Angelo State grad helps blaze trails with Discovery Channel

SAN ANGELO, Texas — Austin Osmanski, 26, may be a proven example that success occurs when hard work meets opportunity.

Osmanski, a San Angelo native, went from Ph.D. student studying evolutionary biology at Texas Tech University to hunting a large crocodilian species in the Bolivian rainforest for the Discovery Channel.

“We had a telephone call from the Discovery Channel,” Osmanski said. “That’s really how it happened. It was just some random fluke phone call one afternoon and we were on our way to Bolivia.”

The Discovery Channel contacted Texas Tech in November looking for a scientist who studied crocodiles to appear on its new television show “Trailblazers.”

The show follows three elite survivalists, all with military backgrounds, as they lead teams of scientists through regions of the world in search of clues and discoveries that could lead to scientific breakthroughs.

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Yfat Yossifor / Standard-Times San Angelo native Austin Osmanski teaches about snakes while holding a bullsnake Thursday, May 19, at Texas Tech University Center at Junction.

One of the missions was to include a trek through the far northwest region of Bolivia to capture a rare black caiman and extract its DNA.

Discovery soon selected Osmanski to be a scientist on the show because of his expertise in reptilian studies as well as his eccentric personality, Osmanski said. Just two weeks later he found himself bound for Bolivia to go hunting for caimans.

Osmanski said the network planned to air six episodes of “Trailblazers,” and three have been shown. The remaining three episode are on hold by the network, he said. The first three episodes are available to view at discoverygo.com/trailblazers.

Osmanski played football at Central High School and graduated from Angelo State University with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology. He said his passion for nature came from his father, a lay naturalist who enjoys bass fishing, hunting and catching lizards in their home garden and is knowledgeable about the tremendous biodiversity of West Texas.

“When I was a kid, we were constantly catching lizards, snakes and turtles,” he said. “Having little pets underneath my bed, Mom would get mad because I had a snake underneath my bed.”

Osmanksi said his mother nonetheless provided the foundation or him to pursue his passion.

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“She was really an enabler, my mother,” Osmanski said. “One time I had this snake underneath my bed in a shoe box and then she came in and she found this snake and she was like, ‘What are you doing?’ And then instead of saying, ‘Don’t ever touch snakes, don’t ever put things underneath your bed in a shoebox,’ she bought me an aquarium so then I could have more snakes.”

Osmanski and a camera crew spent more than two weeks filming 12 hour days in Bolivia in constant rain and humid weather, surrounded by natural dangers of the jungle. The team trekked up-river in a boat for about 20 miles from Rurrenabaque, Bolivia, to a lake called Lago Gringo, where the locals reported seeing massive caimans swimming.

“When we got down there, they turned the cameras on and said, ‘OK you have two weeks to go catch a caiman. Good luck,’ ” Osmanski said, laughing. “I’ve never been to that part of the rainforest before. Talk about a paradise. It really is something special down there.”

Osmanski, alongside two other scientists, ate freeze dried food packets, slept in a hammock and was woken each morning by Howler monkeys

“The first night I woke up in the rainforest in my hammock, these howler monkeys above you just ‘ROARRRR’ and you’re like, ‘What is that?’ ” Osmanski said. “It’s a frightening noise.”

Osmanski said his team eventually found a caiman in the waters of Lago Gringo and was able to capture it using a lasso.

Osmanski said the most memorable part of the journey was sitting around a campfire each night with the other scientists and talking about crocodile biology for hours on end.

“Instead of just going with a film crew along a linear path of a story line, I’d like to go down there and do my own story line,” he said. “What can we learn from this area, spend more time there and see what other discoveries are to make down in Bolivia.”

Osmanski said he lost 10 pounds during the experience because of the amount of work put into filming while being in a rainforest. He said all the money made participating in the show went back to support his research, the crocodile genome project at Texas Tech.

Acquiring his Ph.D. his the most important thing in his life right now, he said, and is paramount to his success.

“To sum it all up, follow what you most like to do, and the money — I guess and all that stuff — would come eventually. But I love catching snakes and I love catching animals, and I’m on the Discovery Channel catching crocodiles and caimans,” Osmanksi said. “Because if you like what you do, you will work hardest at that. And then if you’re the hardest-working person at catching animals, then you will be the world’s expert on catching animals. Everything will fall in place if you just keep trying and you do what you love.”

Find the original story at gosanangelo.com.

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Officials try to reassure Mertzon residents after mayor resigns, operations manager arrested

SAN ANGELO, Texas — It was a packed house inside Mertzon City Hall when the community’s City Council announced the resignation of Mayor Carol Shaw and termination of the city’s operations manager.

About 50 people attended Monday night’s council meeting, and while many came with questions and some voiced their concerns to the five volunteer council members, none directly addressed the elephant in the room.

The hearing was held following a turbulent week in the community of about 800 people that saw the arrest of Clayvorn James Rose, 69, the city’s operations manager, who has been charged with theft of property by a public servant, between $1,500 and $20,000, enhanced, and official oppression.

The Irion County Sheriff’s Office and Texas Rangers arrested Rose last week. A report by the Texas Rangers alleges that Rose spent $2,354 in city funds for personal expenses and made a lewd sexual comment directed at a female city employee. Two complaint reports were filed on March 15 with the Irion County Justice of the Peace Donna Smith’s office. Rose was booked into the Tom Green County Jail March 15 and released the following day on a $25,000 surety bond.

The hearing Monday began with a tense public comments portion, with residents criticizing city council and the council blaming residents.

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“There’s a lot of blame to go around,” said Terry Criner, the mayor pro tem. “Mostly because of innuendos and rumor. This is a small town and things get put out, and I won’t deny there’s not some confusion.”

Council members voted unanimously to suspend Rose from his position with pay to avoid the possibility of a lawsuit against the city, following the legal counsel of James A. Kosub of Eldorado, the city’s attorney.

“A man is innocent until proven guilty and that hasn’t happened yet,” Criner said. “So if we fire him before that process has a chance to go through, then that puts us at a liability for being unjust to him.”

The council’s decision to suspend rose with pay drew some objections from the crowd, who had waited outside for about an hour during the closed executive session to learn of Rose’s fate. One resident asked how long it would be before Rose’s pay is cut off the city payroll. The council said he would remain on the books until such time as the court system finds him either guilty or not guilty.

According to the city secretary, Rose receives a salary of $1,500 every two weeks after taxes. An emergency council meeting was held last Tuesday, at which three council members voted to fire Rose subject to approval by the full council.

Mayor Shaw, who has remained silent about the issue, was a no show during Monday night’s meeting.

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“She gave no reasons,” Criner said. “She just said she appreciated people, and she decided to step down.”

Ciner said he learned of Shaw’s resignation in an email Monday evening.

“It was probably the best thing she could have done for herself and for the city of Mertzon,” said Frances Grice, a Mertzon resident who attended the Monday night meeting. “I think they’re doing a really good job considering what has just happened and taken place, and I’m behind them all they way. We’re going to get through this.”

Those who attended listened avidly to the proceedings. About half of them stood for the two-hour meeting because seating wouldn’t accommodate the crowd.

“The people on the city council who did not have a very good or no idea about the full extent of what is going on” now have a clearer picture to make informed decisions, said Jimmy Wayne Tharp, a council member. “I think eyes are wide open and I think that everyone is aware.”

Criner said the council will accept Shaw’s resignation during the next meeting once it’s placed on the agenda, adding that the council will soon decide who should replace Shaw.

The council also discussed actions to retrieve some city property, such as ammunition and a car, currently in Rose’s possession.

Tharp said the council has changed the locks at city hall and shut off surveillance cameras inside so Rose, who has control over the cameras, could no longer view happenings inside the building.

“This was just dumped on me today, so I’m kind of floundering a little bit in my opinion,” Criner said. “But I will step up to the leadership if that’s what’s asked of me.”

Criner said he appreciated the support of the attendees and their patience and graciousness.

“They want us to get back to the way the old Mertzon was,” Criner said. “Friendly atmosphere, nice small town, great schools and that’s probably going to be our main goal.”

Find the original story at gosanangelo.com.

Precocious local speller drawing national attention, studying hard

SAN ANGELO, Texas — Big things come in small packages, and 6-year-old whiz kid Akash Vukoti is a prime example.

Akash and his family moved to San Angelo from the East Coast in August, and less than 8 months later Akash became the youngest winner of the San Angelo Spelling Bee.

This wordsmith, a homeschooled first-grader, took the first-place trophy March 5, out-spelling 30 older competitors, ranging in age from 8-14.

Akash’s win may have seemed like a curve ball to some in the crowd, because the same two students have fought it out in the final rounds in the past two San Angelo bees.

“I studied very hard, and I won the bee with ‘circumspectly,’ a really easy word,” Akash said with a giggle Wednesday. “If I didn’t study well, I would be probably not going to win at all, because I wouldn’t even know a single word.”

Akash is no stranger to spelling bees, with 12 trophies siting in his home. He has been competing since 2012, when he was 2. The biggest trophy of the bunch is from his latest spelling championship, at almost the same height as Akash.

“Out of all, the most prestigious and the most loved one is from, you guys, the Standard-Times,” said Krishna Vukoti, Akash’s father and an assistant director at Shannon Medical Center Pharmacy. “That means a lot to us and not only for us, but for all the San Angelo kids.”

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The spelling bee was sponsored by the Standard-Times and lasted more than 12 rounds inside the San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts.

Vukoti said the family recognized Akash’s interest in the alphabet when he was a toddler.

An uncle was feeding Akash one evening when Akash was 1 ½ years old, Vukoti said. The uncle told Akash “this is a spoon” and began to spell out the word for him. Akash replicated the spelling. The uncle asked Akash for the spelling of spoon a week later, and Akash was able to correctly reproduce the spelling, Vukoti said.

“S-p-o-o-n, that was the first word he spelled,” Vukoti said. “That was the first time when we observed his interests in spelling, and since then we thought we would encourage him.”

The family began to provide Akash with more alphabet toys, then took him and his older sister, Amrita, 8, who attends Bonham Elementary School, to spelling bees, Vukoti said. He said the family would sometimes drive six hours or fly a few hours to get to the competitions, where “people mostly think he came along with his sister to participate in the spelling bee,” Vukoti said.

Akash will participate in the Scripps National Spelling Bee in May thanks to his win in San Angelo. However, that won’t be the first time he gets to experience the national spotlight. Akash was seleced from several hundred applicants and went through four screening stages to become a guest on the new NBC prime-time show “Little Bit Shots.” The show is a children’s comedy, talent and variety series co-produced and created by Ellen DeGeneres and Steve Harvey, with Harvey serving at the host.

Akash went head-to-head with Harvey in a spelling contest on the show, which will premiere Sunday on NBC. He left Harvey stumped by correctly spelling the word “pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis,” a term referring to a lung disease caused by silica dust.

Akash then appeared as a guest on the “Steve Harvey Show,” which aired Friday.

Akash received his first paycheck from NBC and donated some of his earnings to the Children’s Miracle Network in San Angelo and to Wikipedia, Vukoti said.

“We are very proud to say that,” Vukoti said. “Our goal is not to win the championship or to become rich. But the goal for my kids is to become a good citizen of the country and help themselves, help their family and the community and the country. So that’s what we are looking forward for Akash.”

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Vukoti said he and his wife, Chandrakala, 33, often think about Akash’s achievement overshadowing his older sister. Vukoti said, however, that Amrita played a major role in shaping Akash.

“She always quizzes him. She always encourages him. She has a different talent than Akash,” he said. “I’m sure — me and my wife, we both are sure — that she also will be having a special day in her life soon.”

Akash will be one of the youngest contestants to compete at the national level when he participates in the Scripps bee in Washington. A 6-year-old from Virginia, Lori Anne Madison, also competed at the National Spelling Bee in 2012.

Nonetheless, Akash is eager for the competition.

“I’m waiting for next month because that’s the time when I’m getting ready to start working on this huge dictionary, the Webster, the biggest dictionary in the whole wide USA,” Akash said. “If I win or not win, it’s really based only on how much I studied well.”

Where to watch

See Akash Vukoti’s “Little Big Shots” appearance at 7 p.m. Sunday on NBC or at nbc.com/little-big-shots 

Find the original story at gosanangelo.com.

Abbott:Texas is what America’s supposed to be

SAN ANGELO, Texas – When Gov. Greg Abbott spoke Thursday afternoon in San Angelo, he had a clear message for the crowd of supporters: Texas is leading the way in preserving and protecting conservative principles and priorities, which he said leaders in Washington and on the Supreme Court have failed to do.

“There is a big-time difference between the way they do things in Washington, D.C., and the way we do things right here in the state of Texas,” Abbott said. “America needs Texas now more than ever, and I can tell you at the forefront of that operation is counties like Tom Green County.”

About 200 people battled the heat and each other for standing room to listen to Abbott talk in the packed 333 Restaurant & Saloon. They clapped and cheered loudly throughout the speech, which lasted about 25 minutes.

Abbott discussed immigration, Obamacare, religious liberty in regards to marriage, Planned Parenthood and achievements of this year’s legislative session.

Abbott noted that the session finished with about $10 billion in the state’s Rainy Day Fund and passed legislation to improve veterans’ care and enhance early education.

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He said lawmakers have dedicated more than $4 billion a year for at least 10 years to work on roads in Texas — all without raising taxes, fees, tolls or debt. Almost a billion dollars also was set aside to strengthen the border with Mexico — adding more officers on the ground, planes in the air, boats on the water and several thousand new cameras.

“We are tired in Texas of the federal government not securing our borders,” he said. “So Texas is going to do it ourselves.”

“We have already defunded Planned Parenthood,” Abbott said and paused as the crowd clapped and cheered loudly. “Now we’re undertaking a criminal investigation that may put Planned Parenthood out of business altogether.”

Abbott criticized the Obama administration for his health care law and rejected the Supreme Court’s recent decision supporting same-sex marriage.

“The United States Supreme Court was also wrong and misapplied the United States Constitution in its decision on marriage,” Abbott said. “The United States Supreme Court trampled your religious liberty by issuing that decision, but once again Texas is leading the way because the fight to protect religious liberty is not over despite this United States Supreme Court decision.”

Abbott also applauded Texas for passing an open carry measure, which in three months will allow gun owners with a concealed handgun license to openly carry.

Abbott also boasted that he has sued President Barack Obama 31 times, which he said is more than anyone in historical records has sued a president of the United States.

He concluded the discussion by saying people have proved that conservative leadership principles make Texas even better, and that is what lawmakers abided by this last legislative session.

“We need states like Texas leading the way to fix this country,” Abbott said. “We will keep Texas in the vanguard of the United States and we will change the United States of America to be more like Texas, and we will truly be a blessed nation for eternity.”

The speech ended to an uproar of cheering from the crowd as people began to form a line to meet Abbott.
Some recognized guests in attendance were 51st District Attorney Allison Palmer, Mayor Dwain Morrison, Precinct 1 Commissioner Ralph Hoelscher, Angel State University President Brian May and County Clerk Elizabeth McGill.

Brian Rappe, 61 and an emergency physician, waited in the long line after the speech to greet and take a few photos with Abbott. He said he felt positive, informed and encouraged by Abbott’s speech and looks forward to seeing the governor achieve great things.

“I’m going to talk to him about how Obamacare affects the hospitals. … I work for several hospitals, and I hate to see the small ones close.” Rappe said. “I thought it was very encouraging for him to state basically that Texas should lead the way for the United States because of what we’re doing.”

Find the original story at gosanangelo.com.

Monks pour time, heart into baked goods

CHRISTOVAL, Texas — Tucked in the West Texas countryside and purposefully secluded from the rest of the world, Mount Carmel Hermitage has sat overlooking Christoval for almost 25 years.

The monastery, which was founded by Father Fabian Maria Rosette, began as a humble hut in 1991. Today it has a gift shop, a renovated chapel, several buildings and is home to Father Fabian and several brothers of his Carmelite order — as well as an unexpectedly professional, restaurant-style kitchen,

Inside the kitchen, three monks worked studiously in silence this week, peeling apples and stirring flour with aromatic spices, preparing for their annual bake sale at this weekend’s Christmas at Old Fort Concho.

“It’s a tradition to the early ages for monks to support themselves by the work that they do with their hands, so that’s how we started the bakery,” Brother John David said. “Here we all work for the same pay: Our reward is in heaven. We have great rewards in heaven.”

The sprawling kitchen is filled with professional-grade stainless steel appliances, has its own brick-fired pizza oven and would be well-suited for a restaurant — let alone for a few monks baking bread and making jam and jellies several months out of the year. The kitchen cost an estimated $250,000, donated by a woman from Christoval, Father Fabian said.

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Credit: Kimberley Meyer Brother John David slides rolls of baked biscotti onto cooling racks in 2012 at the Mount Carmel Hermitage in Christoval. In addition to their regular daily prayer commitments, the monks spend much of their time preparing baked goods to sell at Christmas at Old Fort Concho and elsewhere to support the hermitage.

The hermits wake up about 3 a.m. every day and during the holiday season spend much of their day in the kitchen, baking sweets to sell in their gift shop, at local events and online.

“We feel as though this is becoming our income for our budget throughout the year,” said Brother David, who shadows the younger monks during the baking process. “All our products are so good that they just sell by themselves.”

Brother David said one of the first baked goods the monks sold was an apple walnut bread whose recipe was given to Father Fabian by some nuns. Their most popular bread, however, is the pumpkin pecan. Brother David said even though he gives out the recipe for it, people want the bread to come from the hermitage because it is blessed.

“The recipe is right there, but people say, ‘We want y’all to do it,’ ” Brother David said, chuckling loudly.

The hermits try to cook up something new each year to expand their products, and this year they have a pomegranate jelly, Brother David said. He said he also tries to follow trends, catering to people’s interests.

“Everybody likes it hot with heat,” Brother David said. “So we started doing a habanero apricot jam. Everybody loves it. And we also have jalapeño honey, and people are going crazy with that.”

Profits generated through sales are divided across 12 months to cover bills, unexpected expenses and sometimes construction.

The money might help Father Fabian get closer to his current goal: building a church in the center of the hermitage, where there is now just open space.

In the hermitage’s humble beginnings, Father Fabian built the original hut with just the help of Brother David.

“He talked about having a house of prayers,” Brother David said. “I didn’t know much about what he was talking about because this was foreign to me. But since I was a good friend of his, I would come out and help him because I used to be a carpenter.”

Three years later, Brother David, 55, said he liked the lifestyle at the hermitage so much he left modernity and joined the sanctuary permanently.

Father Fabian said after serving as a priest for 10 years, he felt a calling to create a place of worship.

“I really wanted to go into the desert and be alone with God,” he said.

Creating the hermitage was his dream, but it was not easy for him to build it, Father Fabian said. He faced misunderstandings and persecution and struggled to make it the way it is today, he said.

“I can die today, I am happy,” Father Fabian said. “This is my dream come true. I can die at peace and say at least I did what I was called to do.

“Everything else is in the hands of God.”

Find the original story at gosanangelo.com.

Guns falling into the wrong hands

SAN ANGELO, Texas — While the rights of legitimate gun owners have dominated a long and noisy public debate across the country, little attention has been paid to the trade in illegal firearms.

In San Angelo, the black market in guns has become an acute public safety problem.

From 2013 through 2015, reports of stolen guns to the San Angelo Police Department have increased by 63 percent, according to data provided by the department. During 2013, 89 firearms were reported stolen; in 2015, the number rose to 145.

Only a fraction of those guns are recovered.

Illegally owned and stolen guns play a dark role in robberies, homicides, wounding and domestic violence, among other crimes, judicial and law enforcement records show. Local officials said pistols, rifles and shotguns are regular features of stolen property reports.

Seizures of firearms are also a common occurrence during drug busts, taken by police on the assumption that they were either stolen or purchased with the proceeds of criminal activities, San Angelo Police Chief Tim Vasquez said.

No one knows for certain how many stolen and illegally owned firearms there are in San Angelo. One thing is nearly certain: Guns are relatively easy to buy for people who aren’t supposed to have them, and the number of illegally owned firearms in San Angelo is growing.

A common and pervasive thread

Examples of stolen firearms used in crime or gun theft as an element of violent crime are not difficult to find, even in a casual look over the past few months in San Angelo.

A suspect, George Simmons, 37, was arrested on a charge of murder in November in connection with the death by strangulation of 23-year-old Brian Plunkett, who was killed in 2010. Prosecutors say the theft of several guns Plunkett had was part of the motive in his murder.

Kenneth W. Acy, 26, opened fire with a handgun on a group of people who stumbled upon him as he burglarized a vehicle near Etihicon in September 2014. A jury found Acy guilty of two counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and one count of unlawful possession of a firearm by felon and sentenced him to 40 years in prison in August 2015.

Jason Rowden, 29, is accused of shooting up the Econo Lodge at 415 W. Beauregard Ave. in November with a semi-automatic .45-caliber handgun. Police report they found drugs in his vehicle, and he was charged with unlawful carry of a firearm. No one was injured.

Most recently, a 14-year-old boy from Carlsbad was shot in the mouth on Jan. 8, allegedly by an older teen with a stolen handgun, according to a offense report from the Tom Green County Sheriff’s Office. The suspect teen was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, although an incident report says the teen claims it was an accidental discharge.

In October, a man with a felony conviction background was accused of shooting up a room at the Comfort Inn and Suites, causing an evacuation of the hotel. No one was injured, and Mateo Reymundo Flores, 47, was charged with deadly conduct and being a felon in possession of a firearm.

These are just a few examples from the steady parade of charges seen by the district attorneys in Tom Green County involving the theft of guns and the use of illegal guns in criminal acts.

Jail and court records show almost daily charges of illegally possessed firearms and gun-related crimes in San Angelo. At the start of the year, about 31 out of about 767 pending cases in the 51st District involved firearms — 13 unlawful possession of firearms by felon, 11 aggravated assault with firearms, five firearm thefts and two murders with firearms — according to data from the 51st District’s Attorney’s Office.

Charges involving a firearm are nearly always secondary to a primary charge, such as homicide, robbery or assault. Under Texas law, unlawful possession of a firearm by felon is a third-degree felony punishable by two to 10 years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine.

“Sometimes we are limited to that 10 years, but we do take it seriously,” said 51st District Attorney Allison Palmer. “Two to 10 is kind of a narrow punishment range in our view because, for example, a first-degree felony punishment range is anywhere from five years up to 99 or life.”

Palmer said prosecutors are sometimes limited, but depending on a felon’s record the DA’s Office always seeks a harsher penalty on the primary charge by using the firearms charge as an enhancing factor.

“Say we have options of charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon or unlawful possession of firearm by felon,” Palmer said. “For one thing, aggravated assault is a second-degree felony. Your punishment range is already broader.

“So we’ll always go that route. We’ll always seek the deadly weapon finding. I’ve even sought deadly weapon findings on drug possession cases.”

Drugs and guns are often found in company with one another, she said.

“And what we’re saying there is someone’s using that firearm to facilitate their business of drug dealing, essentially,” she said. “As far as illicit transfer of firearms, we really struggle with that in the community. And it is a big problem in my mind.”

The root problem of violent crimes, theft, guns and gangs is drugs, Palmer said, and drug crimes are by and large the county’s most prevalent crimes. Of the 767 active cases the office was managing at the beginning of January, about 150 involved drugs.

Statistically speaking, that is an enormous number, Palmer said. The drug business is the primary motivator that drives the theft business, which includes firearm theft, Palmer said.

“It’s a very unsavory group that these firearms fall into the hands of, and the original thieves may not be the worst in the world, but they are looking for money,” Palmer said. “They are looking for drugs, and so they are going to trade them (the stolen guns) into the hands of the worst.”

A portion of the drug trade locally is gang driven, the illegal firearms trade is also gang driven, and the two worlds do very much collide, Palmer said.

Stolen firearms, like drugs, can quickly become untraceable by being moved through a gang network, and that is another hurdle prosecutors face in trying to recover evidence, Palmer said. A firearm used in a crime can quickly vanish into an underground network, and where the gun goes from there is anybody’s guess, Palmer said.

“Those firearms then just kind of disappear in this network,” she said. “Firearms are used to commit the murders and then they disappear. We can’t recover the firearms, and often it’s through a gang network. Gang networks move very quickly to move firearms around and make them inaccessible to the police.”

Palmer estimated that her office has dealt with about 40 cases in the past two years that have involved illegal possession of guns, and in about 75 percent of them the firearms charge contributed to an enhanced penalty.

Into the vault, or into the dark

Most stolen guns vanish into the darkness of the firearms black market. Vasquez, the San Angelo police chief, said his department recovered 11 stolen guns in 2013, six in 2014 and 11 again in 2015 through the beginning of December.

Those that are recovered, along with any firearms being held as evidence in a crime, wind up in a secure vault at an obscure end of the fluorescent-lit rabbit warren of corridors in the depths of the San Angelo police station.

The evidence locker contains decades worth of confiscated firearms. Wooden racks line the concrete walls about waist high, stacked with labeled cardboard boxes containing individual pistols. An array of tagged rifles and shotguns are displayed around the small storage room, set upright and leaning against the wall. As of December, about 452 firearms were housed at the police station — about 323 handguns and 110 long guns, the remainder being toy guns or BB guns, according to SAPD.

Most of the firearms were involved in criminal activities and are being kept as evidence in pending trials. Some have been held for more than 30 years, subject to evidence requirements connected to homicides, the cases for which might someday be appealed, Vasquez said.

“When we’ve made gun recoveries, it’s usually been because we cleared a burglary investigation,” he said. “We were able to tie it to a particular person, and we caught that person before they were able to dispose of the evidence of the stolen property.”

Firearms also are found in traffic stops, Vasquez said. For example, a patrol office finds drugs during a traffic stop, does a search of the vehicle and finds a gun in the process.

Law enforcement officials do not know how many illegally owned firearms there are in the city.

“I couldn’t give you an exact number because we may take a report 15 years ago of a stolen gun and it’s still out there,” Vasquez said. “I can tell you that throughout my years that we see stolen guns a lot. I mean regularly, weekly. Weekly we see guns stolen.”

The first thing investigators do when they confiscate a firearm is find out whether it was stolen, Vasquez said, and for that the SAPD relies heavily on the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives database. The ATF regulates the sale, licensing, possession and transportation of firearms, among numerous other tasks. SAPD works with and depends greatly on the ATF’s resources in almost all gun-related matters because the department does not have a specialized unit that focuses on getting illegally owned guns off the street, Vasquez said.

“Auto, burglary, residential burglary. We’re in West Texas, so lots of people carry guns in their car,” Vasquez said. “Car gets broken into, the gun gets stolen, and next thing you know, it ends up in somebody’s hands.”

It’s a problem bigger than San Angelo, he said.

“I can tell you that every community, just about every community, at least one our size, has people that will buy stolen weapons,” Vasquez said. “That’s been around forever. They’re accessible. Firearms are easy to find if you know the right people.”

Vasquez said drug dealers are a portion of those “right people” because police often find firearms during a drug bust.

“People in the drug market want to do things to protect themselves, and so they are the ones who have guns,” Vasquez said.

Firearms collected by SAPD remain in storage until a judge issues a deposition. SAPD then releases the guns back to their legal owners, destroys, reuses or sells the firearms to a law enforcement distributor such as GT Distributors, Vasquez said.

Police confiscated 100 firearms over the past three years — 72 involved in unlawful carry or crimes and 28 determined to be stolen, he said, adding that his department has made and no seizures of legally held weapons that were not involved in a crime. .

The disposal of illegal guns actually helps the department. Vasquez said selling the weapons through a specialized auction site used by law enforcement agencies generated $11,500 in revenues for the department in 2015. The department sold 73 handguns and 47 long-barrel firearms accumulated over three years. During 2015 another 76 handguns and long-barrel firearms were destroyed.

Good guys, bad guys

Buying a gun legally in Texas is a pretty simple matter.

“If you’re legally allowed to possess a firearm, we go over there and we do the paperwork,” said Will Higgins, a licensed gun dealer at Outdoorsman. “I could probably have you in and out of here in 20 to 30 minutes.”

A few states, such as California, New York and Hawaii, require individual handguns to be registered with the police or another law enforcement agency, but gun buyers in Texas, like most states, are not required to register their firearms.

People who buy their guns from dealers are required to fill out the ATF Form 4473, which includes personal information and a checklist of questions, asking whether the buyer is under indictment or a fugitive of the law, a drug addict or has been adjudicated as mentally defective, among other things.

Once the form is complete, the licensed dealer runs the purchaser’s information through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, the FBI’s system for determining if a prospective firearms buyer is eligible.

People often assume that the firearms they purchase are registered when they undergo the NICS background check, but no such gun registry exists in Texas, said Daryl Presley, a licensed firearms dealer at Outdoorsman.

“I think the idea of registration for most people is that somewhere the government has a list of what guns I own, that my gun is registered under my name titled like a car,” Presley said. “And we regularly have somebody call us up and say, ‘I want to sell my gun to a friend’ or ‘How do I get it out of my name into his?’ Well, it’s not in your name.”

In actuality, when an NICS check is performed, “what they do is they check your name and your information and they compare it to a list that they have of bad guys … known criminals,” Higgins said.

“If anything about your name is even remotely resembles somebody on that list, they can do what they call a delay or a hold.”

The FBI has three business days to approve or deny the transfer. If the dealer has not received a decision from the FBI within that time, the sale can go ahead.

More than 100 million such checks have been made in the past decade of which 700,000 resulted in denials, according to the FBI.

“A felony conviction alone in itself is going to prohibit you from ever owning a firearm,” Higgins said. “So that’s one good thing that they have set up is that if you come in here and try to, let’s say, buy a firearm for a guy out in the parking lot — you know, a straw purchase — what they’re going to do is that in itself prohibits you from ever owning a firearm again if you get caught.”

A straw purchase is a criminal act in which a person who is prohibited from buying firearms uses another person to buy a gun.

“Let’s say, for example, that I’m a bad guy and I say, ‘Hey look I would like to pay you $500 for you to purchase that $200 pistol in there for me,’ ” Higgins said. “So if you go do that, you give me the firearm, and I give you an extra $300 dollars. Even though you’re little miss innocent — ‘I just needed some extra money.’ — you’re a felon now.”

When the gun sale takes place between two individuals, the legalities are not so precise.

In Texas, the law does not require a NICS background check or any form of paperwork in the private sale or trading of firearms from one person to another.

“The law has now put into the sellers’ hands of whether they get to make the decision, basically,” Higgins said. “Now, what is my duty is to ensure to the best of my abilities, to the best of my knowledge, that (the buyer) is not prohibited from owning a firearm. I can say, ‘Are you prohibited from owning a firearm or anything like that?’ So he can lie.”

Despite these requirements, prosecution of people who sell guns illegally is rare.

Palmer, the district attorney, said she cannot recall any instance of her office receiving for prosecution any cases involving the illegal sales of firearms from investigating agencies.

Such cases nationwide are rare. A recent case in Chicago is the exception — a judge sentenced a man there to nearly 17 years in prison for bringing firearms from Indiana, which has gun laws similar to those in Texas, into Chicago, which has more restrictive laws, and selling them to street dealers there.

Addressing the problem

The city’s DA and police chief agree that stiffer penalties, not increased controls, are part the solution as a deterrent to keep crooks separated from firearms.

“When we look at gun control, the direction that I always stand on is that bad guys will always find guns, and so we need to be sure that the good guys have them,” Vasquez said. “But the bad guys will always find guns whether they have a permit or license or any of that kind of stuff. They’re going to find guns.

“How do we deter criminals from owning those guns? I think you put a mandatory sentence on them.”

Vasquez said if the law set a 25-year mandatory sentence for felons in possession of firearms, regardless of whether a violent or nonviolent felony crime was involved, that might make them think twice about trying to obtain a firearm.

“If they know, ‘I get caught with a gun in violation with the law, that’s 25-year minimum sentence,’ a lot of these criminals that the officers are having to deal with all over the country won’t be in possession of a firearm,” he said.

“Gang and drugs seem to me to be driving the illicit firearm business in town,” Palmer said. “I think that as far as being able to recover firearms once they are within those networks, that becomes very difficult to penetrate to the core where those firearms are,” Palmer said. “I think it’s just very, very difficult. It’s a very secretive system.”

Legitimate gun owners also have a responsibility, Palmer and Vasquez noted.

Gun owners are issued a bill of sale when they make the purchase, Vasquez said, and it is helpful to authorities when those documents are available when a gun theft is reported. Among other things, it generally includes the serial number and other information about the firearm.

For sellers, “the smartest thing you can do is say, ‘Would you mind signing a bill of sale?’ ” Higgins said “Every time you sell one, ‘Would you mind signing a bill of sale?’ Now if you have somebody that goes, ‘Yeah, I really don’t want to sign a bill of sale,’ that’s your first warning.”

Palmer said security of firearms is another matter gun owners should take seriously.

“I would not want firearms to be taken out of the hands of good citizens,” Palmer said. “I think it’s more of a public safety announcement, awareness thing: Keep your firearms safe. Keep them locked up.”

ILLEGAL FIREARMS, by the numbers:

Firearm thefts reported to the San Angelo Police Department:

2013 — 89

2014 — 103

2015 — 145

Firearm seizures:

2013 — 19 seized, 11 stolen guns recovered

2014 — 27 seized, 6 stolen guns recovered

2015 — 26 seized, 11 stolen guns recovered

Guns being held in evidence by the SAPD: 452

Longest-stored weapons: More than 30 years

Disposal of seized firearms, 2015:

Hand guns and long barrel firearms destroyed — 76

Hand guns auctioned — 73

Long barreled firearms auctioned — 47

Revenue from auctioned guns — $11,500

Find the original story at gosanangelo.com .

Tom Green suicide rate exceeds Texas average, year after year

SAN ANGELO, Texas — Jana Anderson, 63, recalls pulling weeds on her yard one afternoon when an unmarked green car pulled up in the driveway. Two men stepped out and approached her nervously.

A police detective and a justice of the peace asked to speak with her husband before the three went inside the house and sat in the living room where Mr. Anderson had just woke from a nap.

“They looked at my husband, and they talked to my husband the entire time and never looked at me,” Anderson said, her eyes welling up with tears as she remembered the scene. “They knew I was the mother and I would probably get hysterical.”

The authorities had come to tell the Andersons that their 22-year-old son, Christopher Anderson, had committed suicide in his apartment.

Suicide occurs at the crossroads of important medical and social shortcomings — overstressed mental health resources, cultural stigmas against seeking help, inadequate understanding about why people choose to take their own lives and the prohibitive cost of medication. Although the suicide rate in Tom Green County has declined somewhat since the 1990s, it remains persistently 40 to 50 percent above the state and national averages.

In the 12 years since 2003, more than 160 people in the county have killed themselves, nearly all leaving behind grieving families like the Andersons who wonder why their loved ones chose to deliberately end their lives.

“The night that he died, he just left the house and said, ‘I’m going to go out with some friends for a little bit. I’ll be home tomorrow,’ ” Jana Anderson recalled, her voice quivering as she wiped away tears.

“He went home to his apartment. He had a rifle that my husband had lent him to go hunting, and he shot himself with that rifle.”

The reasons why Christopher committed suicide 14 years ago remain incomprehensible to this day to his parents.

“I’m not sure why he got to the point where he couldn’t take it anymore,” Jana said. “Christopher always felt like he wasn’t good enough, and he did express to me sometimes about things like that, but I never thought that it was that bad.”

Christopher was a student at Angelo State University and an only child who Jana said was a popular personal trainer with an effervescent personality. There were no indications that he was suffering internally, nor where there warnings that he had planned to kill himself, she said.

“I can see that I might miss it (the signs), but everybody else could not have missed it,” she said. “If it had been obvious that he was really depressed somebody would have seen it. But nobody did.”

Data from the Texas Department of State Health Services, Center for Health Statistics shows the average suicide rate in Texas in 2012 was 11.1 people per 100,000 population; Tom Green County, with its population of slightly more than 100,000, has averaged about 15 deaths a year in the last decade.

The highest recorded suicide rates in the county were recorded in the 1990s, a trend so alarming it prompted suicide awareness campaigns and the establishment of a mental health deputies program with the county sheriff’s office. That attention toward mental health awareness could have contributed to lowering the suicide rate temporarily, and the county fell below the state average in 1999.

Community attention toward suicide awareness has subsided since then, but the county remains above the state average each year, said Dusty McCoy, executive director of West Texas Counseling & Guidance.

Pinpointing the reasons is a problem because the local research and data are insufficient, McCoy said.

“We don’t know (why),” he said. “I don’t think there is a silver bullet that we can identify here.”

“I think the main goal is figuring out why these people are falling through the cracks, where does our focus need to be, and what is exactly going on with these suicide rates,” McCoy said.

The ‘bootstrap’ mentality

Experts say although suicide cannot be predicted or prevented with certainty, many suicides are the result of undiagnosed or untreated chronic depression, often masked or worsened by alcohol or drug abuse that victims resort to as a means of self-medication.

Anhedonia — a psychological condition characterized by an individual’s inability to experience pleasure with everyday activities that most people would enjoy — may be a contributing condition in some cases.

People in West Texas might have a particular aversion to seeking treatment for depression. The prevailing culture fosters a “bootstrap” mentality that has been passed down for generations, McCoy said. It’s “having the belief that you’re weak if you seek help, and it’s a sign of weakness to come see somebody and talk to somebody about your problems.”

That stigma prevents people from pursuing counseling and thus perpetually allows depression to fester, culminating in suicide, McCoy said.

“The last thing we want to do is label it crazy. People can ultimately tell that they’re not where they want to be,” he said. “When we start to look at why people are committing suicide, those labels that ‘I’m weak, I’m crazy’ is probably one reason why our suicide rate is so high.”

Those suffering from depression and addiction are likely to end up in jails, prisons or homeless shelters instead of hospitals where treatment is available. Even when they seek treatment, community mental health centers can be overwhelmed with the demand for adequate or long-term care. People without medical insurance have additional obstacles to overcome in seeking access to treatment or medication.

Resources on the street

Sgt. Quentin Williams, of the Tom Green County Sheriff’s Office’s mental health unit, said call volumes have skyrocketed for his unit. Williams and five other deputies respond to emergency calls specifically related to people who are suicidal or deemed mentally unstable.

The unit receives calls, for instance, when people make suicide threats, claim to hear voices or go into crisis without their medication.

“I actually believe (it’s because) people can’t afford their medication. They’re expensive,” Williams said. “And some people will tell you, when it comes to paying rent or getting medication, they’ll say, ‘I want to pay my rent.’ ”

The mental health deputies are dispatched to the scene of the crisis and take people wherever they need to go to get immediate assistance, Williams said. The purpose of the mental health unit is to help divert people in mental distress from jail and toward medical treatment.

“Some people are ashamed. They’re not going to sit there and give you much,” he said. “The only thing we can do is give them the resources to help them get assistance with their medication.”

Williams said there are not enough hospital beds in the city to accommodate patients at the behavioral units. People are taken primarily to Shannon Medical Center or River Crest Hospital, or, if care is not available at those facilities, to other local medical facilities or places where help is available — as far away as El Paso.

Keith Muncey, another mental health deputy, sees many of the same faces time and again on his calls. People ultimately return to the same environment that provokes a crisis, whether it be financial or emotional, Muncey said.

“Most of this stuff is short-term,” he said. “It’s (treatment) only short term. That’s why we turn back around and pick them up again and provide that short-term care again and back to where we were originally.”

MHMR Services of the Concho Valley, an agency that includes a medical group practice specialized in outpatient psychiatry care and contracted by the state, pays for a three- or 10-day contract treatment plan with the hospitals and provides medication alternatives for impoverished people who don’t have medical insurance, said executive director Gregory Rowe.

The agency’s primary mission is to assist in early detection and intervention for people in mental distress and help with jail diversion for those who run into trouble with the law, Rowe said. MHMR tries to reach and work with children and adults through education and counseling as a preventive measure before people cross the Rubicon and consider suicide, he said.

“It could be lots of behavioral or psychiatric issues, and of course those kinds of things can lead toward suicide,” he said. “It can lead toward hurting others, so what we’re trying to do is work with those individuals and try to address and prevent those things from escalating.”

The demand for those services is high. The screening process and psychiatric evaluation for its clients can take weeks, and MHMR is the only agency that offers extensive mental health services to the indigent population in the seven counties around San Angelo.

The puzzle of self-destruction

How can the community, and particularly the medical community, treat suicidal minds as a preventive measure?

American psychiatry is facing a quandary in that challenge, said Dr. Glen McFerren, medical director of the psychiatric unit at Shannon Behavioral Health, who has been practicing psychiatry for 33 years.

“The problem is, it’s one of these things where there’s grossly inadequate funding to try to get the kind of treatment that they need,” he said. “There’s the legal aspect of it, makes it exceedingly difficult to do what we (doctors) need to do.”

McFerren said psychiatry also falls short in this challenge, and the process remains more art than science.

“If you get checked in with pneumonia, I give you a chest X-ray (and) you’re ready to go,” he said. But “I can’t draw blood that says if you’re suicidal. I can’t do an X-ray that tells me if you’re depressed. All I know is what you’re telling me.”

McFerren said a sizable number of people in San Angelo who have no prior history of psychiatric disorders or treatment may still be in some social, situational rut that drives them to the brink of despair. Deciding an appropriate level of care for people in this gray sphere is problematic.

“That’s a real difficult population to address. The tendency is to get them on the right medicine. But it’s not a medicine issue,” he said. “Antidepressants don’t work when you’re giving it to people who don’t have a chemical imbalance. This is situational. This is not psychiatric.”

For some people, medicinal treatment is impotent because people become overmedicated with psychotropic drugs they essentially did not need in the first place, he said.

“Pretty soon, they become what I call lost in the medicine, where you don’t know anymore if what you’re seeing is something the medicine is supposed to treat or is it being caused by the medicine,” he said.

That illustrates the risks and benefits because every medication prescribed is a double-edged sword, he said, and meanwhile, attention and resources are drawn away from individuals with significant, demonstrable psychiatric illnesses. The system is inefficient and ineffective for many, he said — treatment does not end when people are stabilized, yet insurance companies can deny service as long as patients are no longer actively suicidal or homicidal, even if they are delusional, hear voices or see things.

Physicians do not have legal authority to hospitalize or ameliorate a person’s treatment without consent, McFerren said.

“I can’t give people medicine if they say no. I can’t treat them. I have to go through another court hearing to give meds, and that’s another process,” he said. “The laws are such that we can’t. Medicaid denies (them), … (but they’re) not ready to go.”

McFerren said it leads to sad and frustrating experiences for the physician.

“My feeling is it is a completely broken system. It’s just completely broken. And the people who want to pass legislation, designate how you’re going to do it, don’t have the slightest clue what’s going on,” he said. “You wouldn’t think it would be that hard to recognize (and) to make resources available to treat people with mental illness. … It’s just not that easy.”

Red flags and cries for help

Learning to recognize the warning signs and immediately treat the underlying causes is the most effective way to prevent suicide.

When it comes to deciphering whether someone is suffering or contemplating suicide, McFerren said, “to me 80 percent of this is common sense.” It can help to look for cries for help or changes in behavior when it comes to activities that would normally be pleasant, McFerren said.

People today often take to social media to make fatalistic statements just before leaping into the breach.

Additionally, asking someone who appears to be depressed, “Do you feel depressed?” usually elicits a yes or no response, McFerren said. However, people often are unwilling to overstep personal boundaries, more afraid of offending people than addressing a concern.

“People need to just get over that hurdle. Don’t be afraid to ask. You’re not going to give them any ideas,” he said. “The worst thing that can happen is that people say ‘no.’ ”

It is important to understand that depression is a feeling that some people have always had and believe it will never go away, he said.

For those who have nothing to look forward to and feel hopeless every day, said McFerren, death is perceived as a relief.

Paradoxically, people with depression are in the most danger when they start to feel better again, McFerren said. Those who were too depressed to get out of bed but begin to regain spirit and become active again also may regain the energy to hurt themselves, he said.

Although indicators and signs typically exist, ultimately there is nothing someone who is suicidal cannot hide.

For Jana Anderson, the confusion and pain from her son’s suicide linger.

“A lot of things kind of just happen. … I didn’t want it to be true. It was just incomprehensible to me and sometimes it still is. But it also makes me very aware of other situations,” she said.

She cannot find closure because she can only guess at the reasons Christopher killed himself.

“There are lots of things that I regret. I guess it’s the same thing with anybody you lose. You wish you told them more often that you loved them,” she said. “You wish you had taken it more seriously when they were upset about something. You regret everything. And it never goes away.”

Find the original story at reporternews.com.