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Health district launches study on fertilizer plant explosion's effects on West residents
 Brooke Crum  / 

The Waco-McLennan County Public Health District is surveying West residents to gauge the long-term health impacts of the 2013 fertilizer plant explosion that killed 15 people.

The survey opened Monday and will be available through May 31 at Health district workers will conduct a door-to-door survey from April 22 through May 3 for people who do not complete the online survey.

“We are trying to reach out to every resident of West,” health district senior epidemiologist Vaidehi Shah said. “The greater the number of responses we get, the better we can analyze the data.”

Even if residents did not live in West at the time of the explosion, the health district wants to include them in the survey to see what effect the after- math of the explosion had, Shah said.

Residents will answer questions about their physical and mental health, including any chronic conditions or injuries related to the explosion. Once all surveys are completed, the health district will examine the responses and produce a public report, Shah said.

“We will be analyzing the data, and we’ll provide the report to the mayor and other public health officials,” she said. “We will have the report online for the public to look at. Based on the report, we can decide if there is a problem in the community for which interventions need to be planned.”

Shah said she hopes the report will be completed by the end of the year.

West Mayor Tommy Muska said the study will help the health district determine how residents have dealt with the explosion and see if anyone is “slipping between the lines.” Muska said after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 that officials did not realize people were experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder until 10 years later.

“Post-traumatic stress doesn’t happen overnight,” he said.

Muska said it is understandable that residents may not want to talk about post-traumatic stress or other ailments, but it is important that those conditions are treated and addressed by public health officials.

At least five people died by suicide in the first few years after the explosion, Baylor University social work professor Jim Ellor told the Tribune-Herald last year. Ellor volunteered to provide counseling in West in the years following the blast.

Some firefighters who responded to the explosion and its aftermath grew hesitant when an alarm sounded, he said. Other residents choose to turn away at the sight of a fire, Ellor said.

Memorial dedication

A memorial honoring those who died as a result of the April 17, 2013, explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. will be dedicated at 10 a.m. April 13, in Parker’s Park, which is near the blast site and also known as West City Park. Gov. Greg Abbott is expected to attend.

“It’s a beautiful monument and area that the people of West will be proud of,” Muska said.

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DA says he, his team agonized over decision to dismiss Twin Peaks cases
 Tommy Witherspoon  / 

While Jeff Battey may know who shot him in the arm almost four years ago outside the Twin Peaks restaurant in Waco, McLennan County prosecutors dismissed charges against the remaining 24 biker defendants because they could not gain the same level of certainty to build murder cases.

McLennan County District Attorney Barry Johnson, who announced his decision to dismiss charges Tuesday, said Wednesday he and his staff agonized since he took office in January over how to proceed with the Twin Peaks cases. Johnson and his top assistants, Tom Needham and Nelson Barnes, were not sold on the rioting charges already filed, could not find sufficient evidence to make murder cases and realized that any other potential charges, such as aggravated assault, were barred by statutes of limitations.

“We have watched those tapes a jillion times, and it is like an ant bed with ants running wild out there,” Johnson said. “It is impossible to tell what is going on, who shot who, who got shot, and there is nothing to tell us definitely who fired the shots that hit the guys who were killed.”

Johnson spent much of his day Wednesday answering media questions about his decision to abandon the Twin Peaks cases. He said it was not an easy call but he believes it was in the best interest of justice and will benefit McLennan County taxpayers in the long-run.

He said his office has the option of filing murder charges in the future if more evidence becomes available.

“It’s likely going to take somebody going into a bar, having a few drinks and popping off to some folks that he pulled a gun on an old boy and shot that Cossack, or that Bandido, or whatever,” Johnson said. “But just generally, that is all we’ve got left as far as making a murder case.”

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte 

Tom Needham (left) District Attorney Barry Johnson and Nelson Barnes review records in the Twin Peaks "war room" at the DA's office.

‘Tough psychologically’

For Battey, a Bandido and former Marine who works in maintenance at a Syracuse Sausage plant in Ponder, Johnson’s announcement was welcome news, according to his attorney, Seth Sutton.

“This whole ordeal destroyed him for a long time,” Sutton said. “The thing about these motorcycle clubs, they are like family to each other. Birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, they are all spent with the club. They are very close. If somebody has a birthday, it is going to be spent with the club. After they all were arrested, they were all told you can’t hang out with your best friends. That’s a tough pill to swallow.

“It’s tough psychologically, and everybody was treating these guys like one-dimensional monsters with no feelings. Jeff fought for our freedom, he had a clean slate for a record and now he has lost all his friends and was separated from everybody. It’s hard to make new friends when they Google your name and it pops up that people are calling you a murderer,” Sutton said. “It is a recipe for emotional pain and depression.”

The man who shot Battey was one of the nine bikers who died in the shootout, Sutton said.

Battey and fellow Bandido Ray Allen were parking their motorcycles behind Twin Peaks when the shooting started, he said. Three bikers from the rival Cossacks or one of their support groups came running around the corner of the building, and one, Matthew Mark Smith, of Keller, started firing, Sutton said.

Staff photo — Tommy

Witherspoon, file  

Biker Jeff Battey (center) talks to his attorneys, Seth Sutton (right) and Jason Milam after a hearing in this file photo.

Smith first fired two shots at Allen but missed, Sutton said. He next fired at Battey, who raised his arm as a shield and was shot in the forearm, he said. The bullet remains lodged in his arm. Smith then fired at bikers who were trying to leave the parking lot in the back of a truck, Sutton said. Smith was killed by return fire, he said.

Ballistics reports show Smith was not one of the four bikers killed by Waco police officers, who were stationed on an adjoining parking lot and fired on bikers they felt were threats to them or others.

“This guy is shooting like a wild man and he draws fire from a lot of different people,” Sutton said, declining to say if Battey was one of those firing back. “Exactly who dropped him, we aren’t sure, but that is a classic case of self-defense. It doesn’t get any more clear than that. If somebody is trying to harm you, you are justified in using like force in defending yourself.

“Several Cossacks ran around the building and none of the other ones were firing at anybody, and therefore, no one else fired at those guys. There were three of them, and two of them are still alive today.”

5 deaths: nothing conclusive

Unfortunately for prosecutors, there is no conclusive video or ballistics evidence to prove who killed the other five bikers, including Smith, Johnson said.

Sutton said he agrees with Johnson’s decision to dismiss the cases and seconds the district attorney’s comment to the Tribune-Herald on Tuesday that the problems started when former District Attorney Abel Reyna took over directing the investigation after the shootout.

“I guess there are two questions,” Sutton said. “Did Barry make the right call globally on the whole thing? Yes. Did he make the right call for Jeff and Ray Allen? Absolutely. It was very simple. They were just arriving. If you are accused of shooting somebody who fired at you first, you are absolutely within your rights to do that. They were only getting pushback because they drive motorcycles, wear vests and have beards.

“But Barry was right when he said Abel should have looked at people individually and should have picked out individual actions instead of trying to charge everyone with a global offense. The decision to do that was the death knell.”

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

Executive Assistant District Attorney Tom Needham reviews files in the Twin Peaks “war room” at the DA’s office.

Retrying Carrizal

Johnson said his team “strongly considered” retrying Jacob Carrizal, then-vice president of the Bandidos Dallas chapter, on rioting charges after reviewing evidence, including wiretaps, that federal officials used in San Antonio to convict the Bandidos national president and vice president on a variety of charges.

“We made the decision that, by all accounts, Carrizal was an excellent defense witness, and we have already spent more than a million dollars and six weeks trying him the first time and there was not enough new evidence to justify us putting the county through a long, drawn-out, expensive ordeal when they had already cut the head off the snake down there in San Antonio. They got convictions and long-term prison terms for those national leaders. That is the justice in the deal. Carrizal was just a vice president in the Dallas chapter. He was small potatoes compared to those guys in San Antonio.”

Carrizal was the only one of 155 bikers indicted on identical organized crime charges to stand trial. It ended in a mistrial after the jury deadlocked, with the majority favoring acquittal. Reyna dismissed all but 24 of the cases after Johnson defeated him in the March 2018 Republican primary.

Civil lawsuits

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte 

Executive Assistant District Attorney Tom Needham looks through files in the Twin Peaks “war room” at the DA’s office.

While the remaining 24 criminal cases will be dismissed, more than 130 of the almost 200 bikers arrested on May 17, 2015, have civil rights lawsuits pending against McLennan County, the city of Waco and a host of current and former officials, including Reyna.

The city and county have motions pending asking U.S. District Judge Alan Albright to dismiss the lawsuits filed by people who were never indicted in the Twin Peaks case. Dallas attorney Don Tittle, who represents about 120 of the bikers in the civil suits, said he has filed an answer to their motions and anticipates similar motions to dismiss will be filed in the cases involving the remaining bikers.

“The defendants all have filed motions to dismiss, arguing we haven’t stated a plausible claim for which we should be allowed to move forward,” Tittle said. “l believe the whole idea that there was this mass conspiracy has pretty much been debunked by now by everyone who has looked at it with any level of independence.

“You would think with the biggest law enforcement fiasco in history we would surely have a basis to move forward with lawsuits. It is surprising to me that the county and the city are trumpeting the same rival gang turf war theme that failed so miserably in the criminal cases. I suspect it will have the same level of success in the civil cases.”

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Community remembers aspiring rapper after fatal shooting
 Kristin Hoppa  / 

The music of aspiring rapper Preston Jerome Scott, better known as PJ OneEight, played throughout an East Waco neighborhood Tuesday night, one day after he was killed at an intersection there.

“We’ve known him all our lives and music is what he’s always wanted to do,” said Keith Barrier, who spoke to a crowd of about 100 people in East Waco. “In Waco, there have been homicides and murders, but nobody comes out to speak. Everyone will come out for the wild and the drama, but nobody will come talk together.”

Police identified Scott, 29, of Waco, as the man who was found at the intersection of Dallas Street and Carver Avenue at about 10:45 p.m. Monday with a gunshot wound to his back. Waco police Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton said Scott was taken to Baylor Scott & White Hillcrest Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead at about 11:30 p.m.

No arrests had been made by Wednesday as police continued the investigation, Swanton said.

Less than 24 hours after the shooting, more than 100 people gathered at the streetside memorial Tuesday with candles and balloons. Scott’s music echoed down the neighborhood as a memorial to the man friends said had raw talent.

“I’ve been knowing PJ since he was a kid, like 6 or 7 years old,” Barrier said. “They all kind of looked up to me, because I had been doing music all my life, too, so I was like the older homie. Music was what he wanted to do and show the talent that Waco has.”

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte 

About 100 people turned out Tuesday night to remember Preston Jerome Scott, known as rapper PJ OneEight, who was shot to death Monday night.

Barrier said Scott released a mixtape Monday afternoon, posting it to hundreds of his followers on Facebook about eight hours before he was shot.

Calvin Vernon stood with friends and remembered Scott’s life motto that nothing is easy. He said Scott would typically spend his time working on his music, producing and working with other local artists.

“If you had a rainy day, he was going to make it shine,” Vernon said. “If he was here right now, he’d be dancing, not caring about what anyone else says.

“He had raw talent. He was not the type to get into an altercation with anyone. I couldn’t believe it when I heard it. I’ve never seen him argue with anyone and I don’t think I’ve every seen him have a fight.”

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte 

About 100 people turned out Tuesday night at the intersection of Dallas Street and Carver Avenue to remember Preston Jerome Scott, known as rapper PJ OneEight, who was shot to death Monday night.

Waco police blocked a portion of Dallas Street for the large crowd that marched into the middle of the intersection. Friends released balloons in the air on the count of eight, chanting “RIP PJ.”

“I ask you Father, put your hand on everybody, I ask your Father to put your hand on that man’s family, I ask you Father to put your hand on our enemy, I ask you Father to clear this, but it is going to take us to clear this as humans,” Barrier prayed out loud.

“I ask you God to help everybody communitywide. I ask you Father to rain down, rain down and ask you to lift each and every one of us up, lift everyone that is here tonight and help us to give Waco strength.”

Texas House OKs school finance bill, but tax fight may loom

AUSTIN — The Republican-led Texas House has approved a bipartisan school finance bill that would pour $9 billion into the state’s public education system — lawmakers’ latest attempt to revamp a funding structure the state Supreme Court has deemed barely constitutional.

Houston Republican Rep. Dan Huberty’s proposal would pump $6.3 billion into the state’s public education system and send another $2.7 billion to schools to tamp down ever-growing property taxes. Texas has no state income tax, meaning schools rely heavily on local property tax revenue. But lawmakers have promised to increase classroom funding while cutting property taxes.

“We are finally reforming public education in the state of Texas and not by court order, so that’s a pretty important thing,” Huberty said when introducing the bill. “A lot of provisions in this bill reflect your ideas, your priorities, and frankly compromises that we worked out together.”

The bill passed the state House after relatively quick and smooth debate, with all but one lawmaker supporting it. It now moves on to the state Senate for consideration.

Texas educates 5.3 million-plus public school students, more than any state except California, but has endured nearly 50 years of legal battles, with the Legislature frequently cutting classroom budgets and districts responding with a series of lawsuits that worked their way through state courts.

No school finance fix is required this session since Texas’ Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that the system was deeply flawed but also minimally constitutional, despite budget cuts approved by the Legislature in 2011 that removed $5.4 billion in classroom funding and educational grant programs.

School finance is so complicated that, in the past, the Legislature was loath to tackle it unless ordered to do so by the courts. Yet lawmakers are vowing to do it this time regardless.

The measure would increase annual, per student funding by nearly $900 to $6,030 while boosting funds for children who need extra instruction to learn English. It would fund full-day pre-kindergarten for low-income students and provide funding to better educate dyslexic students.

Raises mandated

A portion of the bill that would have given school districts discretion over how to allocate their funding was changed to mandate across-the-board raises for teachers and school employees. That could quash a previous sticking point with the state Senate, where lawmakers have promised educators a $5,000 pay hike that ranks among the biggest in the U.S. since a wave of teacher protests began in other states last year.

The amendment offered by Rep. Chris Turner, the Democratic leader in the Texas House, would mandate that school districts earmark at least 25% of their added funding to provide wage increases to all full-time employees.

Turner said his amendment would guarantee that at least $2.4 billion included in the bill will go toward a pay raise for every teacher and support staff member.

“It starts with a recognition that every person who has a positive effect on a child’s life, for our schools that means our teachers, it means our nurses, our counselors, educational aids, custodial workers, bus drivers, every full time employee should get and deserves a raise,” Turner said.

Though the measure passed the House, it could face hurdles in the Senate, as the two chambers will likely spar over how to properly take action on heavily sought property tax cuts.

The House’s measure looks to lower school property tax rates by 4 cents statewide and adjust the current “Robin Hood” system, reducing recapture payments by more than 38% over the next two years. That system is meant to force school districts in wealthy areas to share some local property tax revenue with those in poorer parts of the state.

Disagreements over both issues during the 2017 legislative session left lawmakers unable to pass a measure that would have pumped $1.6 billion into state classrooms — despite bipartisan support.

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Judge orders promoter of Lil Jon concert coinciding with Diadeloso to stop using Baylor trademarks

U.S. District Judge Alan Albright has ordered organizers of a Lil Jon concert on the day of Baylor University’s Diadeloso festival to stop using Baylor branding and trademarks in their promotional material.

The university sued Baylor alumnus Umar Brimah and his company, Bleux LLC, last week in Waco’s U.S. District Court, alleging trademark infringement related to “The Dia Gang,” a group organized by Brimah.

Brimah said the concert will go on as planned, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday at Brazos Parking, a privately owned space across Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard from Baylor’s McLane Stadium. The event is not affiliated with Baylor or Diadeloso, he said.

In its complaint, the university alleges Brimah is “attempting to capitalize on Baylor’s Diadeloso festival by organizing and promoting a rival concert using the Dia marks,” including the Baylor logo and the words “Dia” and “Diadeloso.”

“Baylor University is required to protect its trademarks and intellectual property in order to maintain trademark registrations,” according to a university statement. “Our first step is always education, which Baylor did in this case. Unfortunately, in this situation, Baylor’s trademarks related to Diadeloso continue to be violated and misused, which has prompted this legal action.

“In addition to numerous trademark violations, this business owner spoofed email addresses and inappropriately used the Baylor email system to promote a non-university affiliated event. Our primary focus with this litigation — and in all of our prior communications with this business owner — is that he recognize and respect Baylor’s ownership of the Diadeloso trademark and its related variations and cease use immediately.”

Diadeloso history

The university started giving a daylong break from classes in early spring in 1932, and the festivities went by several names until students voted in 1966 to rename the annual holiday Diadeloso, or Day of the Bear, according to a page on this year’s event.

This year, it includes opportunities for hot air balloon rides, activities, meals, athletic competitions and performances throughout the day.

Judge Albright’s order Tuesday states Baylor is likely to succeed in its claims and requires Brimah to stop using Baylor references in promotional material for the concert.

The suit alleges Brimah sent mass emails to Baylor students from the email addresses and The emails had subject lines including “Lil Jon Dia Giveaway Results,” “F---ing Limited Dia tees,” and “Open Letter to Students: Dia 2019.”

One of the emails said Baylor has “increase[d] its efforts to end Dia,” according to the lawsuit. The group’s promotional materials are spin-offs of pop culture and political slogans.

The suit states Brimah had red hats and white T-shirts for sale printed with the words “Make Dia Thursday Again,” a reference to President Donald Trump’s campaign slogan and some students’ desire for Baylor to schedule Diadeloso on a Thursday, as it was several years ago.

Other T-shirts make reference to lyrics by rappers Kanye West and Drake, and another is directed at Baylor President Linda Livingstone, with the words “Livingstone Make Dia Thursday Again.”

Another T-shirt is printed with a drawing of Baylor’s “Sailor Bear” mascot wearing a bandana and a backpack, according to the lawsuit.

Promoter’s history

In an email response to questions, Brimah said he faced disciplinary action as a Baylor student in 2016 when he organized another concert, featuring the Ying Yang Twins.

“Events and hospitality are my passion, so I plan on doing what is necessary to succeed in such a competitive industry,” he wrote. “I believe that if I can navigate the very complicated Waco market, then I will be prepared for most of the challenges that face me in the future.”

He said he learned during his time at Baylor that off-campus parties “can be incredibly disorganized” and often lead to dangerous situations for students “just looking to have a good time and enjoy college.” He started his company, Bleux, to create a safe environment for students, he said.

Baylor spokesman Jason Cook said Brimah is free to continue with the concert.

“The issue before the court is that he can no longer promote his nonuniversity event or produce apparel in conjunction with Baylor’s Diadeloso trademarks or any other Baylor-related trademarks,” Cook said. “Diadeloso is a Baylor event that is held on campus, and we will protect our ownership of this cherished tradition.”