San Antonio Express-News

  • Police reports about people who die in custody are late, missing in Texas

    With so many controversial deadly force incidents in the news that raise questions about police tactics, wouldn’t it be great to have a reliable system in place to keep track of lethal police encounters to get a handle on how often they happen?

    The good news is, there’s a statewide system in Texas to track how often people die in police custody. The bad news is, no one is taking responsibility to make sure the reports are accurate or even filed at all.

    When I started working at the Express-News eons ago in 1997, one thing I learned as a cops reporter is that Texas law requires police departments to file a report with the Attorney General’s office every time someone dies in police custody.

    The reports are available to anyone who asks, and under the law, the definition of “custody” includes police shootings.

    Gilbert Flores
    Those “custodial death” reports came to mind this summer after two Bexar County deputies fatally shot a combative suspect, Gilbert Flores, moments after he raised his hands above his head in an apparent attempt to surrender. A bystander, Michael Thomas, recorded the shooting on his cell phone, sold the video footage to KSAT-TV, and it became a national news story.

    The Bexar County Sheriff’s Office and the Bexar County district attorney refused to release any records about the shooting. Since custodial death reports are filed with the Attorney General’s office, I bypassed the sheriff’s office and filed an open records request with the AG for the custodial death report for the Flores shooting.

    Missing information

    When the AG’s office emailed me a copy of the report, there was a gaping hole. At no point did it mention that Flores had his hands raised when he was shot. The sparsely worded narrative stated:

    Officers were dispatched to 24414 Walnut Pass for a family violence call. Suspect attacked the officers with a knife and was shot by the officers after the suspect refused to drop the knife. Suspect resisted arrest.

    Maybe it’s not surprising the sheriff’s office didn’t include that pertinent fact. But the omission raised a basic question: What exactly is required of a law enforcement agency when it files a custodial death report, and is anyone making sure the information is accurate?

    Police accountability

    A few Google searches and phone calls taught me a lot more about the law and the history of custodial death reports. For example, Texas law requires a “good faith effort to obtain all facts relevant to the death and include those facts in the report.” It’s a misdemeanor if the agency files the report but fails to include “facts known or discovered in the investigation.”

    Using the eminently valuable website of the Texas Legislative Reference Library, I tracked down who wrote the law and learned it was a former Bexar County lawmaker named Walter Martinez, who filed his bill in 1983 to help the public learn more about custodial deaths.

    “At the time, a pretty energetic prison reform movement was going on in the state,” Martinez told me. “We really didn’t know what the record was with regard to deaths while in custody.”

    When Martinez’s bill became law, it set up a potentially useful resource for anyone researching police use of force in Texas. But how well did law enforcement agencies actually follow the statute, and did they ever face any repercussions for failing to follow it?

    Those questions led to this news story:

    The Bexar County Sheriff’s Office failed to file at least five state-mandated reports about people who died in police shootings since 2005, was late in filing a dozen more fatality reports and left out key details about two deadly shootings involving deputies.

    The missing details include how one suspect had his hands raised above his head when two deputies opened fire. In another case, a report didn’t quote a deputy who can be heard on dash-camera video saying, “He started attacking me and I shot him.” The deputy then swears, saying either “Fuck him” or “Fuck it.”

    Sheriff’s spokesman James Keith noted that the five missing reports of fatal shootings all occurred before Sheriff Susan Pamerleau took office Jan. 1, 2013. During her tenure, four custodial death reports were late. Keith blamed that on a misunderstanding that’s been cleared up.

    “The investigator didn’t have a clear understanding of the law and the requirement that these had to be submitted within 30 days,” Keith said.

    Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office doesn’t take any steps to make sure law enforcement agencies are being diligent in filing the reports.

    “We are simply a repository for this information,” spokeswoman Katherine Wise wrote in an email when asked if the attorney general’s office has any system in place to flag late reports.

    Texas Custodial Death Report for Police

    While the AG doesn’t check how often reports are filed past the 30-day deadline, there’s a simple way to find out by using the agency’s own data.

    You can request a copy of a large spreadsheet the AG compiles from the custodial death reports submitted by law enforcement agencies. This is a lot more detailed than what the AG posts on its website. Out of 4,250 death reports filed in Texas since 2005, the records show that law enforcement agencies filed nearly 700 reports — 16 percent — after the 30-day deadline. Some reports were more than two years late:

    Late custodial death reports in Texas

    Report Date Days lateDepartment NameFirst NameLast NameAge
    1/25/2012 12:04 1,013Wichita Falls Police Dept.DanielSmith33
    1/10/2013 13:38 1,011Brazoria County Sheriff’s Dept.JesseWoodard27
    7/27/2015 0:00 826Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeNatalioChaparro65
    8/14/2007 9:25 810Harris County Constable Precinct 5RomonGiesburg15
    7/27/2015 0:00 807Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeMelvinBell27
    7/27/2015 0:00 805Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeDonaldBryant84
    7/27/2015 0:00 804Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeAlvinWilson55
    7/27/2015 0:00 774Texas Department Of Criminal JusticePrudencioOrtiz78
    3/2/2015 13:05 719Bastrop County Sheriff’s Dept.JoseCantu78
    7/27/2015 0:00 627Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeDavidGraham48
    2/26/2010 9:48 617Garland Police Dept.TroyPool32
    7/31/2008 7:57 570Potter County Sheriff’s Dept.RaymondMayburry61
    7/22/2014 13:42 543Harris County Sheriff’s OfficeIsidoroResendez32
    2/26/2010 9:57 527Garland Police Dept.DerrickWatson20
    7/20/2015 0:00 505Harris County Sheriff’s OfficeMichaelYates24
    3/2/2012 12:13 490Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeBobbyNeble39
    11/26/2013 13:10 408Bexar County Sheriff’s Dept.JoseGuerra20
    7/20/2015 0:00 392Harris County Sheriff’s OfficeBalkrishnaBooker33
    1/4/2007 13:42 381Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeRonaldDelcamp47
    5/10/2006 16:26 380Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeJeronimoRivera44
    2/25/2015 13:17 374Bastrop County Sheriff’s Dept.YvetteSmith47
    10/5/2007 14:45 367Abilene Police Dept.JefferyTrotter27
    5/9/2013 11:21 366White Oak Police Dept.JasonSlaughter36
    1/22/2007 8:24 366Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeCruzPerea54
    1/22/2007 8:18 366Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeCruzPerea54
    1/1/2007 14:52 365Austin Police Dept.FidelMacedo44
    6/19/2015 12:36 357Midland Police Dept.NyocomusGarnett35
    1/7/2008 10:30 352Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeJanetteBlair51
    7/20/2015 0:00 351Harris County Sheriff’s OfficeVincentHeims49
    2/26/2010 10:04 344Garland Police Dept.RudyElizondo17
    7/20/2015 0:00 342Harris County Sheriff’s OfficeKellyHunckler24
    8/8/2006 14:13 338McAllen Police Dept.NelsonSaenz56
    2/26/2010 10:10 326Garland Police Dept.AbelQuinonez48
    6/26/2007 15:08 288Plainview Police Dept.JoseCeballos34
    6/29/2010 14:24 258Harris County Sheriff’s OfficeRobertBrock27
    7/20/2015 0:00 255Harris County Sheriff’s OfficeLarryJohnson51
    7/20/2015 0:00 245Harris County Sheriff’s OfficeThanhPham34
    11/8/2006 16:44 235Midland Police Dept.PatrickCalanchi28
    7/24/2015 0:00 231Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeMichaelHarrington45
    7/20/2015 0:00 231Harris County Sheriff’s OfficeFiyazHussain16
    6/27/2007 7:38 230Silsbee Police Dept.RobinLynn44
    1/31/2013 13:27 220Harris County Sheriff’s OfficeJohnPinkston53
    6/8/2009 19:54 214Austin Police Dept.AdanMondragon23
    1/31/2013 13:05 212Harris County Sheriff’s OfficeJesusRivera28
    2/18/2009 15:11 209Dallas Police Dept.RichardSmith46
    6/18/2015 15:20 199Midland Police Dept.RosendoRodriguez49
    5/22/2006 9:42 196Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeWesleyCreager43
    12/3/2013 13:40 193Austin Police Dept.JohnThomas56
    5/18/2010 0:00 190McKinney Police Dept.JeremyBates20
    3/29/2010 10:18 189Dallas Police Dept.JerryGray56
    7/20/2015 0:00 185Harris County Sheriff’s OfficeLaranthonyMoore23
    10/20/2005 14:42 184Bowie County Sheriff’s Dept.RobertWilliams54
    3/26/2010 10:03 181Dallas Police Dept.RobertTaylor44
    3/26/2010 11:00 180Dallas Police Dept.AbelMartinez36
    11/8/2006 14:43 173San Antonio Police Dept.KevinMaGirl52
    11/8/2006 10:08 172San Antonio Police Dept.BrounxsyeBarber17
    2/26/2010 10:16 171Garland Police Dept.RonaldChester37
    7/17/2015 0:00 168Harris County Sheriff’s OfficePedroHernandez38
    4/29/2013 15:40 168Franklin County Sheriff’s Dept.JonathanLove29
    6/28/2012 12:49 166Smith County Sheriff’s Dept.IsacharGuerrero47
    3/2/2009 15:49 166Dallas Police Dept.DerrickJones31
    8/9/2011 14:59 164Garland Police Dept.JamesKincaid66
    11/17/2008 14:50 164Dallas Police Dept.DaleLemoine53
    9/12/2011 0:00 163Conroe Police Dept.JamesHill54
    7/1/2008 8:42 160Beaumont Police Dept.MichaelMitchell22
    12/15/2008 14:43 159Dallas Police Dept.RodrigoAguirre25
    4/26/2013 8:37 156Wise County Sheriff’s Dept.DavidMalone29
    11/28/2005 9:15 153Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeEdwinKelley81
    10/29/2008 15:00 152Dallas Police Dept.DanielRoss42
    6/26/2007 14:59 152Plainview Police Dept.ClaraMorris54
    11/17/2005 15:28 149Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeJulieMartinez29
    7/17/2015 0:00 148Harris County Sheriff’s OfficeAntonioWilliams34
    6/29/2010 10:48 145Harris County Sheriff’s OfficeJoseDe La Rosa18
    10/4/2006 8:23 144Richardson Police Dept.KevinNelson37
    7/30/2009 15:15 143Dallas Police Dept.ShirleySouth41
    8/1/2007 10:46 142Texas Department Of Public SafetyMichaelSteggall35
    7/24/2015 0:00 139Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeJoseAlvarado47
    7/24/2015 0:00 138Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeLarryShears63
    7/24/2015 0:00 137Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeClarencePetry50
    7/24/2015 0:00 137Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeMartyRobinson47
    1/20/2010 0:00 135Mission Police Dept.AdanOlvera39
    7/24/2015 0:00 134Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeKwabinaWilson34
    7/24/2015 0:00 134Tarrant County Sheriff’s Dept.LarryCrowley52
    11/9/2006 14:57 134Texas Department Of Public SafetyThomasStrong42
    7/24/2015 0:00 132Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeTimothyWhite60
    7/24/2015 0:00 132Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeCharlesWomack55
    6/16/2006 15:39 132San Marcos Police Dept.LeslieWhited35
    8/17/2011 8:31 131Grand Prairie Police Dept.ThahnNguyen34
    7/24/2015 0:00 130Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeCubiaCollins70
    7/24/2015 0:00 129Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeGaryMiller45
    11/17/2005 15:54 129Texas Department Of Criminal JusticePaulHensley44
    9/15/2005 8:38 129Llano County Sheriff’s Dept.EricWolfe29
    8/4/2009 13:32 128Dallas Police Dept.RosendoNavareno24
    7/24/2015 0:00 125Texas Department Of Criminal JusticePhillipAllen64
    7/5/2011 14:41 123Taylor County Sheriff’s Dept.ErnestBaca49
    7/31/2013 14:07 120Nueces County Sheriff’s Dept.JohnWallace58
    4/24/2008 9:33 120Reeves County Sheriff’s Dept.FranciscoCancino-Rodriguez33
    4/20/2006 13:05 120Baytown Police Dept.JamesPotts51
    7/24/2015 0:00 119Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeTerryPhillips54
    11/17/2005 16:25 119Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeHarryClark56
    1/4/2007 13:52 117Desoto Police Dept.AntonieBell31
    7/24/2015 0:00 115Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeThomasJemmerison58
    7/24/2015 0:00 114Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeMatthewNelson37
    7/17/2015 0:00 114Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeTeleforoJimenez83
    8/3/2012 16:24 114San Antonio Police Dept.mariosoto41
    7/24/2015 0:00 113Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeBlaineDevillier57
    11/22/2005 9:52 113Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeKendrickMcGahee24
    7/24/2015 0:00 111Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeManuelArzola46
    2/5/2013 11:17 110Harris County Sheriff’s OfficeGerritPerkins37
    6/16/2006 14:15 110San Antonio Police Dept.NugentRaspberry44
    7/24/2015 0:00 109Mansfield Police Dept.WendaleWebb44
    2/16/2006 16:45 109San Antonio Police Dept.GeraldSalazar49
    11/18/2005 14:45 109Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeBrandiMarsh25
    11/19/2008 14:53 108Dallas Police Dept.GregoryCarter51
    8/21/2008 12:49 108Dallas Police Dept.ReginaldStarling30
    3/8/2006 8:21 107Van Zandt County Sheriff’s Dept.DaniellBundrick46
    10/13/2009 14:42 106Dallas Police Dept.StaceyParis38
    5/25/2006 14:37 106Nueces County Sheriff’s Dept.SantosGuajardo25
    7/27/2015 0:00 104Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeManuelGarcia70
    7/24/2015 0:00 104Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeMatthewEspinoza29
    11/18/2005 15:07 104Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeMichaelGladney27
    5/10/2006 7:55 103Cameron County Sheriff’s Dept.JoeRamos37
    11/18/2005 15:13 103Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeFultonCarter54
    7/24/2015 0:00 100Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeLloydGore56
    8/8/2006 13:04 100McAllen Police Dept.ArthurRamirez34
    8/2/2006 16:14 100Frio County Sheriff’s Dept.JesusBenavides55
    11/18/2005 15:27 99Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeEarlGuyton74
    7/17/2015 0:00 98Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeSeanFlanders31
    1/24/2012 11:09 98Dallas Police Dept.JacobFord23
    2/16/2006 16:31 98San Antonio Police Dept.CarlO’Neill40
    4/18/2005 13:59 98Temple Police Dept.CurtisLewis56
    7/24/2015 0:00 97Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeTracyMcNulty53
    2/16/2006 8:40 97Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeRayGrimes28
    10/1/2009 15:32 95Dallas Police Dept.JohnnyRose49
    7/21/2009 13:09 95Wichita Falls Police Dept.DanielSmith33
    5/18/2005 15:41 95Comanche County Sheriff’s Dept.AdrianMuniz19
    4/9/2007 14:41 94Mansfield Police Dept.DianeMcIntyre45
    2/16/2006 9:23 94Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeJosePeralta47
    7/28/2010 10:54 93Hood County Sheriff’s Dept.MichaelPollard29
    3/9/2009 10:33 93Houston Police Dept.PeterIoannidis50
    8/2/2006 16:26 93Milam County Sheriff’s Dept.RickyShaw46
    11/21/2005 8:00 93Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeGeorgeRodriguez39
    7/28/2010 12:29 92Hunt County Sheriff’s Dept.RandyWallick54
    2/1/2006 10:39 92Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeJoeMartinez33
    2/26/2010 9:59 91Garland Police Dept.AntonioAlonzo27
    2/16/2006 8:26 91Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeRubenRamirez45
    7/24/2015 0:00 90Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeJosePizano48
    11/16/2006 11:09 90Hudson Oaks Police Dept.BillyWeckar53
    2/1/2006 10:29 90Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeRichardGoree54
    11/18/2005 15:41 90Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeJamesHolland60
    7/27/2015 0:00 89Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeCharlesLockhart60
    8/23/2013 13:51 89Texas Department Of Public SafetyEstebanSmith23
    2/16/2006 8:55 89Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeDionJamerson28
    11/22/2005 14:09 89Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeBillyDown54
    8/2/2006 16:44 88El Paso Police Dept.AlfonsoDeAnda35
    2/16/2006 15:47 88Frio County Sheriff’s Dept.RobertHernandez36
    6/3/2015 11:17 87Wise County Sheriff’s Dept.LeslieBurnham49
    11/26/2013 15:44 87Bexar County Sheriff’s Dept.MathewJackson30
    2/1/2006 9:31 87Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeEdwardAlcazar62
    2/3/2011 11:48 86Cameron County Sheriff’s Dept.JoseGuerrero51
    3/23/2010 17:39 86Dallas Police Dept.DontellTerrell19
    2/16/2006 11:15 86Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeChristopherFant20
    6/26/2007 14:50 85Grimes County Sheriff’s Dept.LarryKey38
    2/16/2006 12:52 85Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeJohnGarrett34
    10/20/2005 9:21 85Lipscomb County Sheriff’s Dept.EmilyCorbin20
    12/2/2011 10:03 84South Houston Police Dept.DanielCisneros23
    11/15/2006 12:33 84Fort Worth Police Dept.NoahLopez25
    11/21/2005 8:15 84Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeJorgeRodriguez27
    9/2/2014 10:33 83Amarillo Police Dept.JeremiahFarris36
    7/30/2013 11:04 83Deaf Smith County Sheriff’s Dept.GaryMcQuigg43
    10/6/2010 8:57 83Dallas Police Dept.CedricHill57
    2/16/2006 10:56 83Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeNelsonEscolero45
    2/1/2006 10:09 83Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeTeanBowens53
    6/29/2010 13:45 81Harris County Sheriff’s OfficeChristopherBrooks26
    8/3/2006 9:26 81Travis County Sheriff’s Dept.MarkLarkins49
    7/28/2010 13:26 80Bell County Sheriff’s Dept.LincolnKephart46
    10/14/2009 13:11 80Dallas Police Dept.JuanReyes-Gallardo27
    2/1/2006 9:55 80Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeRobertAnderson50
    7/24/2015 0:00 79Travis County Sheriff’s OfficeCoreyCarlson50
    7/17/2015 0:00 79El Paso Police Dept.ErikSalas22
    5/26/2015 10:15 79Travis County Sheriff’s OfficeChallaseJennings47
    5/11/2007 8:24 79Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeGerardoVillarreal42
    3/2/2006 10:39 79Cameron County Sheriff’s Dept.SantiagoMaldonado25
    2/21/2006 8:57 79Bell County Sheriff’s Dept.MarvinCarter70
    2/16/2006 12:58 79Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeRalphJackson50
    1/26/2006 9:54 79Dallas Police Dept.RodricusCausey20
    6/8/2005 10:58 79Garland Police Dept.KevinGarland35
    4/18/2005 10:30 79Pasadena Police Dept.VicenteDesena27
    4/18/2005 8:24 79Harris County Sheriff’s Dept.RonnieHoward42
    8/2/2007 15:58 78Dallas Police Dept.TommySmith39
    9/15/2005 9:23 78Hewitt Police Dept.TravisCollins34
    9/7/2010 11:30 77San Patricio County Sheriff’s Dept.CharlesHuett38
    12/19/2007 16:24 77Lufkin Police Dept.BrandonKort29
    11/15/2006 10:43 77San Marcos Police Dept.ChristopherGonzales19
    8/8/2006 14:57 77Wichita Falls Police Dept.TimothyAlfaro26
    11/21/2005 8:25 77Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeLeonardPrice40
    9/16/2013 10:35 76Bexar County Sheriff’s Dept.FredySuazo-Perez28
    7/28/2010 13:12 76Coleman County Sheriff’s Dept.JohnDobbins24
    8/3/2006 10:29 76Dallas Police Dept.BenMiller36
    12/22/2005 10:15 76Mission Police Dept.JoseLopez40
    11/8/2006 15:07 75Corpus Christi Police Dept.ElcideSylve48
    8/3/2006 10:12 75Corpus Christi Police Dept.MadelineGarcia34
    2/7/2006 10:53 74Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeDavidMagnusson33
    7/31/2013 15:31 73Concho County Sheriff’s Dept.ErnestoGonzalez29
    12/17/2007 15:05 73Dallas Police Dept.JuanRobles54
    2/9/2007 10:21 73Hopkins County Sheriff’s Dept.TerriMinty36
    8/8/2006 13:12 73Dallas Police Dept.GregorySteward32
    8/1/2013 11:10 72Bosque County Sheriff’s Dept.AlanStokes22
    1/20/2011 15:04 72Texas Department Of Criminal JusticePhillpSpeckter58
    10/29/2008 14:19 72Littlefield Police Dept.RANDALLMcCULLOUGH38
    2/9/2007 13:00 72San Patricio County Sheriff’s Dept.SimonDiaz49
    11/8/2006 14:53 72El Paso Police Dept.WilliamEcker58
    2/16/2006 16:13 72Montgomery County Sheriff’s Dept.DanielBeasley45
    2/16/2006 14:09 72Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeAndrewCervantes59
    11/22/2005 14:27 72Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeRaymondGonzales59
    5/18/2012 10:20 71Dallas Police Dept.LuisEscalante23
    11/21/2005 7:56 71Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeRobertGomez31
    10/20/2005 11:01 71Denton County Sheriff’s Dept.BrianSavage37
    10/20/2005 10:34 71Houston Police Dept.RonaldNewman52
    4/18/2005 10:14 71San Antonio Police Dept.DoroteoTorres22
    3/15/2005 16:47 71Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeRodgerJenkins, Jr.25
    5/9/2006 9:34 70Bexar County Sheriff’s Dept.RobertAleman62
    11/22/2005 14:22 70Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeHeilryAtkins65
    5/18/2005 15:51 70Dallas County Sheriff’s Dept.CharlesTownsend58
    4/18/2005 9:15 70Texas Department Of Criminal JusticePedroRodriguez54
    2/18/2014 13:08 69Malakoff Police Dept.WilliamLivezy70
    2/13/2014 9:02 69University of Incarnate WordCameronRedus23
    11/8/2006 16:16 69Hunt County Sheriff’s Dept.GlendaJackson42
    8/3/2006 9:04 69Gregg County Sheriff’s Dept.AdolphusRandall51
    2/16/2006 13:41 69Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeShanWoods31
    3/15/2005 16:53 69Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeSamSalas45
    5/21/2015 13:48 68Austin Police Dept.JamesSizer62
    8/3/2006 16:24 68Dallas Police Dept.JasonPabis31
    11/21/2005 8:43 68Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeCarolynWells41
    10/21/2005 8:39 68Kinney County Sheriff’s Dept.EulalioGarza21
    3/18/2005 14:12 68Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeFrankJames74
    3/16/2005 7:41 68Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeBernardBrown49
    7/30/2013 15:17 67Guadalupe County Sheriff’s Dept.DonaldAdams49
    5/31/2011 15:10 67Ector County Sheriff’s Dept.JuanCarrasco33
    2/22/2010 11:38 67Dumas Police Dept.JohnWard38
    11/5/2009 16:44 67Kaufman County Sheriff’s Dept.JeromeNicholson81
    12/19/2007 15:54 67Collin County Sheriff’s Dept.BokPark44
    8/3/2006 8:50 67Aransas County Sheriff’s Dept.MichaelSolis28
    2/16/2006 13:30 67Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeEnnisJohnson33
    4/18/2005 14:43 67Plano Police Dept.AnthonySanders30
    4/27/2012 8:34 66Randall County Sheriff’s Dept.TaraMiller46
    2/2/2011 13:57 66Parker County Sheriff’s Dept.DarrylBrady46
    5/17/2010 8:54 66Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeAntonioHicks33
    2/22/2008 11:27 66Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeArthurDuku24
    9/17/2007 14:13 66Dallas Police Dept.MatthewLayton25
    3/18/2005 14:27 66Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeThomasSelf23
    3/18/2005 14:20 66Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeBennieGonzalez60
    11/5/2009 16:31 65Collin County Sheriff’s Dept.ChristopherSchell29
    8/3/2006 12:58 65Denison Police Dept.BobbyWadford55
    2/16/2006 13:25 65Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeHowardEllis33
    10/20/2005 9:35 65Tarrant County Sheriff’s Dept.ChristopherWaller46
    3/18/2005 14:34 65Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeMichaelBennett75
    2/10/2015 12:32 64Bexar County Sheriff’s Dept.ChristopherDoss41
    2/10/2014 0:00 64Denton County Sheriff’s Dept.MichaelStolz77
    8/22/2008 16:17 64San Patricio County Sheriff’s Dept.RaulGomez46
    6/26/2007 16:29 64Midland Police Dept.ChadSanchez20
    11/15/2006 15:45 64Texas Department Of Public SafetyKevinVickers48
    9/14/2005 16:42 64Euless Police Dept.KevinOmas17
    4/18/2005 9:09 64Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeNathanielWatts50
    11/25/2008 9:06 63Longview Police Dept.KevinWilliams32
    6/29/2007 9:45 63Rockwall County Sheriff’s Dept.JamesHetchler45
    11/16/2006 10:27 63Garland Police Dept.CurtisHarwell39
    2/16/2006 14:21 63Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeNormanColburn55
    1/26/2006 9:41 63Comal County Sheriff’s Dept.IrvingWest48
    4/19/2005 8:11 63Fort Worth Police Dept.JohnMorrison59
    4/18/2005 8:58 63Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeDarrellGilbert36
    3/18/2005 14:40 63Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeJuanCantu54
    4/5/2013 15:04 62Copperas Cove Police Dept.KristoferGagliardi24
    12/10/2012 14:25 62Dallas Police Dept.MarshallMoreno43
    11/22/2005 14:39 62Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeRobertHathaway74
    10/20/2005 13:13 62Allen Police Dept.EdgarVera45
    10/20/2005 9:59 62Dallas Police Dept.DouglasBlackstone24
    4/18/2005 11:04 62Lubbock Police Dept.PedroAlcorte43
    8/16/2006 14:08 61Williamson County Sheriff’s Dept.JoeThornton29
    8/3/2006 8:22 61Randall County Sheriff’s Dept.MatthewGriffin46
    7/20/2006 10:04 61Dallas Police Dept.DashaunPearson27
    2/28/2006 15:50 61Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeNicholasOrtiz22
    2/16/2006 15:13 61Brazos County Sheriff’s DeptKendraWillliams29
    4/18/2005 12:43 61Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeRaymondTristan65
    3/18/2005 14:51 61El Paso County Sheriff’s Dept.RobertoDiaz55
    3/3/2005 14:07 61Travis County Sheriff’s Dept.MichaelDickson51
    11/14/2013 7:47 60Johnson County Sheriff’s Dept.GregoryMcElvy35
    7/31/2013 16:43 60Corsicana Police Dept.EliseoMercado-Resendiz23
    7/31/2013 11:46 60Ferris Police Dept.Angel (aka Oscar)Lopez (aka Martinez)29
    2/3/2011 13:41 60Robertson County Sheriff’s Dept.DianeHiggins55
    12/11/2009 12:40 60Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeTheodoreNelson55
    11/17/2008 15:15 60Dallas Police Dept.EricParenzan22
    3/1/2006 7:28 60Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeKennethThemis45
    2/21/2006 9:28 60Houston Police Dept.RitchieBrown22
    4/18/2005 15:44 60Travis County Sheriff’s Dept.RickyHerron51
    3/24/2005 13:24 60Texas Department Of Public SafetySamuelStrange, Jr.58
    3/3/2005 14:16 60Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeDarrylWallace44
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    10/1/2014 16:45 32Laredo Police Dept.JoseGarza30
    3/12/2014 16:31 32Aldine I.S.D. Police DepartmentStevenAllen24
    7/27/2012 14:52 32Tarrant County Sheriff’s Dept.IrvinDorsey53
    2/17/2012 16:35 32Texas Department Of Public SafetyEzequielSerna14
    9/3/2011 0:39 32Metro Dept. of Public SafetyNoltonLaFleur29
    5/3/2010 16:03 32Texas Department Of Public SafetyZackeryWelch22
    11/19/2009 13:06 32Dallas County Sheriff’s Dept.BernardoPena44
    9/24/2009 17:14 32Texas Department Of Public SafetyMichaelBradshaw54
    3/20/2007 15:14 32Laredo Police Dept.MichaelVillareal33
    2/13/2007 9:08 32Waco Police Dept.FranciscoOlivarez33
    10/4/2006 10:04 32Payne Springs Police DepartmentMichaelRecio19
    9/7/2006 11:22 32Wichita Falls Police Dept.JoseRamirez24
    8/23/2006 9:21 32Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeShaneMorris35
    8/14/2006 11:32 32Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeGuadalupeRosales67
    8/14/2006 11:19 32Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeMichaelWalker20
    1/27/2006 9:22 32Dallas County Sheriff’s Dept.LarryGurst53
    1/27/2006 9:11 32Texas Department Of Public SafetyJacobThompson18
    1/27/2006 8:24 32Taylor County Sheriff’s Dept.DominicPizotti60
    12/1/2005 9:29 32Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeCharlieLong51
    10/28/2005 8:01 32Austin Police Dept.MichaelClark33
    8/11/2005 15:26 32Dimmit County Sheriff’s Dept.MichaelCerna26
    7/26/2005 14:59 32Fort Worth Police Dept.CarolynDaniels35
    5/17/2005 14:11 32Bexar County Sheriff’s Dept.EdwardSauceda46
    4/19/2005 10:40 32Harris County Sheriff’s Dept.RalphMontez44
    11/12/2013 15:45 31Tarrant County Sheriff’s Dept.TimothyGhormley64
    1/23/2013 7:17 31Fort Worth Police Dept.DerrickBurleson33
    4/16/2012 17:27 31Tarrant County Sheriff’s Dept.WillieSmith65
    2/21/2012 9:21 31Texas Department Of Public SafetyMichaelBarnes45
    2/15/2012 7:04 31Fort Worth Police Dept.DanielGuerra24
    11/16/2011 11:09 31Granbury Regional Juvenile Justice CenterJordanAdams14
    11/2/2011 16:46 31Bexar County Sheriff’s Dept.JasonBiesenbach40
    10/20/2011 9:21 31Amarillo Police Dept.LeonStephens72
    1/5/2010 9:10 31Houston Police Dept.StuartProulx49
    9/22/2009 16:49 31Gregg County Sheriff’s Dept.RobertFoster57
    8/4/2008 11:06 31Fort Worth Police Dept.GeneKetner38
    2/4/2008 9:18 31San Angelo Police Dept.GregCranfill42
    8/28/2007 11:55 31Val Verde County Sheriff’s Dept.AlbertoREYES-Alvarez25
    6/13/2007 8:15 31Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeDavidMorris55
    2/7/2007 13:01 31Houston Police Dept.OmarEsparza21
    9/5/2006 11:04 31Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeTerrethWhite21
    4/28/2006 13:02 31Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeErnestSims68
    3/31/2006 12:58 31San Antonio Police Dept.SteveJohnson43
    3/28/2006 14:01 31Harris County Sheriff’s Dept.ThomasJohnson59
    3/28/2006 11:07 31Brownsville Police Dept.EdgarLopez17
    12/22/2005 13:43 31Pasadena Police Dept.BarneyGreen38
    10/20/2005 15:29 31Corpus Christi Police Dept.GilbertoLimon42
    7/26/2005 13:54 31Montague County Sheriff’s Dept.RandallWiggins46
    5/18/2005 10:23 31Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeAnthonyEvans25
    3/24/2005 14:57 31Texas Department Of Criminal JusticeGonzaloGarcia55

    Late report

    In Bexar County, a report that was more than a year late was filed with the attorney general’s office Nov. 26, 2013. It described how Sgt. Frank Bellino had responded to a call Oct. 14, 2012, for a possibly intoxicated man who was walking along Culebra Road and creating a hazard for passing drivers.

    Joe Guerra
    The report says the unarmed man, Joe Guerra, 19, became aggravated and refused to obey instructions. “He charged at me,” Bellino was quoted as saying, and Bellino opened fire. Guerra later died at a hospital.

    I learned a lot about this case from a federal civil rights lawsuit filed against Bellino and the sheriff’s office by Guerra’s family. Their lawyers unearthed dash-camera footage from a patrol car that recorded Bellino moments after the shooting explaining what happened.

    “He just went fucking nuts on me,” Bellino told a fellow deputy. “He started attacking me and I shot him.” Bellino then can be heard swearing, saying either “Fuck him” or “Fuck it.”

    Sean Lyons, a lawyer representing the Guerra family, told me there’s no question that Guerra was inebriated, but he disputed claims that Guerra was in any condition to fight. The custodial death report in Guerra’s case was not only a year late, he said, but paints an inaccurate picture of what happened.

    “You’re basically learning the opposite of what went wrong,” Lyons said of the report. “Because the report goes out of its way to make it sound like Bellino did all he could to de-escalate the situation and that Guerra was the aggressor, when in fact, Bellino immediately threatened Guerra’s life, threatened to fucking shoot his ass, and used escalating language.”

    Keith declined to answer most questions about the case, citing the litigation against the sheriff’s office. But he did say the office believes that the custodial death reports are supposed to be a general account of what happened.

    “The thought is, the investigation is still ongoing, you’re not going to know every single answer, every specific detail within that 30-day time period,” Keith said.

    Martinez, who served as a state representative from 1983 to 1985, said the law governing custodial death reports might need to be revised and strengthened to clearly show who’s responsible for making sure the records are accurate and filed on time for the public to review.

    “If no one’s following up or taking responsibility for ensuring that it’s done, then there’s a break in the chain,” Martinez said.

  • How to check safety inspections for any elevator or escalator in Texas

    The view from the Tower of the Americas in San Antonio
    The view from the top of the Tower of the Americas, the tallest structure in San Antonio.

    The elevators at the Tower of the Americas in San Antonio look like something out of the Jetsons. Yet every once in a while, the futuristic contraptions get stuck, stranding people hundreds of feet in the air.

    Last week it happened again. Firefighters rescued 14 people, including two children, who were trapped inside a stalled elevator. This time they were only 50 feet high. But on a hot summer day they had no air conditioning for part of their two-hour ordeal.

    Tower of the Americas in San Antonio
    The Tower of the Americas and a stalled elevator, Dec. 28, 2012
    If all these incidents are making you wonder about the safety record of elevators at the tower or your office building, there’s a quick way to find answers in Texas.

    An obscure state agency, the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, oversees a hodgepodge of industries such as barbers, boilermakers and tow-truck companies to name a few.

    Elevators and escalators are also under TDLR’s purview. State law requires elevator and escalator owners to hire a licensed inspector annually to check the machinery. Many owners also hire contractors to conduct routine maintenance and repairs.

    The results of the annual inspections are sent to TDLR, which has been posting them all online since 2001. The first time I worked on a story about a stuck elevator at the Tower of the Americas in 2006, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that TDLR offered a quick way access those annual inspection reports and other documents online.

    Not every agency makes this kind of thing so easy, even in 2015.

    Searching for records

    On the search page, you can type parameters such as owner name or building address:

    TDLR's elevator inspection search page

    Click on the search result you want — in this case, the Tower of the Americas — and the next page shows how many elevators and escalators are in the building. Clicking on the “show documents” button takes you to a list of downloadable inspection reports and correspondence.

    Elevator inspection page on TDLR's website

    It’s a timely, useful resource. But it’s not perfect.

    Past tragedy

    While TDLR offers easy access to individual inspection reports, the agency doesn’t plug in the results of those inspections into any kind of database that could be analyzed and show just how often major problems are found.

    And a tragedy at the Crockett Hotel in San Antonio revealed weaknesses in Texas’ regulatory system on Dec. 28, 2011, when a 65-year-old housekeeper named Gloria Rodriguez fell six stories to her death down an elevator shaft.

    Past inspections for the elevator looked relatively benign. But after the fatal accident, TDLR’s chief inspector, Lawrence Taylor, scrutinized the elevator and found a litany of problems. In tests, Taylor saw the elevator car stop at a landing, then move upward of its own accord with no signal to run.

    Taylor called that a “matter of grave concern.”

    No one actually did anything meaningful or effective to uncover the real problem”

    “Someone with special knowledge of the elevator control system knew that there was a problem with the brake and intentionally installed a jumper and moved wires in an attempt to overcome the problem(s),” Taylor wrote in his report. “However, no one actually did anything meaningful or effective to uncover the real problem(s) and embark on a course of action that would have solved the problem and prevented this tragic event.

    “This tragedy was preventable,” Taylor wrote, “and was a direct result of the failure to have the elevator inspected as required and inadequate maintenance.”

    TDLR fined the owner of the Crockett Hotel and its contractor, Otis Elevator Co., nearly $86,000 for Rodriguez’s death.

    Over the years I’ve spoken with TDLR employees about the valuable service the agency provides by making so much information available on its website for so many years. But given the tragedy at the Crockett Hotel, just how reliable are the state-mandated annual inspections?

    “When you consider how many elevators there are in the state and that they’re working every day, I think overall they are effective,” said Susan Stanford, a spokeswoman for TDLR.

    Customers can help keep each other safe by checking certificates that are supposed to be posted near every elevator and see whether it’s overdue for an annual inspection, Stanford said. And she emphasized that elevator accidents are rare. Even at the Tower of the Americas, where elevators routinely get stuck, the incidents are usually a sign that safety mechanisms worked.

    “Instances involving a major violation don’t happen often, but they do happen,” Stanford added in an email she sent me today. “Inspectors identifying ‘reportable conditions’ are required to notify TDLR and must request the owner’s cooperation in shutting down the equipment until it is repaired or brought into compliance.”

    Escalator danger

    While it’s unnerving to be trapped inside an elevator at the 622-foot-tall tower, mundane escalators harm more people. Escalator and elevator owners have to report injuries to TDLR, and in San Antonio the injuries usually stem from escalator accidents. In 2010, a 3-year-old child trying to go up an escalator at Rolling Oaks Mall fell and got two fingers stuck. They were amputated.

    I didn’t find much fodder in the most recent elevator inspection records posted for the Tower of the Americas. But after an earlier incident at the tower on Dec. 28, 2012, the search was more productive and led to this news story:

    All three elevators at the Tower of the Americas, where several employees were trapped early Friday in one of the cars about 400 feet in the air, were behind schedule on state-mandated annual inspections, records show.

    The Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation sent notices in May to Landry’s Inc., the company that operates the city-owned landmark, warning that inspections due in April were late. The licensing department oversees elevator safety.

    Landry’s later told the agency it completed the inspections in September and October. But the company hasn’t yet filed the results of the inspections for at least one of the elevators, according to a Dec. 27 notice the agency sent to Landry’s.

    Past inspections at the Tower of the Americas uncovered rusted brackets that came loose from the tower structure. Inspectors also recommended adjusting safety mechanisms for all three elevators. The mechanisms, called “governors,” control speed. One of the elevators flunked a safety test for its governor.

    So these inspection reports can be interesting reading. Just remember the Crockett Hotel and keep in mind you might not be seeing a complete picture of an elevator’s safety record.

  • Up in Flames: Flares wasting natural gas in the Eagle Ford Shale

    If you drive through the bustling oil patch of the Eagle Ford Shale near San Antonio, it won’t take long to find the surreal sight of flares burning natural gas like perpetual bonfires.

    Natural gas is cheap. Pipelines are expensive. So instead of collecting the fossil fuel, many oil and gas operators build tall, metallic spires called flare stacks to burn the gas and release it into the Texas sky.

    Natural gas flareFor years, no one could say with any certainty how much natural gas was going to waste. Everyone knew flaring in shale country was a problem. But officials at the Railroad Commission of Texas, the state agency that oversees the oil and gas industry, had never released figures showing how much was being burned in the Eagle Ford.

    Instead, the agency released only statewide figures showing the overall volume of flaring was low compared to overall production — about one percent.

    Whenever a government agency touts rosy statistics, there’s probably a database behind those numbers. And if you obtain that raw data, you might be able to figure out what’s really going on.

    Today’s Express-News story about flares burning 20 billion cubic feet of natural gas so far in 2014 is a good reminder of the value of public databases — and why journalists need to get their hands on them to analyze the records for themselves.

    There’s no question analyzing data can be a lot of work. We filed an open records request with the Railroad Commission for a copy of the flaring data in the spring of 2013. It’s a huge database of monthly reports showing how much oil and gas is produced in Texas and where those hydrocarbons go. Flaring and venting are one of the “disposition” categories in the data.

    I drove to the agency’s Austin headquarters with a flash drive that could handle the enormous database. It was a beast — more than 25 gigabytes of 85 million records. All that summer we used software to convert the Railroad Commission’s archaic data to CSV files, a format we could use in the newsroom. After that, it took weeks to crunch the numbers and uncover the hidden pitfalls.

    Why go through the hassle? Why should frazzled journalists take the time to learn how to analyze data? Don’t we have enough to do?

    The answers is, journalists need to know a lot of skills — how to interview people, how to write clearly, how to find information. Analyzing public data should be a part of that skill set. It opens doors to stories that couldn’t otherwise be told. This is what journalism is all about.

    When we were finished reviewing the flaring data, our analysis showed that the volume of flared gas in Texas had increased by 400 percent since 2009. And most of that gas came from the Eagle Ford Shale near San Antonio. This chart essentially told the story of flaring in the shale that no one had figured out — not even state officials:

    Quantifying the volume of flared gas opened up new questions and possibilities. When Projects Editor David Sheppard asked how much air pollution was created by all this flaring, we found out there was a way to calculate an estimate. We obtained emails from the state’s environmental agency, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, that showed how to estimate levels of air pollution created by gas flares. Those formulas were based on the volume of flared gas – which we had. So we plugged those numbers into Excel spreadsheets to come up with the amounts of sulfur, volatile organic compounds and other pollutants that came from flaring in the region.

    In August, the Express-News published the results of our investigation, Up in Flames. The total volume of wasted gas in the shale from 2009 to 2012 was almost 39 billion cubic feet — enough to meet the annual heating and cooking needs for all 335,700 residential customers who relied on gas last year in CPS Energy’s service area, which includes San Antonio.

    Sunday’s story is based on a fresh batch of flaring figures obtained by Express-News Data Editor Joseph Kokenge, who scraped the data directly from the Railroad Commission’s website.

    The new numbers for 2013 and 2014 show that flares burned and wasted even more of the fossil fuel. In the first seven months of 2014, more than 20 billion cubic feet of gas went up in smoke — enough to fuel CPS Energy’s 800 megawatt Rio Nogales power plant during the same time frame.

  • Telling stories about the unthinkable: How three journalists shined a spotlight on child abuse

    Sarah Brasse
    Sarah Brasse

    In February 2009, an 8-year-old girl from Schertz died, alone, of acute appendicitis — a disease that could have easily been treated if caught in time.

    In the hours leading up to her death, people concerned about the girl — including officers from the Schertz Police Department — had warned the Texas Department of Child Protective Services that she was a victim of neglect.

    CPS didn’t act. And on Feb. 5, 2009, authorities found the girl’s body in a soiled bed.

    Her name was Sarah Brasse.

    It wasn’t so long ago in Texas that you would have had a tough time learning any of those tragic details.

    In fact, according to the state officials in charge of protecting children from abusive adults, you would have had no legal right to even know Brasse’s name.

    And you certainly wouldn’t be able to know the agency missed opportunities to help Brasse.

    But a decade of diligent reporting by three Express-News journalists shined a spotlight of transparency on tragedies involving Brasse and scores of other children in San Antonio, helping the public understand the unfathomable.

  • San Antonio lawyer Alberto Acevedo says he bribed judge, got favorable treatment

    Express-News Reporter Guillermo Contreras, who covers the federal-courts beat, has been writing scoop after scoop about an FBI investigation at the Bexar County courthouse in San Antonio. The latest bombshell is a story about this plea deal for local defense lawyer Alberto “Al” Acevedo Jr., who lays out in excruciating detail how he bribed Bexar County District Judge Angus McGinty by giving him cash, paying for car repairs and selling the judge’s Mercedes for him:

    “In exchange for these bribes, Judge McGinty provided favorable judicial rulings which benefited me and my clients,” Acevedo says in the court document. “Judge McGinty provided these favorable judicial rulings as requested, and as opportunities arose. These favorable rulings included leniency at sentencing and less restrictive conditions of release.”

    San Antonio lawyer AcevedoThe clients included a man who was convicted of DWI and sentenced by McGinty to three years imprisonment. In court, McGinty had said the defendant had committed so many offenses it didn’t make any sense to put him on probation. Yet after Acevedo asked him to reduce the sentence, the judge did just that and sentenced him to four years community supervision:

    On Sept. 10, Gabriel A. Lopez stood before then-state District Judge Angus McGinty and received three years in prison and a $1,500 fine for his no-contest plea to drunken driving.

    He admitted his blood alcohol level was 0.21 — more than 21/2 times the legal limit. It was his third driving-while-intoxicated conviction.

    “There comes a time when someone has committed so many offenses that it doesn’t make sense to put them on probation,” McGinty told Lopez, 35, who appeared with attorney Leandro Renaud.

    The judge noted Lopez had 11 prior criminal cases and had received probation four times, while three of those were revoked.

    “That’s unacceptable, Mr. Lopez,” McGinty admonished. “I do not think probation is appropriate.”

    But just three days later, on Sept. 13, Lopez stood before McGinty again, this time with lawyer Al Acevedo Jr. And this time, he walked out a happier man after the judge changed Lopez’s sentence to four years of probation.

    “Mr. Lopez, when you were here last, and I sentenced you, it’s because I thought you had earned the right to go to” prison, McGinty said. “Your attorney has done a good job of pointing out some facts that I didn’t adequately consider before.”

    In reality, the FBI has alleged, Acevedo had the good graces of the judge because he had served as McGinty’s personal car service — paying for repairs on the jurist’s two luxury cars with the expectation that the scales of justice would tilt heavily in favor of Acevedo’s clients.

    Later, Acevedo’s law partner congratulated Acevedo. “I guess it does make a difference givin’, givin’ people money, right?”

    Acevedo laughed. “Sure does,” he replied.

    Other clients that benefited from the judge’s leniency included an alleged bank robber and a man charged with aggravated robbery.

    McGinty resigned after word of the federal investigation spread but hasn’t yet been charged.

  • Saying goodbye to an ‘Unsung Hero’

    The last time I saw Kelly Guckian, we had taken her out for lunch on her last day at the San Antonio Express-News before she embarked on a new journey at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I snapped this picture of Kelly and our colleagues outside the Express-News building 17 months ago:

    Kelly Guckian and the Express-News crew

    There she is in the middle with the slightly mischievous smile. See how everyone else is squinting in the bright Texas sun? Kelly’s the one flaunting sunglasses. Clearly the smartest one in the bunch.

    A subset of journalists in the news business knows how to obtain government data, analyze it and tell readers something new about the world.

    And within that niche, there are experts like Kelly. The ones who really know their stuff. Whenever a data problem stumped me, I’d turn around at my desk and ask, “Hey, Kelly, how do you …” And no matter what I asked, I’ll be damned if Kelly didn’t know the answer every time.

    Years ago, after the death of former state Sen. Frank Madla and his family in a tragic house fire, Kelly, Karisa King and I analyzed fire-response time data we obtained from the San Antonio Fire Department. I remember this story very well because it’s a powerful example of how public data can empower journalists to tell readers what’s really going on in their community. Our story said:

    City records show the Fire Department’s mission of protecting lives and property is clashing with San Antonio’s appetite for new land.

    In the past six years, firefighters rushed to inner-city blazes far more quickly than to fires in popular outlying areas that attract thousands of new homeowners.

    Delays on the city’s edges plague rich and poor alike, from the exclusive enclave of the Dominion to low-income neighborhoods like Sunrise, a struggling community on the far East Side.

    San Antonio annexed many of these neighborhoods despite protests by residents, who complained the city would fail to provide swift fire protection.

    The city’s own records reveal that most of the time, those fears came true.

    You can’t write that kind of story without knowing how to analyze public data for yourself. Kelly got that.

    Kelly started out in the news business as a photo archivist in 1994. But then she was drawn to the geeky goodness of computer-assisted reporting. This was her calling, and she excelled through intelligence, generosity and hard work. Kelly went to school in her spare time and rose through the ranks to become database editor at the Express-News.

    But it was a hard climb. Like I said, computer-assisted reporting is a niche field. Not everyone understands the work that goes into it or sees a need for it. But many of Kelly’s colleagues saw how she was improving the newspaper. When the Express-News created a new “Unsung Hero” category for the Philip True awards in 2004, the newsroom staff overwhelmingly nominated her to be the first recipient.

    Kelly loved to learn about this intriguing, challenging field of journalism. She would have kept on learning, and she would have been generous with her knowledge.

    But five months ago, Kelly was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, a ferocious disease.

    Yesterday, Kelly died.

    I’ll miss Kelly’s cheerful spirit. Her amazing desire to learn. And her mischievous smile.

  • San Antonio Express-News launches paywall

    San Antonio Express-News building
    Photo credit: Sean McGee
    Our new paid site was unveiled today. We still have the free site at that will offer things like breaking news, entertainment and event calendars. But in-depth stories and other features will now be tucked behind a paywall at

    I’m not sure how I feel about paywalls on news sites, but I see some upsides. Thanks to the paywall, we don’t have to chase page views, so there’s no link bait or bikini-babe slideshows. There’s no extra cost for print subscribers, which rewards them for buying the newspaper. And the new site looks drop-dead gorgeous. It’s actually a pleasure to read without the distracting flash ads.

    This is an interesting strategy. will be free and post potentially viral content, while will, hopefully, generate revenue from subscribers.

    What do you think?

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