The Palestine Herald, Palestine, Texas

January 2, 2014

2013 Stories of the Year: Economy, fire, murder trial make up year's top headlines

By MARY RAINWATER & CHERIL VERNON
Palestine Herald-Press

PALESTINE — 1 Sanderson Farms coming to Palestine — Following the company's annual stockholder meeting in Laurel, Miss., Sanderson Farms Inc. notified the City of Palestine and Anderson County on Feb. 14 of its intent to build a poultry complex in the region.

Sanderson Farms Inc. is engaged in the production, processing, marketing and distribution of fresh and frozen chicken and further processed and partially cooked chicken.

The new big bird deboning complex will consist of a feed mill, hatchery, poultry processing plant and waste water facility, all located in and near Palestine.

Sanderson Farms intends to build three facilities in the area, two of which will be located in Anderson County and one in Freestone County — investing approximately $92 million on the construction of the hatchery and processing plant that will be located in Anderson County.

The $17 million, 65,000 square foot hatchery facility will be located on 10 acres in the Willow Creek Business Park on the South Loop in Palestine.

A $75 million processing facility is planned on a 170 acre tract of land off U.S. Highway 79 South, near the waste water treatment plant. The plant is expected to bring more than 1,000 full-time jobs and an annual payroll of more than $21 million to Anderson County.

A $12 million wastewater facility also is part of Sanderson Farms’ plans for its Anderson County facility site.

Sanderson Farms plans to be fully operational by the first quarter of 2015. Once the hatchery and processing plant are open, the company expects to employ up to 1,000 people.

2 Downtown Fire — Two Anderson County residents were killed in an early morning fire that destroyed a 100-plus year-old three-story building at 119 E. Oak St. in downtown Palestine.

Just after midnight on Sept. 28, Palestine Police dispatch received a report of a structure fire at 119 E. Oak St. Palestine Fire Department responded with three engines and a command vehicle. Upon arrival at the scene, heavy fire conditions in the rear of the building and heavy smoke throughout the structure were encountered. Within minutes of being on scene, the structure suffered the first of multiple collapses making it impossible for firefighters to enter the building.

At the time of the fire, there were unconfirmed reports of the possibility of individuals being inside the building, which housed a thrift store on the bottom floor, with upper floors being renovated for use as apartments. Only the bottom floor was authorized to be used for the thrift store, as the upper floors were not ready to be occupied.

Once the fire was extinguished, a search mission immediately commenced, with Texas Department of Criminal Justice personnel assisting in the efforts by bringing in canine units to search the area, Remains of the deceased were found at about 4 p.m. that day.

The City of Palestine released the name of the first victim, Hope Leann Pyle, 32, of Palestine, on Oct. 20, while the second victim's name, 43-year-old Aaron Wayne Pence of Palestine, was released on Nov. 15 following the results from DNA testing.

Thanks to the defensive stance taken by the fire department, nearby buildings and surrounding structures sustained only minimal damage.

Over the years the building at 119 E. Oak St. had served as several businesses including a bakery and Goodwill, but most people in the community knew it as the “Pittman Graphics” building.

3 Whitehead found guilty of capital murder — After just over three hours of deliberations, a jury of five women and seven men found a local woman accused in the 2010 death of a 16-month-old girl guilty of capital murder and a second charge of injury to a child on March 1.

The defendant, 41-year-old Jennifer Jill Whitehead, received an automatic life sentence with no possibility of parole for the capital murder charge for her role in the May 5, 2010 death of Emma Whitehead.

For the second charge, injury to a child, Whitehead waived her right to sentencing by the jury and accepted a plea bargain of 15 years, which was approved by presiding 369th State District Judge Bascom W. Bentley III.

The state called numerous witnesses to the stand during its seven days of testimony including emergency medical personnel, law enforcement investigators, doctors, nurses, a medical examiner, three of the victim’s relatives and even a Walmart cashier who interacted with Emma and the defendant just a few days before the child’s death.

The defense’s lone witness was forensic pathologist Dr. Thomas William Young, who testified in the midst of state testimony due to time restrictions.

According to witness testimony, a 911 called was made at about 9:50 a.m. on May 4, 2010, with Emma’s paternal grandfather telling dispatchers that Emma was not breathing and that his ex-wife, Jill Whitehead, was performing rescue breathing on the child.

After being intubated, the child was taken to Palestine Regional Medical Center and soon after flown to Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, where she died from her injuries the following day, May 5, 2010.

Physicians caring for Emma and the medical examiner, Dr. Jill Urban, testified that Emma had received a fractured occipital bone of the skull, which bruised her brain and caused subdural bleeding that ultimately led to her death.

After conducting the autopsy, Dr. Urban’s official conclusion was that Emma’s death was the result of blunt force injury, with the manner of death deemed to be homicide.

Emma had been under the care of Lance and Jill Whitehead since February of that year, when her parents, Courtney Vaughan and Derek Whitehead, determined that they could not care for their daughters at the time.

4 Schools approve Guardian Plans — Following the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting on Dec. 14, 2012 which claimed the lives of 20 first-graders and six school staff members, several schools across the nation began looking into “Guardian Plans” to protect students and staff from similar incidents.

In February,  Westwood Independent School District became the first of two Anderson County schools to approve a “Guardian Plan” for Policy CKC (Local) Emergency Operations. This plan allows board-designated and trained employees with concealed handgun licenses to carry handguns on school property.  

The school board first approached the safety plan at its Jan. 14 meeting, and approved the first reading of the plan. A public hearing was held Jan. 28.

The second and final reading of the plan was approved at the Feb. 11 meeting.

On Feb. 25, Cayuga ISD approved a similar policy following a public hearing. Cayuga ISD board of trustees originally discussed the agenda item at its Feb. 7 meeting.

5 Murder of 81-year-old man still unsolved — The homicide case involving an 81-year-old man found deceased at his Palestine residence on Oct. 28 remains unsolved by the Palestine Police Department,

Officers from the PPD were dispatched to a residence in the 100 block of Longhorn Drive concerning the welfare of a resident there, police reports state. Upon arrival, officers found the back door to the residence unsecured.

Officers entered the residence to check on the welfare of the elderly resident and found a subject, later identified as Jerome Ferles, deceased inside the residence.

Reports indicate that police spoke with the victim’s neighbors and learned the subject had not been seen in several days. It also was learned the victim’s car was missing from the residence.

The vehicle belonging to the victim has since been recovered and is being stored at a wrecker facility in East Texas.

Autopsy results from the victim were expected in December 2013, the police reported.

6 Anderson County Employees Sentenced — A former Anderson County employee accused of embezzling county funds was sentenced in February to probation, jail time and community service and was ordered to make restitution by a state district judge.

Bridgette Franklin of Elkhart was sentenced by 87th State District Judge Deborah Oakes Evans to 10 years of straight probation, 180 days in county jail and 400 hours of community service.

Franklin also was ordered to make restitution to the county, paying back the $32,261 taken during the incidents.

During a three-year period from February 2008 through May 2011, the state alleged that Franklin, who was formerly employed as a deputy clerk in the Anderson County clerk’s office, skimmed a total of $32,261 intended for the county.

The defendant was indicted in 2011 on a total of 918 counts of felony charges.

Terry Jean Raybin, 51, of Palestine, was sentenced Feb. 6 for the charge of misuse of official information to obtain reward money from the Anderson County Crime Stoppers board.

According to District Attorney Doug Lowe, who represented the state in the case, Raybin was sentenced by District Judge Deborah Oakes Evans to six years probation — deferred adjudication, a $1,000 fine, 400 hours of community service and a payment of $1,500 to the Crime Stoppers board.

Investigators in the case alleged that Raybin, as a secretary for the Anderson County Sheriff’s Office (and longtime county employee), used confidential information to obtain $400 in cash reward money for herself that the Crime Stoppers board had authorized for payment of an anonymous tip.

Witnesses for the state testified as to the harm that the incident had caused the Crime Stoppers program.

The charge, a third degree felony, carried the potential punishment of two to 10 years in prison and up to $10,000 fine. Since Raybin has no prior criminal history, she also was eligible for probation.

7 Plants Coming to Anderson County — Besides Sanderson Farms, one company announced plans to build a plant in Anderson County and local officials took additional steps to bring another plant to Palestine.

Wholesale chemical company Baze Chemical announced in April its plans to build an ethoxylation plant on the old Vernon Calhoun meat packing property on FM 323.

Ethoxylation is an industrial process that produces ethylene oxide, which has a wide market of products that can be made from it in the oil and gas industries, among other industries. For example, a company may choose to use it to make surfactants (industrial detergents).

After purchasing 25.5 acres on the old Vernon Calhoun meat packing property, Baze Chemical is currently in the construction phase of modernizing the buildings, building its plant facilities and fencing in the property. As of April 2013, the company planned to start the actual operation in the first quarter of 2014.

Baze Chemical will be hiring from 30 to 36 people to operate the plant at its completion, with jobs ranging from high-tech (chemical plant operators) to chemists with Master’s degrees and Ph. Ds.

In July, the Anderson County Commissioners  took another step in bringing a compressed air energy storage (CAES) plant to the county, approving the establishment of a reinvestment zone for the operation during their regular meeting.

The $420 million Bethel Energy Center, part of Houston-based Apex, is set to be located in a 180-acre area off FM 2706 at ACR 2504 in northern Anderson County.

According to Apex’ website, CAES is unique in its ability to efficiently store and redeploy energy on a large scale in order to provide low-cost energy and enhance grid reliability.

A CAES power generation facility uses electric motor-driven compressors to inject air into an underground storage cavern and later releases the compressed air to turn turbines and generate electricity back onto the grid.

Jack L. Farley, president of Apex, announced the construction of the facility in July of 2012.

An average of 200 workers will be on the job during the project’s construction phase — said to take about three years, while 20 to 25 permanent jobs will be created as a result of the venture.

8 Technology arrives in the classroom — Palestine, Westwood and Slocum independent school districts embraced one-on-one technology initiatives in 2013.

In the final phase of its four-year technology project, Slocum ISD purchased a personal netbook for each secondary student using Linux operating systems and a Nexus 7 tablet for each elementary student in grades 2-5 for use in 2013. Students also were able to bring their own device to school to use. With the use of technology, many of the classes have gone paperless, able to take tests and quizzes on their devices.

In January, Westwood ISD approved close to a $900 million technology bid from Dell to provide 700 tablets for students and 150 tablet-to-laptop hybrid devices for teachers to use in the 2013-14 school year.

The move to integrate more technology in the classroom is part of WISD’s One-to-One Technology Initiative.

Students in lower grades are now using the Netbooks previously used by the older students. In addition, Wifi was installed district-wide.

Meanwhile, Palestine High School students started off the 2013-14 school year with mini iPads as part of the district's one-to-one technology initiative. Students at the junior high campus received their mini iPads before the Christmas holidays.

9 Palestine Airport sees three emergency landings — It was a unique year for the Palestine Municipal Airport, which not only celebrated its 80th year in operation, but was witness to three emergency landings during 2013.

A small aircraft pilot safely made an emergency landing at the Palestine Municipal Airport shortly after 5 p.m. Feb. 14 as emergency personnel were on standby at the scene after the pilot reported problems with his landing gear.

Palestine pilot Jim Wells landed his Cessna 210 on a runway, skidding onto the grass just off the runway. He and passenger Donna Jordan did not have any injuries.

Wells said that when he came back in to land, the landing gear wouldn’t drop even after making several attempts.

After emergency personnel were alerted to the situation, Wells was advised to fly around in a circle around the airport to burn off some of the fuel in case of a crash landing.

Another area pilot was uninjured after his attempt at an emergency landing at the Airport on Aug. 26.

The pilot, Ryne Bergren of Jacksonville, made “a good landing,” according to Gaylon Addkison, owner of Palestine Jet Center, the airport’s refueling station.

Addkison said after departing from Jacksonville, the pilot — flying solo in a Piper Malibu single engine 6-passenger plane — reported experiencing a “rough-running engine,” and tried to make an emergency landing at the local airport around noon, but ended up touching down in the grassy area just shy of the runway’s end.

A man sustained non life-threatening injuries on Dec. 17 after his ultralight aircraft crashed on the runway at Palestine Municipal Airport.

The pilot, Ronald Quencer, 55, of Tyler, was care-flighted to Trinity Mother Frances Hospital in Tyler following the accident, according to Texas Department of Public Safety Trooper Brent Taylor.

Taylor said an electrician working at the airport saw the accident and described it to officials.

When it got over the runway, about 50 feet up, just all of the sudden the nose came down first and hit the runway. The pilot was pinned in under the aircraft.

Taylor confirmed that while at least one foot was broken, the pilot was not critically injured.

10 West Nile Virus — The Texas Department of State Health Services confirmed the state’s first case of West Nile Virus of the 2013 season in Anderson County on May 23. On May 15, the mosquito-borne illness was confirmed locally in an adult male at Palestine Regional Medical Center. The DSHS reported at the time that the patient was recovering from the neuroinvasive form of the disease. This was Anderson County's only case of West Nile Virus.