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Top 10 stories of 2018: Johnson ready to take over for Reyna in DA's office
 Tommy Witherspoon  / 

Editor’s note: Today the Tribune-Herald wraps up its countdown of 10 of the most memorable and significant stories we’ve covered in 2018.

The coming year will usher in a new era in the McLennan County District Attorney’s Office, ending the turbulent tenure of Abel Reyna, which was marred by his handling of the 2015 Twin Peaks shootout.

Reyna unceremoniously was swept out of office by Republican challenger Barry Johnson, whose 30-year law career in Dallas focused primarily on civil litigation before he moved back to McLennan County, where his father was a longtime state district judge and justice of the peace.

Before Reyna lost the confidence of the voting public, he lost the support of many in his own office and local law enforcement and was reported to be under FBI investigation for showing favoritism to his political donors and friends. Although nothing has come from that reported investigation, Reyna soon drew the ire of lawyers representing the 200 or so bikers who were arrested en masse on identical charges in the Twin Peaks shootout that left nine dead and 20 injured.

As Reyna’s second term draws to a close, only one Twin Peaks case has gone to trial. It ended in a mistrial and was close to being an outright acquittal. Reyna ultimately dismissed the cases against all but 27 of the 154 indicted bikers.

While Reyna will be out of office in January, he and others in law enforcement, the city of Waco and McLennan County remain defendants in federal civil rights lawsuits filed by 133 bikers, who allege they lost jobs, lost marriages and lost life savings as a result of their wrongful arrests.

Those lawsuits also remain pending.

Johnson, 62, who already has hired longtime Bell County prosecutor Nelson Barnes as his first assistant, said he is ready to hit the ground running.

“I have been working on a to-do list,” Johnson said. “I have got to finish assembling a staff and moving everybody around. I pretty much know who is there, so the first thing is to make sure all the courts are covered, that everybody knows which way they are going. I also need to get the nerves calmed down and out of the way to let them know that they are here and I want to work with them. I know there has been a lot of apprehension with the change in administrations.”

The next order of business is to assemble a team to review the remaining Twin Peaks cases, the majority of which allege the bikers engaged in a riot, Johnson said. While police shot and killed at least four of the bikers who posed threats to others, no one has been held accountable for the deaths of the other five bikers or the injuries to the others.

Johnson said he hopes to have a decision on those cases and others within 90 days.

In the past few months since Reyna’s defeat, prosecutors, wondering if they will have a job once Johnson takes office, and judges, to a certain extent, have taken a wait-and-let-Barry-see attitude about longtime pending cases, including a number of capital murder cases.

“Number 3 is going to be just the other major cases that are waiting for us,” Johnson said. “The ones that have been postponed, like the (Shawn) Oakman (sexual assault) trial, capital cases like Albert Love. I want to look at those and determine are we still going to seek the death penalty in those capital cases since they have been reversed. We have sexual assault cases coming up, ones I certainly am going to be involved in immediately to make sure decisions are correct.”

Johnson will inherit a staff of 31 lawyers and 31 staff members, including five investigators, victims’ assistance coordinators and legal assistants.

New Year brings another hike, same flooding struggles at Mother Neff
 Cassie L Smith  / 

Flood damage still haunts a portion of Mother Neff State Park, but visitors can still take in much of the scenic stretch along the Leon River by hiking the limestone gullies, walking up the Rock Tower or watching wildlife at Wash Pond.

And for the seventh year in a row Mother Neff State Park is encouraging visitors to take a guided first day hike through one of Texas’ earliest state parks on New Year’s Day.

Many who have participated in the park’s first day hike since it started in 2012 have made the event an annual tradition, while others attend for the first time or as a newcomer to Mother Neff, Park Superintendent Melissa Chadwick said.

In anticipation of a big group, park rangers will offer a 1.5-mile hike at 10 a.m. and another at 2 p.m. at 1680 Texas Highway 236 in Moody. During either time slot, visitors can take the open prairie route, considered the easier of the two and better suited for children, or the canyon route for those interested in a moderate hike.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte, file 

A group participates in a first day hike at Mother Neff State Park. This year, the guided hikes will be offered at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. New Year's Day.

The hike is free, but a $2 per person park entry fee still applies. Children 12 and younger get in free. When guests arrive, they will register at the park headquarters.

Hikers are encouraged to wear comfortable hiking shoes and to bring a bottle of water. Pets are welcome but must stay on a leash no longer than 6 feet. Strollers and other wheeled devices are not recommended because of the terrain.

Texas state parks, as part of a national initiative, are hosting a variety of family programs on New Year’s Day.

“There is no better way to ring in 2019 than outside in Texas,” State Parks Division Director Rodney Franklin wrote in a press release. “Home to some of the best views and vistas in Texas, we invite you to spend the day at your favorite Texas state park and participate in a first day hike event. With trails for all skill levels, state parks in Texas are a fantastic way to get active and spend time with the entire family.”

Mother Neff State Park Superintendent Melissa Chadwick (right) looks over Wash Pond as hikers explore the area.

Last year, 51 state parks hosted first day hikes, and more than 960 people walked, hiked, paddled and biked 1,766 miles.

Last year’s morning event at Mother Neff State Park was canceled because of icy conditions, but about 65 people braved the cold weather for the afternoon hike, Chadwick said.

A trace amount of snowfall was measured at the Waco Regional Airport overnight on New Year’s Eve, with a precipitation total of .01 of an inch, according to the National Weather Service. Waco experienced a mixture of precipitation during the holiday, including mist and drizzle.

The 2017 hike drew almost 550 people.

“There was a line of people hiking through the entire park,” Chadwick said.

Precipitation is not in the forecast for Tuesday’s hike but it may be cold, and hikers are encouraged to wear layers, Chadwick said.

“This year we’re planning for a big crowd,” she said. “We’re not expecting to have freezing temperatures at this point, but it is going to be cold.”

The hike takes an hour to two hours, depending on how many questions hikers ask along the way, she said.

Staff photo —Rod Aydelotte 

Mother Neff State Park Superintendent Melissa Chadwick (right) looks over Wash Pond as hikers explore the area.

During the hike, park rangers will discuss efforts to restore native habitat and the Civilian Conservation Corps and its role in developing Mother Neff State Park.

Flood damage has left the original section of the park closed off for years now.

Rain Wednesday night rain did not help the situation, prompting the closure of Highway 236 near the south end of the park. However, access to the upper section of the park remained open by approaching Highway 236 from the north via Highway 107.

The park started with a 6-acre tract donated posthumously in 1921 by Isabella Neff, known as Mother Neff, and it officially opened in 1937 as one of the first state parks after Neff’s son, Gov. Pat Neff, donated another 250 acres.

The park’s history has been riddled with flooding struggles, prompting construction of a $6.5 million headquarters unveiled in 2015 on ground higher above the Leon River.

While some of the stone buildings put up by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression that serve as the centerpiece of many memories of the park remain closed because of flood damage, visitors still enjoy the rest of the facility, Chadwick said.

“We have beautiful hiking trails,” she said. “We have a lot of places to explore and neat features. We’re a small park, but we have three distinct areas to visit which are totally different ecosystems.”

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte, file 

Hikers climb the steps of the Rock Tower in Mother Neff State Park during the 2017 first day hike. The tower was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s to store water and is now used as an observation tower.

Minimum wage rising in 20 states and numerous cities

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — At Granny Shaffer’s restaurant in Joplin, Missouri, owner Mike Wiggins is reprinting the menus to reflect the 5, 10 or 20 cents added to each item.

A two-egg breakfast will cost an extra dime, at $7.39. The price of a three-piece fried chicken dinner will go up 20 cents, to $8.78. The reason: Missouri’s minimum wage is rising.

Wiggins said the price hikes are necessary to help offset an estimated $10,000 to $12,000 in additional annual pay to his staff as a result of a new minimum wage law taking effect Tuesday.

“For us it’s very simple. There’s no big pot of money out there to get the money out of” for the required pay raises, Wiggins said.

New minimum wage requirements will take effect in 20 states and nearly two dozen cities around the start of the new year, affecting millions of workers. The state wage hikes range from an extra nickel per hour in Alaska to a $1-an-hour bump in Maine, Massachusetts and for California employers with more than 25 workers.

Seattle’s largest employers will have to pay workers at least $16 an hour starting Tuesday. In New York City, many businesses will have to pay at least $15 an hour as of Monday. That’s more than twice the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour.

A variety of other new state laws also take effect Tuesday . Those include revisions to sexual harassment policies stemming from the #MeToo movement, restrictions on gun sales following deadly mass shootings and revamped criminal penalties as officials readjust the balance between punishment and rehabilitation.

The state and local wage laws come amid a multi-year push by unions and liberal advocacy groups to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour nationwide. Few are there yet, but many states have ratcheted up wages through phased-in laws and adjustments for inflation.

In Arkansas and Missouri, voters this fall approved ballot initiatives raising the minimum wage after state legislators did not. In Missouri, the minimum wage will rise from $7.85 to $8.60 an hour on Tuesday as the first of five annual increases that will take it to $12 an hour by 2023.

At Granny Shafffer’s in Joplin, waitress Shawna Green will see her base pay go up. But she has mixed emotions about it.

“We’ll have regulars, and they will notice, and they will bring it to our attention, like it’s our fault and our doings” that menu prices are increasing, she said. “They’ll back off on something, and it’s usually their tips, or they don’t come as often.”

Economic studies on minimum wage increases have shown that some workers do benefit, while others might see their work hours reduced. Businesses may place a higher value on experienced workers, making it more challenging for entry-level employees to find jobs.

Seattle, the fastest-growing large city in the U.S., has been at the forefront of the movement for higher minimum wages. A local ordinance raised the minimum wage to as much as $11 an hour in 2015, then as much as $13 in 2016, depending on the size of the employer and whether it provided health insurance.

A series of studies by the University of Washington has produced evolving conclusions.

In May, the researchers determined that Seattle’s initial increase to $11 an hour had an insignificant effect on employment but that the hike to $13 an hour resulted in “a large drop in employment.” They said the higher minimum wage led to a 6.9 percent decline in the hours worked for those earning under $19 an hour, resulting in a net reduction in paychecks.

In October, however, those same researchers reached a contrasting conclusion. They said Seattle workers employed at low wages experienced a modest reduction in hours worked after the minimum wage increased, but nonetheless saw a net increase in average pretax earnings of $10 a week. That gain generally went to those who already had been working more hours while those who had been working less saw no significant change in their overall earnings.

Both supporters and opponents of higher minimum wages have pointed to the Seattle studies.

The federal minimum wage was last raised in 2009. Since then, 29 states, the District of Columbia and dozens of other cities and counties have set minimum wages above the federal floor. Some have repeatedly raised their rates.

“The federal minimum wage has really become irrelevant,” said Michael Saltsman, managing director of the Employment Policies Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based group that receives funding from businesses and opposes minimum wage increases.

The new state minimum wage laws could affect about 5.3 million workers who are currently earning less than the new standards, according to the liberal-leaning Economic Policy Institute, based in Washington, D.C. That equates to almost 8 percent of the workforce in those 20 states but doesn’t account for additional minimum wage increases in some cities.

Advocates credit the trend toward higher minimum wages to the “Fight for $15,” a national movement that has used protests and rallies to push for higher wages for workers in fast food, child care, airlines and other sectors.

“It may not have motivated every lawmaker to agree that we should go to $15,” said David Cooper, senior economic analyst at the Economic Policy Institute. “But it’s motivated many of them to accept that we need higher minimum wages than we currently have in much of the country.”

Trump blames Democrats for deaths of 2 children at border

In his first public statements on the deaths of two Guatemalan children in U.S. custody, President Donald Trump claimed they were “very sick” before they reached the border and foisted responsibility for their deaths on Democrats, yet both young migrants passed initial health screenings by Border Patrol.

While Trump and Democrats traded barbs over immigration policy, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was visiting medical officials and Border Patrol agents at the southern border in Arizona and Texas, promising additional wellness screenings for migrant children.

Trump, whose administration has faced widespread criticism over the deaths, pointed on Twitter at Democrats “and their pathetic immigration policies that allow people to make the long trek thinking they can enter our country illegally.”

Trump’s accusations came as the partial government shutdown wore on with no sign of ending over funding for sections of a border wall. Most Homeland Security employees, including Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, are among those federal employees required to report for work without pay.

Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said last week that prior to this month, no child had died in their custody in more than a decade.

On Sunday, McAleenan called for a “multifaceted solution” to the immigration crisis, including not only better border security and new immigration laws but providing more aid to the Central American countries from which many of the migrants have fled. This is at odds with a recent tweet from Trump threatening to cut off aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

“The State Department’s announcement of an unprecedented increase in aid, I think, is a tremendous step forward,” McAleenan said on ABC’s “This Week.” ‘’There are green shoots of progress both on security and the economic front in Central America. We need to foster that and help improve the opportunities to stay at home.”

In Guatemala, the mother of 8-year-old Felipe Gomez Alonzo, who died Christmas Eve, told The Associated Press that her son was healthy when he left with his father on their journey hoping to migrate to the U.S.

“When he called me, he told me he was fine. He told me not to worry because he was fine,” Catarina Alonzo said from the family’s home in the remote village of Yalambojoch, her stepdaughter Catarina Gomez translating her indigenous language Chuj into Spanish.

Catarina Alonzo said the last time she spoke with Felipe he was in Mexico at the U.S. border and said he was eating chicken. Their village is in Nenton municipality in Huehuetenango province, about 250 miles west of Guatemala City.

The other child, 7-year-old Jakelin Caal, died Dec. 8 in El Paso. She showed signs of sepsis, a potentially fatal condition brought on by infection, officials said.

An initial screening of Jakelin “revealed no evidence of health issues,” U.S. Customs and Border Protection said Dec. 14. It wasn’t until several hours later that Jakelin’s father, Nery Caal, told agents she was “sick and vomiting,” CBP said. Attorneys for the Caal family have also denied claims that Nery “hadn’t given her water in days,” as Trump wrote.

And CBP said Tuesday that agents checked on the well-being of Felipe and his father 23 times in the first several days the two were detained. Felipe’s father, Agustin Gomez, told a Guatemalan official the boy first showed signs of illness the morning of the day he died.

Despite Trump’s claim that Democrats were responsible for “pathetic” immigration policies, at least one of the laws his administration has blamed — legislation that prevents the immediate deportation of unaccompanied children from Central American countries — was signed in 2008 by President George W. Bush, a Republican.

Democrats lambasted the president’s tweets. In a tweet addressing the president, Sen. Mazie Hirono wrote: “Obviously nothing is too low or cruel for you. A collective New Year’s wish: For the sake of our country, you can stop now.”

“You slander Jakelin’s memory and re-traumatize her family by spreading lies about why she died,” said U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas.

Meanwhile, Nielsen traveled to Yuma, Arizona, on Saturday to meet with medical staff at the border. She said in a statement that “the system is clearly overwhelmed and we must work together to address this humanitarian crisis” and she called on Congress to “act with urgency.”

She was also briefed in El Paso, Texas, on Friday on “recently instituted secondary medical screenings and the more thorough initial health screenings of migrants.”

El Paso Mayor Dee Margo, a Republican, said he met with Nielsen and told CNN on Saturday that he agreed with her that immigration policy is “broken.”

Felipe and Agustin Gomez were apprehended by border agents Dec. 18 near the Paso del Norte bridge connecting El Paso to Juarez, Mexico, according to border officials. The two were detained at the bridge’s processing center and then the Border Patrol station in El Paso. They were transferred Dec. 23 to a facility in Alamogordo, New Mexico, about 90 miles (145 kilometers) away.

After an agent noticed Felipe coughing, father and son were taken to an Alamogordo hospital, where Felipe was diagnosed with a common cold and found to have a fever of 103 degrees Fahrenheit (39.4 degrees Celsius), officials have said.

Felipe was held for observation for 90 minutes, according to CBP, before being released with prescriptions for amoxicillin and ibuprofen.

But the boy fell sick hours later on Dec. 24 and was re-admitted to the hospital. He died just before midnight.

New Mexico authorities said late Thursday that an autopsy showed Felipe had the flu, but more tests need to be done before a cause of death can be determined.

The government of El Salvador is pushing back against Trump’s assertion it doesn’t do enough to stem migration to the United States. In a statement released Saturday, the government says it has made strides in economic and social improvements to try to tamp down the root causes of the phenomenon, and has pushed a media campaign urging its citizens not to risk their lives making the dangerous journey. It says emigration has fallen significantly this year.