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Newspaper and Travel Guide
for Pecos Country of West Texas

Friday, June 6, 2008

Suspect in double murder captured in Alabama

Double murder charges were scheduled to be filed on Thursday afternoon or early Friday against a man sought for questioning by police for the past four weeks in connection with the May 6 stabbing deaths of the owners of a west side bar, following his arrest by law enforcement authorities on Tuesday in southern Alabama.

Randall Lee Stephens, 50, was arrested by police in Loxley, Ala., on Tuesday, and will now face capital murder charges at the state level, along with federal charges for violating the national sex offender registry law, after an indictment was returned Thursday.

Stephens was one of three transients questioned by an officer in Loxley, located on Interstate 10 midway between Mobile, Ala., while he was on patrol at a truck stop just before 11 a.m. on Tuesday. Loxley Police Chief John M. Cason told the Mobile Register that officer Michael Landenwich found Stephens sitting outside the Firehouse Café, part of a gas station off Alabama 59, just north of I-10.

Pecos Police Chief Clay McKinney, said a records check by Landenwich turned up a warrant obtained by police on Stephens following the May 6 murders of Rick and A.J. Cherry, owners of D.J.’s Round-up on West Third Street.

The warrant, on a charge unrelated to the murders, allowed Loxley police to arrest Stephens and detain him until he could be questioned by Pecos law enforcement officers. That local charge will be dropped and replaced by the federal sex offender charge, as a result of Thursday’s action by federal grand jurors in Pecos.

“We did have a warrant on Mr. Stephens in connection with failing to register as a sex offender,” McKinney said. The warrant was filed on May 8, at the same time police named Stephens as a “person of interest” in connection with the Cherrys’ deaths.

Cason said Landenwich was told by Stephens that he knew about the homicides, and left Pecos to avoid the investigation.

McKinney, along with Police Capt. Kelly Davis, 143rd District Attorney Randy Reynolds and one of his investigators, Gerry Villalobos, flew to New Orleans Tuesday night and arrived in Loxley early Wednesday morning.

“This morning (Wednesday) at around 3 a.m., Mr. Stephens was interviewed regarding the double homicide of the Cherrys in Pecos,” McKinney said. “As a result of that interview, it corroborated many details of the investigation, which will lead us once we return to Pecos to seek capital murder charges of Randall Lee Stephens.”

Stephens was taken to the Baldwin County Correctional Center in Bay Minette, Ala., where he was being held pending transfer to U.S. Marshals, who were to transport him back to Pecos. On Wednesday afternoon, Stephens waived any challenge to his extradition on the initial arrest during a court hearing held via teleconference from the correctional center with a Federal Court magistrate for the Southern District of Alabama in Mobile. A second hearing will have to be held on the new federal charge.

Robin McBride, with the Criminal Investigation Department of the U.S. Marshal’s Service in Pecos, said the agency offered its services to Pecos Police at the time of the murders, and helped locate witnesses in the case through the Lone Star Fugitive Task Force.

McBride went before the grand jury in Pecos on Thursday morning, which returned the indictment against Stephens for violation of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, a federal statute passed in 2006 that included tougher penalties for convicted sex offenders who fail to enter their address in the national sex offender registry.

“We will send the indictment to Alabama, and they (U.S. Marshals) will take custody of him,” McBride said. They will fly Stephens back to the Pecos Criminal Justice Center through the federal air transport service.

“It will probably be 3-4 weeks before he gets back here,” McBride said. “But we’ll try and expedite the process and get him here as soon as possible.”

For now, Stephens will remain in custody in Baldwin County. “Later on he will more than likely go into federal custody, before he is transported back here,” McBride said. McBride said the government would pay the cost of returning Stephens to Pecos due to the federal indictment. Stephens was arrested in the late 1970s and again in the late 1980s in connection with sexual assaults, which caused him to fall under the Adam Walsh Act.

The bodies of the Cherrys were found on the afternoon of May 7 by A.J. Cherry’s brother and sister. Preliminary autopsy results showed the couple died from multiple stab wounds, with the deaths believed to have occurred between 10 p.m. and midnight on May 6, which was also Stephens’ 50th birthday.

Stephens grew up in Pecos, but had spent most of the past 30 years in prison. Police believe he stole Cherry’s 1995 Ford F-350 pickup, which was discovered the morning of May 11 by a U.S. Border Patrol agent abandoned on Interstate 25 between Truth or Consequences and Socorro, N.M., about 375 miles northwest of Pecos.

McKinney said he, Davis and Villalobos questioned Stephens about his whereabouts between May 7 and June 3, but did not want to release details of what Stephens said at this time.

Stephens was sentenced to 17 years in prison in 1990 as part of a plea bargain agreement on a 1989 charge of burglary of a habitation. The plea was on an original charge of sexual assault for an October 1989 incident involving a 25-year-old woman, and came after he had been convicted in 23rd District Court in Brazoria County in June of 1986 on a charge of aggravated assault.

Stephens also has had previous arrests locally on vehicle theft charges. Records in 143rd District Court showed Stephens served two years on an April 1978 plea deal for theft over $200 and under $10,000 for stealing a vehicle. At the time of that plea, a 1978 charge of attempted aggravated rape was dismissed in 143rd District Court. In July of 1980, Stephens pled guilty and was sentenced to three years in prison for unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, in connection with another vehicle theft.

Hospital’s rural health clinic shorthanded

Reeves County Hospital’s physician shortage got a little worse this week, with the departure of one doctor and a leave taken by the supervisor of the hospital’s rural health clinic. But the hospital’s administrator said the problem should start reversing itself this summer, when new doctors begin arriving at the hospital.

Dr. Don Apodaca left the hospital and his practice in Pecos last week, while Michelle Cser, the physician’s assistant in charge of the rural health clinic, has taken a leave of absence, hospital CEO Al LaRochelle said on Wednesday.

“He was on a one-year contract,” he said of Apodaca. “Basically, his contract was up and he didn’t sign a supplemental.”

The doctor began working four days a week in the hospital’s rural health clinic last year. Dr. Apodaca, who came to Pecos from Garden City, was sent a four-month supplemental contract he had been expected to sign before changing his mind late last week.

Cser, who has worked in the hospital’s rural health clinic for almost a decade, has taken a medical leave of absence, LaRochelle said. “Whether that will change or not, I don’t know. But that’s the way it’s going,” he said.

The departures will leave the rural health clinic shorthanded for at least the next two months.

“We don’t have anybody to go in there right now,” he said, “For now, Luis Juarez is going to try and handle it.”

Juarez has been working at the hospital since last year as a physician’s assistant.

LaRochelle said that while the early part of the summer is going to be a problem, the situation should get better starting in August.

“Dr. (Steven) Serrano is supposed to be here on the 1st of August, so he should be in there,” LaRochelle said. Serrano is the first of four new physicians scheduled to arrive in Pecos in one-month intervals to help with the doctor shortage in the area.

“If I can recruit another one, I’ll do that,” he added.

Along with the new doctors, the hospital is also seeking to build a 20,000 square foot clinic adjacent to the hospital that will have offices for both doctors and dentists being recruited to Pecos. Reeves County Hospital received three bids last month to build the facility, and LaRochelle said the hospital board would meet with the three groups and consider approval of one of those proposals in early July.

“We’ll have a presentation of 30 minutes by each bidder on the lease, and then the board will go into executive session and decide,” he said.

Verizon plans Alltel buyout in $5.9b deal

From Staff and Wire Reports

Pecos area residents, who have had a hard time keeping track of the names of their local phone companies this decade, could soon have a new name to remember – or in this case, an old name that may return to West Texas as a different service provider.

Verizon Wireless has agreed to buy Alltel Corp. for $5.9 billion, which would make it by far the largest cellular carrier in the U.S.

Verizon Wireless would also assume $22.2 billion in debt in the deal, bringing the total value to $28.1 billion, the parties said Thursday.

Verizon was created in 2000, with the merger of Bell Atlantic, the main landline and wireless operator in the Northeast, and GTE, which operated the landline phone system in the Pecos area, along with others across the United States. Verizon served as the area’s phone company for less than two months before selling the system, and other rural systems in the Southwest, to a group of investors that formed Valor Telecom.

In 2006, Valor merged with Alltel, with the companies spinning off their landline systems to concentrate on cellular phone service. The new company, Windstream, currently is the landline phone operator for the Pecos area.

Alltel’s buyout by Verizon is not expected to affect Windstream’s phone service to area customers.

Alltel became one of the area’s two main wireless providers in 2005, with its purchase of Cellular One. The other area wireless provider has gone through three name changes this decade due to mergers and buy-outs, changing from Plateau Wireless to Cingular, and then to AT&T Wireless last year.

The Verizon deal comes just seven months after Alltel was taken private by Fort Worth, Texas-based TPG Capital and a unit of Goldman Sachs Group. They paid $24.7 billion for the stock and took on $2.7 billion in debt, bringing the value of that deal to $27.4 billion.

Alltel has 13.2 million subscribers in 34 states, mainly in rural areas away from the coasts. Added to Verizon Wireless 67.2 million subscribers, the size of the combined company would surpass the current U.S. cellular leader, San Antonio-based AT&T, with 71.4 million subscribers.

The parties expect the deal to close by the end of the year, pending regulatory approvals. The deal is likely to face scrutiny by the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission, but analysts expect it to pass.

Shares of New York-based Verizon Communications Inc., the controlling parent of Verizon Wireless, rose $2.16, or 5.8 percent, to $39.14 by late morning. Verizon Wireless' other parent is Vodafone Group PLC of Britain, with a 45 percent share of the joint venture.

Verizon Wireless expects that the deal to add immediately to earnings, excluding transaction and integration costs. It expects the deal to generate "synergies" of more than $9 billion due to reduced capital and operating spending. Analysts believe Verizon Wireless pays Alltel hundreds of millions of dollars a year in roaming fees, since Alltel provides coverage in many areas where Verizon Wireless does not.

In a statement, Verizon Communications Chairman and Chief Executive Ivan Seidenberg said Alltel is "a perfect fit," given its valuable customer base and solid financials. He also pointed to the fact that the carriers share the same network technology. San Antonio-based AT&T and another wireless carrier T-Mobile USA use an incompatible technology.

The $28.1 billion Verizon Wireless is paying, including debt, points to a small profit for the private-equity firms. The buyout happened at a difficult time in the credit markets, and the banks that financed the deal reportedly ended up holding some of the debt on their books, rather than selling it. That put pressure on the buyout group to cash out.

Talks between Verizon Wireless and Alltel were reported Wednesday by CNBC and The Wall Street Journal. Based on those reports, analyst Craig Moffett at Sanford Bernstein said the deal could yield significant economies of scale.

"The consolidation of Alltel takes another step towards rationalizing and consolidating the U.S. wireless industry, something that must be viewed as a positive" from an investor perspective, he said.

He said regulatory approval was likely, since the industry is already viewed as consisting of four players: the national carriers Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Sprint Nextel Corp. and T-Mobile USA. The deal signals that "the days for a mid-sized, regional stand-alone wireless operator are numbered," he wrote.

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