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Rod Aydelotte  

Baylor Oklahoma

Baylor forward Lauren Cox (15) battles Oklahoma guard Gileysa Penzo (12) for a rebound in the first half.

Cold case unit set to tackle more unsolved murders

With a stack of nearly 10 cold case files sitting in his office, McLennan County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Steve January and the department’s newly established cold case unit vows to give answers to murder victims’ families that have lingered for years.

“Realistically, we would like to give resolution in a case in about every three to four months,” said January, the commander of the McLennan County Cold Case Unit. “There are always going to be difficulties when you are looking into older cases and there are different elements that can delay us solving a case, but I think every case is solvable.”

Last week, cold case investigators announced their conclusions in the 1982 murder of Beth Bramlett, a 17-year-old Axtell girl who was murdered after a party near Tradinghouse Lake. Investigators determined the sole suspect, Talmadge Wayne Wood, then 42, killed the girl, but he died in 2014 and never faced prosecution.

“I personally know the Bramletts and I know they now have peacefulness that they haven’t had for 35 years,” January said. “That is why the sheriff wanted to establish this unit — to give families the answers, not necessarily closure, but answers for their loved ones.”

Experience with the cold case unit ranges from longtime lawmen, master peace officers, backgrounds with the Texas Rangers, the FBI and more than 183 years of law enforcement experience, McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara said.


McNamara, who had more than 32 years with the U.S. Marshal’s Service, assigned Chief Deputy David Kilcrease to the unit, who had 25 years of experience with the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office before joining McNamara’s administration in 2015.

January, who directly oversees the unit, worked for the Waco Police Department for more than 23 years, including 17 years in the special crimes unit, and worked for four years as an investigator with the McLennan County District Attorney’s Office. Lt. Cody Blossman, who currently supervises the SWAT unit and the Fugitive Apprehension Strike Team, is also a supervisor for the office’s criminal investigation division.

Detective Terry Fuller rejoined the sheriff’s office last year after working 22 years at the sheriff’s office, then five years with Coryell County Sheriff’s Office. Eight-year Texas Rangers veteran Sgt. Jake Burson has 17 total years of law enforcement experience.

Deputy William Hitch serves as the sheriff’s office “master diver,” and often searches rivers, stock tanks and other bodies of water during investigations. Former federal prosecutor Bill Johnston, who accrued more than 30 years of practice in state and federal courts and prosecuted more than 250 jury trials, is acting as a voluntary consultant for the cold case unit.

Also in a voluntary role, former FBI agent Fred Rhea said he was more than thrilled when McNamara asked him to serve on the cold case unit. Rhea said his 32-year experience as a Texas Commission of Law Enforcement officer and after suffering trauma when he was a 5-year-old boy that is similar to cases the cold case unit investigates, he jumped at the chance to act as a consultant.

“I told the sheriff I would do anything I could to help and that I didn’t want any money, but he would have to get me a cowboy hat,” Rhea said. “It is such an honor to be a part of such a selective group of investigators who have multiple years of experience and training.

“They are a team that will go knock on every door and work as hard as they can in every aspect of investigation and to bring criminals to justice.”

Current cold cases

Current cold cases range from 1955 in McLennan County to an early-2000s case in the Riesel-area. McNamara said several other agencies in McLennan County have expressed interest in turning over cold case files in order to have investigators look at other unsolved homicides.

Investigators have welcomed partnerships with surrounding agencies to help solve their cold cases. Bellmead Police Chief Lydia Alvarado said cold case unit investigators approached her about Bellmead’s cases and she said she was more than happy to share files.

“This unit isn’t something that I am aware of that departments can embark on, pick up on and go with, or that others can pick up that challenge,” Alvarado said. “I am happy, because even though these are aged cases, there are loved ones out here that still want answers that we hope we can give them.”

Bellmead currently has four unsolved homicide cases from 1984 to 1999. The Hewitt Police Department has two cold cases, from 1978 and 1996, and the Robinson Police Department has one double-homicide cold case from 1989.

Numbers of unsolved cold cases for the Waco Police Department were not available.

US economy still fundamentally strong despite falling stocks

WASHINGTON — A wave of fear about inflation and higher interest rates has sent stock prices tumbling and raised concerns about corporate profits. Yet the rush of anxiety has obscured a fundamental fact about the U.S. economy: It’s healthy.

Nearly nine year into the expansion that followed the Great Recession, the job market is strong. So is housing. Consumer confidence is solid, and manufacturing is rebounding. Households and businesses are spending freely. Personal debt has lightened since the financial crisis a decade ago. And major economies around the world are growing in tandem.

That very economic vigor, in fact, is a key reason why investors anticipate higher inflation and interest rates. Higher borrowing rates over time could undercut corporate earnings as well as stock prices. And some fear that the Federal Reserve might miscalculate and raise rates too high or too fast.

But no one is sure that will happen. And for now, the economy remains on firm footing, even with the prospect of somewhat higher inflation. The inflation concerns escalated after Friday’s monthly U.S. jobs report showed that average wages surged 2.9 percent in January from 12 months earlier — the sharpest year-over-year gain since the recession.

“What we’re seeing right now is an economy overall that is doing quite well and has strong fundamentals,” said Gregory Daco, chief U.S. economist at Oxford Economics. “The economy remains on track to expand at a fairly solid pace, and along with that comes inflation.”

Here are some key reasons why the economy remains robust despite the jitters on Wall Street:

Jobs, wages are picking up

The job market is in its best shape in a decade or more. Businesses continue to hire at a pace that could drive the unemployment rate — already at a 17-year low of 4.1 percent — even lower. Some economists think the jobless rate by year’s end could reach 3.5 percent, which would be the lowest level in a half-century.

With relatively few job seekers, many businesses are struggling to fill open positions. To attract and keep workers, many are finally offering higher pay, which helps explain why the January jobs report showed such a sharp pickup in wages. A separate measure of wages and salaries rose in the final three months of 2017 by the most in nearly three years.

Spending increases

With more solid job security and rising pay in some industries, Americans as a whole are growing more optimistic about the economy’s direction. And their confidence has fueled consumer spending, the primary fuel of the U.S economy. In the final three months of 2017, consumer spending rose at its fastest pace in a year-and-a-half.

Their willingness to spend has led many to make big purchases, too: Sales of existing homes in 2017 reached their highest level in 11 years. The demand for housing helped accelerate home construction last year to its fastest annual pace in a decade.

Businesses, too, are buying more computers, machinery and other equipment. Such purchases increased faster in the second half of last year than in any six-month period since 2014. Companies typically accelerate their investments when they foresee an improving economy.

“This not only points to stronger demand today but also says that firms are becoming increasingly confident about the future,” said Paul Mortimer-Lee, an economist at BNP Paribas.

Decent household finances

Americans generally haven’t been running up heavy debts. U.S. household debt — everything from mortgages and credit card debt to student and auto loans — equaled 95 percent of disposable income in the July-September quarter, according to data from the Fed. That compares with about 120 percent right before the recession.

Still, their willingness to spend has raised one concern: Savings have fallen. In December, the nation’s savings rate fell to its lowest level since 2005. Over the long run, a low savings rate can diminish the ability of households to withstand a financial shock.

Global economy

The U.S. economy now has something supporting it that it hasn’t had for nearly a decade: Solid growth around the world. Roughly 120 countries experienced faster growth in 2017 than in 2016, according to the International Monetary Fund. That’s the most since 2010.

The 19 European nations that share the euro expanded 2.5 percent in 2017, the most in 10 years and faster than the United States, which grew 2.3 percent. Japan’s economy has expanded for seven straight quarters, the longest such stretch since 2001. All that global growth tends to benefit the U.S. economy, the world’s largest.

So what’s not to like?

Even good economic news can prompt some troubling concerns. As companies raise pay, they typically increase prices to help cover their extra costs. That cycle can speed inflation. The Fed is then likely to raise the key short-term rate it controls to help reduce borrowing and spending and hold inflation in check.

Fed officials have indicated that they expect to raise rates three times this year. But after Friday’s robust report on jobs and wages, some economists think the Fed might accelerate its rate hikes. Economists at BNP Paribas and Macroeconomic Advisers now forecast four rate increases this year.

A key source of anxiety among some investors is that the Fed or other central banks might end up tightening credit so much or so fast as to trigger an economic downturn.

There are also the wild cards of a possible government shutdown, President Donald Trump’s efforts to restrict global trade and the potential sour investor reaction if the federal budget deficit tops $1 trillion next year because of tax cuts and increased funding for the military and disaster relief, among other expenses.

Preparing Suspension Bridge
Suspension Bridge closes for testing

Workers prepare to resume drilling on the Suspension Bridge.

Parole board allows convicted killer Graf to remove ankle monitor

Clare Bradburn says she has grown accustomed to the criminal justice system letting her down.

Her ex-husband, Ed Graf, was convicted of killing her two sons in a 1986 fire behind her home in Hewitt, but his conviction was overturned 25 years later and she had to endure the emotional turmoil of a second trial.

While the jury was deliberating Graf’s fate in 2014, Graf accepted a 60-year plea bargain offered by McLennan County District Attorney Abel Reyna that allowed Graf to walk out of prison within seven days on mandatory parole.

On Monday, Bradburn was notified by Texas Department of Criminal Justice victims’ services representatives that the Board of Pardons and Paroles voted to allow Graf to remove the GPS ankle monitor he has worn since his release from prison that tracked his every movement.

It was not a shock to her. She had been notified that the board would consider removing the monitor. But the vote still came as a bitter disappointment to Bradburn and her family.

“We expected this news one day. It is not shocking considering the rocky road we have traveled for the past 32 years and plead our concerns to faceless individuals,” Bradburn said in a statement. “These individuals are sworn to protect the law-abiding citizens from those who would murder the innocent. It is now apparent they are more concerned with appeasing a child murderer than protecting the children’s family and friends.

“By forcing victims to protect themselves, the faceless cowards have broken down the once-proud judicial system to a mere shame and mockery of justice. It is too soft and has created an upside-down legal system concerned more about the well-being of the criminal. We now have advanced technology and other forms of protection, and eyes are watching!”

Bradburn said she and her family have tried to maintain a positive attitude and said she refuses to allow Graf to affect their lifestyle or daily activities.

“We continue to be blessed,” she said. “My heartfelt thanks to our many supportive family and friends.”

Graf, 65, accepted the plea bargain from the DA’s office and was sentenced to 60 years in prison in October 2014, moments before the jury, which had deliberated almost 11 hours, voted to convict him in the deaths of his adopted stepsons, Jason and Joby. He will be on parole until 2048, but he won’t be required to wear the ankle monitor.

Raymond Estrada, a spokesman for the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, said Graf has had no problems while under parole supervision. He said Graf was removed from the Super-Intensive Supervision Program in December and continues to live in Kerrville, where he works for a construction company.

Waco attorney Michelle Tuegel, who represented Graf along with attorney Walter M. Reaves Jr. during his retrial, said Graf has been a model prisoner in and out of prison and poses no threat to anyone.

“Clearly, for the board to make that decision, he has been carefully following their rules, which have been very strict now for years, and he has been complying with everything they have set out for him or they wouldn’t have even given this consideration,” Tuegel said. “He has shown he can follow the rules on parole and, quite frankly, we feel like this should have been done a long time ago. He is an older man now who spent a lot of time in prison who just wants to live his life quietly and peacefully, work hard and spend time with his family.”

Bradburn said she was puzzled and disappointed when Graf was released from prison so soon. She said Reyna told her Graf would have to serve at least 2 1/2 years more in prison before he came up for parole again, and he promised his office would do everything it could to oppose his release.

But she said she also took a great deal of satisfaction in looking at Graf and hearing him say he was guilty of killing her two sons in a shed fire behind their house, an unspeakable act he had always denied.

Unlike Reyna, Reaves and Tuegel, who consulted with a parole expert during Graf’s trial, knew Graf’s time in prison would be short because once the prison gave him credit for the 25 years he served and added on his good-time credits, he had already earned enough time for mandatory release.

Moody ISD tax ratification election could increase teacher salaries

Moody Independent School District officials are holding talks about a possible tax ratification election that could bring in a competitive increase to teacher salaries, more career and technology education opportunities, improved technology across the district and school buses.

The Moody ISD school board has yet to vote on going through with the election, but could decide in the next month or two to have a special election in August or hold the election during the regular election cycle in November, Superintendent Gary Martel said.

Moody ISD could see an additional $450,000 in state revenue during the next two or three years if voters approve moving 13 cents from its interest and sinking fund to its maintenance and operation fund as part of a tax swap that wouldn’t increase the district’s tax rate, Martel said.

The move would leave the overall tax rate at $1.36 per $100 property valuation, with the maintenance and operating side at $1.17 and the interest and sinking side at 19 cents, Martel said. District officials have already held a community meeting about the issue, and plan to reach out to residents again in the coming months, he said. Representatives with the Region 12 Education Service Center will also visit with the school board to better ensure trustees understand the financial impact of the election.

“While we have a chance, we need to do that, because there was no new money (coming in from the state),” Martel said. “I’m a taxpayer, too. All of us are, you know? Everyone wants to keep taxes low, but I think the number one thing is, when we talk about tax reform, if it would just be funded correctly, we wouldn’t have to move taxes and pay for an election to do this.”

If the district goes through with the election, the salary increase for Moody ISD’s 50 teachers would help keep teachers in the district and bring in other qualified educators as the district grows, Martel said. It’s the No. 1 priority, he said.

Susan Landua, the district’s business manager, has been with Moody ISD for 18 years. She said the additional revenue expected from the election would have a phenomenal impact.

“The raise would improve the quality of teachers we have for the children and the longevity,” Landua said. “We struggle, as a school district, of getting good people in and keeping them, because as they advance, they want to move up and make more money, of course. If we can stay competitive to Midway, Waco, Belton and Temple, and they’re all within 20-25 minutes, it would be a huge thing for children to have the same athletic director, the same principal, the same superintendent.”

Moody ISD’s average beginning teacher salary is $32,607, compared to the state’s average beginning teacher salary of $46,199, according to the Texas Education Agency. And those with more than 20 years experience typically make $53,341, compared to $60,913 statewide.

The district’s turnover rate is 37.7 percent, compared to the state rate of 16.4 percent, according to the TEA.

The district also added health science and criminal justice programs with certified teachers from the field within the past year, and almost has a one-to-one digital focus, which means almost all of the nearly 700 students have access to things like Google Chromebooks throughout the district, Martel said.

More state revenue would allow Moody ISD to offer more CTE programs and make sure students have access to the digital tools they need, he said. The district will also add more security cameras on campuses and improve the district’s transportation fleet, Martel said.

When Martel arrived almost two years ago, buses were well-maintained, but old. And when lawmakers passed new bus safety regulations in 2017, the price of new buses increased. The added revenue could allow Moody ISD to get a new bus each year as part of its annual budget until the fleet is completely updated, Martel said. He anticipates each bus costing $95,000 to $100,000, he said.

“I ended my presentations with one simple question. If we could do this without going to the voters to generate this money, and you would see no increase in your tax rate, and we didn’t do it, it would be educational malpractice,” Martel said. “You’d come back and say Mr. Martel isn’t fit to serve, the board isn’t fit to serve and the administration is not fit to serve. What would you say if we could do this and didn’t?”

Unrelated to the potential election, Moody will soon have a new community storm shelter, paid for by Moody ISD and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Called the Moody ISD Instructional Annex, the $2.1 million building will be a 4,500-square-foot multipurpose facility that connects Moody Elementary and Moody Middle schools, Martel said. About 75 percent of the cost will be covered by FEMA, and 25 percent by school district funds.

The building will include three additional classrooms and a covered, outdoor instructional area. Construction begins this week and the project is expected to be completed by the fall, Martel said.