AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Steven McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), suggested Thursday that two DPS employees previously disciplined for their response to the Robb Elementary School mass shooting in Uvalde will be the only employees disciplined. Law enforcement officers from multiple agencies took more than 77 minutes to enter the classroom and take down the gunman.
In September, the department announced seven DPS officials were under investigation for the response that day. Two of those who were under investigation have faced disciplinary actions and one retired. The unnamed remaining four have been cleared of wrongdoing, DPS communications director Travis Considine confirmed to Nexstar.
To date, one responding DPS officer has been terminated for the response that day — DPS Sgt. Juan Maldonado.
A second DPS employee, Texas Ranger Ryan Kindell, is suspended and in the process of being terminated. However, Kindell has the ability to appeal the decision to both McCraw and then to the Public Safety Commission.
According to the Texas House investigative committee report on the school shooting, 91 of the 376 responding law enforcement officials on the scene that day were DPS employees.
Nexstar asked McCraw about the investigation into the shooting and accountability Thursday after he testified to the Senate Finance Committee about budget needs.
When asked by reporters if more DPS employees will face discipline, McCraw said “no, just the two,” in reference to Maldonado and Kindell, suggesting that no further DPS employees will face repercussions for their actions at Robb Elementary.
Officers from other agencies have faced scrutiny for what a Texas House report classified as a “chaotic and uncoordinated” response on May 24, in which 19 children and two teachers died.
Two Uvalde CISD officials were terminated, including Pete Arredondo, the former school police chief. The district also fired Crimson Elizondo, a former DPS trooper who was one of the seven under investigation, for her response that day.
Elizondo had previously retired from DPS and was later hired as a police officer for the Uvalde school district. After the news of Elizondo’s employment at Uvalde CISD was revealed by CNN, the district fired Elizondo and then suspended its entire police department.
McCraw said the Texas Rangers’ investigation into the shooting has been completed and handed over to the Uvalde District Attorney’s office. When asked for further specifics about the investigation, McCraw said he cannot comment on an ongoing investigation.
“I’m not going to discuss that, because it is an ongoing criminal investigation,” he said. “It’s an ongoing, pending criminal matter and is being reviewed by the District Attorney. And I presume at some point in time, when she makes a determination presented to a grand jury until that’s completed, the investigation is not completed. Our portion of it is completed unless she finds other areas that [she’d] like us to elaborate on.”
On Jan. 6, Uvalde District Attorney Christina Mitchell said in an email to Nexstar “I do not anticipate receiving the completed DPS Texas Rangers investigation until the spring, at the earliest. It is not uncommon for an investigation of this magnitude to take at least a year.”
Nexstar has followed up about whether she has now received the Texas Rangers investigation from DPS, but has not heard back.
McCraw has faced pressure from families of the Uvalde victims to step down from his role as the leader of DPS. Nexstar asked the director if he plans to retire this year and he said he does not plan to any time soon.
“Unfortunately for DPS, they are stuck with me for the time being,” McCraw said. “I will be here awhile.”
Bill in response to Uvalde would add extra officer to every Texas school
State Sen. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, announced another round of school safety legislation Tuesday, while surrounded by families who lost children in the shootings at Robb Elementary and Santa Fe High School.
“This is personal to me,” said Gutierrez, who represents Uvalde and has been the most vocal public official in advocating for the families’ needs after the May 24 massacre. “These people deserve more than what they got. Their little babies deserve more than what they got. And, by God, we need to do something.”
Gutierrez plans to invite the families to the Capitol every week to announce new batches of school safety bills. Tuesday brought three new announcements relating to hardening schools, funding mental healthcare, and remembering victims of mass gun violence.
Senate Bill 737 would create the Texas School Patrol with 10,000 officers — enough to add an additional officer to every public school in Texas. Sen. Gutierrez said it would cost $750 million.
“Each parent should be able to send their kids to school knowing that they’re going to be able to pick them up at the end of the day,” he said. “We can afford to do this. And we should do this.”
Sen. Gutierrez also filed an appropriations request for $2 billion for mental healthcare and $2 billion for school hardening measures. He argued the state should save the $32.7 billion budget surplus for these needs, pushing back against the all-but-certain plan from top Republican leaders to spend a bulk of it on property tax cuts.
“There’s $18 billion sitting in Rainy Day,” he said, referring to the state’s savings account. “We keep hearing about this notion that we want to give property tax relief. Take it out of the $18 billion. That surplus wasn’t something that Republicans created. Let’s spend it on relief for healthcare, relief for rural mental health.”
SB 738 would require the Texas DPS to ensure local law enforcement has emergency radio capabilities, addressing the failures in communication that contributed to a delayed response at Robb Elementary. It also requires mass shooting training for all public safety entities. The requirements only apply to counties “impacted by or adjacent to Operation Lone Star,” the governor’s border security initiative.
“If you’re going to spend money on Operation Lone Star, you better spend money on the radios for the two counties north of the border,” Sen. Gutierrez said. “Not one damn radio worked inside that building. Cops were out there playing telephone for 77 minutes trying to figure out what was going on inside and outside. A complete and utter failure. Yes, this is a story about terror. It’s also a story about rural neglect.”
Senate Concurrent Resolution 15 would “honor the victims and survivors of mass gun violence” with a new memorial on the south lawn of the Capitol. The memorial would replace the Confederate Soldiers Monument and relocate it to the Austin State Cemetery.
“We plea for these changes, that you hear us, and that you see us and you acknowledge the pain that these families that stand behind me,” said Christina Delgado, an advocate with Community Justice Action Fund and Santa Fe High School parent.
Texans have mixed responses to President’s State of the Union
Texas Republicans in Congress voiced their disapproval of President Biden’s border policy. Several members openly heckled the President during Tuesday’s State of the Union address.
Shouts of “secure the border,” interrupted the President at a few points during the address. He waited until later in the speech to talk about immigration and the border, instead focusing much of his address on economic issues.
When he did touch on immigration, Biden defended his administration’s policies and said it’s on Congress to act.
“American border problems won’t be fixed until Congress acts,” Biden said. “If we don’t pass my comprehensive immigration reform, at least pass my plan to provide the equipment and officers to secure the border.”
That comment drew head-shaking and shouts of disapproval from many Republicans in the chamber. Meanwhile, Democrats stood and applauded.
After the address, Texas Democratic Congressman Henry Cuellar praised part of the President’s plan to fight drug smuggling at the border.
“One of the things I liked that he mentioned was putting more technology at the ports of entry,” said Cuellar, referring to plans to put new large-scale scanners to check trucks and other vehicles crossing the border.
“If you see where the fentanyl and meth comes in, they come through ports of entry,” Cuellar said, “That technology is going to be very important to make sure that we stop those drugs from coming into the U.S.
Rep. Monica De La Cruz, a Republican who represents a district in the Rio Grande Valley, was critical of the President’s comments.
“I was very disappointed with the President’s speech, specifically on the fact that he spent more time talking about hotel fees and baggage fees than the open border policy that he himself created,” said De La Cruz in an interview after the address.
During his address, Biden touted efforts to fight excessive fees on travel and event tickets. He also renewed his call for a tax on billionaires to help reduce the deficit. Republicans were critical of the economic message.
“What I heard tonight, effectively was the President declaring war on middle-class Americans, on hard-working families, on the free market, on our oil and gas industry, on so many things that are vital to this country,” said East Texas Republican Nathaniel Moran after the address. “That’s not the message we needed to hear.”
Texas passed missing persons reporting law, but does it work?
Susanna Arroyo pulled up a picture on her phone. It was the most recent one she had of Seferino Ybarra: a driver’s license photo.
She started walking toward a bus stop along Cameron Road in east Austin, showing it to anyone who crossed her path — anyone who might have any information about her older brother, missing for more than two years.
“I want to see who’s in these tents,” she said anxiously, nearing a small homeless camp in the grass just off the sidewalk.
It looked promising because there was a walker nearby, which could have belonged to Ybarra. A woman in the tent was sleeping, but there were no signs of her brother.
She approached a group of people closer to the bus stop.
“He’s using a walker now,” she told them. “Was told by the police department that he was in this area. This is a picture of his driver’s license, more like what he would look like now.”
She had traveled the four-hour stretch from her home in Tyler many times before, looking into possible leads. The latest led her back to Austin just before Christmas. She had heard Ybarra was spotted at a state office trying to get a birth certificate.
Arroyo explained the veteran was diagnosed with cancer, and she worried about the toll of it all.
“The last time I spoke to him he…had lost his apartment. He was living homeless on the streets,” she said. “I’m just concerned that something will happen to him and we won’t know.”
The siblings used to call each other weekly. But after receiving no communication from her brother for months, Arroyo said she filed a missing persons report with Austin Police (APD) in April 2021.
She explained investigators didn’t consider him missing because he was known to be homeless. So, Arroyo started posting about him on social media and created a profile in the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs.
If he had disappeared just a few months later, a new state law would have required police to report to NamUs.
“John and Joseph’s Law,” which went into effect in September 2021, requires police across Texas to enter cases into the national, public database within 60 days of someone filing an official missing persons report with that agency.
Some Texas families tell KXAN terminology impacted how missing persons cases were classified, creating gaps in the law.
In 2022, a Round Rock police classification about Timothy Perez meant his case was not entered into NamUs until his parents created it. The agency said it believed Perez was “voluntarily missing,” meaning he intentionally disappeared. They added the determination was made based on officers’ interaction with him indicating he was not a danger to himself or others and was not committing a crime. Months after our report, his body was found in Williamson County near State Highway 45 and MoPac Expressway.
Request to Locate
In 2021, The Austin Police Department classified Seferino Ybarra’s case as a “Request to Locate.” A spokesperson said the case did not meet the criteria for a “Missing Persons” report which includes suspicious or unknown circumstances, a person who has a mental or behavioral disability, someone who is drug dependent or is in a life-threatening danger.
“Every investigation is different, and in this incident, Mr. Ybarra’s relatives made a report with APD and advised he was believed to be homeless. There are differences between a ‘Missing Persons’ report and a ‘Request to Locate’ report,” an APD spokesperson said. “This specific case did not meet the criteria for a ‘Missing Persons’ report.”
When KXAN investigators asked if APD had any interactions with Ybarra, the spokesperson replied, “To respect Mr. Ybarra’s privacy rights, we cannot release other details regarding his case aside from what has been provided.”
The spokesperson said even before the law passed, APD investigators already utilized NamUs for long-term missing cases. In early 2023, the department had 37 cases classified as “long-term missing.” APD added many cases come weekly but are typically cleared within a few days or weeks.
Arroyo is one of the hundreds of Texans with loved ones in the NamUs database.
Data obtained by KXAN investigators shows out of 614 Texas cases entered into NamUs between the new law taking effect and the end of 2022, 24 profiles were created by family or close associates. Most — 450 — were made by NamUs staff, medical examiners or law enforcement. A total of 140 public entries were created by citizens and have to be verified by law enforcement before they are posted.
The Texas law details police are required to enter into NamUs all available identifying features including dental records, fingerprints, other physical characteristics and a description of the clothing worn when last seen. The details are considered law enforcement sensitive information and cannot be viewed by the public or family members.
Public users including family members can enter cases into NamUs, track cases and search all information including the name of the missing person, age, physical description and date of last contact along with the location. All public case entries are vetted by the investigating agency before being made publicly viewable in NamUs. Once a case is vetted and NamUs obtains permission from the investigating agency, the case is published for public viewing and searching.
Family members who have missing loved ones are encouraged to search the database. Missing persons advocates tell KXAN investigators that many times families have helped solve their own cases.
NamUs says more than 600,000 individuals go missing in the United States every year. By early 2023, there were 2,294 open Texas cases in NamUs. Since the system’s launch in 2008, 2,149 Texas cases have been resolved, according to the NamUs website.
Since the law took effect, the number of cases in Texas has increased.
Data obtained by KXAN from NamUs shows the year before the law went into effect there were 348 Texas cases entered into the database. In the year after, NamUs data showed the number entered jumped to 969.
By comparison, Texas DPS data obtained by KXAN investigators showed 64,262 missing persons reports were filed with Texas law enforcement agencies between the new law taking effect and the end of 2022.
According to the state’s criminal code, each time someone files a missing persons report with Texas law enforcement, that agency is required to submit the name and other important details to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, or NCIC, within two hours. Unlike NamUs, that database is not public. In contrast, police must submit case details to NamUs within 60 days of receiving a missing persons report. While some cases are likely cleared before that 60-day deadline, KXAN investigators found many other cases may fall through the cracks – never reported by police to NamUs despite the law’s requirement.
By 2023, Texas was among at least 13 states with laws mandating the use of NamUs by law enforcement. KXAN found some states have shorter reporting requirements — between 30 and 45 days.
State Rep. Lacey Hull, R-Houston, crafted “John and Joseph’s Law.”
She negotiated Texas’ 60-day timeframe to avoid an administrative burden on agencies, which her office said should allow them to more easily comply with the reporting requirement. Her office noted changing the timeline for reporting at this time wouldn’t help address the issues of agencies complying with the existing law.
It’s why Hull continues to spread awareness of the resource by joining families as they navigate their search for missing loved ones. Most recently, she spoke about the impact of the law at a “Missing in Harris County Day” event.
“The more people that know about this — the more that we spread the message, the more it can be used, and hopefully the more cases that can be solved and families that can have closure and hopefully find their missing loved ones,” she said.
Hull worked closely with two Houston families on the law, named after John Almendarez and Joseph Fritts, who were missing. Their families felt faster police action would have helped their cases.
“It’s the impact that it makes to these families. Just hearing that — that someone cares and that something is being done to try and help them means — means the world to these families,” Hull said. “We have seen agencies, you know, a huge uptick in reporting of cases. And we see compliance and we see these agencies wanting to make these reports.”
While the number of Texas cases in NamUs has increased, the law has no penalty for those police agencies that might not be reporting. KXAN also learned the state doesn’t track compliance, and the law doesn’t say who should enforce the requirement.
“I think a lot of it is awareness. I don’t believe that, you know, overall, that there’s agencies out there who are unwilling to comply. I think a lot of it is just some of them don’t know,” Hull explained.
She believes police agencies in Harris County, one of the state’s populous counties and includes her district, are complying, but she wants to make sure smaller counties have the resources to comply.
“Some places will say, ‘We don’t even have a computer,’ or ‘We don’t have a medical examiner,’ and they’re trying to figure out who would be responsible for it, for inputting that information into NamUs,” she said.
Hull added she wants to review the data gathered by KXAN investigators. She’s looking at the law to see if any changes are necessary and if something needs to be done this legislative session, which runs through May. She said if any agencies are running into problems following the law, she wants to know why.
The APD spokesperson said obtaining DNA and dental records from family members located outside of Texas has been challenging when entering cases into the database.
“Lawmakers can help fund DNA testing, update the DPS laboratories with modern equipment and testing procedures, and implement a genetic genealogy division,” a spokesperson shared when asked how lawmakers can help departments utilizing NamUs.
The other states with requirements KXAN checked also don’t have any enforcement measures.
“We don’t want to, you know, penalize people for if they are truly trying, or they just truly don’t know. If they don’t have the resources, and they don’t have awareness, we want to give them the chance to be able to do that — the education and those resources to be able to do it,” Hull said.
The law also requires medical examiners and justices of the peace to use NamUs for unidentified persons cases. They have to enter information about remains into the system within 10 days after determining one or more identifying features, or 60 days after the date the investigation began.
A Houston Chronicle investigation in 2022, which cited KXAN’s research, found some were not complying. The Chronicle found out of 274 records at the time from justices of the peace, medical examiners and district attorneys’ offices across Texas, at least 13 unidentified bodies were not entered into NamUs after the law went into effect.
Hull said her office has teamed up with Operation Identification out of Texas State University which has been at the forefront of education efforts with justices of the peace and medical examiners. Operation Identification’s team works to identify human remains found along or close to the South Texas border. Hull said teams have been providing valuable education, especially to smaller counties, about NamUs.
Missing persons advocates hope a new federal law can be the answer to the issues Texas still sees.
President Biden signed the Help Find the Missing Act, or Billy’s Law, in late 2022. It is named after a Connecticut man whose family pushed for the law after their son vanished 18 years ago. And it is supposed to streamline missing persons reports across the nation.
The law aims to connect NamUs with NCIC. Within one year of going into effect on December 27, 2022, the U.S. Attorney General will be required to issue a report to federal, state and tribal law enforcement agencies describing best practices for the collection, reporting and analysis of data and information on missing persons and unidentified human remains.
In late January, Hull filed a resolution in honor of Missing Persons Day. The resolution recognized February 3, 2023, as National Missing Persons Day, and calls attention to the hundreds of cases that need to be solved.
“National Missing Persons Day serves as a reminder that missing persons are not forgotten and that their loved ones are not alone in their search for answers, and it presents a fitting opportunity to affirm our commitment to bringing justice to victims and closure to the families of Texans who have gone missing,” the resolution reads.
Hull also added in the resolution that technology has become a powerful tool for law enforcement and families, and one of the most significant resources available today is NamUs —helping clear cases that might otherwise go cold.
The Texas law is not retroactive and does not include cases like Ybarra’s. That means, if a person was reported missing before the law went into effect, police are not required to add their cases to NamUs.
Hull said she wishes all cases could be entered into the database, but including those older ones would mean costs for agencies since it would take more time and resources.
Arroyo understands. But she said a stronger law would help more families dealing with unimaginable anguish in the future.
“I think about him every day since he’s been missing — every day. Every day I pray to God that we will find him,” she said.
She spent the rest of the afternoon that December day going block by block asking anyone she encountered about her brother.
“I’m looking for my brother. I don’t know…heard he’s in this area. He walks around with a walker…Petey Seferino Sam,” she said to a couple several blocks from where her search started.
“That’s Pete!” said the woman excitedly. “He stayed with me last night. He’s supposed to come back tonight.”
Arroyo was shocked. “You guys for real?”
It was the closest she had come to finding someone who might know him. Hours after connecting with the couple, Arroyo got a call that her brother was at their place. She immediately rushed over and reunited with him.
Arroyo said he’s now working on finding a more permanent home. She said she’s lucky she found him but knows many other families never get that kind of ending. She said her experience has made her an advocate, and she will be pushing for more resources to help other families desperately looking for missing loved ones.
“If you have a missing person, if you have a lost family member, reach out to the police,” she said. “You never know if you can find that person alive, that would be wonderful.”
Texas Senate honors the ‘Grandmother of Juneteenth’
Opal Lee has a spunk and fight in her that’s gained national momentum over the last several years. So much so that she’s now recognized as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth,” for her fundamental role in getting it recognized as a national holiday.
Juneteenth is a holiday celebrating the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States. It marks the day in 1865 when slaves in Texas learned of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Now at age 96, the activist from Fort Worth has received a rare honor, a portrait in the Texas Senate. Lee’s portrait was unveiled in front of a crowd in the chamber on Wednesday.
The portrait, painted by Texas Artist Jess Coleman, is only the second in the Senate to honor an African-American Texan, according to the Texas Legislative Black Caucus. The other is a portrait of Barbara Jordan, the first Black woman elected to the Texas Senate. Jordan later served Texas as a member of Congress.
“I didn’t know I looked that good!” Lee joked, shortly after she got a first look at the painting.
Lee smiled big and clapped her hands as she got a standing ovation from senators on the floor. The audience in the senate gallery also rose to their feet.
“I was so happy and so humbled,” Lee said. “I wanted to do a happy dance, but the kids say I’m twerking when I do that.”
The unveiling of her portrait is a testament to her strong will and perseverance. She always has a lot to say, but she sat and listened as a number of senators thanked and honored her, leading up to the portrait unveiling.
Senators shared words and personal stories of how Lee has impacted and inspired them.
“It gets no simpler than saying, receiving your roses while you’re alive, darling,” said Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston, to Lee as she sat at the front of the chamber.
Lee literally walks the walk. Back in 2016, she started walking two and a half miles in cities all across the country. Those miles symbolized the two-and-a-half years it took for word to get out to all slaves that they were free.
And crowds began joining her. Attention from those walks helped lead President Biden to sign a bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday in 2021.
And Lee is still fighting for civil rights. Love is something she continues to lead with.
“If people can be taught to hate, they can be taught to love,” Lee said when she addressed Senators in the chamber.
Lee’s spirit is strong, and her heart humble. And she wants others to stay inspired.
“There’s much to be done,” said Lee with conviction. Much to be done!”
The Texas Senate first honored Lee in July of 2021, shortly after her efforts led to Juneteenth being declared a federal holiday. During that visit, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick suggested Lee’s portrait be commissioned and displayed.
“We’ve had a lot of heroes on our floor over the 16 years I’ve been here… some great Americans, some great Texans. I really can’t think of a greater Texas hero that we’ve ever had on this floor than you,” said Patrick to Lee during the visit, which happened amid a special session at the Capitol.
“Your story is so important to Texas, I think your portrait should be hanging in the Senate,” Patrick continued, leading to a standing ovation from Senators on the floor.
Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, was fundamental in making the request a reality, saying portraits at the Capitol should reflect all Texans.
There are 19 other portraits displayed in the Senate chamber. Several depict people who have ties to the Confederacy, including a portrait of Confederate president Jefferson Davis. There has been debate in the past about removing some of those portraits.
But on this day, there was no debate. The chamber united in celebration of Lee.
“We need days like this, Ms. Lee,” said Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston. “We have so much divisiveness in our society. This is a day that heals a lot of wounds and brings us together. And you’re the cause for it.”