Breaking Up La Familia
Austin Police and Texas Department of Public Safety investigators were among thousands of law enforcement officers to play a part in last week's two-day, nationwide bust of members of the Mexican La Familia drug cartel. In Austin, APD says four members of the gang were arrested and six kilos of cocaine and $400,000 were seized. In all, more than 80 people were arrested in Texas – the vast majority in Dallas – and more than 200 pounds of methamphetamine were seized statewide. The two-day sting was part of a 44-month investigation, Project Coronado, into the cartel, which is headquartered in the state of Michoacán. In all, more than 2,700 pounds of meth and nearly 2,000 kilos of coke have been seized to date. According to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, the arrests – 1,186 in total for the life of the operation – have "dealt a significant blow" to the cartel's supply chain. – Jordan Smith
On Oct. 23, two more wrongfully convicted Texans walked out of a Dallas court as free men, after spending 12 years in prison for a murder they did not commit. Claude Simmons, 54, and Christopher Scott, 39, were convicted and sentenced to life for the 1997 murder of Alfonso Aguilar. As Michael Ware – head of the Dallas County District Attorney's Office Conviction Integrity Unit – told the Dallas Morning News, there was no physical evidence and only a single eyewitness connecting them to the crime. Faulty eyewitness ID has been implicated in 85% of exonerations. The Simmons and Scott exonerations were not based on DNA evidence; last summer, the real perpetrator, Alonzo Hardy, confessed to the crime. The case was championed by law students at UT-Austin and UT-Arlington, who brought it to the Dallas D.A.'s office last year. – J.S.
FLDS Member Goes to Court
The trial of Raymond Jessop – for sexual assault of a child – gets under way this week in the West Texas town of Eldorado. Jessop is one of 12 male members of the Mormon breakaway sect, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, facing trial on charges of assault and bigamy, in connection with their alleged multiple marriages, including some to underage girls. Jessop allegedly married a 15-year-old daughter of FLDS' imprisoned leader, Warren Jeffs (convicted of rape-as-accomplice in Utah in 2006); at 16, the state says, the girl gave birth to Jessop's child at the FLDS' gated compound on the outskirts of town. The age of consent in Texas is 17. (Jessop has also been charged with bigamy but will face a separate trial on that charge.) More than 150 people were called as potential jurors, reports the San Angelo Standard-Times – including seven FLDS members who admitted they were related to Jessop and Randy Mankin, the editor of local newspaper The Eldorado Success, which in 2004 broke the news that the FLDS had moved to town. Officials reportedly expect Jessop's trial to last up to two weeks. – J.S.
SBOE Dems Get in on the Action
While controversy at the State Board of Education usually swirls around the policies and ideologies pushed by its fundamentalist Christian Republican wing, in the past month attention has shifted to two of the board's Democrats. A Dallas Morning News investigation found that board finance committee members Rene Nuñez, D-El Paso, and Rick Agosto, D-San Antonio, failed to disclose gifts received from companies seeking major contracts with the board. AEW Capital Management of Boston reported that its employees bought 53 gifts for the two, worth more than $5,000 in total; the revelation drew a complaint with the Texas Ethics Commission from the nonprofit Texans for Public Justice. And in September, the Morning News reported that Agosto had prior business dealings with another Massachusetts company, NEPC, that weren't known in July, when Agosto persuaded the board to fire its general investment consultant, R.V. Kuhns & Associates, and replace it with NEPC. – Lee Nichols
Much to Celebrate
The Texas arm of consumer-advocacy nonprofit Public Citizen will hold its 25th anniversary party at the Barr Mansion on Friday, Nov. 6. The event also celebrates Tom "Smitty" Smith and his recent recognition with a Heinz Award. When he got the call that he'd won, Smitty told us recently, it was such a surprise that he "kept trying to explain they must have the wrong Tom Smith." This year, each of the 10 $100,000 Heinz awards (which commemorate the late Sen. John Heinz) went to "individuals whose achievements have helped bring about a cleaner, greener and more sustainable planet." Smitty was recognized for promoting renewable energy and energy efficiency; he has directed grassroots efforts for Public Citizen's Texas office for 24 of its 25 years. (At www.heinzawards.net, a Voice of America interview with Smitty tells the story of his eco-activism and impact.) Smitty told the Chronicle, "The honor really means a lot to me, but a lot of the credit is due to the hard work by Karen [Hadden], my staff, and the citizens who shared the vision of making Texas the leading state in the nation for renewables." – Katherine Gregor
God's Green Earth
Austin has no shortage of environmental groups, some catering to specific issues or audiences and others, like the Austin EcoNetwork, attempting to bridge the gaps between them. But so far, one important group of environmental stewards has been left largely untapped: Austin's faith-based community. Thanks to the newly launched Interfaith Environmental Network, that situation is about to change. In hopes of giving voice to those who perhaps talk as often about their connection to "creation" as they do their connection to the "environment," IEN will focus on service, education, and policy initiatives, concentrating on "creating and sharing information and experiences on the theology, ecology, and actions of becoming better environmental stewards" and "sharing the faith communities' perspectives ... with public officials," according to its website. While Austin is home to Texas Impact, a statewide religious group that collaborates closely on environmental initiatives with Texas Interfaith Power & Light, IEN is Austin's first such group to focus primarily on local issues. "I'm hopeful that we'll be able to have a close relationship," said Texas Impact Executive Director Bee Moorhead, to "maximize each other's strengths." IEN hosts its first event, Claiming Our Common Ground, on Thursday, Nov. 5; see details at www.interfaithenvironment.org. – Nora Ankrum
Shujaa Graham (l), who served on California's death row before his conviction was overturned in 1981, spoke outside the Texas Capitol Oct. 24 at the annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty. Graham is shown here with two other death row exonerees, Ron Keine (middle), sentenced to die in 1974 for the murder of a University of New Mexico student, and (far right) Curtis McCarty, who spent 19 years on death row for a 1982 murder in Oklahoma. On Oct. 27, Graham and McCarty delivered to Gov. Rick Perry's office a petition calling on Perry to acknowledge that Cameron Todd Willingham was wrongly executed for the deaths of his three children in a 1991 fire. – J.S.