Posted by: Josh Hinkle | August 14, 2009

What a Difference a Drought Makes

Stranded boats at Lake Travis

Stranded boats at Lake Travis

I never really sweated, until I moved to central Texas. It’s not like I didn’t get hot before. I wore a marching band uniform in the blazing sun, for goodness sake. Perhaps, even in my high school “athleticism,” I was just not… a sweater. But that’s a good thing, right? No one likes a sweater, especially those colorfully-woven ones your grandma gives at Christmas even though she’ll never see you wear it. I’m sweating just thinking about wool!

Nearly five months ago, everyone at my new station kept telling me to expect to tell a lot of “drought” stories. Surely, they were exaggerating, I thought. Since then, it’s truly been an every-other-day thing. The drought consumes my work week. I can’t escape it. And believe me, I am perspiring these days. It’s disgusting. As the temperature rises above 100 degrees, the sweat just pours forth. Seriously, I’ve ruined dress shirts. I keep paper towels in my work vehicle to mop off my forehead before I have to shoot a standup. Makeup does nothing to hide what’s trickling into my eyes, burning them like a bad Johnson & Johnson commercial. Moving on.

Basically, I believe, if I’m losing moisture that fast, everything else is, too. The photos I’m including in this blog post should be a good indication. We’ll start with Blanco State Park below (watch my KXAN story, “Drought Leads to Fish Rescue“). This is the second smallest camping park in Texas, and the number of visitors there is dwindling by the day. The Blanco River’s water level dropped so low, it backed up behind the dam you see in the photos. Fish traveling downstream had no place to swim, quickly cramming up against that barrier. Park rangers had to physically remove three thousand fish by net to the other side of the dam and drain the upper end of the stream to prevent this problem from happening again. If they had left the fish alone, the oxygen would have disappeared and there would be a disgusting mess of dead fish, certainly attracting far fewer tourists than the park tallies now.

(left) Blanco State Park summer 2007, (right) Blanco State Pary summer 2009

(left) Blanco State Park summer 2007, (right) Blanco State Park summer 2009

For another before-and-after look at the drought’s effect, I went to a second Blanco County site, Pedernales Falls (watch my KXAN story, “Pedernales Falls Down to a Trickle“). Hiking down the bluff with a camera on my shoulder, I definitely wished I had brought my water bottle from the car. There certainly wasn’t much water waiting for me at the end of the trek. The falls were reduced to a trickle, yet still beautifully pooling into a green waterway. It was, however, much different than the roaring rapids I glimpsed in photos from two months before at the ranger’s station. Understanding there was just not enough inflow to create that cascade, I remembered an earlier trip to the top of the largest chain of lakes in central Texas.

(left) Pedernales Falls June 2009, (right) Pedernales Falls August 2009

(left) Pedernales Falls June 2009, (right) Pedernales Falls August 2009

The Highland Lakes’ primary water source is the Colorado River. Constantly reporting on the two lakes most affected by the drought, Travis and Buchanan, I decided to take a trip north of the bodies of water to see what the river looked like there (watch my KXAN story, “Receding River Leaving Less Lake Water“).

Colorado River in the distance north of Lake Buchanan

Colorado River in the distance north of Lake Buchanan

I interviewed a couple near the village of Tow that could stick their toes in the water from their back porch dock just a year ago. Now, it’s a twelve-foot drop from that point to the ground below ,and a vast, open stretch of grass the size of three football fields stands between them and what’s left of the river. Cattle cross back and forth between the banks, barely wetting their knees. It’s no wonder the lake levels themselves are breaking records.

The village, Tow, where that couple lives is near the small town of Bluffton, which is actually the second small town of Bluffton in Texas. The original sat where the northernmost Highland Lake, Buchanan, now exists. When crews decided to dig the lake early last century, the town had to move. Now, some of the islands popping up during the drought in the middle of the lake show foundations and markers left behind from that old settlement. In fact, the Vanishing Texas River Cruise now uses that recently resurfaced site as its main attraction, because the former hot spots are too risky to take the boat (watch my KXAN story, “River Cruises Vanish Due to Lake Levels“). The waterfall upstream from that couple’s home was once the highlight of the voyage. Now, passengers should just count their blessings they even make it on the water. Launching a speedboat is almost out of the question. As I write this blog post, the water level at Buchanan has dropped below the point of entry at all boat ramps, though Burnet County keeps one open beyond the level suggested. That ramp will likely close in a matter of days.

Lake Buchanan boat ramp extension at Llano County Park

Lake Buchanan boat ramp extension project at Llano County Park

On the Llano County side, construction crews are working fiercely to extend another ramp by 400 feet (watch my KXAN story, “Llano County Extends Buchanan Boat Ramp“). But unless the area receives significant rainfall, that lengthening project still won’t reach the water’s edge. Southward along the Colorado is the other lake not kept at a constant level by the Lower Colorado River Authority. Like Buchanan, Lake Travis is the reservoir for maintaining the other lakes’ levels. Just this week, its last remaining boat ramp closed, as the water dropped below the point where people could put a boat in safely.

Lake Travis' Mansfield Dam boat ramp (now closed)

Lake Travis' Mansfield Dam boat ramp (now closed)

A much more commercial lake, even Travis’ private marinas are suffering (watch my KXAN story, “Lake Travis Near 25-year Low“). I watched makeshift barges of hundreds of boats make their way a mile out into the lake, so owners could then use the crafts. It’s a bigger hassle though, as the marinas now have to shuttle people to those floating docks from the shore. On land, the original docks are now beached, and some boats are stranded until water encompasses them once again.

Anderson Mill Marina moves a mile onto Lake Travis

Anderson Mill Marina moves a mile onto Lake Travis

I like to keep my apartment at 76 degrees. Sitting in the air conditioning so I don’t have to sweat it out, I find doing this part of my job, writing, such a comfort. If only relief came that easily for the rest of central Texas. Perhaps someday soon.

Visit the “Drought and Rain” section of KXAN.com for extensive coverage of this historic weather pattern across central Texas.

Posted by: Josh Hinkle | July 6, 2009

Fashion Police

From the 1946 Record-Chronicle, courtesy the City of Lewisville

1946 Record-Chronicle, courtesy the City of Lewisville

Imagine an entire high school football team swarming through a cornfield in pursuit of the biggest criminal to hit the tiny town of Lewisville, Texas. It was 1946, and Lewisville had only a few hundred residents. A 22-year-old navy veteran named S.A. Brueggemeyer had just robbed the Lewisville State Bank. One of the four bank officials he had locked in the vault phoned the town’s only operator to report the hold-up. From her home a few blocks away, the operator sounded the alarm. As Brueggemeyer fled, the Fighting Farmer football team heard the alert, took a time-out from practice, and began hunting down the robber. After the half-mile chase, an exhausted Brueggemeyer ran into an unarmed filling station attendant, one of the many locals set on recovering the stolen $1,046. This guy picked the wrong town to commit such a crime.

Mike Pope laughed at the thought of a running back dodging cornstalks in pursuit of a robber. Pope is the current manager of the downtown branch of that same bank, and he shared his version of the story after our interview. Slightly different than the historical account above, it involved a female getaway car driver spooked into an early exit by the alarm. There was also the elderly mother of that alarm-sounding operator standing out on their balcony down the street and screaming to the football coach, “That man just robbed the bank!”

Regardless, Pope’s interest in the city’s bank robbery past was apparent. Under his watch, Lewisville State Bank had remained robbery-free, and he wanted to keep it that way. However, as the nation’s economy sank and robberies in the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex rose, keeping bank robbers at bay became more difficult. Learning of a relatively new program encouraged by the FBI, police in a handful of north Texas cities, including Lewisville, began taking fashion tips to reduce their robbery rate.

Watch Lewisville Police Capt. Kevin Deaver point out how inconspicuous his city’s latest robber was while committing the crime in the Flipcam video below:

Learning from Lewisville

“No Hats, No Hoods, No Sunglasses” was a simple idea. Lewisville police convinced about half of the city’s banks to take part. Soon, signs asking customers to remove those items of clothing were hanging on the doors of those financial institutions. Knowing the majority of modern bank robbers wore something to hide their faces, banks aimed to eliminate that criminal coverup.

Each city was able to reduce its robbery rate by at least half:

City 2006-2007 2007-2008* 2008-2009*
Lewisville 4 2 2
Richardson 22 14 8
Highland Village 0 0 0

*No Hats, No Hoods, Ho Sunglasses Program in place

The statistics above were evidence of the program’s seeming success (other cities like Plano and Corpus Christi apparently also take part, but police never returned my calls. There are also several individual banks in cities throughout the state that have similar signs not necessarily pushed by police). Looking at these results, I decided to pose the program as a possibility for the Austin area.

Aiming for the Austin Area

Calling every police department in Travis, Williamson, and Burnet Counties meant more than 30 inquiries regarding the number of bank robberies in each city there from January 2006 through June 2009. Several police chiefs thought this question was hilarious, as some places had no banks. “No banks, no bank robberies,” one chief told me. Of the cities which had banks though, only three experienced this crime during the same time period as above.

  • Austin – 64
  • Round Rock – 14
  • Cedar Park – 2
Tommy Fox, suspect in Austin's tenth bank robbery of 2009

Tommy Fox, suspect in Austin's tenth bank robbery of 2009

I gathered the available surveillance photos for these robberies to examine their similarities. Nearly every robber wore something to shield their identities. Seeing Austin hit its tenth robbery in 2009 during my research, I decided to find out what police there thought about “No Hats, No Hoods, No Sunglasses.” It appeared to be a perfect candidate.

Sgt. Brian Miller, the leader of the robbery unit with Austin Police, reviewed the findings from north Texas. Intrigued by what he saw, he planned to discuss the program with his robbery task force for the Austin-San Antonio region. Some individual banks in central Texas already had such signs, but cities stopped short of backing a massive effort to include the majority of their banks. Realizing something similar but temporary helped catch one of Austin’s most notorious bank robbers a few years before, Miller seemed excited at the thought of implementing it permanently.

Austin's 'Cowboy Bandit,' Ernest Rodriguez, Jr.

Austin's 'Cowboy Bandit,' Ernest Rodriguez, Jr.

The Cowboy Bandit

In 2004, a man known as the “Cowboy Bandit” pleaded guilty to charges relating to five different Austin bank robberies (also two others in Dallas and another in Corpus Christi). Miller said it was hard to miss a man wearing a cowboy hat, but that disguise actually helped Ernest Rodriguez, Jr., continue his criminal path for so long. As the serial bank robber’s spree wore on, police posted signs similar to those Lewisville would later use in as many banks as would cooperate.

Miller believed those signs most likely stopped Rodriguez from robbing additional banks, making tellers more aware and scaring Rodriguez into hitting other places without the signs instead. Austin police detectives eventually arrested Rodriguez at the Travis County Credit Union, which did not have a sign posted. Miller guessed Rodriguez might have continued his reign if the program to alert banks was not in place.

A Statewide Effort

That “what if?” question popped up, as I researched the history of this program several months before. While Texas and at least five other states had certain cities and individual banks taking part, there were at least nine entire states with bankers and credit union associations backing the program. Missouri was one of the first. Before implementing its program in 2003, there were 125 robberies. Check out the how the robbery rate dropped in the years that followed:

  • 2003 – 125 Missouri robberies
  • 2004 – 83 Missouri robberies
  • 2005 – 92 Missouri robberies
  • 2006 – 70 Missouri robberies

I reported and blogged about this trend extensively in past stories at my previous station. Despite the success, banks also detailed plenty of problems.

Living Off The Air 2/3/09 – Cancer patients didn’t want to show the world that they were bald. People of certain religious faiths couldn’t believe a bank’s rules trumped their devotion to a higher being. Regular customers who normally wear hats, like farmers, truckers, and baseball players… okay, maybe not baseball players… disliked the idea of changing their habits.

The program was voluntary, so banks began to tailor the specifics to meet their needs. Instead of banishing those customers who wore hats, hoods, or sunglasses, they became more aware of the people walking through their doors, a careful eye on those failing to follow the dress code. There’s no way to track the amount of robberies their altered system stopped, but most no longer ask “what if?”.

Testing Texas

The FBI is encouraging police departments nationwide to adopt this program. Its ultimate goal is to see signs in all FDIC institutions, but that is definitely years away.  When I asked the Texas Bankers Association and the Texas Credit Union League about the possibility of implementing it statewide, they both brushed the idea away. They told me too many people wear hats in this state. Bringing it to all financial institutions seemed almost impossible. There are 693 banks and 568 credit unions in Texas.

Miller said there would be challenges in Austin, something that could take up to a year to speak with and convince all of the city’s banks. The easy implementation in a place like Lewisville came quickly with only about 40 banks and a population now just under 100,000. That city’s massive effort came because of cooperation throughout the entire community, something Lewisville had been doing for quite a while.

It took the town’s only operator, her mother, four bank officials locked in a vault, an unarmed filling station attendant, and the entire high school football team to track down that bank robber in 1946. Still, they saved the day by working together. Coincidentally, the Fighting Farmers won the district title that year with a 10-2 record. Miller said he would be happy just bringing down Austin’s bank robbery rate.

Watch the full KXAN report on this program, plus track the time and day you’re most likely to walk into a bank robbery. Also, view the YouTube video below to experience a trip to a bank participating in this program.

Posted by: Josh Hinkle | June 13, 2009

Hotter Than Jail

Blanco County Jail - Johnson City, TX

Blanco County Jail - Johnson City, TX

When people ask me why I moved to Texas from Iowa, I usually respond with something typical. The job. To be closer to family. In reality, I remember those harsh, Iowa winters. 70 inches of snow can be beautiful. When it buries your car every morning or you have to stand outside for a half hour preparing for a live shot on the six o’clock news, that’s a different story.

In Iowa, I refrained from giving that answer too often, because the natives seem to love the cold. And in Texas, when I reply with “the weather,” the other person usually says, “Just wait until August.” While I am enjoying the slow rise to what’s described as “a real scorcher,” I can’t help but wonder what I will think in a few months.

IMG_0540Standing outside the Blanco County Jail, I soaked up the mild morning. As I waited for the sheriff, the heat began pressing down with mid-9os in the forecast. The old limestone building sat on the corner across the street from the courthouse in Johnson City. It was plain but impressive, surrounded by the chain link fence topped with coils of barbed wire. The two-story structure itself had bars covering the windows and doors. On the side near the top, there was an old rusted replica of the sheriff’s badge. As I stared at the emblem, I heard a voice hehind me.

“Would you believe there’s no central air in there?” Sheriff Bill Elsbury cross the street and shook my hand. There was indeed no air conditioning or heat in the jail. “When you go to jail, you go to jail,” he laughed, raising his eyebrows in a way that seemed to say, “Stay out of trouble.” My interview with Elsbury for the KXAN story concerned the future of the jail, a future that hinged on its history.

Texas Historical Commission marker

Texas Historical Commission marker

The Blanco County Jail is the second oldest in operation in Texas, built in 1894. It actually ties for fourth with a few other counties in terms of when it was built. But only San Saba County has an older jail still in use, built ten years before the site in Johnson City. Three years after Blanco County’s seven-bed structure opened, inmates staged a jailbreak. However, to this day, the jail is still in use.

“To serve a county for this long,” Elsbury mentioned, “she’s definitely paid her way.” It just wasn’t enough anymore. Like so many other central Texas counties, Blanco has a problem with prisoner overcrowding. The sheriff averages 12 a day, and the extra who won’t fit into the jail go elsewhere. The county pays to house them in other counties’ jails. It’s no surprise that plans are now underway to build a new 48-bed facility in Johnson City, which will meet the minumum Texas standard and allow the county an additional revenue source by charging rent for outside prisoners.

IMG_0544When the old jail closes in two years, the county hopes to transform it into a museum. Ideas for jail and past sheriffs exhibits are taking shape. Sheriff Elsbury’s face would be one of those on display inside the steamy cell blocks. If he has his way, he would also like to prevent the installation of an air conditioner even then.

“If people want to see what this jail was really like, they need to experience it like it really was.” When I asked him if he would give tours himself in that heat, he laughed at me before walking back to his office down the street. As I packed up my gear, I wiped the sweat from my forehead and thought about touring the facility in front of me in the future. Then “just wait until August” rolled through my mind. A summer tour would be out of the question.

(Read the jail’s Texas Historical Commission marker on the FlipCam video below.)

Posted by: Josh Hinkle | May 26, 2009

Murder She Heard

The Hinkles hit Fredericksburg

The Hinkles hit Fredericksburg

From the backseat of the Lincoln Town Car, I heard the shaky, little voice peep, “What’s on your mind?” Murder was not the topic I had intended to discuss with my grandmother on her first visit to my new home in the Texas Hill Country. Granny and Buddy (the name my younger brother had adopted for my grandfather and offered for mass consumption years ago) were both nearing their 80s but still made regular trips from Oklahoma to visit their eldest grandson. Buddy’s insistence on taking charge usually propelled these ventures forward. But the past few years, I insisted on getting behind the wheel when they came. You can only sit in the passenger seat for so long, coasting past the same landmark for the fourth time in a row at a reduced speed before you realize perhaps it’s time for Buddy to “enjoy the scenery” instead.

Earlier, Granny mentioned her appointment for a new hearing aid a few days before the trip. Had that appointment been earlier, maybe I wouldn’t have a sore throat. Town Cars are known for their smooth, quiet rides, but theirs did nothing for Granny’s curiosity. A glance in the rearview mirror revealed a woman’s expectation of answers, despite her ears’ lack of cooperation. As I drove the boat-of-a-car into Fredericksburg, my mind drifted to a story from the same town just a few days before. Murder might not be the answer Granny wanted, but it was the answer she got.

Linda Muegge

Linda Muegge

I understand Linda Muegge was a phenomenal cook. Observing the stockpile of stories from two years before, I heard her pastor talk about the gourmet meals she prepared for families in need. Following up on the two-year anniversary of her death, I met her neighbor, who told me his initial thought when first noticing the fire next door was her gas cooking stove had caused the accident. Arson to cover up Muegge’s murder never crossed his mind or most of those in Fredericksburg. Speaking with the police chief, I found, in his 36 years on the force, the town had only five murders. Muegge’s was the only one still unsolved.

Police initially thought Muegge was the fire’s victim, as well. Days later, the medical examiner’s autopsy revealed her death came before the blaze. The cause was blunt force to her head and neck, most likely from strangulation. Police were able to rule out the husband she recently divorced and the man she had just started seeing. It seemed Muegge had no enemies. Then, two years later, police released strange, new details (view a slideshow from the crime scene below).

A few years before her death, Muegge called police to report a man she knew only as “Frank.” The file says a friend had introduced the two, but Frank quickly made her feel uncomfortable. She never told friends or family about the man, but she felt it was important enough to enlist the help of police. They never tracked down Frank, because Muegge didn’t know his last name.

Then just a few months before her death, she made another call to police. Someone had shot her sheep dead right outside of her house. Police never found the shooter, but neighbors said the incident definitely startled Muegge. Police haven’t said the previous reports are connected to her death, but they hope releasing the information might make someone remember something. The fire destroyed most evidence, and there are no suspects (watch Chief Paul Oestreich detail Muegge’s problems below).

One last hope led police to the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, where agents work to construct suspect profiles based on little evidence and the nature of the crime. However, this effort brought Muegge’s case no closer to closure.

Muegge's sister built home on old site

Muegge's sister built home on old site

My purpose in telling the story on KXAN became a way to shed new light on an old file. Fredericksburg’s only cold case could slowly warm, as the chief says he received some new tips after the report aired. But over the years, he received hundreds of tips, none of which led to the killer. Perhaps someone seeing my story might make a connection with these fresh details.

Waiting in silence for a response from Granny, I turned my head slightly for a moment to look at her. Unsure my message made its way to the back seat, I searched her face for some sign. I don’t think she heard a word. She smiled and began staring out the window with Buddy as we passed a peach orchard. Slightly annoyed at the thought of repeating the story again later while also laughing inside at the situation, I settled on the satisfaction of knowing Granny probably had no worthy information for Fredericksburg police. Maybe I would pick a different story for my second take. Something a little more cheerful. After all, it was their vacation.

(Park on Muegge’s street and take a Flipcam trip to the crime scene below)

Posted by: Josh Hinkle | May 6, 2009

Take the Plunge

Lamar Blvd. Bridge crossing Colorado River in downtown Austin

Lamar Blvd. Bridge crossing Colorado River

Jumping off of a boulder jutting from the lake seemed like a good idea at the time. I was 13, and my Boy Scout troop had been on the water for the past week, floating very near to the Canadian border. The Boundary Waters excursion in northern Minnesota was one of the most exciting experiences of my life to that point. That particular moment on the rock was one of the stupidest.

As I glided under the Lamar Blvd. bridge stretching across Lady Bird Lake through downtown Austin, that teenage memory popped into my head. Three men had parked their kayaks against one of the concrete columns holding up the traffic 30 feet above. I watched as they hoisted each other from one level to another, finally reaching the top. With cars and trucks racing just a few feet from their heads, they all jumped into the smooth Colorado feet first.

img_04932As they swam back to the pillars, I was amazed to see the trio scurry back up to the plunge point. My weekend attempt at reliving my more adventurous years turned out to be something unexpected. Creeping past the boats below, I glanced at the water’s depth. I could clearly see the bottom only inches beneath, darkening slightly as it tapered off into the rest of the river. The splash target was not that far from where my eyes lingered. Beyond that area, I’m told the lake averages just 14 feet to its floor.

Lady Bird Lake - Austin, TX

Lady Bird Lake - Austin, TX

One in the group of daredevils waved to me before going back to his perilous place on the bridge. I took that as a sign that he didn’t mind my presence or the fact that I had snapped a few digital photos of the men screaming wildly in mid-air as my canoe drifted by. As I rounded out my first real river trek in Texas, I noticed that the seeming fun had inspired a group of girls to follow suit a few pillars down. I wondered how old they were and if their parents would approve.

img_0495Those few short hours on the water had me thinking. Lady Bird Lake was actually part of the river, streaming right through the heart of Austin. Previously Town Lake, it received its new name when one of its biggest advocates, a former First Lady, passed away a few years ago. Visiting Austin before moving to the area, I loved walking down by the banks. And, of course, the canoe rentals had me hooked from the very start.

img_0496Making some calls after that weekend, I found out the risk the jumpers took didn’t really catch the attention of the city. The Austin police, fire and EMS all told me the same thing. It happens. People get hurt from time-to-time, but they don’t really keep track of the number of bridge jumpers. Occasionally, there are suicides, but the EMS agent on the phone told me it’s too difficult to filter the amount of jumps or injuries specifically from downtown bridges. If an injury does occur, he said it should simply be a matter for the patient and doctor to discuss.

Still, it’s obvious that the people of Austin care a great deal about the lake and its surroundings. From my reading, I discovered citizens as far back as 1880 were worried about the possibility of a sewage pipe polluting the water. In 1960, a chemical company washed pesticides containing DDT down a storm drain into the lake, causing one of the largest fish kills in U.S. history. To this day, motorboats and jetskis are not allowed due to the wildlife.

Colorado River

Colorado River

Safety doesn’t seem to be a point of local concern though. There is a city ordinance against swimming in Lady Bird Lake, a rule based on dangerous currents, not water quality. There is also an ordinance prohibiting people from leaping off bridges. Even so, there are no means of enforcment on the water, unless there is a reported emergency. Imagine a lone jumper in need of help.

As Lady Bird Lake is officially recognized as the 18th Texas Paddling Trail, there will, no doubt, be more canoeing, kayaking and rowing crowds tempted by the thrill of jumping. Cliff-diving in Mexico is an amazing experience, I’m sure. But this isn’t Mexico, and these certainly aren’t cliffs.

Even at age 13, I knew I probably shouldn’t be doing it. But I took a few steps back and jolted forward anyway, sailing off that boulder. I sank into the icy water perfectly and came up for air. However, the kid who jumped after me, tripped and ended up cutting his foot on a jagged edge we were meant to avoid. Perhaps the attention Lady Bird Lake receives as a thriving tourist destination will prompt better security and safety procedures. Who knows when that “next kid” will slip and fall there?

Watch my full story on kxan.com. By the time it aired, Austin’s parks and rec director looked at the photos featured on this blog post and contacted the police department. Starting the following weekend (and every weekend until the message is clear), police will patrol the lake on boats, watching for any dangerous activity, punishable with a $500 fine.

lake-map

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