woman in a nursing home. On another occasion, investigators discovered that a handler had marketed his own four-year-old child for sex.

“Criminals are using threats against the family,” Pena said, adding that he believes such threats contribute to a reluctance among victims to step forward and identify their abusers.

The ease with which criminals are able to begin trafficking victims has also been a cause for alarm at the district attorney’s office as well as among audiences that Pena has addressed on the topic. Teenagers willing to go to parties with strangers, willing to meet people they have only previously known on social media, and those trying to escape from abusive domestic situations or who lack fulltime parenting are likely targets, Pena said, and handlers need little else with which to lure their victims.

“A smartphone is all you need to get involved in human trafficking,” the district attorney said, pointing to internet access, camera and telephone being the means of snaring potential victims, communication, marketing and networking.

“You can find escort services here in Cotulla,” Pena said. “There is a social media site that shows teens available for sex here.”

Pena takes credit for helping break a case in which the prime suspect, Juan Lopez Jr., was indicted along with 28 men and women accused of involvement in the transportation of undocumented immigrants and their eventual sale into the sex trade.

“When we took Lopez in, we found that he had been using all kinds of different vehicles to traffic his victims in Atascosa, Bexar and Wilson counties,” Pena said. “This group was bringing in about 250 people per month. These people are already paying five thousand dollars each to be brought into the country. Add to that the money that these handlers stood to earn from each child.”

The district attorney described human trafficking as a business worth an estimated $150 billion per year.

“But do we really know the extent of it?” Pena asked. “We need to be realists. The problem is primarily on this side of the border.”

A video presented by the 81st Judicial District demonstrates the apparent allure of an alternate life for teens and young adults, as described by a survivor who said she felt wanted and loved by the man who handled her, even though he sold her for sex and abused her physically. Traveling in his expensive car, she said, and being encouraged and rewarded with food at McDonald’s made her feel appreciated at a time when she found no such comforts at home.

“Every year, over three hundred thousand children are victims of sexual exploitation,” DA Pena said. “This is not only a local issue. It’s an issue of national security. If I’m a terrorist, I don’t need to put a dirty bomb over here. I just need to send people with communicable diseases into human trafficking. We could have a real epidemic in three weeks.”

A brochure published by the 81st Judicial District Attorney’s Office aims to alert school districts and parents to the threat that teens face today.

“Human trafficking is a crime against humanity,” Pena wrote in the brochure that lists warning signs and offers resources for assistance. “It is a crime against everything that we as humans find most sacred.

“We all have the right not to be abused, mentally or physically,” he added, “not to be tortured, killed or sexually assaulted; and not to be forced into a life of despair, pain and torment.”

“They locked her
in the bathroom.
Then they decided
to sell her for sex”

“People are
learning from
the gangs,
and they're
learning from
the drug
cartels”

“We all have
the right not
to be abused,
mentally or physically...
Not to be forced
into a life of
despair, pain
and torment

WARNING SIGNS

The National Human Trafficking Resource Center has published statistics indicating that the average ages in which children are most likely to be trafficked are 11 to 17 years. The center also reports that in 2014, Texas authorities received 1,876 calls regarding human trafficking, and 452 actual cases were reported. Out of those, 376 victims were female and 59 were male; 169 victims were United States citizens; the remaining 116 were foreign nationals.

“These numbers are grossly underestimated,” the district attorney said. “These innocent children who are trafficked for profit become the repeated victims of child sexual abuse.
“Many of these victims were attending school when they were first identified by the traffickers as potential victims,” he added. “Others are chronic runaways or truants who find themselves outside the normal routine of other children their age.”

The 81st Judicial District is hoping to form an alliance with school districts in South Texas to help identify those most at risk, to promote awareness of the indicators of criminal activity, to teach educators and parents how to recognize the warning signs that children are or have been victims, and to help combat the burgeoning crime wave.

“We have a legal and moral duty to confront human trafficking,” the district attorney said. “Criminal enterprises don’t care about anything other than money. These child victims are going to be the next generation of traffickers and smugglers. Why would they want to be a part of the American fabric of life when this other life is so available to them?”

The district attorney reiterated that many child victims are reluctant to report the offenses and are likely to oppose intervention by authorities. In some cases, he said, girls who had been victimized had failed to report the abuse because they feared retribution.
“Why didn’t you tell your parents? That’s what I wanted to know,” Pena said. “One girl told me that she couldn’t tell her dad what she had done.”

Common methods by which traffickers lure teens and young adults, according to the DA, include recruitment by peers who are already involved in the sex trade, contact or friendship by someone promising love or acceptance in a relationship, offers of cash and gifts or a place to stay, and social media contacts and messages on topics such as the “party of the year” or apparent modeling opportunities.

“Sex trafficking of children can be done in any means,” Pena told his audience in an alert that is duplicated in his brochure. “It does not have to include force, fraud or coercion.”
ADVICE FOR SCHOOLS, COMMUNITIES

Authorities examining cases of child sex trafficking have listed a number of “red flags” of which the district attorney believes all schools and parents should be aware. Those warning signs include unexplained school absences; abrupt changes in attire, behavior or relationships; the presence of an older “boyfriend” or “girlfriend”; the sudden appearance of expensive goods such as jewelry, accessories and gadgets; frequent running away from home or apparent homelessness; and signs of physical coercion, such as depression, anxiety and an overly submissive attitude. Further indicators may include signs of physical trauma, bruises, cuts, burns and scars as well as tattoos with gang-related symbols, names of lovers, slogans such as “Daddy’s girl” and even bar codes, according to the district attorney, who said in many cases the victims of sex trafficking are considered to be the possessions of their pimps.

Characteristics of victims include changes in vocabulary and demeanor, Pena said, with teens suddenly appearing to know the language of the streets or being familiar with a street lifestyle. Teens may also act and appear much older than their actual age and display what he described as adaptive street skills.

“Victims often put their complete trust in and loyalty to the trafficker,” Pena said, reminding his audience of the film he had shown in which a girl described trusting the man who abused her. “Often, they will think that the ‘adult life’ and what they perceive to be independence are the greatest values, regardless of the abuse required to maintain them.

“In many cases, they may even believe that their pimp is a legitimate boyfriend who loves and is protecting them,” he said. “There is no single definitive character trait you can document in all trafficked children. It is imperative we all stay diligent in helping protect our youths.”

IDENTIFYING, REPORTING ABUSE

School personnel should be trained to recognize and respond to signs of trafficking, Pena said, and school districts should develop a trafficking protocol, offer a prevention curriculum, host informational events for parents and students, and create an after-school club or organization to help raise awareness about trafficking.

“You may choose
to look
the other way,
but you can
never say again
that you
did not know

“If you believe a child is or has been a victim of sex trafficking, report it,” Pena told his audience. “Just like with other forms of abuse, you are required to report human trafficking to Child Protective Services or local law enforcement.”

Those who are caught and convicted of human trafficking may face 25 years to life in prison for their crimes. Sentences are enhanced when those crimes involve trafficking of children into the sex trade.

The district attorney said he believes those who are aware of criminal activity, including employees of highwayside travel centers, motels and other businesses, or those who enable the crimes to take place by providing lodging or other assistance, or who enable predators to target victims through internet advertising are equally guilty of crimes against humanity.

“You may choose to look the other way,” Pena said, “but you can never say again that you did not know.”

'Stop, Look & Listen' still one of the best rules...

Back-to-School traffic:
Sheriff's Office urges caution

By Marc Robertson
As students across South Texas prepare to return to class and many have already begun attending sports practice or band rehearsals, law enforcement officers are urging motorists to pay renewed attention to traffic signs, be aware of pedestrians and to slow down in school zones.

Also subject to enforcement during the new school year are cellphone restrictions on roads near all school campuses, according to the La Salle County Sheriff’s Office.

At Cotulla ISD, which has campuses on both the east and west sides of town and in Encinal, Deputy and School Resource Officer Jose Pedroza is urging motorists to exercise additional caution on roads at or near school property.

The caution, he says, is necessary because large numbers of children walk to school along sidewalks to the Ramirez/Burks, Frank Newman and Cotulla High School campuses.

Some of those children will be making the trek to school on foot for the first time at the start of the new school year and may be unaccustomed to traffic hazards. Others may be distracted by cellphones or could be wearing headphones or earbuds, preventing them from hearing the sound of oncoming traffic.

“This is a time of year when everybody needs to be especially careful around schools,” the deputy said. “Pedestrians are easily distracted, but the greatest danger comes from drivers who are not paying attention.”

Speed limits in all school zones will be strictly enforced and apply to the hours of heaviest traffic at the start and end of each school day, according to the sheriff’s office. Deputies and officers of the Cotulla City Patrol will be positioned at critical areas and will not hesitate to issue citations to those speeding or using cellphones while driving.

Citations are referred to Cotulla Municipal Court; violators are subject to fines. Those who fail to make court appearances are subject to arrest at home, at work, in public places or in the course of routine traffic stops and may face additional charges.
The municipal judge may impose a fine of up to $200 for using a cellphone while driving in a school zone in Cotulla.  

“There are many distractions that can contribute to accidents, and those distractions can easily be avoided,” Deputy Pedroza said.

La Salle County Chief Deputy Malcolm Watson added that he believes many dangers to children walking in school zones can be minimized with additional vigilance by drivers as well as by parents educating children in critical safety precautions.

"The Buddy System
is always a reliable
way to make sure kids
are safe from harm..."
- Chief Deputy Malcolm Watson

“’Stop, Look and Listen’ is still one of the best rules for any children walking to school,” the chief deputy said. “Children have to be reminded not to step off the curb until they know it’s safe, and that means looking both ways and listening for oncoming cars. Wearing headphones puts them in immediate danger because they just can’t hear if there’s a car coming.

“Children also have to be reminded that walking to school by themselves is not a good idea,” Watson added. “The ‘Buddy System’ is always a reliable way to make sure kids are safe from harm.”

Parents taking their children to school by car or collecting them at the end of the day should heed traffic flow systems implemented by the school district, affecting streets around the elementary and middle school campuses in Cotulla, according to the sheriff’s office.

“Children are walking out of buildings and between vehicles,” the chief deputy said. “The first thing on their minds is going to be getting to their parents’ car. They aren’t going to be watching if there’s another car moving into that space. That’s when accidents happen.

“The back-to-school season is always one of the most hazardous, and it’s up to all of us – officers and parents alike – to make sure the children are safe,” the chief deputy said. 

Special proclamation for October...

La Salle supports domestic violence awareness efforts

Wintergarden Women's Shelter reaches out to victims of assault

BE AWARE, INTERVENE – (Photo above) La Salle County saw its annual proclamation of October as Domestic Violence Awareness Month this week, with those present including (L-R) County Commissioners Abel Gonzalez, Rene Benavidez, Raul Ayala and Jack Alba; Wintergarden Women’s shelter La Salle outreach coordinator Diana Gonzalez, shelter manager and program coordinator Zee Flores andcenter director Erica Bustamante; and County Judge Joel Rodriguez, Justice of the Peace Vicki Rodriguez and Sheriff Miguel Rodriguez.
(Photo: Marc Robertson)
By Marc Robertson
Shining new light on a recurring problem facing families across the community and of all socio-economic backgrounds, elected officials in La Salle County joined representatives of the Wintergarden Women’s Shelter this week in supporting a proclamation for October as Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

The annual proclamation that rallies support among civic leaders and service providers is aimed at promoting public awareness of the blight that affects multiple generations and contributes to a recurring cycle of abuse and neglect.

“Domestic violence is the systematic use of physical, emotional, sexual, psychological and economic control and abuse, including abuse of children and the elderly,” La Salle County Judge Joel Rodriguez read from the proclamation that he signed Monday, September 26. “Domestic violence violates an individual’s dignity, security and humanity.”

Representing the Wintergarden Women’s Shelter at Monday’s proclamation ceremony in the La Salle County Commissioners’ Court were outreach coordinator Diana Gonzalez, shelter manager and program coordinator Zee Flores, and center director Erica Bustamante, who affirmed that the facility continues offering safe refuge, resources for assistance and counseling, and works to intervene in cases of violence in the home, including battery and neglect of the defenseless and harm to children by abusive family members.

“Domestic violence is not confined to any one group of people,” the county judge read. “It is spread across all economic, racial and societal barriers, which are supported by societal indifferences.”

It is those indifferences, according to the judge and Wintergarden representatives, that contribute to the continuation of abuse against women and children because of an apparent lack of public awareness and an unwillingness to take action towards intervention.

The shelter will display a set of red-painted silhouettes in the La Salle County Courthouse during October, representing victims of domestic violence. One of those silhouettes is dedicated to Margo Davis Lann, a middle-aged mother who was shot to death by her abusive husband in front of a grocery store in downtown Cotulla on a Monday morning in May 1997. It was during the husband’s trial for murder that the public was made aware of his allegedly continual mental, physical, sexual and psychological abuse of his wife and stepdaughter. The husband was found guilty of murdering his wife by shooting her repeatedly in the head; he subsequently died in prison.

“The impact of domestic violence is wide ranging,” the county judge said, “directly affecting individuals and society as a whole, here in this community, throughout the United States and around the world.”

The Wintergarden Women’s Shelter provides informational brochures and other assistive literature that demonstrates the facility’s willingness and ability to provide services to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

“The survivors of domestic violence from the Wintergarden area have been at the forefront of efforts to bring peace and equality to their homes, neighborhoods and city,” facility representatives said. “The majority of Texans believe that they can make a difference in efforts to end domestic violence.”

“Abusive behavior is a learned behavior,” the proclamation for October read, “and children who live in domestic violent homes are at a higher risk of becoming abusers or victims.”

Present to witness the proclamation were county commissioners, law enforcement officers, elected officials and service providers.
WINTERGARDEN WOMEN'S SHELTER
Crisis Hotline: 1-800-363-9441
Carrizo Springs Shelter: (830) 876-9656 / 5676
Cotulla Outreach Office: (830) 694-2173