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Police say no explanation yet for Texas shooting frenzy

From wire reports

ODESSA — Authorities said Sunday they still could not explain why a man with an AR-style weapon opened fire during a routine traffic stop in West Texas to begin a terrifying, 10-mile rampage that killed seven people, injured 22 others and ended with officers gunning him down outside a movie theater.

Authorities identified the shooter as Seth Aaron Ator, 36, of Odessa. Online court records show Ator was arrested in 2001 for a misdemeanor offense that would not have prevented him from legally purchasing firearms in Texas, although authorities have not said where Ator got his weapon.

Ator acted alone, and federal investigators believe the shooter had no ties to any domestic or international terrorism group, FBI special agent Christopher Combs said.

Ator lost his job on the day of the attack, though investigators do not necessarily view that as a triggering event, said an official who requested anonymity to discuss the ongoing investigation.

They are exploring whether Ator’s mental health might have played a role, the official said. It was not immediately clear whether he had a specific diagnosis.

Authorities said those killed were between the ages of 15 and 57. They included the postal worker whose vehicle was hijacked, a former math teacher adored by students; a 15-year-old girl who celebrated her quinceañera just a few months ago and a 25-year-old killed outside his home.

Among those injured were at least three police officers and 17-month-old Anderson Davis, who was hit by shrapnel in her chest. Family members say she has a hole in her bottom lip and tongue and that her front teeth were knocked out. The child is in stable condition, according to Hailey Wilkerson, a friend of the family.

Odessa Police Chief Michael Gerke refused to say the name of the shooter during a televised news conference, saying he wouldn’t give him notoriety, but police later posted his name on Facebook. A similar approach has been taken in some other recent mass shootings.

Gerke said there were still no answers pointing to a motive for the chaotic rampage, which began Saturday afternoon when Texas state troopers tried pulling over a gold car on Interstate 20 for failing to signal a left turn.

Before the vehicle came to a complete stop, the driver “pointed a rifle toward the rear window of his car and fired several shots” toward the patrol car stopping him, according to Texas Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger. The gunshots struck a trooper, Cesinger said, after which the gunman fled and continued shooting. He fired at random as he drove in the area of Odessa and Midland. At one point, he hijacked a mail carrier truck, killing the lone postal worker inside.

U.S. Postal Service officials identified her as Mary Granados, 29.

Police used a marked SUV to ram the mail truck outside the Cinergy Movie Theater in Odessa, disabling the vehicle. The gunman then fired at police, wounding two officers. Combs said the gunman might have entered the theater if police had not killed him.

“In the midst of a man driving down the highway shooting at people, local law enforcement and state troopers pursued him and stopped him from possibly going into a crowded movie theater and having another event of mass violence,” Combs said.

Police said Ator had no outstanding warrants. His arrest in 2001 was in the county where Waco is located, hundreds of miles east of Odessa. Online court records show he was charged then with misdemeanor criminal trespass and evading arrest. He entered guilty pleas in a deferred prosecution agreement where the charge was waived after he served 24 months of probation, according to records.

The shooting came at the end of an already violent month in Texas, where on Aug. 3 a gunman in El Paso killed 22 people at a Walmart. Sitting beside authorities in Odessa, Gov. Greg Abbott on Sunday ticked off a list of mass shootings that have now killed nearly 70 since 2016 in his state alone.

“I have been to too many of these events,” Abbott said. “Too many Texans are in mourning. Too many Texans have lost their lives. The status quo in Texas is unacceptable, and action is needed.”

But Abbott, a Republican, remains noncommittal about imposing any new gun laws in Texas at a time when Democrats and gun-control groups are demanding restrictions. And even as Abbott spoke, a number of looser gun laws that he signed this year took effect on the first day of September, including one that would arm more teachers in Texas schools.

Witnesses described gunfire near shopping plazas and in busy intersections.

Dr. Nathaniel Ott was working at an Odessa emergency care center where he is the medical director when he heard gunshots. He rushed outside to find a woman in the driver’s seat of an SUV bleeding from a gunshot wound in the arm. Ott said that as he and a paramedic were working on the woman, the shooter drove back by.

“The shooter drove within 30 feet of us and drove up that road,” Ott said Sunday, pointing to one of the streets leading past the shopping center where his facility is located. “The shooter was driving. It was insane. He was just everywhere.”

Daniel Munoz, 28, of Odessa, was headed to a bar to meet a friend when he noticed the driver of an approaching car was holding what appeared to be a rifle.

“This is my street instincts: When a car is approaching you and you see a gun of any type, just get down,” said Munoz, who moved from San Diego about a year ago to work in oil country. “Luckily I got down. ... Sure enough, I hear the shots go off. He let off at least three shots on me.”

He said he was treated at a hospital and is physically OK, though bewildered by the experience.

“I’m just trying to turn the corner and I got shot — I’m getting shot at? What’s the world coming to? For real?”

Saturday’s shooting brings the number of mass killings in the U.S. so far this year to 25, matching the number in 2018, according to The AP/USATODAY/Northeastern University mass murder database.

The number of people killed this year has already reached 142, surpassing the 140 people who were killed last year.

The database tracks homicides where four or more people are killed, not including the offender.


Local
No progress to report on changing Lake Gilmer rules to allow piers, shoreline development

GILMER — It’s been six months since about 50 stakeholders in Lake Gilmer met to learn why the multimillion-dollar city investment has yet to pay dividends.

“Every time I try to do something, I get told I don’t have the authority,” said retired Gilmer businessman Steve Dean, referring to his efforts to shepherd a change in the city’s permit with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Dean has spent much of the past six months negotiating the bureaucratic maze that surrounds any reservoir project, including Lake Gilmer. He started with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which holds the umbrella permit under the Clean Water Act — and final say — on anything to do with the lake.

He’s not alone in wanting to get lake development off high-center, where it has been stuck.

The Corps sent Dean to the state parks department, which holds the permit that governs what can and can’t be done along the shoreline. No development is allowed 7 feet above the shoreline, which could be a lot farther than 7 feet from the water depending on the slope.

That means no docks, no boathouses. Residents are not allowed to mow the shoreline for a spot to fish that won’t hide water moccasins.

The reason is a four-syllable word: mitigation. State and federal environmental regulations require that land be set aside in equal amount to the acreage lost to a lake.

And somehow, part of Lake Gilmer’s mitigation acreage rings the lakeshore. That means no mowing, no clearing, no building.

“It’s a little disappointing to build on a lot out at the lake,” lake resident and Gilmer ISD board President Mark Skinner said Friday. “But all we get to do is enjoy the view. ... There is that restriction. It’s 7 feet above elevation, so it’s about 10 feet of shoreline (at my lot) that is unkept. So it makes going down there difficult.”

Drowning in debt

The city owns its namesake lake, but has not annexed it and so is not able to tax homes and other property there.

Add to that the fact Gilmer Economic Development Corp. spends 85 cents on every city sales tax dollar on the lake’s debt. Sales taxes typically are spent to lure new industry and encourage economic development of a city, to grow its tax base.

Sales tax revenue for the coming fiscal year is expected to be $1,091,436. Property tax revenue is budgeted at $1,334,689.

Gilmer owed slightly more than $4.5 million on the 19-year-old loan from the Texas Water Development Board when Dean gathered the stakeholders in December in the Upshur Rural Electric Cooperative Auditorium.

Skinner keeps his boat in storage, since he can’t keep it at his house. With no docks or piers allowed, the only boat access is a public ramp at FM 852, and Skinner said fishermen use the lake, but no other recreation happens there.

The reservoir should be a draw for new residents, Skinner and others said. Even though the lake is not inside the city limits, they said Gilmer is where residents there would shop, dine and supply their households.

“We’re building a new high school,” Skinner said, citing a new campus due to open for the 2020-21 school year.

The district also added two early childhood classes for 3-year-olds for the new school year, as the student population tops 2,500 for the first time in Superintendent Rick Albritton’s 17 years there.

“We certainly anticipate some growth once we get in the new school,” Skinner said. “It would be nice if we did have families that wanted to move from, say, the Longview or Tyler area, because we’ve got a lot of lots out here at the lake.”

Not many homes have gone up at the 1,010-acre reservoir as a result of the mitigation acreage ring around the reservoir. The shoreline rule is also why the lake has never fulfilled its promise as a recreation destination.

“I’ve spoken to (Parks and Wildlife), and they sent me an application,” Dean said.

What the parks department couldn’t do, though, was recognize Dean as a representative of the city.

Gilmer City Manager Greg Hutson told Dean earlier this month he was welcome to an appointment as aviation director at the airport but not as director of Gilmer Economic Development Corp., which is a paid and unfilled position.

“I welcome his input,” Hutson said of Dean. “I welcome him to have input into the city, but we just don’t have the money to pay him. We just don’t.”

Hutson turned away the notion of appointing Dean to speak on the city’s behalf to the Corps and the state parks department.

“No, because he is not an employee of the city,” he said.

Dean said that leaves him no way to ramrod a permit amendment that lake residents want.

“The whole point of my effort has been to meet with the Corps ... and come up with a plan to get a modification to our permit so we could have the opportunity to develop the lake for the benefit of the city and so we could make it pay, make a return on investment,” Dean said. “I’m not going to pursue it anymore.”

No sale

The city has no plans to pursue the permit modification and has not approached either the Corps or Texas Parks and Wildlife about it, Hutson said.

“Not at this time,” he said. “Because lakeside development, it puts the liability of that lake, for people living around it, on us. And I am very resistant to that. Will each house that’s on that lake, each dock on that lake, the people living on that lake, be paying an annual fee to the city for the use of that lake?”

Gilmer Area Chamber of Commerce President Shayne Wilson sells real estate for Coldwell Banker Lenhart, and he’s sold a few lots at the lake.

“I’ve also not sold several houses and lots because of the restrictions on the lake,” he added. “They fall in love, they fall in love with the area. And when I get to the part where, ‘You can’t have a dock or a boat slip,’ that’s a deal-killer.”

Wilson acknowledged the city won’t see property tax revenue from the reservoir, but he said sales taxes could blossom from a community of homeowners doing business in the county seat of Gilmer.

“The city doesn’t want anything to do with it,” he said.

Mayor Tim Marshall bemoaned the restrictions in the Parks and Wildlife permit.

“Why would anybody agree to all these stipulations?” he asked. “Well, we did.”

The mayor, who was not in office during permit negotiations, said he would love to see development at Lake Gilmer.

But with successive tight city budgets, and with most of the economic development funds paying off lake debt, he echoed his city manager in failing to see a way to recoup an investment in the reservoir.

‘Great ideas’

Hutson said lake residents ask for expensive lake management including requests for dredging. He previously has said the next city project at the lake will be repairs to the spillway.

“Everybody’s got great ideas for that lake,” Hutson said. “But nobody has talked to me about how we’re going to pay for what the homeowners want for that lake. ... We’re still trying to repair streets. It doesn’t benefit me and the city enough to try and open up that can of worms. ... It was all, ‘If you build it, we’ll come.’ That’s part of the albatross around our neck. I wish there was something we could do with it.”

Moving a mitigation area would require expensive environmental, artifact and other studies be conducted on some new site.

“If those homeowners out there at the lake want to pay for that environmental study, we’re good,” Hutson said, describing sales tax revenue as inadequate to do much more than carry the bond on the lake’s debt.

Hutson said Gilmer’s big economic development/quality of life project now is its Parks Master Plan.

All wet

Lake Gilmer was built as a future water source. The city still relies solely on wells for potable water. The permit restrictions make it a challenge to build a water treatment plant there, or even install an intake pipe to sell raw water to other municipalities.

But Dean said making the shoreline permit development-friendly would draw money into the city in the form of homebuilding, recreation and other economic development elements.

“The problem is, in Gilmer, if you have a company that has white-collar employees, there’s no place for them to build their homes here similar to where they came from,” Dean said. “And Lake Gilmer is perfect for that.”

Dean said he and his family own property near the lake, but it is in the low-lying bottoms and couldn’t be easily developed regardless of the rules on the lake’s shore.

“The city spent $25 million on the lake — I don’t know, they won’t tell me,” Dean said. “I want to put that money back, so the city can fix the streets. I want to see the lake developed for the city, for the people of Gilmer.”


Anxiety and impatience in long wait for Dorian in coastal US

For Florida, just a handful of miles may make a huge difference in Hurricane Dorian’s slow dance with the coast.

The National Hurricane Center forecasts Dorian to be 40 to 50 miles off the Florida coast on Tuesday and Wednesday, with hurricane-force wind speeds extending about 35 miles to the west.

When they make a forecast, meteorologists have a general idea where the monstrous storm is going but they then have to choose a point on the map instead of a general place, making it seem more specific than it really is.

And much of the Florida coast is inside that cone.

“This thing is perilously close to the state. I think we should all hope and pray for the best, but we have to prepare that this could have major impacts on the state of Florida,” said Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. “If you look at the National Hurricane Center’s current track, I think it ends up within 30 miles of the coast of Florida. Well guess what? You do just a touch of a bump one way or another, and you have a dramatic difference all of a sudden.”

Center Director Ken Graham is telling residents don’t bet on safety just because his office specific forecast track has the storm just a bit offshore.

“The cone is so important,” Graham said.

And making matters more touch-and-go is that with every new forecast, “we keep nudging (Dorian’s track) a little bit to the left,” which is closer to the Florida coast, he said.

Dorian is a powerful but small hurricane with hurricane-force winds Sunday only extending 29 miles to the west, but they are expecting to grow a bit. That makes forecasting the storm’s path along the coast — either just off the coast, skirting it or moving inland with a direct hit — delicate and difficult. Just a few miles west or east makes the difference between devastation and bad but not horrible damage, meteorologists said.

“Where it doesn’t directly hit, it’s not going to be a huge problem,” Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach said.

With a big, sloppy hurricane — say 50% larger in size — all of Florida would be under a serious threat, but that’s not the case, said University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy.

This is what makes this a nightmare for forecasters, McNoldy said.

It’s a combination of the small size, close-in track, like Matthew in 2016, and weak steering currents. That means just a smidge of a movement days ahead of time, while Dorian is in the Bahamas, can reverberate and mean a direct hit or not, said private meteorologist Ryan Maue.

That can happen just because of the timing of when Dorian’s eyewall collapses and is replaced, which happens normally in storms.

Adding to that problem is Dorian’s slow, almost snail-like pace. What initially looked like a Labor Day storm for the U.S. is now approaching Tuesday and Wednesday.

“People are getting impatient with this,” McNoldy said.

Because the threat seems to keep sticking around, it could be a problem getting the right message across, he said.

Klotzbach said he thinks the U.S. East Coast will get “scraped,” but Dorian will stay just offshore, something Maue agrees with.

Maue warns, however, that two days of high waves and heavy storm surge — the hurricane center is predicting 4 to 7 feet from West Palm Beach north to Cocoa Beach area — could severely damage Florida’s beaches.

Residents along Florida’s coast are relieved that the forecast, for now, doesn’t have Dorian making landfall in Florida, but are still preparing for the worst.

Kevin Browning in Vero Beach has put up hurricane shutters, bought a generator and is stocked with supplies.

“I’m thanking God, now, that it’s turned a little bit towards the east, but that’s a forecast, and we never know. I’m just praying and trying to make sure that everybody’s safe. I feel for the Bahamas and I’m praying for them, and I thank God it’s not coming directly to us right now.”


Trump says he'll work with Congress to stop mass shootings

President Donald Trump expressed a commitment Sunday, hours after the latest deadly mass shooting, to work with a divided Congress to “stop the menace of mass attacks.” He said any measures must satisfy the competing goals of protecting public safety and the constitutional right to gun ownership and seemed to cast fresh doubt on the merits of instituting more thorough background checks for gun purchases.

Meanwhile, state Rep. Matt Schaefer of Tyler took to Twitter to adamantly assert that he would not support any new gun restrictions.

Schaefer, a Republican, tweeted that “Godless depraved hearts” were the “root of the problem.” An hour later, he began a thread in which he called for no “red flag” laws or bans on AR-15 rifles and high capacity magazines. He also said there should not be mandatory gun buyback policies.

“YES to supporting our public schools,” Schaefer tweeted. “YES to giving every law-abiding single mom the right to carry a handgun to protect her and her kids without permission from the state, and the same for all other law-abiding Texans of age.”

Trump spoke shortly after the death toll in Saturday’s rampage in West Texas rose to seven .

The president said it would be “wonderful to say” he’d work to “eliminate” mass shootings, but acknowledged that that was unlikely.

“We want to substantially reduce the violent crime,” Trump said at the top of a briefing about Hurricane Dorian at Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters in Washington.

Trump’s commitment to gun control has been in doubt ever since 17 students and adults were killed in a shooting at a Parkland, Florida, high school on Valentine’s Day in 2018. Trump came out in favor of stronger background checks after the shooting, but then quickly retreated under pressure from the National Rifle Association.

More recently, he has waffled on the merits of stronger background checks for gun purchases in the aftermath of back-to-back shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, that killed more than 30 people about a month ago. Instead, Trump sought to elevate mental health issues over access to guns.

“For the most part, sadly, if you look at the last four or five (shootings) going back even five or six or seven years, for the most part, as strong as you make your background checks, they would not have stopped any of it,” he said. “So it’s a big problem. It’s a mental problem. It’s a big problem.”

Trump mentioned the need for “strong measures to keep weapons out of the hands of dangerous and deranged individuals” along with changes to a mental health system he described as “broken.” He also called for ensuring that criminals with guns “are put behind bars and kept off the streets.”

Trump told reporters earlier Sunday that he’s been speaking to lawmakers from both political parties and “people want to do something.” He said the administration is “looking at a lot of different things” and hopes to have a package ready by the time Congress returns to session this week.

The Republican-controlled Senate has refused to take up several gun-control bills that passed the Democratic-controlled House this year, and the GOP historically has opposed many efforts to strengthen the nation’s gun laws.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called on the Republican-controlled Senate to “end its obstruction” and send the gun violence measures to Trump.

Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania said he has discussed the issue with Trump and described the president as “very interested in doing something meaningful.” Toomey has long pushed a bipartisan bill with Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia to expand background checks and said he remains interested in measures to keep guns away from people who shouldn’t have them.

“We’re going to take a very serious run at it,” he said.

Others, like Republican Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, argued that Congress should use his state as a model.

Scott, who was governor at the time of the Parkland school shooting, said officials sat down within days of the massacre with law enforcement, mental health counselors and educators. Legislation was quickly passed and signed into law, including a “red-flag” statute that would allow authorities to confiscate weapons from individuals deemed by the courts to be a threat to themselves or others.

Scott said he doesn’t want to take guns away from law-abiding citizens, but added that “we’ve got to figure out how we get guns away from mentally ill people who want to harm others or themselves.”

In the days immediately after the August shootings in Texas and Ohio, Trump said he was eager to implement “very meaningful background checks,” saying there was “tremendous support” for it. He also said he disagreed with the NRA’s stance that such legislation would open the door to infringing on Second Amendment rights.

But the president has also acknowledged that his core supporters support gun rights, which highlights the challenge he has to balance the politics of gun control before he stands for reelection in November 2020.

Toomey was interviewed on ABC’s “This Week,” and Scott spoke on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”


News
More area districts join dual-credit firefighter program with Kilgore College Fire Academy

HARLETON — A program that allows high school seniors to become certified firefighters through a partnership with the Kilgore College Fire Academy has added students in Upshur, Harrison and Anderson counties and expanded to another Gregg County school district.

Pine Tree High School, Big Sandy High School, Palestine High School and Harleton High School started the dual-credit program this year. They join Sabine High School, where the program is in its second year.

The program allows students to spend a year studying and obtaining skills needed to become a certified firefighter in Texas before heading to the college’s academy in July for a 10-day boot camp.

If the students pass the yearlong course then pass the 10-day physical skills boot camp at Kilgore College, they’re off to take their Texas Commission on Fire Protection exam to become a certified Texas firefighter.

In Harleton, the program is being offered through the Career and Technology Education program. It’s free for the three seniors taking part there, thanks to Harleton Volunteer Fire Department Chief Mike Harper, who paid for the students and is seeking a reimbursement grant from the state.

As part of the grant, the students now are part of the Harleton Volunteer Fire Department and will help out by cleaning equipment, lugging hoses, inspecting equipment and other tasks this year.

The three seniors taking in the new class at the high school are Clay Floyd, Karson Evans and Tyler Oregero, who became interested after Fire Academy Director Mike Simmons made a presentation at the school.

“Before Mr. Simmons came and did the presentation, I was looking into becoming a firefighter after graduation, now I can get a jump on that and then I’d like to go on and become a firefighter paramedic,” Oregero said Friday. “I can work on becoming a paramedic in between the time until I turn 21 because Longview Fire Department begins hiring at 21.”

Floyd said he wasn’t really sure what he wanted to do after high school graduation, so when Simmons gave his presentation he thought he’d check it out. Now, the class has ignited a passion in him for firefighting.

Evans talked the idea over with his dad this spring and decided he’d give it a shot.

“I didn’t really have plans for after high school,” Evans said. “I saw the presentation for the program, and now it’s kind of saved my life.”

Harleton High School firefighter program instructors Eresmo Lopez, Dusty Burks and Cody Corrin said the students have a mixture of class time, video lectures and hands on learning.

If the students choose to attend Kilgore College for their associate degree after high school, they’ll take 23 credit hours with them from the high school firefighter program towards that degree, Simmons said.

They’ll also receive a firefighter exemption for tuition, making their education free.

“There are also about 40 other universities in Texas that recognize the firefighter exemption for tuition, so they could potentially earn their bachelor’s degree tuition-free,” Simmons said.

Harleton High School Principal Crystal Newman said she’s excited for the program and what it means for her students.

“Our curriculum director heard about this program at a conference and we thought it would be a great idea,” Newman said Friday. “University and college after high school isn’t for everybody, so this gives those students the skills to go directly into the workforce making a good income, with good benefits and in a career that helps serve the community as well.”