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Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

Baylor linebacker Blake Lynch (2) says the Bears are ready for an afternoon game after practicing in the Texas heat all preseason.


Crime
DA dismisses Vegas Buffet human trafficking cases
 Kristin Hoppa  / 
 09.06.19

Prosecutors have dropped all charges stemming from last summer’s high-profile raid on Vegas Buffet, which had been accused of labor trafficking.

The McLennan County district attorney’s office dismissed indictments Thursday against restaurant operator Zhi “Jimmy” Lin and his wife, Yala Yang, clearing them of organized criminal activity and trafficking of persons allegations at the business at 505 N. Valley Mills Drive.

Also cleared were Zhi Lin’s brother, Peng Li; and a fourth subject, Sheng Weng; who were arrested shortly after the raid on connected charges of smuggling and trafficking workers to and from the restaurant to benefit the business.

“The alleged victims were subsequently interviewed by the Department of Labor in Dallas post the case being filed, and their statements were inconsistent with original statements they gave about any force, threat or coercion,” McLennan County First Assistant District Attorney Nelson Barnes said Friday. “Their statements are inconsistent with any forced labor or trafficking elements.”

Retired State District Judge Alan Mayfield signed the dismissal paperwork late Thursday afternoon. Lin’s attorney, Russ Hunt, said he is pleased with the dismissals.

“I think the charges were dismissed, because it really, legitimately was not a case of human trafficking,” he said. “I think the folks in the district attorney’s office realized that, so they knew it would not be a case to prosecute.”

McLennan County Sheriff’s Office investigators raided the buffet June 1, 2018, after a three-month investigation into suspected labor trafficking violations. Court documents alleged some workers were trafficked in from Guatemala or China and were made to work 13 hours a day, six days a week, earning about $2,000 per month, a pay rate below minimum wage.

“There may be some employment law violations that are outside the scope of this office that may be federal, but there is nothing criminal on the state level,” Barnes said. “Some of the workers from Guatemala even gave subsequent statements that they were paid $2,500 per month, but they did not have to pay rent and were allowed to go to and from as they pleased. They even said they could go to the buffet and eat for free on their days off or were paid overtime if they covered extra shifts.”

The former suspects were indicted in September 2018 on allegations that the group actively participated in labor trafficking to run the restaurant. Barnes said cases often change, even after indictments, but it was the DA’s office’s obligation to submit a completed case that could move forward in trial.

“I think the sheriff’s office’s first brush was that something was going on, and most everything was done early on through translators, so when we had time for cooler heads to sit down and interview these people in a less tight environment … further details got developed outside the scope of the sheriff’s office,” Barnes said. “The sheriff’s office did nothing wrong in this investigation.”

Sheriff Parnell McNamara declined to comment on the dismissals.

Translators from UnBound, a organization that assists victims of human trafficking, helped gather information about their work at the restaurant on the day of the raid. Unbound director Susan Peters said she is disappointed in the dismissals.

“We were onsite during the law enforcement operation that occurred at Vegas Buffet, and we observed firsthand that the situation occurring at the restaurant was classic labor trafficking,” Peters said. “It is disappointing that after a McLennan County grand jury indicted this case, all charges were dropped. It is very frustrating for everyone involved in wanting justice for the victims.”

Authorities said workers who stayed with Lin and his wife were from China and had work visas. The workers from China were not able to give subsequent statements to labor officials. Two of the four workers from Guatemala were unable to be found, but two others gave statements that did not match initial police reports.

According to a University of Texas study released in 2016, about 313,000 victims of human trafficking are in Texas. Of those, 234,000 are labor trafficking victims.

“Many of the labor trafficking victims we have served in Central Texas are trapped in debt bondage or involuntary servitude, and if these cases aren’t prosecuted, vulnerable populations will continue to be exploited,” Peters said.

District Attorney Barry Johnson said he is comfortable with the decision to dismiss the charges.

“When you look at the cases and the files in detail, you can see, subsequent to police action out there, it was our determination that those were not prosecutable cases,” he said.

A similar buffet restaurant opened in September 2018 at the same location, but it is unclear whether the two businesses are related.


Roads
spotlight
I-35 lane shift to start after Baylor football game
 
 09.07.19

Interstate 35 construction through Waco will mark a milestone after the Baylor University football game Saturday night, as crews shift southbound traffic onto the opposite side of the freeway.

For the stretch of freeway south of the Brazos River, southbound traffic will share the northbound main lanes, with two lanes in each direction, Texas Department of Transportation spokesman Ken Roberts said.

The lanes will share a roadbed for the next year to year-and-a-half, Roberts said. In the near future, traffic on the stretch between the Brazos and North Loop 340 will also be confined to the northbound side, he said.

Roberts said this weekend’s switch will require some temporary closures of exits. Afterward, exits will be mostly unchanged, though the 17th-18th Street exit will be shifted slightly to the south.

Baylor University is urging fans to plan their routes before attending Saturday’s 3 p.m. game against the University of Texas-San Antonio. Maps with suggested routes are available at baylor.edu/kickoffparking.

Baylor spokeswoman Lori Fogleman said traffic around last week’s game went as smoothly as could be expected given the construction work.

“People took into account what we were telling them and gave themselves extra time to get there,” Fogleman said.

“We know that throughout this process, it will disrupt regular traffic patterns, and it’s something we all will just have to learn to make adjustments for.”

Roberts said drivers and affected businesses have done a good job taking advantage of I-35 traffic information, which is available at waco4bmap.org.

He said the contractor, Webber LLC, is right on time with the project.

“We’re only a few months into the project, but they’re very pleased with how they’ve been able to move forward,” Roberts said.

The $341 million project between South 12th Street and North Loop 340 will widen the main lanes to four lanes in each direction and rebuild frontage roads, bridges and ramps.


Business
spotlight
Lions Club's Kiddieland looks to community for direction
 Rhiannon Saegert  / 
 09.06.19

A small amusement park with deep Waco roots is seeking direction from the people who grew up with it and others who would like to see it thriving.

To that end, the Waco Foundation is helping circulate a survey to determine the fate of Kiddieland, the amusement park portion of the Waco Founder Lions Club’s 11-acre Lions Park complex at 42nd Street and Bosque Boulevard, adjacent to the Extraco Events Center. The foundation has also hosted an informal meeting between park representatives, members of local nonprofits, city and county government officials, and other groups and individuals with ties to the park.

“There’s an opportunity with this project,” Junior League of Waco President Jana Hixson said. “People are coming to Waco from all over right now, and they’re looking for a fun, safe place to connect with their families.”

The Junior League is one of many local organizations that have supported the park over the years. The league donated a $145,000 carousel to the park in 2011 and continues to hold events there. Hixson said the park’s throwback status is part of the appeal.

“It’s cheesy to say, but it really is wholesome family fun,” Hixson said. “My intention is that we have an opportunity to take what people love about it and make it into a fun, safe, inclusive environment.”

Waco Lions Park first opened in 1952 as a ballpark meant for teenagers. Over the years, the park received updates in the form of tennis courts, a swimming pool, and Putt-Putt mini-golf course, with the eventual addition of Kiddieland in 1965. The park expanded to include go-karts, new rides and a train, and the swimming pool was converted into a short-lived bumper boat ride in 2001.

Lions Park Executive Director Linda Sirkel said while the park still hosts children’s birthday parties, churches and school groups, it is common for people to pass the park and assume it is closed. The ongoing efforts to get community feedback are aimed at changing that, she said.

“The purpose of it is to get an idea of what the people of Waco would like to see at the park, to figure out what’s working and what changes they’d like to see so that if we’re able to raise enough funds, we go in the direction the public wants,” Sirkel said.

She said the Lions Club has held fundraisers for the park less frequently than it once did, leaving the park to rely on ticket sales. Rides are $2 each, or six for $10.

“The park is for all children to come to, regardless of their economic situation,” Sirkel said. “So we try to keep the ticket prices as low as possible for that reason. I feel like if we raise ticket prices, we’d be eliminating the very people the park is for.”

The lack of funding has taken a visible toll. Today, many rides are visibly sun-faded and some no longer run. Sirkel said the rainy summer posed another problem. Some rides cannot run in the rain and must be completely dry before they can run again.

“When it’s been neglected for a while, it’s harder just to catch up,” Sirkel said. “That’s what we’re battling right now.”

The park replaced ride canopies this year, and Sirkel repaints attractions herself. A team of volunteers have dismantled the rocket ride and are slowly rebuilding it in phases, and the park’s train is in need of new wheels.

“Everywhere you look, there’s something,” Sirkel said.

Sirkel, whose children, grandchildren and great grandchildren all visit Kiddieland, took over as director when her husband, C.C. Sirkel, died October 2017.

“We had him for several years longer than the doctors thought we would, and I am convinced it was because of this job,” Sirkel said.

Lions Clubs throughout the country started opening parks similar to Kiddieland in the 1960s and ’70s, but most have fallen to the wayside, she said. Others have scaled back, are operated entirely by volunteers or only open for a few months of the year.

Lions Club member Harvey Spross, who attended the meeting organized by the Waco Foundation, said the fate of the park depends in part on community response through the surveys.

“We want the whole area to be top notch and first class,” Spross said. “The Lions Park and Den Complex board will make final decisions, but we’ll be depending on them for suggestions and methods.”

Lions Club Secretary Terry Sutcliffe said the club has invested about $1.5 million in the park over the decades, and members sometimes donate to the park independently. He said Waco’s Lions Club, one of 23 originally founded in 1916, had about 250 members in its heyday, but that number has declined over the years to a low of about 70, before a recent member drive brought the number back up to 101.

The city of Waco parks department is helping to circulate the survey until the end of September, said Tom Balk, senior parks planner for the city.

“It seems like there’s a lot of buzz and excitement,” Balk said. “People have been sharing their memories about what the park has meant to them over the years. It’s been interesting to see it through that lens.”

> Click here to take the Kiddieland survey


Business
Layoffs looming at Waco glass plant tied to stagnant domestic beer demand
 Mike Copeland  / 
 09.06.19

Citing less demand for beer bottles, Waco’s Owens-Illinois plant on Beverly Drive will deactivate a furnace used in production, a move a local industry recruiter said would lead to layoffs among the 350 employees.

Kris Collins, the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce’s senior vice president for economic development, confirmed Friday she is investigating whether the announcement, and accompanying job losses, would jeopardize an $805,000 economic development grant to Owens-Illinois in 2012. The company that year announced it was continuing a $74 million upgrade of the facility built in 1944.

Terms of the grant awarded through the Waco-McLennan County Economic Development Corp. required Owens Illinois to retain 280 positions and create 70 others, Collins said. The contract with the company expires early next year, and audits to date show compliance, she said.

“We understand they are idling a furnace due to lower demand for beer bottles,” Collins said. “That will have an impact on employment, but we have not heard exact numbers. It is my impression they are still attempting to arrive at those. Employment levels do impact our incentive agreement with Owens-Illinois, so we will be having discussions.”

Collins and Melett Harrison, who coordinates economic development efforts for the city of Waco, said they were aware of reporting by a local television station that 75 positions would be placed in jeopardy.

Owens-Illinois spokeswoman Leslie Orozco issued a statement but did not respond to messages seeking comment on layoff totals.

“With continued softer demand in the U.S. across the beer category, O-I plans to idle one of the furnaces it uses to manufacture glass containers at its Waco facility for an indefinite duration,” Orozco said in her message. “This particular furnace is dedicated 100% to producing beer bottles. The remaining furnaces will continue to produce some beer as well as spirit and food glass packaging.”

Chris Manuel, who works in the Ohio-based company’s investor relations office, also said he has no specifics to share about layoffs. He said it was his impression the decision to mothball one of the plant’s three furnaces could be overturned if market conditions, and beer demand, change.

“That’s written right here in a statement I’m looking at,” he said by phone.

Bart Watson, chief economist for the Brewers Association, representing more than 7,000 primarily craft brewers and affiliated retailers and suppliers, confirmed in an email response to questions beer sales have flattened.

“There are two separate things going on, both of which are reducing beer bottle sales,” he wrote. “The first is an overall decline in domestic beer sales. Total beer sales in the U.S. have been static to slightly down in recent years. Underneath that, domestic production has declined, and imports have gone up, primarily driven by Mexican imports.”

Domestic production of both bottle and can containers was down 1% to 2% in 2018, probably closer to 2%, Watson said.

“The parts of the domestic beer market that are growing aren’t growing in bottles,” he said. “We’ve already mentioned imports, which probably are growing bottle sales, but they aren’t being made in the U.S., but other parts of the beer industry that are growing are either shifting toward cans or almost exclusively in cans. The two I’d point our are craft, which used to be almost exclusively in bottles, but is approaching 50-50 in cans and bottles, and number two, seltzer, which so far is 99%-plus in cans.”

So bottles are getting hit with a double-whammy, Watson said.

Owens-Illinois, which has a presence in 23 countries, is enjoying sales increases in markets outside the United States, according to second quarter financial results for 2019 posted on its website.

A summary prepared by CEO Andres Lopez states the $1.8 billion in net sales were “essentially flat” during the April-June time frame, while earnings fell short of management expectations and profits slipped.

“Sales volume growth was strong in the markets where O-I recently added new capacity, including Brazil, Colombia and China,” said Lopez, while “softer demand continued in the U.S. across the beer category.”

Lopez said the company completed its acquisition of Nueva Fanal, a one-plant operation near Mexico City with four furnaces “to produce and supply approximately 300,000 tons of glass containers annually for Grupo Modelo brands serving the local and global export markets.”

Jose Loya, of Baytown, a Texas representative for United Steelworkers, said the jobs of 12 mold-making union employees at the Waco plant are secure. He said he does not know the status of members of other unions working there.


Government
spotlight
Hewitt councilman resigns, citing 'escalating attacks' on his family
 Kristin Hoppa  / 
 09.06.19

Hewitt City Council member Matthew Mevis announced his resignation Friday evening and claimed harassment by a former city council member is forcing his sudden departure four months after he was elected.

Mevis submitted his resignation via email to council members, City Attorney Mike Dixon and other city officials.

“I am proud of our community’s civic spirit, and I am sorry to be leaving before my term is over,” he wrote. “However, due to the repeated, unending, and escalating attacks against my family’s mental and financial well-being, all without any seeming provocation, ability to seek redress, and with local agencies seemingly incapable of intervention on our behalf, I can no longer sustain the energy to perform my duties with the focus and dedication they deserve.”

In an interview after he sent the letter, Mevis said what he believes is harassment, including harassment of his family, by former council member Kurt Krakowian has forced him to resign. Mevis was elected in May to represent Ward 2 after incumbent James Vidrine chose not to run for re-election. He ran unopposed.

Mevis said Krakowian has used social media, phone calls to his workplace and inaccurate statements about his wife to discredit him as a public official. He said he has filed complaints with Hewitt police but feels nothing has been done to address his concerns.

“I don’t really care about the attack against me per se because at the time I was a public figure and that sort of goes with the territory. I am fine with that,” Mevis said. “When the information was presented, Mr. Krakowian had no interest in understanding the specific circumstances.”

Krakowian was appointed to the council in March 2018 and resigned that July after multiple city officials had filed complaints against him. He ran unsuccessfully for an at-large seat on the council in May.

After hearing of Mevis’ resignation, Krakowian said he had filed open records requests with proper authorities and worked to inform the public.

He has claimed Mevis’ wife is a convicted felon and that Mevis helped her hide from law enforcement.

Court records state Mevis’ wife completed deferred adjudication probation in 2013 to have a felony theft charge dismissed. She was not convicted in that case and has no conviction on her record.

Krakowian said he informed the public about Mevis’ wife because he felt the public had a right to know. He said he also learned Mevis owed back taxes while on the council.

“I don’t think it’s harassment when it’s bringing whatever you’ve done, good or bad, into public view,” Krakowian said. “I believe public officials should be held at a higher standard and if we do find there is an issue, the only recourse we have is our voice.”

Mevis said he attempted to resolve these issues with Krakowian previously but was unsuccessful. Hewitt Police Chief Jim Devlin said a complaint has been filed in connection to the case and that it remains under investigation.

In March, Ruth Coffman and Karen Fortenberry, wife of council member Steve Fortenberry, filed a lawsuit in 170th State District Court, alleging Krakowian harassed, stalked, intimidated and threatened them between May and February. The women and Krakowian settled their lawsuit in April.

Two other former city employees, Cassie Rose Muske and Belinda Kay “Katie” Allgood, filed complaints with the state against Mayor Ed Passalugo and Krakowian, claiming both officials retaliated against them after they filed discrimination complaints in May 2018. The complaints and subsequent lawsuits were later settled. Muske and Allgood have also left their jobs with the city.

Shortly after Mevis announced his resignation Friday, Mayor Charlie Turner said the council would consult with the city attorney and City Manager Bo Thomas before deciding how to move forward.