Naked City

Austin Stories

Six months after an appeals court set aside his 1986 conviction for a crime he didn't commit, Carlos Lavernia, a Cuban immigrant, remains in the Travis County jail after a recent setback dealt by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. Lavernia was convicted of several sexual assaults that took place along the Barton Creek greenbelt in the early Eighties; he spent more than 15 years in prison before he was exonerated by DNA evidence (see "Double Jeopardy" by Amy Smith, Feb. 23). Karen Crawford, Lavernia's immigration lawyer, had asked the INS district counsel in San Antonio to join her in a motion to reopen Lavernia's case, which she hopes will ultimately lead to his release. The district counsel refused, so Crawford -- who is representing Lavernia pro bono -- said she will file another motion this week seeking to have her client's case reopened before an immigration judge in Atlanta. The INS maintains that Lavernia has missed previous deadlines to reopen his case due to his lengthy prison stay; they say he should be returned to Cuba based on a 1982 conviction of indecent exposure involving a child. Crawford argues that Lavernia, who came to the U.S. in 1980 as part of a massive Cuban boatlift, has already paid for that conviction many times over. If Lavernia is granted a hearing before a judge, Crawford says she will argue that her client should be granted asylum in the U.S. and allowed to live in the Austin area, where family members reside…

Council Member Beverly Griffith's mother, Rojean Dodgen of Temple, passed away last week after a battle with lung cancer. She was 87 years old. Funeral services were held in Temple on Friday; Griffith's brother Randy Dodgen delivered the eulogy on behalf of Dodgen's three children, including Griffith's sister, Karen Long. Our condolences to the council member and her family. …

That loud buzzing sound you hear isn't the City Council shredding another $1.4 million of your money to buy the Austin Police Department an expensive new toy. It is the toy: a shiny new police helicopter, fully equipped with high-powered lighting, a state-of-the-art radio system, and Forward Looking Infrared Radar, or FLIR, best known for its use by the FBI in the 1993 siege on the Branch Davidians' Waco compound.

Why does the APD need a fancy new 'copter? According to Assistant Police Chief Jim Fealy, the biggest reason is traffic control: Helicopters can survey far more area than patrol cars, and can direct cops to the scene of a violation. "One of the big issues that people complain about is tailgating and aggressive driving in general," Fealy says. "That's a lot easier spotted from the air and you can direct officers to the vehicles rather than have them see it and get to it." Second, Fealy says, is the issue of pursuit. "Let's say there's a robbery at night at a convenience store … Statistics indicate we can get a helicopter there faster than ground officers [can get there] … and it's much, much safer for officers and the general public." Finally, there's crowd monitoring and control at big events like Halloween on Sixth Street, which APD has traditionally patrolled with leased 'copters.

Monitoring? Control? Don't even get Fealy started on the black-helicopter folks, who tend to start frothing at the mouth whenever they hear talk about high tech surveillance tools. "Anybody that thinks that any police department in the U.S. routinely uses helicopters for any routine surveillance is crazy. It costs so much to keep those things in the air that you don't waste your time," Fealy says. "We don't plan to use it for that."

So what does our $1.4 million ($1.7 if you include training in the total) get us? Neither Brenda Reuland of American Eurocopter, the company that got the contract in a sole source bid, nor Fealy would reveal which helicopter the APD would be buying since the money hasn't been approved by the council. (Eurocopter's vehicles start at around $850,000. The company's Web site touts the EC135 police-ready 'copter as "the convincing solution to any problem"; in addition to all the extras mentioned by Fealy, the helicopter can be fitted with infrared searchlights, TV systems, and a rescue winch.) Whatever APD chooses, Fealy says, it will be high-powered, sophisticated, and relatively quiet. And, he adds, "I can almost assure you it won't be black."…

The Austin American-Statesman may or may not have held on to the news that 19-year-old presidential daughters Jenna and Barbara Bush were busted last week for trying to buy margaritas at Chuy's with fake IDs until other news outlets picked up the story, but they thought enough of the news that Chuy's "mishandled" the situation by calling 911 that they ran it on the front page of Tuesday's Metro section, under the headline "Chuy's apologizes for calling 911." (The original news of the bust, meanwhile, was relegated to a B-section "Metro and State Roundup" note May 31 -- two days after the paper was reportedly tipped about the incident -- even as other papers, including the St. Petersburg Times and the New York Post decided the story was front-page news.) Meanwhile, posters at online forum (billed as the Web's "premier conservative news forum") had revealed the driver's license number, date of birth, and address of Chuy's manager Mia Lawrence, who called the cops on Jenna and Barb. Also posted: Suggestions that readers sabotage Chuy's by flooding the restaurant with underage drinkers, ordering food and failing to pick it up, and even releasing a bag of cockroaches: The Republican revolution, as envisioned by a herd of drunken frat boys. …

Goth is dead; long live goth! The Mirabeau condominiums, née Gotham, have been put on hold while the developer, Simmons Vedder & Co., tries to decide what to do with the property, according to company vice-president John McKinnerney. (An economic turnaround probably wouldn't hurt their prospects either). The embattled condos, which would have risen 87 feet above Town Lake and included around 50 high-priced units, were still reviled by many South Austinites despite a much-touted (though still-vague) new design that stripped the (actually post-gothic) edifice of its more horrific details.

Ultimately, the project's new developer decided it wouldn't work without more concessions from the city, which had forced the company to reduce the height of the project more than 25%, or more land, which has not been forthcoming. "The building's a little small for us to go develop, so we're talking to neighboring properties to look at expanding the size of the building" outward, McKinnerney says. "We're going to continue to look for ways to make it more efficient and make it a little bigger" than would be possible be under its current zoning designation, which limits the building to about 70,000 square feet. Unhappy prospective buyers who wrote checks to original developer Randall Davis for units at the Gotham can get their money back, McKinnerney says; so far, "several" have.

Meanwhile, the developers of another newly rechristened development -- the Monarch on Town Lake, once less grandly known as 54 Rainey Place -- announced that they'd begin construction on the $55 million complex, whose 76 units will range from around $250,000 to $3.5 million, sometime this summer…

Channel 6 watchers may be accustomed to thinking of boards and commissions as groups that advise and, more often, complain, to the City Council about how the city does its business. (The rest of Austin, meanwhile, is probably accustomed to not thinking of them at all.) But sometimes, they do get to wield a little power. Case in point: the Austin Telecommunications Commission, which just awarded its Grant for Technology Opportunities to 10 local groups that will use the money to expand access to technology in the Austin community. The largest grant, $22,000, will go to Hispanic-Connect to fund its Cyber-Community Collaboration Program, which will provide Internet access and training to several East Austin high schools and neighborhood planning teams, and its Cyber-Cafe Collaboration Project, which will put Internet stations in eight local businesses. For more information about the other GTOPs winners, go to the Telecom Commission's Web site: …

Monday was the first day on the job for new Assistant City Manager Lisa Gordon, who's taking over for the departing Marcia Conner. Gordon moves up from a city director post, but you might not have heard the name before. Apparently, city admin has been grooming Gordon for an ACM job since she joined the city last year, after interviewing for the ACM post currently held by Robert Chan, who oversees Redevelopment Services and the water utility. Deputy City Manager Toby Futrell says she and City Manager Jesus Garza were so impressed with Gordon when she came to interview that they offered her a position with a lower rank than her previous job (assistant to the county administrator in Broward County, Florida), but with the opportunity to move into an ACM slot. With Conner's departure, the position opened sooner than expected. Futrell says Gordon is an open, engaged administrator whose experience in neighborhood planning and environmental protection, along with her financial acumen (she's a CPA), made her especially attractive to Austin.

-- Contributors: Kevin Fullerton, Amy Smith

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Carlos Lavernia, Immigration and Naturalization Service, Karen Crawford, Beverly Griffith, Austin Police Department, Jim Feahy, Brenda Reuland, American Eurocopter, Mirabeau, John McKinnerney, Gotham, Gordon Dunaway, 54 Rainey Place, The Monarch, Bill Bunch, Gary Bradle

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