Friday-night football in San Angelo

SAN ANGELO, Texas — Where high school football is the bread and butter of a town, take a look at how San Angelo residents treat one of their biggest games of the year.

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Tom Green County prosecutors recap 2017: ‘Justice will happen’

SAN ANGELO, Texas — The Tom Green County District Attorney’s Offices faced many trials and tribulations in 2017.

Three teens were sent to prison for a double homicide. A judge postponed the trial of a capital murder suspect for the fifth time. And two late indictments — one of which led to the release of a man who was being held on $1 million bail — made residents question the judicial process.

“There were a lot of frustrations this year,” 51st District Attorney Allison Palmer said. “We did resolve some major crimes. That’s always good, but there were some very frustrating setbacks as well.”

Palmer has said the primary duty of the district attorney is to seek justice and resolution rather than mere convictions.

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Texas Ranger Nick Hanna chats with District Attorney Allison Palmer in her office Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017, at the Tom Green County Courthouse Annex. (Photo: Yfat Yossifor, San Angelo Standard

That position was tested when a dramatic scene unfolded on the steps of the Tom Green County Courthouse following a capital murder plea hearing in May.

Fred Angel Garcia, 19, had pleaded guilty to two counts of murder as part of a plea agreement with state prosecutors and was sentenced to 35 years in prison.

Garcia was among seven individuals, some juveniles, who were arrested on charges of capital murder in the 2016 shooting deaths of Juan Julio Guerrero, 18, and Zane Lopez, 16.

Guerrero’s mother, Maribel Guerrero, decried the sentence, telling Palmer and 340th District Judge Jay Weatherby the punishment wasn’t enough for the two lives lost.

Tension simmered inside the courtroom, packed with about 50 people, including almost a dozen law enforcement officials. The hostility boiled over outside the courthouse as some family members got into a violent shouting and shoving match, which forced security to disperse the crowd and escort prosecutors to their offices.

“There may be situations where the family disagrees, but we have to make an assessment of the strength of our case based on all the evidence and make the best decision we can,” said 119th District Attorney John Best. “Ultimately it’s our decision.”

The American Civil Liberties Union has called elected prosecutors the single most powerful and influential people in local criminal justice systems. The ACLU argues prosecutors unilaterally decide who gets a second chance and who goes to prison and for how long before a judge even sees the case.

Palmer has said these decisions are based on many factors — largely evidence — and are not driven by emotions. She said prosecutors are unremittingly cognizant of the voices of all parties involved — from police to the families — the community standard and what can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt in the courtroom.

“While I appreciate the public being critical of us” on the outcome of any particular case, Palmer said. “The details of our work, the information, don’t get released to the public. They just don’t often get to see the whole story.”

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District Attorney Allison Palmer works in her office Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017, at the Tom Green County Courthouse Annex. (Photo: Yfat Yossifor, San Angelo Standard-Times)

Best said it’s challenging to provide the public with the full story because prosecutors are not allowed to comment on the case before it goes to trial, and they sometimes won’t even after the case is resolved out of respect for the families involved.

“I’m not going to broadcast that information, especially before a plea or even after a plea,” Best said. “I don’t think that would be doing justice to our victims to be talking about those kinds of conversations in the media.”

Best said prosecutors work closely with the families involved to walk them through the process as best they can to seek justice, and sometimes that might mean the case gets resolved through a plea bargain.

“It may be a resolution that the community doesn’t understand or doesn’t approve of, but we have to do the best we can with what we got,” Best said. “Many times the community isn’t aware of all the dynamics associated with any particular case and what’s going on behind the scenes.”

Eric Ramos and Giliberto Salvador Reyes, both 19, were accused in the same 2016 shooting deaths as Garcia, and they pleaded guilty as well. Each was sentenced 30 years in prison. All three pleaded guilty to two counts of murder instead of capital murder as part of the plea agreement.

“I listen to all of the victims’ families and factor it in,” Palmer said, adding that the families have the most influence on her judgement, but ultimately “the main purpose is to seek justice.”

Two juveniles — Nicholas Abel Rodriguez and Neo Kristofer Perez, both 17 — will be tried as adults in the 2016 homicides. Another suspect, 16, remains in custody at the local juvenile detention center. San Angelo police did not charge the remaining juvenile suspect.

Trial delays

Another hurdle prosecutors witnessed this year involved trial schedules.

“Some of the frustrations have been with trial delays that we really wanted to take to trial this year,” Palmer said. “I don’t believe I could have done anything differently to make them go. It’s just as frustrating.”

One bookmarked case involves a San Angelo man who was supposed to stand trial this summer in the September 2014 slaying of his ex-girlfriend’s 5-year-old daughter, Naiya Villegas.

First responders found the girl, whose throat had been cut, lying on the living room floor while the suspect reportedly held paper towels against her neck. She later died at Shannon Medical Center.

San Angelo police arrested Isidro Miguel Delacruz, 27, and charged him with capital murder. He has been held at the Tom Green County Jail on $1 million bail since the day of the incident

Delacruz’s trial had been slated to begin in July, with some 400 San Angelo residents set to appear at the McNease Convention Center for jury duty.

119th District Judge Ben Woodward granted a fifth continuance in the case because of some last-minute disclosures of evidence by the Tom Green County Jail and the San Angelo Police Department.

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John Best, 119th District Attorney, talks to his staff Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2017, at Tom Green County Courthouse Annex. (Photo: Yfat Yossifor, San Angelo Standard-Times)

Some of the materials were turned over just days before Delacruz’s trial date, which Woodward ruled at the 11th hour warranted a continuance in the case.

“When those unexpected but unavoidable setbacks occur, it’s easy to get down,” Palmer said, adding she had to refocus, recenter and move forward. “Maybe what all it means is in the long run there is no appellate error, so maybe there’s even a bright side to it.”

Delacruz’s court-appointed attorney, Robert R. Cowie, of the Regional Public Defender for Capital Cases, requested the continuances.

“You do everything in your power to make sure there can be no further setbacks and frustration. There are things beyond our control, and that is what resulted in some setbacks this year,” Palmer said. “That is very frustrating to deal with, but you just have to refocus and remember that your whole purpose is to seek justice, and justice is patient. And justice will happen.”

Palmer said the DA’s offices went digital in 2014, which changed the game by making filing evidence electronic.

She said the DA’s offices have two employees dedicated solely to gathering material from law enforcement agencies and converting such evidence into a format that’s usable in court.

Palmer said the second position opened this year alone and this type of proactive work has paid dividends by allowing prosecutors more time to focus on the less technical side of their roles and hopefully prevent delays like those in Delacruz’s case.

Delacruz is scheduled to stand trial beginning Jan. 11. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. Palmer said she has been ready to take the case to trial.

Sixteen people — including four juveniles — have been arrested on charges of capital murder in San Angelo since Delacruz’s case. There were no arrests on capital murder charges in 2017.

Late indictments

Two noteworthy indictments that were turned in late this year drew raised eyebrows from some residents toward the DA’s offices.

In one case, a San Angelo man who was held on a $1 million bond on suspicion of aggravated kidnapping and sexual abuse was released because prosecutors failed to file an indictment within 90 days of his arrest.

Alegandro Herman Fevala Jr., 35, was placed on electronic monitoring and ordered to abide by conditions set by the probation office July 17.

Court documents said a 17-year-old girl was reportedly tricked through Facebook in March, forced into a man’s vehicle and driven to a residence in the 1300 block of North Jefferson Street, where the man abused, assaulted, drugged and raped the teen until she escaped in the morning.

Police arrested Fevala after staking out the home the teen came from after the incident.

Because no indictment had been filed by the 90-day mark of his detainment, Texas law mandated Fevala was either entitled to release on a personal bond set by a judge or that the bond be reduced to an amount that he could post .

Prosecutor Jason Ferguson had said he couldn’t indict Fevala because the District Attorney’s Offices didn’t receive a complete investigation report from SAPD in time.

SAPD had said “there is no way to put a timeline on investigations, as they are all inherently different. Some conclude in a day and some go on for years.”

In the same month, a Brady man accused in the slaying of his wife, who disappeared 12 years earlier, was almost released under house arrest also because of a late indictment.

The Sheriff’s Office arrested and charged Robert Lamar Miller, 45, with murder following a break in a December 2005 cold-case investigation in March.

A search-and-rescue dog discovered the body of Naomi Miller, 32 — who was married to Robert Miller when she disappeared — just north of San Angelo’s city limits.

“I just didn’t have an opportunity to (file an indictment) within 90 days,” Best said.

“Fortunately he stayed in jail” because Miller ended up breaking the terms of his release by communicating with his codefendent while he was awaiting release.

“That all worked out. But we do try to make sure we bring cases within 90 days when we need to,” Best said. “We don’t start at Day 1. We really start when the investigation is turned over to our office and we have an opportunity to start reviewing all the evidence.”

Best said some setbacks prosecutors faced this year stems from not having enough staffing to meet the workload.

“I think the biggest challenge is trying to match workload with needed resources and trying to find that right balance for the office and the community,” Best said.  “Ideally each prosecutors would have smaller caseloads so that they could give as much attention as possible to every case, and right now they do give as much attention as possible to every case. But the more cases you have the less time you can get to those cases.”

Palmer said there are 11 prosecutors, including the DAs, assigned to about 100 cases. There are about 940 active pending cases in Tom Green County courts, and half are drug crimes.

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John Best, 119th District Attorney, walks toward Jason Ferguson’s office Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2017, at Tom Green County Courthouse Annex. (Photo: Yfat Yossifor, San Angelo Standard-Times)

Prosecutors reviewed more than 2,000 cases in 2017 and completed about 1,200 of them, Palmer said. To put that into context, she said 1,200 is roughly the same number of cases that were indicted by Tom Green County grand juries this year.

“It’s a ton of work to sort through. The ratio of caseload to prosecutors are higher to similar jurisdictions,” Palmer said. “We’re not sitting idle. We are in trial advocating for justice, and every day is a proof beyond a reasonable doubt for us.”

Proactive movements

The sequence of events generally goes like this: A crime happens, police get involved, and charges are brought to the district attorney’s office, Palmer said.

“By the nature of our work we’re reacting,” she said. “We’ve been reacting. We’ve been consumed by so many crimes and cases that require attention.”

Palmer said most local crime stems from drug use, and some of the crimes begin with youths who live in dysfunctional or unhealthy environments. That’s why she advocates for outreach to San Angelo families and juveniles.

Palmer said the focus of crime prevention should be to provide a better network of support for juveniles and mental health services.

“I think that’s where efforts could prevail, because people return home to their same environment” when they are released from custody, Palmer said. “Intervention and rehabilitation is important.”

Palmer said the bulk of the crimes against children stem from parents who are ill-equipped to raise them, whether it be because the parents are using drugs, have mental issues or don’t have the resources. The children then grow up in a hostile environment and more often than not spiral down a path similar to their parents.

“I would like to get more proactive movement with our youth,” but prosecutors are stretched too thin already, Palmer said. “It does feel like we have an onslaught of cases to manage that we can’t keep our heads above the water to make any proactive movement.”

Palmer and Best said they would like to secure more staff in the coming years. Both said they are proud of the work they have done so far by going above and beyond their jobs.

“When I talk to people about how hard we’re working for the community, people jokingly say, ‘Well, you asked for it,'” Best said. “And I laugh back. I did ask for it. And I’m just still very honored. It’s a big responsibility. “

Palmer said her greatest hope and goal for the coming year is to take many more cases to resolution.

“This goal is a very notable goal. It’s achievable,” she said. “The main purpose is to seek justice. What I hope to do in 2018 is to get everyone’s perspective. We’re here to do justice.”

Find the original story at gosanangelo.com.

Jurors in murder trial see police dash-cam video, photo of child dying

SAN ANGELO, Texas — Shrieking and screaming pierce the darkness on dash-cam video as the first responding officer arrives at the residence of a 5-year-old girl who died from lacerations to her neck.

Jurors were in tears on the second day of trial in the case of Isidro Miguel Delacruz, 27, who stands accused of capital murder in the Sept. 2, 2014, death of his ex-girlfriend’s daughter, Naiya Villegas, in the 2700 block of Houston Street.

“I saw the complainant in the roadway waving me down,” said officer Marcus Rodriguez. “I heard screams coming from a female.”

Naiya’s grandmother called San Angelo police about five minutes before Rodriguez arrived.

“I don’t know what he did to my granddaughter,” the grandmother told Rodriguez when he arrives at 2:37 a.m.

Screams coming from Naiya’s mother, Tanya Bermea, can then be heard on the video as Rodriguez frantically runs toward the residence and off camera.

“What did he do to her!” Bermea screams off camera. “That’s my daughter! Tell me my daughter is OK!”

Rodriguez questions Delacruz.

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Isidro Delacruz, a capital murder suspect, arrives for a hearing at the Tom Green County Courthouse. (Photo: Yfat Yossifor)

“I didn’t do nothing to her!” Delacruz says, and accuses Bermea of killing the child.

Bermea runs into the view of the dash-cam at 2:39 a.m. She sits on the street, crying next to her mother.

“What happened!” Rodriguez says as he runs after Bermea. She is distraught and doesn’t answer his question.

Rodriguez then returns to the residence.

He testified he saw Delacruz holding paper towels against the child’s throat.

At 2:40 a.m. Delacruz’s mother arrives at the scene and runs into the home.

“Please somebody help her! Get a medic! Get a medic!” someone says.

“Oh my God, please tell me everything will be all right!” a voice says.

Multiple people are talking over each other. The cries and begging to save Naiya continue.

Bermea runs back into the house where Rodriguez and another officer can be heard on video attempting to arrest Delacruz.

“Let me just look at her, please!” Delacruz says.

“Is that what you wanted!” Bermea says.

The officers take Delacruz outside to a patrol car. An ambulance pulls up at 2:46 a.m.

Several jurors were in tears and sniffling at end of the in-car police video.

Prosecutors also showed gruesome photographs of the crime scene. There were blood stains including spots, smears and splatters in nearly every corner of the house.

A pool of blood was on Naiya’s bed.

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Rodriguez fought back tears after 51st District Attorney Allison Palmer showed him some crime scene photos.

She asked Rodriguez to warn jurors what they were about to see before she presented one particular photo.

“In this photo, the medics are working on her,” Rodriguez told the jury. “She’s still in her pajamas.”

Prosecutors then showed the jury a photo of Naiya, near death on the living floor while paramedics tried to save her.

Jurors once again were brought to tears.

Rodriguez testified he saw Naiya lying straight on her back. He said she was lying inside the home at the immediate entrance still trying to breathe.

Other photos showed injuries on a distressed-looking Delacruz. The photographs also showed injuries on Bermea. She had two knots protruding from her forehead, indicating she had been in an altercation.

Another San Angelo officer testified Tuesday. He described how the crime scene looked using the photographs.

One photo showed an open bathroom window, which police believe Delacruz used to enter the home.

The trial continues Wednesday.

Find the original story at gosanangelo.com.

CHANCE ENCOUNTER: How one promising life ended

SAN ANGELO, Texas — Malcolm Guy McBurnett grew up in a white-collar, influential West Texas family. Donald John Di Pietro was the child of a working-class family in Lincoln Park, a suburb of Detroit, Michigan. Neither man knew of the other’s existence, but on the night of March 9, 2013, their paths crossed in San Angelo. Donald Di Pietro, a sergeant in the Marines, did not survive the encounter.

Malcolm Guy McBurnett

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A photo from the June 20, 1954, edition of the Standard-Times shows Malcolm Guy McBurnett (left), 6, and his brother, Jerry, 7, with their father Malcolm C. McBurnett on a fishing trip. (Photo: Standard-Times file)

Malcolm was born into a middle-class family on Jan. 8, 1948, in San Angelo. His father, Malcolm C. McBurnett, was a successful automobile salesman who, having been in the business since 1936, knew many prominent people in town.

Malcolm’s family made their mark on San Angelo. His father was related to Christopher Columbus McBurnett, a wealthy local rancher and financier who contributed to the San Angelo skyline by developing some of the town’s tallest buildings, including the McBurnett Building, known now as Beauregard Tower, on the southwest corner of Irving Street and West Beauregard Avenue.

Before Malcolm was born, his parents had adopted a baby, Jerry. The family lived on Guadalupe Street in central San Angelo, where the brothers grew up.

Recalling their childhood, Jerry said that Malcolm, 18 months younger than him, was a quicker study in school, somewhat eccentric and given to spending his leisure time with friends. Jerry, in contrast, was family oriented and believed from a young age in hard work to get ahead in life.

“He wasn’t as close in the family as I was. I did more with the family. He did more with his friends,” Jerry said. “He’d come in and ask Mother, ‘Well, what are we having for lunch?’ She’d tell him and he’d say, ‘Oh, I’ll just go eat out.’ So he’d just go eat out with this friends.”

As a boy, Malcolm slept in a cluttered room while Jerry always kept his room neat. In high school, Malcolm became class president at Central High School and ran with the more affluent crowds. He was frivolous with his spending, Jerry said, and particular about his belongings. He wanted all his shirts ironed, and his older brother would often sneak into Malcolm’s room and try to take a shirt, knowing that Malcolm didn’t want him wearing them.

“He’d buy the best. I might buy a $10 shirt, and he’ll by a $15 shirt,” Jerry said with a chuckle. “He made real good grades all through high school and didn’t have to study much. If we had a book to read, I’d have to read it twice, and he could read it one time.”

The differences in the brothers’ personalities and habits would manifest themselves as time passed. Jerry eventually became executor of his parents’ estate, worth almost a million dollars.

Malcolm, 69, is now in Tulia Transfer Facility, a state prison in the Texas Panhandle, serving a 35-year sentence for intoxicated manslaughter.

Donald John Di Pietro

Donald was born into a working-class family on June 5, 1984, in a suburb of Detroit. The family lived in a two-story white house in a big-city type of neighborhood where stores and bars could be found at every street corner.

When the weather was nice, Donald and his younger brother, Robert, frequently went with their mother bicycling down Biddle Avenue, a road that runs alongside the mighty Detroit River, which led to the city of Wyandotte and to their destination at Bishop Park. The trio could see Canada on the other side as they rode along the river.

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Teresa Di Pietro stands in front of her family’s Michigan home with her sons Robert, 2, (left) and Donald, 3, dressed up to attend Easter church service in the spring of 1988. Across the country in Texas, just a few weeks before, Malcolm Guy McBurnett was arrested on his first DWI charge. Center, Teresa with her sons, left, Robert, 2 and Donald, 3, in front of their home in a suburb of Michigan, dressed up to attend Easter Church Service around the time Malcolm Guy McBurnett received his first DWI arrest in March 1988. (Photo: Contributed by Teresa Di Pietro)

Donald was an average American boy who grew up playing sports and video games with his younger brother and friends. The brothers were inseparable, and Donald protected and took care of Robert while they were growing up.

Robert, 18 months younger than Donald, came home one day when Donald was 14 and told his older brother that two other boys had bullied him. Donald went tearing down the street that day after the two bullies. Their mother, Teresa, said she felt proud knowing Robert could count on Donald.

“Donald was his own person who I would just look at with admiration and say to myself, ‘This kid is too good to be true,”‘ Teresa said. “He was walking at nine months. Anything he tried, he accomplished extremely well. He was never off the honor roll, and as a fourth-grader, I remember him setting his alarm clock and getting up early to finish his homework.”

The family didn’t always have the best of things, but they certainly didn’t lack love. Donald came from a line of military men. His grandfather was a Marine who had earned a Purple Heart at the Battle of Iwo Jima during World War II, and Donald’s uncle Bob served in the Army, dying in Vietnam when he was 24.

Teresa wasn’t shocked when Donald told her that he wanted to take on the ultimate mental and physical challenge. He joined the Marines in 2005 after a year in college.

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Marine Corps Sgt. Donald John Di Pietro was a student at Angelo State University when he died on March 9, 2013. (Photo: Contributed photo)

One of Donald’s consuming passions in life was motorcycles. He was introduced to motorcycles by his family within his first month of life. Teresa was originally attracted to the man who would become Donald’s father when she saw his Harley-Davidson motorcycle. The couple met in 1979 after Teresa already had been admiring the Harley for a while.

Donald’s love of motorcycles has become inextricably entangled with his death in his mother’s mind.

“Motorcycles were a love that Donald was born into, but now I wish I never had loved motorcycles,” Teresa said. “I feel it was a huge mistake on my part.”

Donald was destined to be a Marine and to ride motorcycles, a destiny that led him to San Angelo and a chance encounter with Malcolm McBurnett.

Lives moving toward collision

Malcolm left San Angelo after attending Angelo State University briefly in the late 1960s. He moved to Lubbock, where he graduated from Texas Tech University with a business degree. It was the era of the 1960s counterculture, and his stepbrother saw its effect on Malcolm.

“He went through the hippie deal” and adopted an environmental conscience, Jerry said. “If somebody threw a piece of paper on the highway, he didn’t like that. He was against that.”

Malcolm let his hair grow past his shoulders, picked up eating tofu and smoked weed, Jerry recalled. From the 1970s through the 1990s, Malcolm lived in numerous cities and worked a number of odd jobs while he traveled abroad and across the United States. His wanderings took him to Washington, New York and up north to Canada.

He worked in the oilfield in Dallas; he rented a house and lived in Austin for several years; he went to Eugene, Oregon, and worked for the post office; and he went to Houston to work on railroads.

“He had an old truck with a camper on it. Him and his girlfriend, and they had a dog,” Jerry said. “They would just take off. … He toured the whole United States, and he was away a whole lot. I think he missed out a whole lot for not being around.”

Malcolm spent much of his adult life away from home, only dropping in once in a blue moon to visit his family. Jerry took a different route. He remained in San Angelo with his parents after graduating from Angelo State University, got married and had three children. Malcolm never married or had children.

“I enjoy working. He didn’t,” Jerry said. “I wanted to work and get ahead. He just wanted to have a good time and spend money.”

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An archived photo published in a May 3, 1957, edition of the Standard-Times shows brothers Jerry, 10, left, and Malcolm Guy, 9, with their parents Corinne Boggess and Malcolm C. McBurnett set for a trip to the lake. (Photo: Standard-Times file)

On March 9, 1988, exactly 25 years before his path crossed that of Donald Di Pietro, Malcolm racked up his first drunken-driving arrest. It occurred in Tom Green County when Malcolm was 40. He pleaded no contest and received to two years probation.

On the other side of the country, Donald was a little over 3 years old. Donald’s family had just bought their first house in March 1988, but his father got laid off from work, so his mother returned to the workforce as a full-time secretary to support the family.

“None of the other moms worked in our neighborhood, but we had no one to lean on, so it was either work or go under,” Teresa said. “I worried so much being a working mom, but as it turns out, I look back now and think I set a good example for being a hard worker and showed my boys that no one gives you anything. You have to earn it.”

Donald spent his childhood days with a babysitter, at a nursery school or as a latchkey kid because once his mother went back to work full time, she never stopped.

Malcolm’s second DWI came three years after the first — on July 9, 1991 — in Tom Green County. He pleaded no contest and received 15 days in jail.

He committed a third DWI violation six years later — on Aug. 2, 1997 — also in Tom Green County, this time a third-degree felony. He was released the day after his arrest on a $1,000 bond, and less than a month later was arrested on a fourth DWI, on Aug. 30, 1997, in Tom Green County. The cases were addressed concurrently in court. He pleaded guilty to both charges and was sentenced to five years in prison. He was released in 2001.

Malcolm got his fifth DWI on March 26, 2002, in Mason, Texas, when he was 54. He was prosecuted by the 452nd District Attorney’s Office in the 198th District Court in Kerrville, which returned a judgment of 10 years confinement. The sentence was probated for 10 years, and he was ordered to attend a substance abuse program for felons.

There is no one-size-fits-all conviction process for DWI offenders in Texas. A judge could impose probation even on a fourth DWI conviction, depending on the circumstances, location of arrests and the magnitude of the charges sought by prosecutors.

“He got thrown in jail in Mason for drinking,” Jerry said. “He called Melvin, and Melvin went over there, and they did the paperwork while he was in jail.”

Melvin Norman Gray, an attorney who had practiced law in San Angelo for 50 years, entered the picture from that moment by being Malcolm’s defender and later becoming his employer.

“When he got out of prison, they told him to go see his mother, and the second day she died,” Jerry said. “I think she stayed alive just long enough to see him one more time. I think that’s kind of what she wanted.”

Malcolm’s father had died before his mother several years earlier. The brothers inherited equal parts of their parents’ estate, worth almost a million dollars. Their parents, however, named Jerry as the executor of the entire estate.

“I was in charge of the estate. That made him mad,” Jerry said. “I was the executor, and he didn’t like that. He thought he should’ve got all of it, because I’m adopted.”

The brothers’ relationship began to deteriorate shortly after both their parents died and as Malcolm’s drinking habit got increasingly out of hand.

“He could stay away from the alcohol for a little while, and then all of a sudden one drink and that was it. That’s all it took,“ Jerry said. “He went to the extreme, and you couldn’t talk to him about it. He’d get mad, and he got mad at me for I don’t know why, because I helped him.”

Malcolm wanted ownership of his half of the inheritance, but Jerry wouldn’t sign it over. He would ask for spending money constantly, Jerry said. Malcolm would ask for a few hundred dollars to go drinking, and Jerry would cut him a check.

“He enjoys spending money. He said money was made to spend,” Jerry said. “I was the opposite. I saved mine. And he said, ‘Why do you want to save it?’ He said, ‘You’re only here a little while, spend it. Have a good time.’”

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A mug shot of Malcolm when he was arrested on March 9, 2013. (Photo: Tom Green County Jail)

Malcolm’s attorney also took part in acquiring Malcolm’s inheritance.

“Melvin would come to my office and he’d say, ‘Well, you’ve handled it long enough,’” Jerry said. “‘You took care of it real good, but your brother wants his part.’”

This went on daily for almost a year, Jerry said, and he finally became fed up and signed Malcolm’s half of the inheritance over to Melvin.

“I wished I could have helped him,” Jerry said. “We could have taken the money and did a lot with it, but he said no, Melvin’s going to take care of it.”

Jerry’s attorney had recommended taking the matter to court because most people believed Malcolm was not mentally capable of handling his inheritance and thought that he would squander the whole thing.

“I said no. I just want out, because he was in my office wanting money all the time. He just burns money just like that,” Jerry said.

Malcolm then went to work for Gray on his ranch and lived there while he was on probation. Gray took care of Malcolm’s legal matters and gave money to Malcolm when he needed it, Jerry said.

For the next 10 years, there is no record of arrests in Tom Green County for Malcolm.

March 9, 2013

By age 28, Donald had become a decorated sergeant in the Marines and a fervent motorcycle enthusiast who had ridden thousands of miles. He had received numerous awards and commendations during his time in the military, including four personal awards — two Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals and two Joint Service Achievement Medals.

He was assigned to Goodfellow Air Force Base from San Antonio in August 2010 as an intelligence instructor for the Marine Corps detachment. By then, his mother had relocated to Texas to live with Donald in San Antonio. Donald and Teresa met almost every weekend and spent time together after his reassignment as he adjusted to life in San Angelo.

“The very last second I saw Donald was when he was on his bike, leaving to go back to San Angelo. I stood in the yard and watched until I couldn’t see him anymore,” Teresa said. “He stopped at the stop sign a block away and turned left, but instead of looking forward, he looked to the left, directly at me, and he did not look away until a house got in the way of us seeing each other. At the time it happened, I did not like it. It creeped me out. It was unusual. Now I know why. My poor child.”

On Nov. 3, 2012, Malcolm was arrested on his sixth DWI in Tom Green County and was released the same day on a $100,000 bond.

Malcolm was arrested eight more times in the next five months in San Angelo. Those arrests were misdemeanor allegations including public intoxication, theft, criminal trespass and marijuana possession, among others. The arrests resulted either in no charges or dismissals.

He was fired by his employer and longtime attorney, Melvin Gray, in late 2012, Gray told the Standard-Times in a story published April 12, 2014.

Gray also sold him a derelict 1991 Chevrolet Cheyenne pickup truck with a salvage title.

On March 9, 2013, Malcolm was out drinking and stopped at the Party Ranch bar on Christoval Road.

Donald was riding his 2012 Victory Highball motorcycle down a dark stretch of Christoval Road, making his way to meet a fellow Marine for dinner at the Texas Roadhouse restaurant that Saturday night.

“I was there waiting when I started to get worried because he was late,” said Douglas Richard Stinebiser, a retired Marine staff sergeant. “He wasn’t the type of man to be late.”

Donald took the fastest route to the restaurant, which would take him past the Party Ranch.

Evidence and testimony in court chronicled the evening’s events in detail.

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Donald Di Pietro relaxes on his dad’s 1976 Harley-Davidson at a car show in San Angelo in 2012. He developed a passion for motorcycles at an early age, and they became an important part of the Marine sergeant’s life. (Photo: Contributed by Teresa Di Pietro)

Malcolm walked stiffly as he entered the bar at 5:02 p.m., sat on a stool directly across from the bartender and did not move from there until he left.

Malcolm was a regular patron of the bar and had bought drinks for about six people that night. The bartender said she had paid for a cab to take him home two nights before and told him to make sure he had enough for a cab ride home.

Malcolm drank three 12-ounce longneck bottles of Lone Star Beer before upending his last drink at 7:19 p.m. and leaving the bar.

He staggered as he walked to his pickup, which was parked directly outside the building and just a few feet from Christoval Road. The truck was registered to Gray, according to public data.

Malcolm had trouble opening the driver’s side door of the truck and held onto it for support as he made his way to the front to raise the hood when the vehicle wouldn’t start.

The pickup was dead; one way to get it started would be to push it forward and pop the clutch while it was still moving. Malcolm went back into the bar and recruited an acquaintance, Allen Lee Schmidt, to assist him. Schmidt used his vehicle to push Malcolm’s stalled truck into the roadway.

The pickup was now disabled in the roadway and perpendicular to the flow of traffic. The lights on the pickup were not turned on. Malcolm was behind the steering wheel attempting to start it. It was dark, and no one attempted to stop traffic.

Donald was southbound on Christoval Road around 7:30 p.m., having left his house on the motorcycle about five minutes earlier. Down the road, an inert piece of steel sat across the pavement like a gate slammed against what remained of his future.

Epilogue

Police said that evidence at the scene showed the motorcycle’s brakes were applied almost 80 feet before it fell on its left side. It slid 18 more feet before crashing into the pickup.

“As my son lay dying in the road, his helmet cracked from the impact and blood from his severed organs due to his ribs being crushed, flowing out of his mouth, nose and ears,” Schmidt went back into the bar and started drinking again, Teresa said. “This by far is the most painful aspect of this horrific tragedy for me, next to imagining my poor son’s final seconds as he knew he was going to die.”

Schmidt’s actions were documented by the bar’s video security system and entered into evidence during his court case.

Donald crashed into the back of the pickup and died at the scene. His death certificate shows that he died as a result of blunt force injuries to the head and torso. The toxicology report from his autopsy showed no intoxicants in his system..

Malcolm was arrested at 10:35 p.m. and charged with intoxication manslaughter with a vehicle. He had no injuries.

Schmidt was convicted on a charge of manslaughter by a Tom Green County jury on Aug. 20, 2014, for his involvement in Donald’s death. He was given a 10-year sentence, probated for 10 years, because he didn’t have any prior felony conviction. Jurors also ordered that he pay a $10,000 fine.

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Allen Schmidt

From the time of his arrest to his conviction date, Malcolm was transferred in and out of jail to numerous hospitals around Texas for competency testing. The case dragged on for more than three years.

The case was ultimately decided on Oct. 4, 2016. Malcolm, standing at 6 feet, 6 inches, hurriedly entered a Tom Green County courtroom with a slight limp, in an orange jail suit and handcuffs for a plea hearing. He didn’t make eye contact with anyone and spoke softly when he needed to.

He pleaded guilty to intoxication manslaughter with a vehicle — a first-degree felony punishable by five to 99 years in prison — as part of a plea agreement with prosecutors and was sentenced to 35 years in prison. The court action included a no-contest plea to the November 2012 DWI charge, for which he received a 15-year concurrent sentence.

Malcolm’s stepbrother wasn’t present during the punishment hearing. Jerry hadn’t been in contact with Malcolm for the last decade. He learned of his younger brother’s fate by reading newspaper accounts and hearing it from friends and family.

“He’s real kind-hearted, he’s just got that sickness. … Why he didn’t stay away from it, I can’t tell you, because I don’t know,” Jerry said. “He’s really not a bad person. Everything was at the wrong time at the wrong place, but I had a feeling something was going to happen because he would drive, especially driving that old pickup.”

Malcolm’s criminal record shows 32 arrests dating back to his first on April 12, 1974, for marijuana possession in Dallas County, for which he was convicted and received six months probation, according to records from The Texas Department of Public Safety and Criminal History and Tom Green County court records.

The majority of Malcolm’s arrests were misdemeanor offenses for drug possession, public intoxication and criminal trespass among others, for which some of the charges were never filed or dismissed. Felony convictions were for intoxication manslaughter with a vehicle, four DWIs and theft between $750 and $20,000 or livestock worth less than $20,000 on July 18, 1994, in Tom Green County, to which Malcolm pleaded guilty and received 10 years confinement probated for 10 years.

Malcolm declined a Standard-Times request for an interview through the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

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Christoval Road in San Angelo by the former Party Ranch. (Photo: Yfat Yossifor/San Angelo Standard-Times)

“He always said if you got money you can beat the system,” Jerry said. “But he pretty much squandered all of his money, I think. I don’t know what’s left.”

Jerry and Malcolm’s relationship became estranged through the years because of death, money and crimes. “He would always say, ‘Well, why worship the dollar? If I die, the county will bury me; you’ll have to pay for yours. If I need something to eat I can go to the Salvation Army or go to church. They’ll feed me.’ He said, ‘You need to spend your money and have a good time, because you’re only here a little while.’”

Teresa filed a lawsuit in March 2015 against Malcolm Guy McBurnett, Schmidt, Party Ranch owner Tracy Lawson and PartyRanch LLC,. A hearing in the case is scheduled for April 11, 2017. The bartender pleaded no contest to selling alcohol to a certain person, which is a misdemeanor, and received one year probation. The Party Ranch shut down permanently in summer 2014, and the building on Christoval Road remains vacant.

Four years since the fatal encounter, Teresa still struggles with grief and holds resentment against Malcolm.

“It’s been four long years of being buried in a black hole of grief, but now God is pulling me out,” Teresa said. “No one understands why Donald was killed. It’s so senseless.”

Donald was buried at Great Lakes National Cemetery in Holly, Michigan.

“One of my favorite memories of Donald was how easygoing he could be and funny. He loved to laugh,” Teresa said. “He was always a happy baby. At 18 months old when I walked in holding his new baby brother, he reached out his arms and made me give him the baby. Even that young, he was loving and wanted to take care of others.”

Malcolm’s case is scheduled for its first parole review on March 22 by a parole board in Amarillo.

Teresa recently started a petition that’s garnered about 700 signatures, with a goal of 1,000, which she will present to the parole board in hopes that they will deny any bid Malcolm makes for release on parole.

Find the original story at gosanangelo.com.

Man shot in fiery standoff with San Angelo police

SAN ANGELO, Texas — San Angelo police shot an armed man shortly after he called a local television news station to announce he was preparing for a standoff with law enforcement.

Gunfire erupted from a burning house that was fully engulfed in flames at the 1200 block of East 21 Street about 11:30 a.m. Friday.

According to police, the man had contacted David Wagner, news director at KLST, about 11:03 a.m. and advised him of his plans to kill police.

WATCH VIDEO: Man shot in fiery standoff

“He (Wagner) advised that he had just spoken with a gentleman that called in to say that he was about to have a police standoff and that they needed to get their cameras and take them to the area,” said Tracy Gonzalez, public information officer with the San Angelo Police Department.

The suspect then called dispatch 11:06 a.m. while authorities researched the identity of the caller from the recorded phone number and alerted responding officers, Gonzalez said.

“He said that he was going to kill officers, that he had weapons. His intent was to shoot officers and that we, implying our dispatch, needed to evacuate the nearby neighbors,” said Gonzalez, adding that before police arrived, “additional neighbors started calling our dispatch center to inform us that there was a house fire.”

The suspect’s residence was engulfed in flames by the time police responded and cordoned off the area.

“Officers observed a man who had a long gun. He was holding a weapon.” Gonzalez said. “At some point during their communication, the man raised the weapon and engaged our officers. Our officer at that point took deadly force against the suspect and shot the suspect.”

The unidentified man was taken to Shannon Medical Center in critical condition for surgery, according to authorities. Officers indicated that the suspect was moving when he was taken away by ambulance.

An SAPD news release later said his name was not being released. In a development later Friday afternoon, a 60-year-old woman was arrested and charged with capital murder of a peace officer. The address indicated on the arrest information was the same house where the fire and shooting occurred, and her name, Brenda Wright, is listed on Tom Green County Appraisal District records as co-owner of the house, along with Gary Ray Wright.

“Right now we are addressing him as the sole suspect,” pending an investigation, Gonzalez said, referring to the man who had been shot without disclosing his name. “We don’t know how many other bodies are at play. All we know is that nobody else appears to be injured at this point.”

Firefighters were held back and could not address the blaze immediately because of the armed suspect, Gonzalez said. The fire had spewed onto neighboring homes before it was safe for firefighters to take action.

“Obviously we had a threat on the front porch and we had to remove that threat before we allow the fire department to move in an extinguish the fire,” Police Chief Frank Carter said. “At least we had an alert before we arrived that he was in possession of a weapon.”

Nearby Bradford Elementary School was put on lockdown within minutes of the initial report, according to police.

The Texas Rangers will be conducting the investigation for the officer involved shooting. No else was injured, according to SAPD.

People from neighboring houses took cover when they heard shots break out. A few people tried to aid the suspect because of the fire, but officers shouted for them to get back.

Leslie Salas, 29, who lives in the area, said she and her stepfather witnessed the events firsthand.

“We were in our house when we heard a loud boom. It shook the house like something had run into it,” Salas said. “We saw smoke coming out of the back of the neighbor’s house, then there was another boom.”

Before authorities arrived, Salas said she went with her stepfather to the neighboring house and tried to help the man.

“We ran over there and my stepdad went to the front door trying to get the man out, and he told us, ‘Go away, I got this,’ ” Salas said.

Tommy Burney said that when he knocked on the door and spoke with the suspect, the man seemed unfazed by the fire and had a calm demeanor.

“As soon as we backed away from the house, because the house caught on fire even more, another boom went off,” Salas said. “The cop pulled up right then and we ran to the cop, and he said, ‘Go to your homes. We’ve already talked to him and he’s prepared for a shootout.'”

The pair said police then told them to “get away and take cover.”

“We heard gunshots, then it sounded like some ammo went off,” Salas said. “We saw officers with assault rifles. You could see cops everywhere.”

About 15 or 20 minutes after they saw the fire, the bystanders heard cops yelling, “Get on the ground” and that was the end, Salas said. “Firetrucks came, then an ambulance.”

Find the original story at gosanangelo.com

Christoval craftsman to be featured on PBS

CHRISTOVAL, Texas — Wilson Capron’s bit and spur shop was flooded with lighting equipment and camera gear for several days in March as a crew of seven people filmed for an episode of “A Craftsman Legacy.”

Capron, 43, will be featured in the fourth season of the PBS television series, which showcases individuals in various fields of craftsmanship from across America.

“I’m all the time wanting to share my story and share the story of the West. It’s very important to me to share my culture with people,” Capron said. “So when they called me and asked me to do this, I just looked at it as a huge opportunity and hope that they felt like that was fit for their show.”

Capron had worked alongside his father, Mike Capron, a cowboy artist, on ranches in West Texas before spending some time on the competitive roping circuit as a young man.

He then went to work for Greg Darnall, a noted bit and spur maker, to help fund his roping expenses.

“I went to work for my mentor, just as a job. I didn’t care anything about it,” Capron said. “About a year into it he introduced me to engraving, and it was just like like my roping. It was very, very fun and addicting to me, so away I went.”

Capron lived with Darnall’s family in Lone Oak for a couple of years while he learned the finer points of metalwork and engraving beginning at age 23.

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Wilson Capron said he enjoys being a craftsman. “I get to stay in my Western culture and tell that story, and that’s important to me.” (Photo: Standard-Times)

Capron said he had discovered a new passion and has been refining his craft since venturing out on his own in 1999 at age 25.

“I loved it, but I never dreamt I would be able to make a living doing it,” Capron said. “This craft is an education. It’s not a destination. It’s a journey. You’re all the time trying to get better.”

Capron cited both his father and mentor as his biggest inspirations and said the two men have helped lead him down the path to success in the art of bit and spur craftsmanship.

Capron moved to Christoval about five years ago and set up shop next to his home on a ranch. The magic happens in his shop from dawn to dusk, Capron said, where he designs and creates personalized pieces of work.

Capron said he wants to help tell the story of the cowboy and display the elegance of the West through his work, so he was ecstatic when PBS reached out to him.

“I just shared who I was and what I was doing and was very willing for these guys to come in here and help me tell the story and for me to help them tell their story of the craftsperson,” Capron said. “I worked hard and put a lot of work in beforehand to be sure I was prepared. I’m very thankful they came, honored.”

The production crew drove from Detroit and arrived in late March at Capron’s shop, which was their last stop on a trip that included two shoots in Oklahoma and another elsewhere in Texas.

“I think there are amazing stories out there to be told about these wonderful people that really have very unique lives and those stories need to be told,” said show host Eric Gorges. “Other people need to understand that craftsmen are a dying breed. Not only are the crafts that they’re doing a dying breed, but themselves. It’s a dying breed for sure. So we need more of them.”

Gorges, a metal shaper and motorcycle builder, is on a quest to discover true craftspeople in today’s modern world.

“There’s still this belief of working with your hands and what you get out of that,” Gorges said. “That’s one thing we’re still missing today in society.”

Capron said he showed Gorges the shortcut version of making bits and spurs. A basic piece could take a week, and an ornate piece could take several months, Capron said. He said it’s an extensive process because everything is crafted by hand.

“The cool thing about it is you still use a lot of the tools that the old original caveman used: hammers and chisels, files and stones,” Capron said. “I mean, those are basic, basic tools, but that’s what we use to do the really, really nice stuff.”

Capron said his clientele comes from across the spectrum, including cowboys who work hard and save to make a purchase as well as high-end collectors and business people who can easily afford nice things.

“I treat them all the same. It’s the story of the West and I can’t wait to tell their story and what I do, because we’re all a part of the same culture,” Capron said. “We all want to be a part of it.”

Capron said he was excited to be able to share the story of the Western way of life.

“This is a very exciting moment. I don’t do a very good job of showing it, but I was excited” when PBS called, Capron said with a chuckle. “I try not to get too high with the highs or too lows with the lows — just kind of keep an even keel and do the best possible job I can.”

“A Craftsman Legacy” is a national, weekly television series on PBS, Suddenlink channel 13. Its third season is airing now, and the broadcast date for Capron’s fourth-season episode has not yet been set.

Find the original story at gosanangelo.com.

Isidro Delacruz found guilty of capital murder in death of Naiya Villegas

SAN ANGELO, Texas — A Tom Green County Jury found Isidro Miguel Delacruz guilty of capital murder in the 2014 death of 5-year-old Naiya Villegas.

The jury of eight women and four men returned the verdict after about four hours of deliberation Thursday in the second week of trial.

Delacruz, 27, nodded his head following the reading of the verdict by 119th District Judge Ben Woodward.

He is convicted of slitting the throat of his ex-girlfriend’s daughter in the 2700 block of Houston Street on Sept. 2, 2014.

The sentencing phase of the trial begins Monday. Delacruz faces death or life imprisonment.

Attorneys took about two hours to lay out their case of what happened the night Naiya was murdered.

“The question here is who did what, and that’s tough to tell,” said court-appointed attorney Robert R. Cowie from the Lubbock Regional Public Defender for Capital Case. “This was a dark scene with a couple of drunk adults who got into a fight in a dark room.”

51st District Attorney Allison Palmer told jurors during closing arguments that “adult ugliness” led to Naiya’s death.

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“The horrible images you’ve had to see of her,” Palmer said, showing a photo of a smiling Naiya standing next to a friend, “just remember she wasn’t always the way you had to see her.”

The afternoon before Naiya died, Facebook messages exchanged between Delacruz and his then-girlfriend, Tanya Bermea, showed communication was amicable between the two, who had dated for about three years.

Delacruz then became irate with Bermea, 37, when conflict arose over the course of the evening.

An acquaintance of Delacruz and Bermea testified he ran into Delacruz when he went drinking with coworkers at a bar near Angelo State University that night.

The witness said Delacruz borrowed his cellphone and made phone calls. Phone records show Bermea called the witness’ phone about 20 times.

The bar’s surveillance footage showed Delacruz had been drinking about midnight before he showed up at Bermea’s residence.

The witness said he offered Delacruz a ride about 1:49 a.m. and dropped him off at a spot on Arden Road. Delacruz then walked to Bermea’s residence about 2 a.m.

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Bermea testified she had tried to barricade the residence because she was afraid Delacruz was going to come over.

“At that point, if she knew something bad was going to happen, she had options,” Cowie said.

Those options included calling the police or staying with relatives, but Bermea instead abandoned her daughter in that house, Cowie said.

“I heard a thump on the wall” coming from the bathroom, Bermea said, and she saw Delacruz break into the home through the window before she immediately ran out of the house.

Palmer argued Delacruz slashed the back of his left arm when he climbed into Bermea’s residence through the broken bathroom window.

Crime scene photos showed Delacruz’s blood dripping on the outside of the window and his blood smears on the window frame.

“How did his blood drip on the outside of that window if he hadn’t already been bleeding?” Palmer told jurors.

Bermea said she left Naiya sleeping at home because she believed Delacruz wouldn’t hurt the child, adding she thought Delacruz was only coming after her. She testified Delacruz had never harmed the child before.

Crime scene photos showed Delacruz’s blood in nearly every room in the house, including Bermea’s closet.

“He was looking for (Bermea),” Palmer said. “He was looking for her all around the house but he couldn’t find her.”

Delacruz’s bloody handprints were on light switches, indicating he turned on the lights because the house was dark.

“He was trying to find if she’s hiding,” Palmer said. “He was coming after her.”

Cowie argued Bermea didn’t immediately leave the house but stayed and tried to fight Delacruz instead.

“Tanya wasn’t a passive participant in the case,” Cowie said. “She stayed in the house that night, and she made more phone calls.”

Phone records showed Bermea made numerous phone calls at 2:19 a.m.

Video footage from a nearby business showed Bermea looking over her shoulder, walking barefoot and without her prescription glasses down Houston Street toward North Garfield Street from her house at 2:24 a.m.

Delacruz appeared on camera running down the path Bermea went about a minute and a half later.

“He’s chasing her down the street” when he couldn’t find her, said Palmer.

The child’s grandmother, Jesusita Bermea, drove her daughter back to the residence moments later. Palmer said Delacruz ran back as well and assaulted both women.

Palmer believes Delacruz beat up the women before going into the house and taking his anger out on Naiya.

Bermea testified she never set foot inside the home again until a week later.

“I wonder why she didn’t get back in the house?” Palmer asked jurors while displaying photos of Bermea’s injuries. “It’s hard to when you’re getting whooped on.

“She had other priorities,” Palmer said. “Not getting beat up.”

Bermea had a black left eye, bruising on her arm, abrasions on her face and two knots protruding from her forehead.

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Delacruz’s injuries included a severe cut on the back of his left arm. His left hand was swollen and some of his knuckles had cuts on them and were bleeding.

The grandmother eventually called 911 at 2:30 a.m.

Palmer believes the incident started at the child’s pillow and moved to the other side of the bed because the girl fought back.

“In her bed, her blood begins on her pillow,” Palmer argued. “It’s like she fought him.”

Crime scene photos showed a blood-soaked blanket at the foot of the bed.

“I think she gave him a hard time,” Palmer said. “She gave all she had, every bit of blood in her body.”

Paramedics testified the girl wasn’t bleeding anymore when they arrived because she had no more blood to give.

The child’s injuries consisted of two deep lacerations on her neck as well as cuts on her chin, an abrasion and bruising on her left cheek.

DNA found on the large kitchen knife belonged only to Delacruz and Naiya. The child’s DNA was found on the blade and handle of the knife while Delacruz’s was found only on the handle.

Palmer told jurors it was a matter of minutes before he finally inflicted the fatal injuries.

“She did what she could,” Palmer said. “Her DNA was on his pants, shirt, necklace. That’s her telling us something. I’m here on him! She’s telling us I’m here! I’m here on him. I’m telling you this is who did it.”

Delacruz’s blood was found on the child’s clothes, and hers on his. Dozens of blood stains inside the home belonged to Delacruz and the child.

Palmer said Naiya couldn’t have survived her injuries for more than 20 minutes.

The first responding officer arrived at  2:37 a.m.

Screams coming from Bermea, who had remained outside, can be heard on police dashcam video as the officer frantically runs toward the residence and off camera.

Naiya died in an ambulance on the way to the hospital.

Find the original story at gosanangelo.com.

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.

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.