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Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte 

Lorena defensive end Daylon Bartosh (middle) applies a hit to Brownsboro's Colle Williams as a pair of Leopards swoop in to help.

Doctor who guided Waco Family Health Center growth stepping down after 22 years
 Lauren Dodd  / 

The man responsible for expanding health care access to thousands of low income people in McLennan County has announced a plan to officially hang up his stethoscope next year.

Dr. Jackson Griggs will take the helm of the Waco Family Health Center from Dr. Roland Goertz, who is retiring after two decades of leadership in Waco.

In a medical career spanning three decades, Goertz has worked in multiple major cities and provided medical care to thousands of Texans.

His interest in medicine emerged after his grandmother died prematurely from a massive stroke while on his family’s farm outside Austin when he was 10 years old.

“It always bothered me that there was nothing that could be done for my grandmother,” Goertz said. “I’m quite certain that was my stimulus to enter medicine.”

After a decade in family medicine, Goertz moved to Waco in 1997 to become executive director of a struggling community clinic.

“We were having trouble meeting payroll at that time,” Family Health Center board member Bill Clifton said.

Clifton was part of a search committee that brought Goertz to Waco.

“Roland has been one of the real treasures of McLennan County,” he said.

When he got to Waco, Goertz saw a community need for health care far greater than what the clinic could provide and an entity struggling to stay afloat.

“We were either going to become much smaller or we were going to find a way to get other revenues or processes in place to generate revenues for our future,” Goertz said. “The state wasn’t going to do it.”

After a number of stakeholder meetings, Goertz and his team determined the best way to save the clinic and provide the care McLennan County needed was to turn the agency into a federal health clinic eligible for federal funding.

“Historically there had been a position that we didn’t need that darn federal money, so to speak, but in Houston when I was in medical school there, I saw how federal grant dollars, in many ways, were kinder to entities that receive them than the state dollars were,” he said.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte, file  

Under the leadership of Dr. Roland Goertz, the Waco Family Health Center became a federally qualified health center, and the number of patients it serves has grown by 80 percent. Goertz will retire in February after 22 years as the center’s director.

Since the Family Health Center’s establishment as a federally qualified health center in 1999, it has grown to include 15 clinics throughout the county, and the number of patients served has increased 80 percent.

Now, the Family Health Center provides low-cost health care to close to a quarter of McLennan County’s population. Goertz said he estimates the center is on track for the year to provide care to 60,000 people.

“There’s no question converting the center to a federally qualified health center gave us life,” he said. “It gave us the option to grow and meet the needs of the community in a way that I don’t think any other model would have allowed us to do.”

Bittersweet departure

After almost 22 years with the Family Health Center, Goertz said his departure is bittersweet but necessary. He has six grandchildren he looks forward to spending more time with and a wife excitedly awaiting a trip to Germany next year.

“We’re going to do the things that take longer than a 10-day vacation,” Goertz said.

Goertz will officially step down in February after six weeks of training with Griggs, his replacement.

“Jackson does have big shoes to fill, but I’m very confident that he can do that,” Clifton said.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte 

Dr. Roland Goertz (left) will step down in February after 22 years as director of the Waco Family Health Center, with Dr. Jackson Griggs taking his place. Under Goertz's leadership, the organization became a federally qualified health center, and the number of patients it serves has grown by 80 percent.

Clifton said Griggs has displayed a “servant’s heart” not seen in other applicants.

After he completed medical school, Griggs moved to Waco to complete his family practice residency and decided to stay.

Griggs said his religious upbringing led him to a career of serving his neighbors.

“I wanted to know what leads to suffering, what leads to thriving, what helps people find meaning, how do we help others to really live their best life,” Griggs said.

His desire to help the whole person, not just treat a particular ailment, led him to family practice, and he has helped expand the center’s ability to provide mental health treatment.

After 15 years teaching residents and providing care to patients, Griggs said his most difficult task as he transitions to an administrative role is to say goodbye to his patients.

“Two days ago I had tears in my eyes letting one of my patients who I’ve cared for for 10 years know that I was not going to be able to be his physician,” Griggs said. “It’s difficult to give up.”

Moving forward, Griggs said he wants to continue in Goertz’s footsteps providing quality care to McLennan County.

“I think at the end of my career in leadership at my Family Health Center I hope to look back and say that we provided the highest quality of health care for the most vulnerable in your community,” he said. “I hope to expand services to even more of our target population, not just to have weathered this dynamic time in health care, but to lead our organization to being a pioneer in providing high-quality, low-cost care for the vulnerable.”

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

A maple tree on Lake Arrowhead Drive reveals its colors in a week when temperatures seesawed from a high of 70 degrees Saturday to a low of 28 Tuesday morning. This has been a strong year locally for autumn colors, which are favored by cool, dry and sunny weather, according to the Texas Forest Service. The National Weather Service forecast for Thursday calls for a high near 78, falling to 60 overnight, followed by a high of 78 Friday with a 30 percent chance of thunderstorms.

State, local leaders talk property taxes, I-35 ahead of legislative session
 Phillip Ericksen  / 

Property tax relief and transportation issues were on the minds of Waco’s state legislative delegation as they gave a preview Wednesday of the upcoming session.

State Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury; Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson, R-Waco; and state Rep. Kyle Kacal, R-College Station, pointed to Texas’ vast economic growth and its accompanied benefits and challenges at a State of the State Luncheon organized by the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce.

State Comptroller Glenn Hegar also sounded the same themes at the event at the Waco Hippodrome, noting that budget demands have grown as 1,000 people move to Texas every day.

“No one envisioned the pressure the system would have,” Hegar said.

“How do we make sure that the state side continues to keep up with that pressurization so it’s not continually put back on the property tax owners?” Hegar said. “And I think that is the biggest issue that (lawmakers) are going to have to address this session and the next session because that is a very significant, fundamental, financial issue.”

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte 

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar speaks at a State of the State Luncheon at the Waco Hippodrome on Wednesday.

Anderson, who has represented North Waco, West Waco, Woodway, Hewitt, Robinson, Lorena, Moody, McGregor and Crawford for 14 years, called for reforms to the appraisal process, which is now overseen by county appointees. He said a board of elected officials would be more accountable to taxpayers, who have seen property tax rates skyrocket in recent years.

Birdwell, whose district includes the entirety of McLennan County, agrees.

“The challenge has been in the property tax arena, the rate of growth and the inability of the taxpayer to have some voice more directly in not just their appraisals, but in the rate of that growth,” Birdwell said.

The trio is also looking to boost education funding this session, as they await the recommendations of a bipartisan commission organized by Gov. Greg Abbott.

Meanwhile, expediting the project to widen Interstate 35 remains a priority for the legislators. The first $300 million phase, which is set to begin in coming months, will expand the highway from 11th Street to North Loop 340 over 4.5 years. But the Waco delegation and city leaders are asking the Texas Department of Transportation to speed up the second phase south of 11th Street so the project doesn’t drag on for years beyond that.

Most local stakeholders agree the widening will benefit Waco in the long-term, but the short-term traffic has Wacoans bracing for headaches.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte 

State Sen. Brian Birdwell (second from left) and state Reps. Charles “Doc” Anderson and Kyle Kacal speak at the Waco Hippodrome on Wednesday. Matthew Meadors, president and CEO of the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce, moderated the discussion. 

“Waco is thriving at all levels, whether it’s the university community, the community itself, Chip and Joanna,” said Kacal, who represents parts of East and South Waco, Bellmead, West, Gholson, Ross and Mart. “We do not need 35 to be the problem, and we don’t want that spotlight.”

He said discussions with TxDOT are continuing, with a meeting on the issue set that very afternoon.

“We want to make sure Waco’s a good place to stop, not a place you’re compelled to have to stop and sit in traffic,” Birdwell said.

Asked what the greatest threat facing Texas is, Anderson pointed to the availability of illegal drugs and the death toll of the ongoing opioid epidemic.

Kacal said management of Texas’ budget amid an economic boon will require diligence, and Birdwell said a new dose of moral virtue is a necessity for the future of the state.

Jerry Larson  

A truck drives through Cameron Park as the leaves begin to turn.

Clash with migrants spotlights force at the border

EL PASO — U.S. Border Patrol agents near Tijuana, Mexico, faced a choice as they looked out over the chaos at a crowd of migrants that included rock-throwing men as well as barefoot children: Do they respond with force — and, if so, what kind?

The circumstances at the San Ysidro border crossing Sunday were exceptional, but the question facing the agents was not. It’s a split-second choice more often made in the remote desert, far from cameras, where agents are likely working alone and encountering groups of people crossing illegally.

The agents’ response — firing tear gas into the crowd — triggered widespread outrage and rekindled complaints that the Border Patrol, bolstered by President Donald Trump’s tough talk, is too quick to use force, particularly when responding to people throwing rocks.

But use of force by Customs and Border Protection officers and agents is declining from a high during the 2013 budget year, government statistics show. There are high-profile exceptions, like the shooting death by agents of a 19-year-old Guatemalan woman who crossed the border near Laredo in May.

Still, experts say policies have improved following a major audit five years ago.

“There has been progress made — especially in getting officers better training and better equipment,” said Josiah Heyman, a professor with University of Texas at El Paso and director of the Center for Inter-American and Border Studies. “When I first started studying this, most agents had a gun and a baton. They didn’t have the choice to use anything else.”

Firearms were used 45 times in budget year 2013 compared with 17 in 2017, according to data from Customs and Border Protection. For the first 11 months of the 2018 budget year, firearms were used 14 times. The data includes Border Patrol agents that patrol between the ports of entry, and officers who police border crossings.

Over those 11 months, there were 743 cases of agents and officers using less-lethal force, like batons, stun guns, tear gas and pepper spray. These included 29 cases in which tear gas was used and 43 incidents of pepper spray.

Fewer incidents

Though the final numbers are unavailable, those figures represent a drop from 2013, during the Obama administration, when there were 1,168 incidents of less-lethal force, including 27 instances of tear gas and 151 of pepper spray, according to the data. Less-lethal force has increased over the past two years but is still lower than 2013.

Complaints about excessive force prompted Customs and Border Protection to commission an investigation by the Police Executive Research Forum, a policing research and policy group. The 2013 audit highlighted problems that included foot-patrol agents without access to less-lethal options. It recommended law enforcement not be allowed to use deadly force when people throw rocks — a suggestion that was rejected.

Following those reviews, Customs and Border Protection revised policies and made major changes to training. Agents now undergo scenario-based drills at the academy and learn how to de-escalate tense situations. They get 64 hours of on-the-job training on use of force.

Virtual reality

Some sectors, like El Paso, have a virtual reality simulator. The octagonal giant screens mounted on a platform mimic a desert encounter where agents must decide whether to fire their weapons. The scenario is designed to cause stress, and agents are forced to think quickly or face being shot, run over or hit with rocks. After the simulation, they discuss reactions with training officers and work on how to better respond in the future.

“The desert is a very difficult, dangerous unstructured environment,” said Aaron Hull, Border Patrol chief for the El Paso Sector. “We’re trying to keep our agents safe. We’re trying to protect the safety of our communities, and all the people involved.”

Chuck Wexler, head of the police research forum, credited the agency with taking the recommendations seriously. “Also when they do have an incident, they have a better review process,” he said.

Trump defended the use of tear gas on children — claiming it was “very safe,” a “very minor form” of irritant. But Customs and Border Protection officials still plan to conduct a review to determine whether it was justified and what — if anything — could be done better, according Commissioner Kevin McAleenan.

Deadly force

Agents are authorized to use deadly force when there is reasonable belief that there is an imminent danger of serious physical injury or death to the officer or another person.

They have discretion on how to deploy less-than-lethal force: It must be both “objectively reasonable and necessary in order to carry out law enforcement duties” — and used when other “empty hand” techniques are not sufficient to control disorderly or violent subjects.

Officials say they deploy the lowest form of force necessary to take control of a situation — but critics of the Sunday clash say gas never should’ve been used near small children.

The chaos began after a peaceful protest by some of the thousands of migrants marooned in Mexico. It was unusual in part because of the large number trying to cross illegally — officials said it was between 500 and 1,000. U.S. authorities shut down the nation’s busiest border crossing for several hours.

San Diego Border Patrol Sector chief Rodney Scott said 42 people were arrested and some children inhaled the tear gas, but they were not intended targets.

But images of crying children in diapers and bare feet running from plumes of gas struck a nerve again — not unlike the images of weeping, frightened children who had been separated from their parents over the summer.

“Any border security and immigration policy that results in mothers and children being gassed is not only cruel and morally reprehensible, but also an abject failure,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the top Democrat on the House Committee on Homeland Security. “The administration should be preparing itself to finally face real oversight of its failed border and immigration policies.”

McLennan County justice delayed in two trials
 Tommy Witherspoon  / 

Justice was delayed for two McLennan County criminal defendants Wednesday after a nosy potential juror caused a mistrial, and a scheduling conflict with a witness in federal custody caused another trial to be postponed.

Judge Ralph Strother of Waco’s 19th State District Court was forced to declare a mistrial Wednesday morning in the trial of Brian Todd Dekle, who has been jailed 998 days waiting trial on five counts of aggravated sexual assault of a child, three counts of sexual assault of a child and one count of indecency with a child by contact.

A juror selected Tuesday evening reported to Strother on Wednesday that she overheard another potential juror talking about the facts of the case after that person called up a story about Dekle’s case on his cellphone during a Tuesday afternoon break in jury selection.

The juror told Strother she could not be fair and impartial after what she had heard the other prospective juror say, which led to the judge declaring a mistrial in the case.

A felony criminal case can proceed with 11 jurors, but only if a judge determines a juror is disabled. While Strother disqualified the juror, she was not deemed disabled, so the mistrial was the judge’s only option, he said.

“The internet has curses and blessings,” Strother said. “This is one of the curses.”

Strother instructs the 12-member jury not to read media accounts of the trial but does not give that instruction to the 60 or so potential jurors before the jury selection process starts. Strother said he will change his routine to instruct the entire jury panel as soon as jury selection starts to stay away from media reports about the case.

The mistrial does not prevent a new trial on the same charges.

Trial delayed

Staff photo — Tommy Witherspoon 


Also Wednesday, 54th State District Judge Matt Johnson granted a prosecution request to delay testimony in the trial of a Hewitt man charged in an alleged murder-for-hire scheme because of the unavailability of a prosecution witness in federal custody.

Testimony in the capital murder trial of Tyler Sherrod Clay should have started Tuesday. However, prosecutors were not able to get federal authorities to keep a witness in the McLennan County Jail who had been brought to Waco as a potential witness in an unrelated federal proceeding.

Prosecutors on Monday asked Johnson for a delay in testimony until Wednesday, hoping they could arrange for the witness to be transferred from federal custody to state custody and brought back to Waco in time. That process apparently will not happen until Friday or Monday, prompting prosecutors to seek the delay over the strenuous objections of Clay’s attorneys, Randy Schaffer, of Houston, and Melanie Walker, of Waco.

Clay, 29, is charged with hiring Keith Antoine Spratt, 30, of Waco, to kill Joshua Ladale Pittman in December 2015. Pittman, 37, was shot several times in the chest by a masked man at an East Waco convenience store.

The judge swore in the jury Wednesday morning, but not before asking if any of them had a problem with postponing the start of testimony until Monday morning.

Late Monday afternoon, prosecutors Robert Moody, Hilary LaBorde and Christi Hunting Horse told the judge a federal prisoner who they described as an important material witness in the case was in bureaucratic limbo and might not be available to testify until later in the week. Johnson postponed the start of testimony until Wednesday and urged the prosecutors to do all they could to get the prisoner here.

On Wednesday, Johnson told the prosecutors he is disappointed they had not sought an injunction from a federal judge to prevent the witness from being transferred from Waco back to federal prison.

After rigorous protests from Schaffer, the judge told him he merely was trying to be fair and said he would grant the defense a continuance under similar circumstances.

Prosecutors argued the witness is important to the state’s case because he was at the scene when the shooting happened and is the only one who can identify Spratt as the gunman, despite the shooter wearing a mask.

Waco police reported Pittman had been involved in multiple robberies and said Pittman “set up” Spratt and Clay to be robbed. That led to Spratt and Clay conspiring to murder Pittman, Waco police officials said.

Pittman was shot by a masked man at the Pick N Pay Foodmart, 504 Faulkner Lane, about 11 p.m. Dec. 23, 2015. According to arrest warrant affidavits, Pittman robbed Clay earlier in 2015, and Clay hired Spratt to murder Pittman in retaliation.

Prosecutors are not seeking the death penalty in the case. If Clay is convicted of capital murder, he will be sentenced to life in prison without parole.