Top Hays Free Press News Stories of 2017

Kyle, Buda weather impact from Harvey

Downed trees and flooded streets was the extent of the impact seen around parts of Buda and Kyle as Hays County seemingly escaped the brunt of Hurricane Harvey’s wrath in August.

The storm, which came ashore in Rockport as a Category 4 hurricane led to torrential downpours throughout Central Texas.

One Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) rain gauge in Buda at Onion Creek measured close to a foot of rain from over a three-day period. Kerry Urbanowicz, Kyle Parks and Recreation director, said city rain gauges collected close to 11 inches of rain during the same time period.

David Marino, Buda public information officer, said damage from high winds was the extent of issues seen in the city. According to reports, wind gusts measured at times above 50 miles per hour.

“We dodged a bullet,” Marino said. “Everyone was expecting a lot of rain. We did get a lot, but not what we’ve seen in the past.”

Also breathing a sigh of relief were Kyle city officials, who only experienced tree damage and a handful of flooded streets during the storm.

Kim Hiilsenbeck, Kyle communications specialist, said the city prepared itself by placing barricades near low water crossings.  Hilsenbeck said the city’s public works and police department constantly checked culverts, ditches and streams for potential issues.

No major road problems were reported in Kyle due to the storm. The city’s drainage system also experienced few issues.

“When (roads) were closed, they were closed the minute water ran over the road,” Hilsenbeck said.

Local realtor gets 20 years in DWI murder trial

Twenty years in prison and a $10,000 fine were handed down  in May in the sentencing phase of a DWI murder trial.

The sentence came down from a Hays County jury that deliberated for more than 11 hours and found Jason Tarr guilty of first-degree murder and second-degree intoxication manslaughter.

During closing arguments, Tarr’s defense attorneys asked jurors to sentence him to the minimum of five years in prison, while prosecutors said at least 50 years is an appropriate punishment for causing the head-on collision that killed 60-year-old Nancy Sterling Dalton near Buda.

Hays County District Attorney Wes Mau and Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Stalbaum repeatedly reminded the jury of Tarr’s two previous convictions for driving while intoxicated, but suggested jurors hand down a stiff penalty even if they do not believe Tarr will again endanger lives on the road.

Defense attorneys Billy McNabb and Scot Courtney asked jurors to recall testimony from a succession of friends and colleagues who said Tarr was a conscientious mentor and generous philanthropist while building a real estate empire that included a major Keller Williams franchise in Buda and Kyle.

“There’s not a case more worthy of the minimum [sentence]than this case. … Jason’s destroyed financially. He’s never going to be able to restore his reputation and have any meaningful occupation ever again. Maybe this is his calling,” McNabb said.

Under the Texas Penal Code, the maximum sentence for first-degree felony murder is life in prison. Tarr will be eligible for parole after serving half of his sentence or 30 years, whichever is less.

The trial started May 1 with jury selection; the jury returned guilty verdicts after just over seven hours of deliberations May 11.

Questions linger in unsolved Sledge Street murders

Every day for the past two years, Indiana resident Rachael McPherson and her family have anxiously waited by their phones with the hope that the person on the other end of the line could give them the answers they seek.

In June, it was two years since the bodies of Jimmy Wright, McPherson’s uncle, and Tina Combs were found in a home in the 800 block of Sledge Street in southwest Kyle. 

Even as the investigation into Wright’s and Combs’ murders continues into its second year, few answers have been given into one of the more mysterious cases in Kyle’s history.

“It boggles my mind. They took 200 pieces of evidence and sent it to the crime lab…and in 2 years, you’ve got nothing back? It’s weird, it’s strange,” McPherson said.

Jeff Barnett, Kyle Police Department chief, said there is “nothing else to release” as far as new information in the unsolved double homicide.

Kyle Police discovered the bodies of Wright and Combs in a home on Sledge Street following a welfare call in June 2015. Autopsy reports ruled each death as a homicide, with the cause of death determined to be a gunshot wound.  Authorities have not made any arrests in the case, and it’s unknown at this time if there are any persons of interest.

Barnett said the case is still under investigation, with Kyle Police obtaining assistance from several law enforcement agencies, including the Texas Rangers. The case is the only unsolved murder during Barnett’s tenure, which began in 2011.

“Not a day goes by where we don’t think about (the case) or take steps on the case,” Barnett said.

However, frustration is mounting for Wright’s relatives, along with those who were close to Combs, McPherson said.

Some of Wright’s friends have traveled to Kyle to physically visit the police department in order to talk with investigators. One of the biggest struggles for Wright’s family is living far beyond Kyle’s borders, McPherson said.

Closure of other murder cases has also left the families dismayed.

“There have been other murders. Maybe not like this one, but they’ve found the guy in a day or two,” McPherson said. “And here we are, two years later, and we still don’t have answers and nothing’s back from the crime lab.”

Kyle unveils plans for new rec complex

Ten years worth of scuttlebutt could come to an end as Kyle city officials Aug. 15 unveiled plans for a privately-funded east side sports and recreation park.

That complex, known as Kyle Vista Park, would encompass 46-acres along Dacy Lane near Chapa Middle School and could harbor a tennis complex, volleyball facility, a recreation center and, potentially, a skate park.

Kyle city manager Scott Sellers said the project, which went under the code name “Just Peachy,” has been on the city’s agenda “in some form or fashion” for the past year.

What could come out of the negotiations is an “innovative solution to a problem the city has been wrestling with for ten years,” which was trying to fund a recreation center, Sellers said.

Kyle is proposing to offer a 25-year ground lease to entities at “very little cost to the city,” Sellers said. The city would pay $200,000 total from its parks fund over the course of a decade.

In return, participating entities would “bring these recreation opportunities” to Kyle, which the city would have paid for out of its general fund. Sellers said during negotiations, it became apparent the city had a “good opportunity” to leverage a ground lease situation.

Talk of a potential sports complex and recreation center in Kyle has been ongoing for 10 years. In 2007, Kyle acquired 46 acres of land at the corner of Bebee Road and Dacy Lane.

Sellers said the city is now moving forward with the complex, which could cost more than $30 million today. What the complex could hold is a variety of recreational opportunities.

Sellers said the city had a “recent development” with an unnamed entity involving positive interest in a “tournament quality tennis complex.” The tennis facility may house national tournaments “or larger.”

Another entity was interested in developing a “tournament-class” indoor and outdoor volleyball facility, which could also be used for other activities, including basketball and futsal, or indoor soccer.

A third entity is eyeing a “large recreation facility” that will be multi-purpose for a variety of activities. Other facilities could include a skate park, along with a splash pad.

Kyle Mayor Todd Webster said that instead of waiting 20 years, the city could “bring the types of things people want.”

Travis Mitchell, Kyle city council, District 1, credited staff with finding a solution to the funding issue.

“You brought forward an impossible solution and its the truest situation of making lemonade out of lemons,” Mitchell said.

Gang activity funneling into Hays County

Hays County falls into the median category of concentrated gang activity in Texas, according to the state’s 2017 Gang Assessment Report.

Gang activity has been rising exponentially in Texas and recent reports estimate there are 100,000 active gang members in the state. However, given the dynamic nature of gang recruitment, that number could be even higher, officials report.

The Texas 2017 Gang Assessment Report is a collaborative effort by the Texas Joint Crime information Center with more than 100 local law enforcement and criminal justice agencies to create a comprehensive assessment of gang activity.

“This report provides an overview of gangs operating in Texas, which gives law enforcement important information to help protect our communities from these violent organizations.”  said DPS Director Steven McCraw.

The prison system and county jails offer gangs such as Tango Blast unique opportunities for recruiting new members, who may join for protection during incarceration. Gangs may recruit in order to have a majority of the population and defend themselves from other gangs.

Gang activity tends to culminate in metropolitan areas, according to the study. However, members can also be found in surrounding rural and suburban areas.

“Like many smaller towns in Central Texas, Kyle has some affiliate gang members who live in the city limits,” said Jeff Barnett, Kyle Police chief. “We also experience some youth criminal activity. This is typically a group of teens and young adults who commit a variety of crimes including burglary and thefts.”

Barnett noted that the youth criminal activity in the area is generally not affiliated with the larger criminal gangs.

Hays County’s proximity to areas with a higher concentration of gang activity, such as Travis County, as well as its location along Interstate 35, have placed it among the median of Texas’ gang activity.

Due to an increasing presence of gang activity, Hays County formed the Hays County Gang Task Force in 2012 as a proactive measure to mitigate gang activity in the area.

The task force is made up of officers from Kyle PD, Buda PD, San Marcos PD and the Hays County Sheriff’s office.

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