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Weekly Newspaper and Travel Guide
for Pecos Country of West Texas

Friday, July 16, 2004

Alpine’s truck fight could benefit Pecos

From Staff and Wire Reports

Increased truck traffic from Mexico through the Presidio border crossing may mean more local business for Pecos - if the city can get trucks bound for Midland-Odessa and the Dallas area to pass through town.

The shortest route to Midland-Odessa from Presidio goes through Pecos, but a decision made a decade ago has designated an alternate route through Alpine as the path truckers will take from the Mexican border to Interstate 20, despite concerns of Alpine residents. Pecos Mayor Dot Stafford said the city did talk about advertising, such as billboards south of Marfa, redirecting truckers along State Highway 17 through Fort Davis and Balmorhea to I-20 at Pecos, but that no action was taken.

“I really think we could put that as an agenda item,” she said on Tuesday. “It’s the most logical route, because it’s the shortest distance.”

Even though U.S. 67-90 travels through Alpine on one-way streets, residents there are opposed to an impending jump in truck traffic along the La Entrada al Pacifico route, which is designed too run from Lubbock to the Pacific coast of Mexico. Currently the route ends at Chihuahua City, but improvements to the road between there and the Ojinaga boarder crossing has increased its usage by trucks looking to avoid the jammed El Paso-Juarez area highways.

The route chosen a decade ago takes an indirect path from Odessa to the border, traveling through Crane, McCamey, Fort Stockton and Alpine to Marfa. Highway improvements are supposed to be made as part of the La Entrada project, but the route is still 25 miles longer than the route along I-20 and Highway 17 through Pecos. The city is also home to one of the area’s largest truck stops, the Flying J Truck Stop on I-20 and U.S. 285, which could make the route more attractive to drivers headed to and from Presidio.

Concerns by Fort Davis residents similar to those in Alpine about increased truck traffic, and some curved sections of Highway 17 between Balmorhea and Fort Davis were the reasons originally given for going with the longer route over the Pecos option.

“It was in the discussion before, and we were left out of the decision,” said chamber executive director Linda Gholson. She said billboard adds directing truckers going both to and from Mexico onto Highway 17, “is something we need to consider.”

The highway from Presidio to Marfa averaged 50 trucks per day in 2002, the most recent Texas Department of Transportation figures available. That number is estimated to increase to as many as 500 a day in the next five years, according to U.S. and Mexican estimates. The Chihuahua director of highway planning has predicted 4,000 a day along the route within a decade.

Planners say the Gateway to the Pacific will be a faster route for Asian imports to the U.S. interior, and less busy than California ports. Officials in Midland and Odessa have built a business park between the cities in hopes the route will help the area become a warehouse and distribution center to supply Dallas, Chicago, St. Louis, Denver and other cities.

Once the trade route is complete, Mexican trucks will have to stop for a customs check at Presidio then go 260 miles to Midland-Odessa. The route traveling through Pecos between Midland-Odessa and Presidio is 235 miles.

With its location between two mountains, residents in Alpine fear more trucks will have to go through town if the officially-designated route gains popularity. And with one of the lowest unemployment rates in Texas, Brewster County officials see more problems than benefits from the plan.

``When an 18-wheeler makes a turn, people ... literally have to back up to accommodate the truck,'' said Brewster County Judge Val Beard, whose offices are in a turn-of-the-century building in downtown Alpine, which sits in a valley surrounded by mountain ridges.

Residents fear the occasional trucks winding through town soon will be joined by hundreds of others, spewing pollution, drowning out conversation and creating a traffic logjam.

Alpine sits on a developing 800-mile trade route known as the Gateway to the Pacific. The route, made up mostly of existing roadways that are being improved, will stretch from Mexico's Pacific Coast to the Midland-Odessa area when it's completed sometime in the next decade.

The town's main street also is expected to see a dramatic increase in commercial traffic following a Supreme Court ruling last month that opens U.S. roads to Mexican trucks under the North American Free Trade Agreement.

``We'll have more traffic, more noise, and it's going to damage the highways, but there's nothing I or anyone else can do about it,'' said Alan Gerson, who owns Gerson Artworks and Tattoo Studio.

Many residents are concerned that traffic will destroy a growing tourist economy that once centered almost exclusively on Big Bend National Park.

``It is disgusting,'' said Peggy Martin, manager of the Kiowa Gallery in Alpine. ``It's progress, I guess. What else can you say? It's stinky and it's noisy.''

In Presidio, where Mexican trucks have long crossed, the truckers have been a boon for a town that has long boasted Texas’ highest unemployment rate, averaging over 20 percent for all of 2003.

``They eat, they get their tires fixed, they stay in a motel,'' said Presidio City Manager Tom Nance, who says sales tax revenues have increased and unemployment has dropped dramatically. ``It's good for this city.''

But Alpine residents aren't expecting such a windfall.

Many fear the trucks will fill up with cheaper and dirtier Mexican diesel before entering the United States. Then they would have no reason to stop along the way, simply rumbling through the towns.

``They'll get way past us burning dirty fuel,'' said Alpine resident Don Dowdey, chairman of the Big Bend Regional Sierra Club. ``This is a special unique place and it ought not to be treated the same way (as major urban centers).''

The state has started to collect data and meet with people in the area about their concerns, said Judy Ramsey of the Texas Department of Transportation. She said the South Orient railroad, owned by the department, is being refurbished and will take some trucks off the road. Another way to diminish the impact would be to build bypass routes around the towns, but Ramsey said money is scarce.

Martin, the Kiowa art gallery manager who has lived in the town for 10 years, said she wishes the town could just stay the same.

``We don't even have a functioning red light and we don't want one,'' Martin said. ``We don't ever want to be that big.''

Train trip ends near Pecos for nine illegals

U.S. Border Patrol agents in the Marfa Sector have been kept busy the past couple of days dealing with illegal immigrants found on board freight trains, including an incident Wednesday evening just west of Pecos.

According to Bill Brooks, Public Affairs Officer for the Border Patrol’s Marfa Sector, nine illegals were discovered in a field next to a Union Pacific freight train that had stopped at a railroad siding. The incident occurred alongside Interstate 20, near the 36 mile marker, three miles west of Pecos.

“We had a trip and went out to the train,” Brooks said. Agents were at the scene along with Reeves County Sheriff’s Department personnel and discovered the illegals.

“They apparently got on near Fabens when the train stopped, and were in an open boxcar. When the train stopped (west of Pecos) they got off the train, and the officers went out and found them in the brush,” Brooks said.

There were no other criminal charges pending against the nine, and as a result, they were voluntarily returned to Mexico. “But if they come back, they will face charges,” Brooks said.

Along with the nine found alongside the train near Pecos, Brooks said 21 illegal aliens were discovered on a UP freight train in Marfa, while a Guatemalan in the U.S. illegally was pulled of another freight while it was stopped in Valentine on Thursday.

“It’s not something you can say is a trend, but for the last few days we’ve seen more than normal (illegals) on train checks. It’s just a bump in the normal statistics,” he said. UP freight trains headed east from the El Paso-Juarez area normally stop in Pecos for crew changes. Brooks said Border Patrol agents also do train checks when the freights are stopped at sidings, and said, “We also do train checks as the train is moving. If it becomes necessary we can radio ahead to stop the train.”

WTSS officer charged in child porn case

Monahans News

A 30-year-old federal juvenile corrections officer from Monahans with West Texas State School has been charged with trading and owning child pornog­raphy.

Armando Orona Jr. was released from jail on July 9 after posting $20,000 bond set by Federal Mag­istrate Judge Stephen H. Capelle in Alpine. Orona, a former Pecos resident, was arrested on July 8.

West Texas State School Super­intendent Chip Harrison said in an interview on Monday that at the time of his hiring Orona passed all background checks, and has given the school's officials "no indications at all that he was involved in some­thing like this." Harrison added that applicants must pass a battery of checks, including criminal records, wants and warrants, driver's license and reference checks.

"Orona was never accused of anything inappropriate while he was here," Harrison said of the employee, who has worked at Pyote for nearly three years.

On July 8, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials searched Orona's home and found a computer containing more than 1,000 images and several movie clips of minors involved in sexu­ally explicit acts.

Orona's attorney, David Zavoda, declined to comment on the case the following day. Officers with Immigration and Customs Enforcement had been told that Orona was trading com­puter files over the Internet with someone on the west coast.

Orona must live in a Midland halfway house while awaiting the outcome of a grand jury investiga­tion; according to conditions set by Capelle, according to Leticia Zamarripa, is a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Orona was working as a house parent at the West Texas State School in Pyote. The school is cooperating with immigration and custom enforcement officials, Zamarripa said. Orona's arrest is part of Opera­tion Predator, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement initiative designed to protect children from sexual predators.

"Orona is currently placed on leave until we can get a final dis­position in the case," Harrison said. "We cannot terminate until we get the final outcome of the court case, but he will not be allowed to work here as long as charges are pend­ing."

Harrison said that he was ap­proached by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials at the beginning of the month, and "worked with them getting the information they needed."

Plasencia brother pleads guilty to Hobbs slaying

From Staff and Wire Reports

One of two former Pecos residents involved in a double shooting last November that left two others dead in Hobbs, N.M., has reached a plea deal in the case, officials said on Tuesday.

Alex Plasencia, 21, appeared July 13 before state District Judge William McBee and pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter with a firearm enhancement.

Before reaching the agreement with the district attorney's office, Plasencia had faced an open count of murder and a possible life sentence in the death of 18-year-old Mark Olivas.

Assistant District Attorney Ron Walker said Plasencia received seven years in prison - six years for a third-degree felony resulting in death and one year for the firearm enhancement.

His older brother, 22-year-old Gilbert Plasencia, is accused of shooting the other victim, identified as 19-year-old Marcos Palma. The elder Plasencia is awaiting an August trial date.

Lea County sheriff's deputies responded to a Hobbs apartment complex around 3 a.m. on Nov. 8. They found Olivas and Palma suffering from gunshot wounds.

The two were taken to Lea Regional Medical Center and pronounced dead about 30 minutes later.

Authorities said the men were involved in an argument at a party prior to the shooting. Witnesses told police they thought the Plasencia brothers were involved.

Both Plasencia brothers were picked up later that day at their mother’s house in Kermit, where the family moved in early 2003. Winkler County Sheriff’s Department officials at the time said Gilbert attempted to flee when police alerted the residents of the house to exit. Officers subdued him at the back door as he tried to escape. Alex was arrested without incident.

They were taken first to Winkler County Jail before being turned over to Lea County, N.M. officials.

Both men were known gang members here in Pecos, where Gilbert was reportedly is the leader of the BPG, or Brown Pride Gang.

The two had been arrested in Pecos for assorted crimes ranging from evading arrest, minor in possession of alcohol, aggravated assault, unlawfully carrying a weapon, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, criminal activity, terroristic threats and public intoxication.

Matthews approved as P-B-T superintendent

Staff Writer

Pecos-Barstow-Toyah school board members made official the selection of Ray Matthews as the district’s new superintendent Thursday night, and also approved a new employee pay scale that will give teachers at least a 3 1/2 percent pay raise for the 2004-05 school year.

The board held a special meeting in the P-B-T ISD Technology Center, and following a 15-minute closed session approved the hiring of Matthews on a three-year contract at a salary of $95,000 a year.

Matthews will take over the position from Don Love, who retired as superintendent at the end of the past school year. A Texas Association of School Boards search committee last month recommended the Louise ISD superintendent for the job last month, but under state law no final action could be taken until 21 days after Matthews’ name was announced.

Matthews’ salary represents a $10,000 a year increase over the salary paid to Love during the 2003-04 school year. The vote on Matthews was unanimous, though board members Crissy Martinez, Lila Cerna and Steve Valenzuela were absent from the meeting. Meanwhile, the board also approved the new pay rates for P-B-T employees at the start of Thursday’s special meeting.

“Someone from TASB came up with this to make figuring salaries easier,” said interim superintendent Wayne Mitchell. “The people down in Austin say that is the way we need to do it to bring things to a bit more equitable salary scale.”

Board members were given the chart, listing the state-minimum salaries for teachers, librarians, counselors, and nurses, along with the 2003-04 and the projected 2004-05 pay scales for P-B-T ISD. Under the approved plan, starting salaries for new teachers with no experience will be $27,500, up from $25,928 last year and $3,260 above the state minimum salary of $24,240.

Pay rates were listed from zero to 21 years of experience or more. Teachers at that level will receive salaries of $44,550 in the upcoming school year, up from $43,463 last year and above the state mandated $40,800 minimum salary for teachers with that level of experience.

The board was also given a list of the current and proposed administrative/professional compensation plan for the district. Midpoint salary levels for the administrative positions, ranging from assistant speech therapist to assistant superintendent, will range from between $2,000 and $6,000 a year.

Clerical and paraprofessional salaries that are based on hourly wage rates will rise at the midpoint between 58 cents and $1.56 an hour, depending on the position, while hourly wage rates for the district’s manual trades positions will rise at the midpoint salary between 83 cents and $1.61 per hour, depending on the position.

“I believe we’ll be able to come out with a balanced budget and still give people salary hikes,” Mitchell told the board. He said that while some employees would get higher percentage pay hikes than others, all workers will see their salaries rise by at least 3 1/2 percent.

After approving that measure, the board approved having the district look into filling the position of truancy officer for the upcoming year. He said the job would involve both on-campus and off-campus work, and could involve more than one person.

“Mr. (new Pecos High School principal Stephen) Lucas and I would recommend that you approve someone or a combination of people for the position,” Mitchell said. The position would be for four-hours per day at a salary of $15 per hour, with total funding for the 22004-05 school year of $10,000.

The position will be filled by a law enforcement officer. “There will be other things they have to do,” said Mitchell. “There are a lot of things those people can do just by persuasion.”

Board member Amy Miller asked if the officers would be carrying guns inside the school. Mitchell said they would, and board member Paul Deishler, who is also a member of the Pecos Police Department, said he would object to officers going into the schools unarmed.

“I’m not going to put an officer in there, where if a kid pulls a gun on an officer he doesn’t have a weapon,” he said. “An 18-year-old kid can shoot you just as fast as a 30-year-old man.”

Board members were also briefed by P-B-T finance director Cookie Canon about the district’s Internet safety procedures. The briefing was part of a public hearing Canon said the federal government mandates school districts conduct annually on measures taken to keep students from accessing unauthorized websites on district computers.

She said all 750 computers in the district that have Internet access are filtered for content. “If they find out how to click the filter off it shuts off the Internet,” Canon said. “As we’ve talked, no filter can filter 100 percent, but we’re giving it our best shot.”

The board delayed discussion on other items on the agenda, including an update on the 2004-05 tax rate and budget situations, until the next regularly scheduled meeting, on Aug. 12. Final valuations numbers for P-B-T ISD, on which the budget and tax rates will be based, are not expected to be available until sometime late next week.

“We might as well wait until the 12th with the regular meeting, and then we’ll have to meet again on (August) 30 to approve the budget and set the tax rate,” Mitchell said. “In the meantime, we still have to meet. We still haven’t gotten the student handbook, and we still have to hire people.”

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