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More discovery issues could cause additional delays in Carrizal trial

In what has become a familiar refrain in the first Twin Peaks trial, Jacob Carrizal’s attorney was notified Friday that prosecutors and law enforcement officials again have failed to produce discovery evidence to the defense.

The trial was on a two-day continuance Friday after the city of Waco revealed it had three recordings involving the Twin Peaks case that had not previously been turned over to the state or the defense. Judge Matt Johnson granted a motion for continuance for Carrizal’s attorney, Casie Gotro, Wednesday morning so she could review the materials, which he ordered the city to produce.

It was while on this break that the Department of Public Safety notified the court that it, too, had materials not previously disclosed, including emails and attachments generated by Texas Rangers assisting in the May 2015 Twin Peaks shootout investigation.

Also, the district attorney’s office notified the court Friday afternoon about a statement taken in the DA’s office and one provided by the FBI that had not been turned over to the defense. Johnson listened to one of the recordings Friday afternoon and ordered the state to provide it to Gotro by 5 p.m. Friday.

The judge called a hearing for 8 a.m. Monday to determine if the FBI recording and the Ranger materials must be turned over, also. In a memo to the court, DPS attorneys told Johnson they had discovered emails and attachments “we believe may be directly relevant to the Carrizal matter, but include highly sensitive information concerning confidential informants.”

Like the city of Waco before, DPS officials are claiming the documents are privileged and exempt from disclosure.

“These delays are inexcusable,” Gotro said Friday. “The defense has issued dozens of subpoenas only to be told we have already received everything or the records don’t exist. There is nothing fair or just about what’s happening in this case.”

Neither McLennan County District Attorney Abel Reyna nor his first assistant, Michael Jarrett, returned phone messages Friday.

Gotro had said for months before the trial started that prosecutors had not provided her with all the discovery matters she was entitled to under the Michael Morton Act and other statutes governing pretrial discovery. Johnson, and before him, Judge Ralph Strother, ordered the DA’s office on numerous occasions to turn over everything they had to the defense.

Each time Gotro asserted that claim, Reyna or Jarrett assured the court the state had given the defense everything they had in the case, which generated a massive amount of documents, photos, videos and reports.

After the state on Monday provided Gotro with delayed discovery for the second time since the trial started, Johnson instructed the DA’s office and all agencies with evidence to go back and review previous disclosures and to turn over anything that has not been divulged.

While Gotro has not requested a mistrial because of the discovery miscues, she has alluded to one at least twice during the trial, which was set to enter the 16th day of testimony Wednesday. The state rested its case against Carrizal on Tuesday, and Gotro was expected to start presenting the defense’s case Wednesday morning.

Carrizal, 35, president of the Dallas Bandidos chapter, is charged with directing the activities of a criminal street gang and two counts of engaging in organized criminal activity. He is the first of 154 bikers indicted in the May 2015 shootout to stand trial.

Spark of insight
City officials get taste of firefighters' work in Fire Ops 101

As city leaders and community members emerged from a smoke-filled room slightly dazed Friday morning, they also had fresh insight into the work of Waco firefighters.

“I wanted to gain even more appreciation for what they do, what they need and how tough it is with all the gear they have to wear,” Waco Assistant City Attorney Judith Benton said as she stood decked out in firefighting equipment for the day. “This is a little outside my comfort zone. Putting on a lot of stuff and going into a hot box, I would think that this is not something sane people do, so I am a little nervous.”

Benton, who has overseen legal responsibilities for the Waco Fire Department for seven years, joined almost 20 other city staffers, elected officials and media members for a Fire Ops 101 course put on by the Waco Professional Firefighters Association Local 478 at the McLennan Community College Emergency Services Education Center.

“We want to reach the most amount of people we can to explain the stresses of our job and to give everyone an inside look at the fire department,” Local 478 Vice President Phillip Burnett said. “Simple stresses can come from calls, emotional stress, but it is also a physical stress, and that is what we want to show people today.”

Firefighters guided the group through three exercises: a search and rescue in a dark room filled with simulated smoke, a vehicle extrication, and a demonstration in a flashover room with a real fire and an instructor walking through the stages of the blaze, including the deadly “flashover,” when particulate matter suspended in smoke ignites.

“I hate smoke,” said Tisha Wallace, a University High School senior and representative for Waco District 2 Councilwoman Alice Rodriguez. “I want to be a firefighter, and this is so interesting to me. I’ve never done anything like this before, but I really like helping people.”

Wallace took a swing at breaking away a vehicle’s window during the extrication exercise. Then she and others cut away the car’s doors and roof using hydraulic cutters and spreaders to demonstrate the procedures to safely remove trapped victims in a vehicle crash.

“The majority of what we do are EMS calls and respond to car wrecks, so everyone gets to hold equipment and cut a car open,” Waco Fire Chief Bobby Tatum said. “In the search and rescue operation, they will get to use some of our equipment and technology we use to go in and search for a victim. Firefighters’ equipment is very expensive, but the participants will see the benefit of that equipment.”

Thermal cameras made it possible to see the simulated victim through a dark room filled with simulated smoke. The cameras also help firefighters identify hotspots that linger after fires appear extinguished to the naked eye.

The group spent about seven hours speaking with Local 478 members, going through the physical labors of the simulations and taking in a slice of the knowledge firefighters use during routine calls. Tatum said more than 100 firefighters die every year in the line of duty, but he hopes every participant understands the importance and dedication of local firefighters.

“Knowledge replaces fear, so if you go into an unknown environment, there is a fear factor involved. But our firefighters are better trained, and seconds can save lives,” Tatum said. “We are glad to show everyone how and what we use to do our job for the community.”

Waco firefighters present Fire Ops 101: Nov. 3, 2017

Astros welcomed home

Celebrating champion Astros

2014 capital murder case delayed until next year

Mary Rodriguez and Maria Gonzalez watched Todric Deon McDonald in court Friday afternoon, and their frustration and anger intensified.

McDonald smiled, waved to his family and primped his hair, while appearing to be uncooperative with his attorneys. Rodriguez, Gonzalez and 15 other members from the families of Justin Javier Gonzalez and Ulysses Gonzalez watched from the other side of the courtroom.

Mary Rodriguez is Justin Gonzalez’s mother. Maria Gonzalez is the mother of Ulysses Gonzalez. Their sons died from multiple gunshot wounds more than three years ago.

McDonald, 30, is charged with capital murder in the May 2014 shooting deaths of the two cousins at the Pecan Tree Apartments in the 2600 block of Grim Avenue.

A couple of trial dates for McDonald already have been postponed, and the family learned Friday during a status conference in McDonald’s case that it will be early fall 2018 or this time next year before McDonald’s trial will be held.

Prosecutors have said they intend to seek the death penalty against McDonald if he is convicted in the double murder.

“I feel sad that it is taking so long,” Mary Rodriguez said after the brief hearing. “Todric’s actions in court show he doesn’t care about anybody but himself and has no sympathy for our family.”

Speaking in Spanish, Maria Gonzalez said McDonald’s antics make her concerned for her safety and that of her family.

One reason the trial is being delayed again is because McDonald’s attorneys, John Donahue and Jon Evans, are involved in a capital murder trial in Bell County beginning in April.

The other reason is the heavy burden the 154 Twin Peaks cases have placed on the county’s two criminal court dockets.

“Capital murder cases in which the state is seeking the death penalty, as they are in this case, are always time consuming, and they are never going to trial quickly to protect the defendant, primarily, because it takes so much discovery in this matter,” 19th State District Judge Ralph Strother said. “Then we had the intervening case of all the Twin Peaks bikers cases.

“Those cases, I think anybody who looks at the situation can tell, have consumed all the oxygen, or most of it, in the criminal justice system in this county, and we are struggling to try to move forward with all the cases. This one is just one of them.”

Before the hearing ended Friday, Donahue asked Strother if he would intervene with the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office to see if McDonald could be moved from the segregation unit to general population because he said the lights are always on in segregation and it is “taking a toll on him.”

Strother said he was reluctant to get involved in jail operations but said he would “look into it.”

Jail officials filed an indecent exposure charge against McDonald in May 2016 after he reportedly called a female jailer to his cell and she reported he was standing there naked and masturbating.

The capital murder case of McDonald’s co-defendant, Tony Olivarez, 32, was transferred to Waco’s 54th State District Court. A status conference in Olivarez’s case is set for Dec. 1, but no trial date has been set.

Baylor releases results of student survey regarding Title IX climate

According to a newly released survey, 62.5 percent of Baylor University students believe the school would very likely or likely take a report of sexual misconduct seriously, while 21 percent believe the person making the report would be labeled a troublemaker.

The first of its kind at Baylor, the survey came after the school upgraded its Title IX office in the wake of a damaging sexual assault scandal that led to a massive overhaul of the school’s leadership, including athletics. The numbers, serving as a benchmark, indicate strides and missteps in the university’s response to sexual violence in recent years.

The survey was administered between Jan. 31 and March 13. It was sent to 15,754 Baylor undergraduate and graduate students and over 4,500 — or 28.7 percent — responded. School spokesman Jason Cook said the response rate was “very significant” for the survey that some students took over an hour completing. The rate is above or on par with such studies at most universities. The University of Texas saw a 17 percent response rate on a similar survey, though the school has a much larger enrollment — 51,331 undergraduate and graduate students were enrolled in 2016 — and thus had more respondents.

More than half of the respondents — 53.3 percent — say Baylor would very likely or likely support the person making a report of sexual misconduct, and nearly the same number — 53 percent — said it would very likely or likely be handled fairly.

Seventy-three percent of respondents say they know where to get help on campus if the respondent or a friend experienced sexual misconduct. Just over 46 percent understand what happens when a report is made, and almost 69 percent know where to make such a report.

In a statement, Baylor President Linda Livingstone said many of the responses “demonstrate significant progress and provide hope for our campus community,” but “others have shown that more assistance, training and resources are needed as part of our ongoing commitment to continuous improvement.”

One of those areas for improvement involves faculty and staff, Cook said. Sixteen percent of respondents say a faculty member, instructor or staff member had made offensive sexist remarks once or twice, and 31 percent say they have experienced sexist gender harassment by that group.

“It’s important for us to understand what’s happening on our campus,” Cook said. “When we see issues of this nature, it gives us an opportunity to address them. So now that we’re aware this could be an issue, we’re going to be able to create some specific educational training for faculty and staff. We released the survey and we have the results. Now, the next step is using the results to inform our training and education efforts as we move forward.”

According to the survey, 76 percent of Baylor students strongly agree or agree they feel safe from sexual harassment on campus, and 11 percent strongly disagree or disagree. Thirteen percent were neutral.

“When we initially started, most of our education efforts were simply towards awareness,” Cook said. “Now, the next phase is looking at specific findings that have been identified in the survey.”

That only about 60 percent of students say their university would take the report seriously is unsurprising, said S. Daniel Carter, president of Safety Advisors for Educational Campuses, LLC.

“Reports not being taken seriously is a consistent concern among sexual assault survivors,” Carter said, citing two decades of research on the matter.

What concerned Carter, however, was that about one in five respondents said Baylor would very likely or likely consider the person making the report a troublemaker.

“I would have to imagine that a lot of the ongoing controversy in recent years at Baylor is a large factor in that,” he said. “There’s obviously a lot of work that remains to be done in addressing the campus climate at Baylor. That’s not something you turn around overnight.”

The survey will be administered on a regular basis, in accordance with the 105 recommendations Philadelphia law firm Pepper Hamilton LLP gave the university last year after the school hired Pepper Hamilton to investigate its response in recent years to reports of sexual assault.

Other findings include:

  • Twenty-eight percent of respondents who said they experienced sexual violence said the perpetrator was an acquaintance, 24 percent said it was a friend and 19 percent said it was a romantic partner.
  • Fifty-three percent of those same respondents said they had not used alcohol or drugs at the time of the incident, and 45 percent said they had. The other 2 percent said they did not remember if they had used alcohol or drugs.
  • Of respondents who experienced sexual harassment, stalking, domestic violence or sexual violence, 81 percent said they told a close friend. Twenty-seven percent said they told a parent or guardian, and 7 percent told Baylor’s Title IX office.
  • Ninety-three percent of all respondents indicated consent must be given at each step in a sexual encounter.
  • Nineteen percent of all respondents strongly agree or agree that sexual violence is a problem at Baylor, and 26 percent said there is not much the respondent can do about sexual violence at Baylor.
  • Of respondents who experienced sexual harassment by a student, 44 percent ignored the perpetrator and did nothing.

Avance Waco suspends services, plans reorganization

The Waco branch of Avance, a nonprofit serving at-risk Latino families with parent-education and English-as-a-second-language courses, among other offerings, is temporarily suspending operations to reorganize its financial model, the board of directors announced Friday in a letter addressed to supporters.

A lack of state and federal funding contributed to the decision to suspend services, but the board plans to develop a new model “over the next several months” and resume services, according to the letter.

“We have taken this difficult decision, proactively, to ensure our future ability to restructure AVANCE Waco while remaining free of any debt,” the letter states. “AVANCE Waco has played an important role in this community for the past 15 years, and the commitment of our board to preserve and strengthen programs for our Latino children and families remains strong. We are committed as a board to operate in a fiscally sustainable manner.”

Chairwoman Sheryl Swanton said she could not expand on the announcement Friday afternoon.

“We are looking at every possibility to continue operations, but we don’t know when that precisely that would be,” Swanton said. “We are trying to redesign the organization so that we can begin the operations as soon as possible and still act in a fiscally responsible manner.”

The Waco branch is part of a national nonprofit started in 1973 focused on parent education, early childhood development, brain development, literacy and school readiness, according to the Waco group’s website. But each branch operates independently under its own board, Swanton said. None of the other branches are tied to the Waco group’s decision, she said.

Avance Waco offers 27 bilingual lessons focused on parent education, taught weekly for nine months and focused on literacy and teaching parents how to best help children develop, the website states.

Swanton, who has served on the board for three years, didn’t have the number of students enrolled in Avance programs or the amount of public money the chapter had lost over the years readily available Friday.

Avance, Spanish for “to progress” or “to advance,” was established in Waco in 2002 with the help of The Bernard & Audre Rapoport Foundation.

Avance personnel were notified of the temporary suspension immediately after a board meeting Wednesday, she said.

“We will be meeting each week, but that’s all I can really tell you,” Swanton said. “It is a temporary suspension, not a closure. I want to make that part extremely plain.”

Avance Waco will establish a task force to tackle the reorganization, she said.

Lonnie Kehrein, a McLennan Community College English-as-a-second-language instructor, felt blindsided by the announcement, she said. Kehrein taught classes at Avance through MCC’s Adult Education and Literacy program, which offers ESL classes throughout the area, she said.

Her last class was Wednesday, and with the short notice, she gathered belongings from Avance’s building Friday, she said.

“The wonderful thing about Avance is they provided child care for preschool children,” she said. “MCC currently doesn’t offer any other site with childcare, so it’s a big blow to these moms.”

Most of her 33 students were mothers with young children, she said.

“I do wish they had given us a little bit of notice so we could have spoken honestly with our students and told them we were going to find other alternatives,” Kehrein said.

The organization posted to Facebook on Sept. 18 asking for donations of $15, $150 and $1,500 as it approached its 15th anniversary. For every family that graduates from the program, the cost is about $3,000, Executive Director Felipe Garza stated in the post. Nothing in the post indicated a financial issue.

AVANCE Waco also posted about a fundraiser scheduled for Nov. 9 at Schlotzsky’s, but as of Friday, Swanton said, “We’ll have to cancel it, I guess.”

The organization has also partnered with Waco Independent School District since 2013. Avance will continue to work with the district and other community partners, Swanton said. In the meantime, the district will try to find ways to help affected families, district spokesperson Kyle DeBeer said.

“We do understand Avance is planning to suspend their operations while they reorganize,” DeBeer said. “Waco ISD is going to take a close look at the needs of the families Avance has served and how we can help support those families.”