The Palestine Herald, Palestine, Texas

Local Scene

December 31, 2012

Stories of the Year: Elections, new school and new railroad owner highlight 2012

PALESTINE — The Texas State Railroad changing ownership, the new Palestine High School opening and Neches High School’s girls’ basketball team winning its third state championship were among the top stories of 2012 as voted on by the Herald-Press’ editorial staff.

Following is a brief look at the Herald-Press’ Top 10 Stories of 2012:

1. Texas State Railroad ownership transferred to Iowa Pacific Holdings  — On July 1, the Texas State Railroad officially changed hands when ownership was transferred from American Heritage Railways to Iowa Pacific Holdings.

Trouble started in February, when American Heritage began experiencing cash-flow issues  — with the company asking for loan forgiveness and cash assistance from the two cities of Palestine and Rusk as well as the Texas State Railroad Authority. Both cities lowered the interest rates on $500,000 loans they each gave to the railway and deferred payments in late February and early March, but did not approve additional cash assistance.

The Texas State Railroad Authority voted on Feb. 13 to speed up its method of reimbursement for a grant to American Heritage Railways, giving the company that managed the Texas State Railroad approximately $134,000 for operating capital for March.

But cleanup costs from a large diesel spill at the Rusk Depot on Feb. 29 put the final nail in the coffin for American Heritage Railways, beginning the process of looking for a new owner.

On May 10, Iowa Pacific Holdings announced it was purchasing the Texas State Railroad, after receiving approval from the TSRA. Iowa Pacific Passenger Rails owns a family of freight and passenger railroads across the United States that offers scenic excursions and unique rail experiences to passengers as well as a variety of freight services.

With operations in Hood River, Ore. (Mount Hood Railroad), Alamosa, Colo. (Rio Grande Scenic Railroad), Palestine and Rusk (The Texas State Railroad) and Saratoga Springs, N.Y. (Saratoga and North Creek Railway), Iowa Pacific has one of the largest fleets of classic American rail cars in the country.  

The sale was finalized on July 1.

As part of the deal sealing the transfer of ownership, the TSRA passed a resolution in July assuming responsibility for remediation efforts concerning the 1,000-gallon diesel spill at the Rusk Depot on Feb. 29. In the process of cleaning up the mess, TSRA officials said they believe they ended up cleaning a spill from 1998 when the land was controlled by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

The TSRA resolution contained the condition of payment on whether TPWD would assume responsibility, which is something the TPWD stated it was not willing to do. The TSRA is currently looking to the Texas Legislature for help to find the funding.

TSRA Chairman Steve Presley said no matter who eventually foots the bill — the TSRA, TPWD or the Legislature — all of the funding can be traced back to Texas taxpayers.

In November, the Texas State Railroad marked a “first” in its history book. The railroad completed work on a 2.8 mile section of track, connecting the TSRR rail line to a Class 1 main line national railroad once again.

“The TSRR is now tied in with the Union Pacific rail line in Palestine,” TSRR Marketing Manager Janet Gregg said. “The last time the rail was used commercially was by the Texas South Eastern Railroad in December 1969.”

That connectivity means two things for the TSRR. First, it means pursuit of short haul freight contracts can now commence. Secondly, extension of the line allows the TSRR to bring in additional rail cars for its special events.  

2. New Palestine High School campus opens — Three years in the making, the new, state-of-the-art Palestine High School was unveiled to the public Aug. 19 during a dedication ceremony attended by more than 750 persons. The campus officially opened for its first day of school of the 2012-13 school year on Aug. 27.

The new high school was the crown jewel of a $64 million bond package overwhelmingly approved by Palestine Independent School District voters in May 2009.

The new Palestine High School constructed at a cost of approximately $35.7 million included renovated classrooms, a new competition gym and practice gym, a band hall,  library, theatrical area, choir room, auditorium, cafeteria and kitchen and administrative offices.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, a 1981 graduate of Palestine High School, gave the dedication address, while PHS alumnus Jack Selden, a longtime community leader, also made comments.

Staples told PHS students in attendance that “this campus represents a launching point” for their lives, adding that their community had shown their support by approving the bond.

“This community believes in giving you the opportunity for success,” Staples said.

Selden took the opportunity to marvel at the new building.

“This new facility is destined,” Selden said, “to be a memory maker for generations and generations to come.”

3. Neches girls basketball team wins third state title — The Neches Lady Tigers did what they do best in 2012 — win state championships. On March 2, the Lady Tigers defeated Lipan 60-41 to win its third straight state title.

The win ended the careers of Neches’ leaders Roddricka Patton, Raven McFarland, Cheyenne Haskins, Kristen Green and Lyric Duncan, a senior class that never didn’t play for a state title.

The one thing that was a bit different this time was that Neches got a bit of a challenge before getting to state.

The Lady Tigers edged past Goodrich by one point in the regional quarterfinals, then they all got what they wanted from unbeaten Saltillo in the regional finals before sealing the victory.

But, once they were down at state, a place that many felt right at home at, they made things looks easy again.

The Lady Tigers dispatched of Moulton in the semifinals with a 22-point win, then rolled to the championship with a win over Lipan.

4. Elections — 2012 marked a big year for politics across the nation as President Barack Obama won his second term as president in November, while locally a handful of incumbents won new terms and one newcomer was elected.

In the primaries — which were delayed across the state due to the Texas redistricting issue — Anderson County Sheriff Greg Taylor won his third term, defeating former Palestine police officer Richard Welch with 69 percent of the vote. Incumbent Kim Dickson held off Ronnie Holcomb for Precinct 3 constable with 53.5 percent of the vote in the primary to win another term.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Kenneth Dickson, Anderson County Tax Assessor/Collector Teri Garvey and Precinct 4 Constable Gary Briley did not draw opponents from either party, so they all advanced to another term beginning in January.

Third State District Judge Mark A. Calhoon and 349th State District Judge Pam Foster Fletcher, both Republicans who reside in Palestine, also did not draw opposition. Calhoon’s district includes Anderson, Henderson and Houston counties, while Fletcher sits in Anderson and Houston counties.

In the November elections, Democrat incumbent Precinct 1 Constable Larry Bennett won his sixth term after defeating primary Republican winner Ronnie Foster, while Doug Lightfoot won his third term after defeating Democrat challenger Horace Poullard. Longtime Precinct I Commissioner Joe Chaffin lost his seat to Republican newcomer Greg Chapin by a close 44 votes.

State Senator Robert Nichols and State Representative Byron Cook also won new terms in November.

5. Remains of a body, later determined to be a female in her 30s, found on 155 — Around 4 p.m. on Oct. 14, Anderson County sheriff’s deputies responded to a wooded area near the northwest corner of the intersection of Texas 155 and FM 321 after receiving a report of a body being located there by the property owner.

Due to the body’s condition, Troy Black, chief deputy for the Anderson County Sheriff’s Office, said investigators were unable to determine the deceased person’s “race, sex or age” at that time.

On Oct. 17, Black reported that authorities had made some determinations relating to the deceased person’s identity — that it was a white female in her mid-30s.

On Nov. 6, the  Anderson County Sheriff’s Office identified the body as Deborah LeAnn Vickery, 35, of the Tyler area, with the cause of death determined to be a gunshot wound.

“The evidence has been sent to DPS labs,” Anderson County Sheriff Greg Taylor said in November. “Our officers — Capt. Jay Russell and Investigator Lee Duran — along with two Texas Rangers are working on the case.”

Anyone with information about the victim is asked to contact Anderson County Crime Stoppers at 903-729-TIPS (8477) or by contacting the ACSO at 903-729-6068.

6. City of Palestine approves juvenile curfew ordinance — Touted as a means to possibly help curb the city’s graffiti problem, the Palestine City Council unanimously approved a juvenile curfew ordinance on March 12.

The ordinance, which applies to persons 16 and younger, was patterned after a similar ordinance adopted previously in Tyler.

Hours for the curfew are from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. Sunday through Thursday and midnight to 6 a.m. Friday and Saturday.

Some of the exceptions to the curfew include if the minor is: accompanied by a parent; on an errand at the direction of a parent; going to or returning home from an employment activity; involved in an emergency; and attending or returning home from a school or church activity.

An offender would be subject to a fine up to $500 for each offense.

7. Hot Pepper Festival returns to Palestine — In March, the Palestine Area Chamber of Commerce announced it had contracted with the City of Palestine to develop a new Christmas event to draw tourists to the city during the holiday season — eventually becoming December’s “Frost Fest.”

That announcement also brought another change — the return of the Hot Pepper Festival in October, with the City of Palestine taking the reins.

Over the past few decades the fall festival has been known as quite a few things throughout the years including: Bat Festival, Ghost Festival and most recently WonderFall Oktoberfest.

“There was interest from our citizens to change the fall season festival back to Hot Pepper Festival,” City of Palestine Event Coordinator Heather Hrebec said. “Our community remembers the success and the unique nature of the festival from that time and wants to bring back that same feeling.”

Thousands flocked to the Hot Pepper Festival on Oct. 27, which brought several well-known Texas music bands to Palestine, including headliners, the Casey Donahew Band and marked the return of festival favorites such as the Hot Pepper pepper-eating contest and barbecue and chili cookoff. The Hot Pepper Festival Parade was themed “Back to the Pepper.”

8. Gas station attendant shot in head in robbery attempt — Three suspects were arrested following the Aug. 19 early morning robbery of Mr. D’s convenience store at 3209 W. Oak St. during which a 62-year-old store clerk was shot in the face with a .22-caliber rifle, according to local police.

Within days of the incident, John Nicholas Hicks and Anthony Robert Mrdjenovich, both 17 and students at Westwood High School, were arrested and charged in connection with the aggravated robbery.

On Sept. 18, the third suspect, Jhamerrick Milton, 19, of Palestine, was arrested after turning himself in at the Anderson County Jail.

Police had been seeking Milton for the past month prior to his arrest.

Police have said a black male wearing camouflage entered the store around 2:30 a.m. on Aug. 19, displayed a firearm and demanded money from the clerk.

When no money was obtained, the suspect fired a single shot at close range from what authorities believe to be a .22-caliber rifle, striking 62-year-old Fred Robinson in the face, according to Palestine Police Sgt. James Muniz.

The suspect fled the store running in a eastwardly direction on West Point Tap Road, according to police.

Robinson was hospitalized for several days at a Tyler hospital following the shooting.

9. UIL realignment moves WISD from 3A to 2A —  On UIL realignment day in early February, change was in the air in 2012 as Westwood Independent School District found itself dropped down to Class 2A from Class 3A.

The move also split up Westwood and Palestine from the same district for the first time in eight years, and the teams didn’t even meet on the football field.

But, the Panthers were put into a district with Elkhart, rekindling that old rivalry despite the loss of the crosstown feud with Palestine.

10. Former Grapeland city councilman sentenced — Aaron Wade Pennington, 32, a former member of the Grapeland City Council, was formerly sentenced Feb. 23 at the Houston County Courthouse.

On Jan. 26, Pennington pleaded guilty to three counts of possession of child pornography; two counts of sexual assault of a child; and two counts of promotion of child pornography as part of a plea agreement with the state, receiving the maximum prison sentence on each count.

Pennington received the maximum 20-year prison sentence on the sexual assault of a child and promotion of child pornography charges and the maximum 10-year sentence on the possession of child pornography charges. The sentences will be served concurrently.

Pennington was arrested three separate times in April 2011 and charged with a total of seven felony offenses, including sexual assault of a child and possession of child pornography.

Pennington was first arrested on April 5, 2011 and then again on April 19, 2011 and April 21, 2011 after the Texas attorney general’s cyber crimes unit began investigating his activities in late March after being contacted by Grapeland Police Chief John Smith, according to an affidavit filed by Jerry Meadors of the attorney general’s cyber crimes unit.

The officer’s affidavit described a relationship between Pennington and a 15-year-old Grapeland boy during which the suspect allegedly sexually assaulted the minor three times and also took nude photographs of the boy.

Pennington resigned from the Grapeland City Council shortly after his initial arrest.

Records showed this year’s allegations are not the first time that Pennington has faced accusations of sexual misconduct with minor boys.

According to records, Pennington was no-billed by a Houston County grand jury in July 2002 after an Illinois boy brought allegations that the then-21-year-old Baylor University student sexually assaulted him twice in the same day that summer, paying him a total of $380 in the process.

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