Austin County had a busy year in 2018 and it included tragedies and triumphs. Here are the stories that generated the most response and emotion from our readers.
1. Brazos ISD campus carry
In a unanimous decision in December, the Brazos ISD school board authorized “certain trained and qualified employees to carry or possess firearms on campus.”
The district has about 760 students from pre-K through high school and their campuses are in Fort Bend and Austin counties, but not within city limits, making them an extended distance from law enforcement officers who could respond to a campus incident, said Superintendent Brian Thompson.
Thompson, who is in his second year at the helm of the district, wouldn’t answer specific questions such as how many employees will be armed or where the weapons will be stored – in order to protect those who are participating.
“It all goes back to the commitment to school safety,” Thompson explained. “It’s in response to being a rural community and making this the safest place for our students and employees.”
Brazos ISD is not the first school in Texas to take such measures and since the letter went home to parents Dec. 5, at least one other school district has reached out to Thompson.
“We want to keep our kids and our staff safe,” he said. “This isn’t the only way but it’s one way.”
2. Austin County gets voter approval for new justice center
Austin County commissioners decided in August to take a $17 million bond issue before voters on Nov. 6 to cover construction costs for a justice center and emergency medical services station. The measure was approved, 4,843 to 4,007.
The county also unanimously approved a motion to issue $9.5 million in certificates of obligation to repair the jail and sheriff’s office. Because the jail repairs are regulated by a state agency and the county has promised to make upgrades, they couldn’t risk putting that on a bond referendum and having it fail, officials said at the time.
“If the bond election fails and it’s included in there, you’ve now told the jail commission you’re going to fix it but you can’t fix it and you can’t go borrow money,” architect Kenny Burns told the court. “We have a little bit of a problem. That’s why this project is complicated.”
Design work is expected to begin in February with construction slated to start in late 2019.
3. New development coming to Sealy
Sealy residents were excited – albeit skeptical – when H-E-B Grocery announced in February that it purchased a 10.5-acre tract of land in the Town Park Center on the Interstate 10 frontage road. There’s no word on when construction will begin, but city officials have speculated it could take a few years before the doors of the new grocery store are open.
In the meantime, however, Starbucks and Chicken Express are building establishments in the Sealy city limits, and at least one will be open “soon-ish.” Sealy also became home to a new skating rink this year and its Economic Development Corp. was restructured and aims to provide incentives and work with potential new businesses hoping to locate in the area.
4. New city manager hired
The Sealy City Council voted Jan. 23 to hire Lloyd Merrell as the new city manager. Merrell started Feb. 1 and hit the ground running, leading the council through an impact fee study, drainage projects and new development projects. He appointed Warren Escovy, who served in the interim during a city manager search, as an assistant city manager.
Merrell previously led Madisonville, Ky., city government for 26 years and has now moved to Sealy.
He took the position following the departure of Larry Kuciemba, after the city council opted not to renew Kuciemba’s contract.
5. Peña sentenced to 10 years
After being sentenced to 10 years in prison for stealing from Austin County while serving as the tax assessor-collector, Marcus Peña pleaded for an early release from prison but instead was placed in handcuffs and returned to prison.
Peña, 40, served as tax assessor-collector in Austin County for four years and lost a bid for re-election in 2016 to Kim Rinn, who currently holds the seat. Rinn discovered unusual office supply orders and bank statements that didn’t add up, according to witnesses who testified at Peña’s trial in March.
Assistant Attorney General Julie Stone scoffed at Peña’s complaints during an August hearing that his jail cell was warm and the food wasn’t very good. The dorm temperature is 125 degrees, he said, and the experience has been “miserable.”
“He stole $275,000, no way around it,” Stone said. “This is not a forum for how difficult his life is in jail. This is whether or not he deserves to be released from prison and whether he’s going to be able to make restitution.”
Ultimately Judge Dwight Peschel agreed that the convicted felon – Austin County’s former tax assessor-collector – should not be granted probation.
“This is more than money,” Peschel said in handing down his verdict. “This is a violation of public trust. Your request for shock probation is denied. You will have the opportunity to make restitution while you’re on parole. At this time in an effort to restore some faith in government, I can’t let it go because of your violation of trust as an elected official.”
6. YMCA leaves town
The YMCA announced in August that it would no longer offer programs in Sealy, leaving former Youth Development Director Betsy Zapalac without a job and local children without Little Dribblers, flag football, ballet and karate programs – at least temporarily.
However, several volunteers stepped up almost immediately and most of the programs are back in motion and being operated by local moms, dads and coaches.
The city opted to go with a different management firm for the local pool, and announced in May that Katy-based Aquatico would be handling swim programs.
“Earlier this year we lost the [pool] contract with the city and we weren’t able to come to terms,” said YMCA public relations executive Omoiye Kinney. “Another provider was selected for the after-school program. We were really only serving about a dozen families with youth sports. We’ve been in Sealy since 2008 and we’ve had absolutely no problems. We want to continue to be partners. We want to continue to re-engage, but we want to do it in the most effective way for the Y and the community.”
Numerous programs are offered in Katy that would be open to Sealy residents, Kinney added, adding that there is no bad blood; it just didn’t make sense to continue programs with such low participation.
7. San Felipe museum opens
The San Felipe de Austin State Historic Site Museum opened in April to hundreds of visitors.
The 10,000-square-foot, $12.5 million facility offers gallery space, a learning area, meeting room, gift shop and technologically-interactive exhibits.
“This is a very space-efficient building,” said Bryan McAuley site manager for the San Felipe de Austin and Fannin Battleground state historic sites.
The building features typical museum features, such as video and historic archives with placards explaining what each piece is, but it also has interactive items that allow users to, for example, make decisions about whether to go to battle against General Santa Anna by hitting a touch-screen tablet in the museum’s “war room.”
Although guided tours will be available, visitors will not be “held hostage” and are free to roam around the facility, McAuley said.
Exhibits feature archaeological items, murals and more. For more information, visit http://www.thc.texas.gov/historic-sites/san-felipe-de-austin-state-historic-site.
8. Officer faces attempted murder suspect at trial
On Nov. 8, a jury sentenced 37-year-old Travis Bluntson to the maximum penalty for which he was eligible, 99 years in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, for attempted capital murder of Sealy Police Officer Eric Bryant.
Bluntson was a convicted felon on drug charges who had been sentenced to prison in the past but when the offense is not “aggravated,” the inmate does not have to serve half of the sentence before he is eligible for parole. Even though Bluntson had been doing time in TDCJ, he could have been released in a few years. In this case he has to serve at least 30 years.
“It’s important to us because we know he’ll be on the street again,” said Police Chief Jay Reeves.
The traffic stop occurred March 13, 2012. Bryant, the city’s K-9 officer, pulled Bluntson over for speeding and not using a turning signal near Rexville Road.
Once Bryant asked Bluntson to step out of the vehicle, the suspect drove off, then made a U-turn and headed back toward the officer.
“I see him point the pistol and I see the muzzle flash,” Bryant said. “As soon as it happened, it hits the window right in front of my face … I duck and I hit the gas. I can feel the glass hit my face.”
Bryant can be heard on the dash cam video saying, “Shots fired, shots fired. I don’t know if I’ve been hit.”
Bluntson was later apprehended because Officer Bryant had asked for his cell phone number during the traffic stop, and it was traced to a Wharton hotel room.
9. Sealy bus driver death
Sealy ISD students were hailed as heroes as they were able to stop a moving school bus and steer it to safety after their driver collapsed while transporting the youth at the end of the school day Sept. 6.
Gerald Ellis Gardner, 73, had just picked up a group of students from Sealy Junior High and was exiting the driveway onto Highway 90 when he “suddenly became unconscious,” school officials reported in a written statement.
One junior high student and three high school students took swift action and steered the bus to safety in order to allow for evacuation. CPR was performed and Sealy Fire Department responded with an ambulance, but “the heroic efforts of these first responders were unfortunately not enough.”
Some are saying it’s a miracle that not only were the 25 students on the bus unharmed, they knew what to do in an emergency situation. In respect for their privacy and healing process, The Sealy News has not attempted to contact the students who were on the bus that day.
Gardner worked for Sealy ISD for six years and prior to that, drove buses for Bellville ISD. He was known as a man of God and an avid bowler and mechanic.
10. Beloved commissioner dies
Austin County Commissioner Doug King, 49, died suddenly Monday, Dec. 17, during an accident on Gebhart Road while repairing a piece of equipment with crew members.
County Judge Tim Lapham issued a statement noting that the county “lost one of its beloved leaders.”
“Two moving pieces closed suddenly on Commissioner King,” the statement reads. “Emergency responders were immediately called to the scene. Commissioner King died on scene from his injuries.”
The commissioner, who recently was re-elected to his third term on the Austin County Commissioners Court, was described as “a dedicated commissioner and father.”
His family issued the following statement:
“As most of you have already heard, our family has suffered a tremendous loss. On Dec. 17, we tragically lost a son, brother, nephew, cousin, friend and most importantly with devastating heartbreak, a Dad. After suffering through the loss of their mother just six years ago this is unfathomable so we ask that you take a moment of your time and say a prayer for his precious children.”
A fund for his three children is set up at First National Bank of Bellville in the name “Doug King Family Fund.” The family asks that donations be made in lieu of flowers.
“Pray for his family in this time of tragedy,” Lapham said in the press release.