Google+ Back to mobile

Blogs

Ghetto classroom award
Youtube
A 14-year-old Sulphur Springs Middle School student came home one day with this baffling award announcing him as the winner of “The ‘huh?’ Award” in the “8th Annual Ghetto Classroom Awards.”

Strangest State is a recurring feature on local news you might have missed from around Texas. From profiles of small-town doctors to monstrous swamp creatures found by local kids, they’re stories that don’t fit… anywhere, really, but we want to be sure don’t go unnoticed. Got a local oddity or some small-town news to share? Tips are welcome at [email protected]

BRENHAM // For the safety of residents in Brenham (pop.15,716), “defensive shooting” and CHL instructor John Deans penned a timely guide to “Protecting yourself during mob violence” in the pages of the Brenham Banner-Press. “You need to have your situational awareness in high gear,” Deans advises. “You must assume that the police cannot save you during those war-like events. Your survival skills will be all that is protecting yourself and your family.” Deans recommends keeping abreast of national news and being aware of “highly charged court decisions” and “questionable shootings” that could prompt local reactions. Shooting or running over rioters with your car should be considered “a last resort in many ways,” employed only after one of them breaks your window. “With Ferguson and Baltimore demonstrating how the War on Cops is raging, officers are under siege in many urban areas,” Deans wrote. “I would include the massive shooting in Waco last month at Twin Peaks, but let us just see what the real story is there since things in Waco are smelling a bit fishy again.”

FORNEY // Administrators put Forney High School on lockdown on May 28 in response to news that up to 40 students, some dressed in costumes and brandishing foam swim noodles, were causing a disruption. District officials declined to confirm social media reports that the noodles were part of a massive live-action role-playing, or LARPing, match that had been planned in the school cafeteria as a senior prank, according to inForney.com. “The students involved in the incident were brought to the front office and could face disciplinary action,” the site reported.

SULPHUR SPRINGS // A 14-year-old Sulphur Springs Middle School student came home at the school year’s end toting a handsome certificate bordered in metallic gold, announcing him as the winner of “The ‘huh?’ Award” in the “8th Annual Ghetto Classroom Awards.” The African-American child’s grandmother, Debra Jose, related her reaction to Dallas’ CBS 11: “Tears just started falling out of my eyes. I was like, ‘What did they just do to him again? … I just lay in bed and thought about it all night long.” Teachers Stephanie Garner and Tim Couch have since apologized for issuing the baffling awards, which include the forged signature of their principal—a detail that one teacher said “is what makes this award ghetto.” The Sulphur Springs News-Telegram reported that the family was finally able to forgive the teachers after meeting with them, school officials and their pastor. Morning Chapel Baptist Church Pastor Harold Nash told the paper the teachers’ case was compelling. “For the Jews, the ghetto was where the Jews lived. The teachers stressed that if the Jews could overcome such incredible oppression, students can do anything if they wanted to,” Nash explained. “It was supposed to be a positive message.”

LAMESA // The Honorable Judge Carter Tinsley Schildknecht—who ran unopposed for re-election last year for a term ending in 2018—was ordered by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct to take four hours of “additional education” after she referred to District Attorney Michael Munk as a “New York Jew.” The public condemnation follows Schildknecht’s earlier attempts to smooth things over by simply explaining to Munk, “When I tell people why you are different and have different thoughts, I explain because you are from New York and because you are Jewish.” Schildknecht has also explained that “I may be too blunt, but I am not biased or prejudiced against New Yorkers or Jews.” It’s a courtesy she may not extend to other religions. The disciplinary action, reported by The Texas Tribune, notes her comments to another lawyer about his beard: “You look like a Muslim, and I wouldn’t hire you with it.”

LAMESA // Startled awake by some loud noise one night in mid-May, high school principal Chris Riggins and his wife were surprised to find a bull joining them in their bedroom. “First reaction is, ‘No, really?’ And then I’m like, ‘Yeah, it really happened,’” Riggins told KCBD-TV. Riggins suspects that the bull—which spent 20 minutes in his bathroom before showing itself back out of the house—had wandered in from a neighboring pasture. Frightening as the experience was, Riggins counts the unannounced visit from this gentle giant as just another part of country life, and said the bull’s touch was surprisingly light: “Poked a little hole in the wall. The doors weren’t even tore up real bad,” he said.”

DEL RIO // As part of its ongoing goodwill mission, the U.S. Border Patrol staged a Holocaust-themed art contest for Del Rio and Comstock middle school students. Part of the Congressionally approved, weeklong Days of Remembrance of the Victims of the Holocaust, the contest prompted students in South Texas to imagine a life circumscribed by fences and checkpoints, under a police force that kills with impunity. “All the students did an outstanding job with their art exhibits,” Del Rio Sector Chief Rodolfo Karisch said in a statement. “In the end it was about a learning experience and awareness of a time in history that should never be forgotten so that it may never be repeated.”

 

border patrol van
A U.S. Border Patrol truck at a checkpoint near Tucson, Arizona.

The unions that represent Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents aren’t shy when it comes to speaking out against the Obama administration’s immigration policies. But in a new report, “Blurring Borders: Collusion between Anti-Immigrant Groups and Immigration Enforcement Agents,” the Chicago nonprofit Center for New Community finds that some union leaders are working in tandem with anti-immigrant groups to undermine immigration policies and promote anti-immigrant views.

The most prominent example, according to Anu Joshi, campaign manager for the center, was a series of tense protests last summer in Murrieta, California, that made national headlines. Anti-immigrant protestors holding signs that read “Stop the invasion of illegals” and “deport illegals” blocked government buses filled with undocumented women and children as they tried to enter a Border Patrol processing center.

The protest organizers had received information about bus routes and schedules from Border Patrol official Ron Zermeno, a fact that came to light from reports in right-wing media outlets such as Breitbart and National Review.

“Murrieta was an ugly example of this collusion with anti-immigrant groups,” Joshi said.

According to the center’s report, Zermeno, who is health and safety director for the National Border Patrol Council Local 1613 in San Diego, was also “privately coordinating and assisting far-right, anti-government activists in organizing a nine-day ‘Border Convoy’ along the U.S.-Mexico border” from Murrieta to McAllen to protest the influx of Central American refugees arriving at the border.

ICE agents have also flouted the law, according to the center’s report. In June 2012, President Obama issued an executive order called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which provides some undocumented students with legal status in the country. A few days later, 10 agents, led by Chris Crane, president of the National Immigration and Customs Enforcement Council 118, filed a lawsuit arguing that the policy was unconstitutional and an executive overreach.

The agents were represented by attorney Kris Kobach, legal counsel for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which has been labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. (Kobach helped craft Arizona’s controversial anti-immigrant SB 1070 legislation, which required police to check citizenship status.) The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the agents’ case in April.

“They should be carrying out public policy set by elected officials,” said Mark Potok, a senior fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center. “It’s not their job to decide what is the law and what isn’t.”

But Shawn Moran, vice president and spokesman for the National Border Patrol Council, said the union has every right to be involved in the political process.

“They have a right not to like it,” Moran said of the critics. “But not to identify us as members of a hate group or as racists.” Moran said his union represents at least 17,000 Border Patrol agents and that it isn’t in collusion with anti-immigrant groups.

“I can’t speak to what an individual local has done,” he said. “But our interactions with those groups have been nothing but professional. There’s no behind-the-scenes manipulation. We’re very transparent about what we want and how we go about getting it.”

Texas Marriage Amendment
AP Photo/Austin American-Statesman, Ralph Barrera
From left to right, Cindy Asmussen, Jan Jones and Mary Smith hold signs at a Defense of the Texas Marriage Amendment rally outside the state Capitol on March 23. The event was headlined by Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore.

 

Anti-LGBT activists are livid about the 84th Texas Legislature’s failure to pass discriminatory bills. A day after lawmakers gaveled out, 14 leaders from anti-gay groups delivered a letter to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott demanding that he call a special session to pass a bill aimed at undermining an expected U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality.

“This issue is not about equality. It is about redefining marriage, which would lead to individuals, families, churches, schools and businesses being forced to accept, affirm and celebrate those who practice homosexuality,” wrote Dr. Steve Hotze, president of the Conservative Republicans of Texas, in a post on his website announcing the letter.

“As Attorney General, Governor Abbott fought to protect Texas’ sovereignty from being usurped by the federal government and the federal judiciary,” he continued. “We are convinced that he will continue to fight to protect Texans from having the federal courts illegitimately impose homosexual marriage on Texas.”

Abbott’s office didn’t return a phone call seeking comment, but the governor has indicated that he doesn’t intend to call a special session.

The letter to Abbott capped weeks of finger-pointing by anti-gay activists after it became clear that none of the more than 20 anti-LGBT proposals introduced in this year’s session would pass. In May, Texas Values President Jonathan Saenz lashed out at the Texas Association of Business over the group’s opposition to anti-LGBT legislation.

“The business lobby, the Texas Association of Business, has decided now they’re going to put all their investment in the homosexual agenda, and that’s one of the things they did,” Saenz said. “It was a big surprise to a lot of lawmakers. … The Texas Association of Business has clearly turned their back on the values of Texas.”

Dave Welch, executive director of the Texas Pastor Council, blamed state Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) and Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) for the demise of an anti-gay marriage bill in the session’s final days.

Rep. Cecil Bell
John Wright
Rep. Cecil Bell (R-Magnolia) speaks during a press conference hosted by the Coalition of African-American Pastors at the Capitol on Wednesday morning.

“It is an astounding and appalling reality that in one of the most Republican-dominated state governments in the U.S., with a strong majority in both House and Senate, that the Texas Legislature did nothing meaningful to protect religious freedom, traditional marriage or oppose the radical agenda of the sexual perversity/gender confusion,” Welch wrote. “The good news is that the only way for evil to triumph is for us to be silent, and we have proven that pastors all over Texas are no longer willing to be passive as the enemy of our souls and his pawns influencing media, entertainment, education and politics assault God’s moral law and created order.”

Cathie Adams, president of the Texas Eagle Forum, said same-sex marriage will put people out of business if they refuse to serve gay couples—even though Texas has no LGBT-inclusive, statewide nondiscrimination law. Adams also said same-sex marriage is “taking decadence to a new low level,” because not even the “decaying” Roman Empire sanctioned it.

Adams said of state Rep. Cecil Bell (R-Magnolia), the author of four anti-gay marriage bills, that “his head was handed to him on a silver platter” by other Republicans who killed the legislation. And she said that because the Legislature failed to pass an anti-gay marriage bill, the state will “bow and scrape before 1 percent of the U.S. population that is homosexual.”

“I am supporting the call for our governor to call a special session now, or forever hold our peace,” Adams said. “We must stand up for marriage. We must push back on this tyranny from the bench.”

Gay Marriage
Courtesy Russ Towers
Openly gay Lamar County Clerk Russ Towers, left, poses with the first same-sex couple to receive a marriage license in Paris on June 26, 2015.

 

While some Texas county clerks are still refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, one openly gay official in conservative Lamar County says he was honored to do so.

Russ Towers was appointed Lamar County clerk on April 1 after his predecessor retired. He previously served as the county’s appointed elections administrator for seven years. Towers, 39, is believed to be the only openly gay county clerk in the state and the first out official in Lamar County, 100 miles northeast of Dallas.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges on June 26, Towers said he’s issued four marriage licenses to same-sex couples, including three on the first day.

“I had done a lot of consulting with other larger counties and my county attorney as well, and I decided to go ahead and pull the trigger, do the right thing,” Towers told the Observer.

“For me, it was very surreal, because it was something that I never thought that I would see in my lifetime, but to be on the other side of the counter, to be the one issuing, made it especially special for me. It was probably one of the proudest moments and days that I’ve ever had professionally.”

Towers, a Republican, criticized his counterparts in other counties who are resisting the ruling, as well as Attorney General Ken Paxton for encouraging them to do so.

“It makes me sad,” he said. “We’re all clerks, and we all take the same oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution, the laws of the United States and of the state, and that doesn’t apply to do just some people or the lifestyles with which you agree.”

Russ Towers
Courtesy of Russ Towers
Russ Towers is believed to be the only openly gay county clerk in the state and the first out official in Lamar County.

In the wake of the high court’s ruling, Paxton issued an opinion suggesting that county clerks could refuse to issue licenses to same-sex couples, although they might be sued. Paxton also said attorneys likely would be willing to represent those clerks free of charge.

“What they didn’t tell those clerks is that your bond may not cover you, and can also be personally liable for official oppression,” Towers said.

Towers said one of three employees who issue marriage licenses in his office requested that she not be required to do so for same-sex couples due to religious objections. However, he said if she’s the only one available, she’ll be required to.

“The customer is the first priority, and no one’s right is going to be denied because she’s the only one in the room,” he said.

Towers, a Paris native whose father was a Major League Baseball player, said he came out when he moved to Dallas in 1997, but returned to Lamar County 10 years later to be near family. He said his sexual orientation wasn’t an issue when he was appointed elections administrator or clerk by the Lamar County Commissioners Court.

“I’m pretty sure there have been whispers behind my back, but one thing life has given me is very thick skin, and I’m not offended or my feelings don’t get hurt very easily,” he said.

Towers faces re-election in 2016 but isn’t overly concerned about a Republican primary challenger using his sexual orientation against him.

“It’s a small worry, but I’m not going to put too much worry into it, because I’m not about to go changing who I am or altering who I am or try to hide who I am in order to just win an election,” he said.

“I am out, and nothing will ever change that. I suppose that could make some people uncomfortable, but I think most people who are active voters can recognize the changes that I made as an elections administrator to improve their voting experience, and maybe that will be enough to sway them to trust me in the job that I do as county clerk.”

Saddled with hundreds of thousands in debt, Jeffrey Holliman escaped into the wild in rural Nacogdoches County, living out a childhood dream.
Nacogdoches County Sheriff’s Department
Saddled with hundreds of thousands in debt, Jeffrey Holliman escaped into the wild in rural Nacogdoches County, living out a childhood dream.

 

By the time Jeffrey Holliman was finally captured in August 2013 at his remote campsite in the dense woods of Nacogdoches County, he’d been living out there for nearly a year, traveling by night, raiding empty homes and abandoned trailers for money, guns and provisions, making only limited contact with the people who’d once been his neighbors in the town of Melrose.

The Observer recounted Holliman’s time in the woods and the town’s struggle to identify its tormentor in our February 2014 issue. Holliman, Nacogdoches County Sheriff Jason Bridges, and folks in town pieced together much of the story, but questions lingered about the circumstances that brought Holliman’s time in the woods to an end.

Holliman said he’d considered fleeing the state, but ultimately decided—for reasons he wouldn’t reveal—that he was ready to give up the hermit life and answer to the law. Bridges said Holliman had been found at his camp, but was so dehydrated and sick from drinking tainted pond water that he couldn’t have put up much of a fight regardless. Bridges didn’t witness the capture, and the two men who made the arrest, Nacogdoches County Precinct 4 Constable David Stone and a deputy, wouldn’t discuss it until after Holliman’s criminal case had concluded.

On Monday, Stone emailed to say that he was ready to tell the story.

Constable David Stone
co.nacogdoches.tx.us
Nacogodches Constable David Stone

In the months that Holliman was living in the woods, the run of burglaries in Melrose had become a source of embarrassment for local law enforcement. Bridges had repeatedly sent deputies to interview victims and watch the county roads at night, to no avail. Stone, who lives in Melrose and knew Holliman from town, would venture into the woods on horseback or four-wheeler, patrolling through the night in shifts along with his deputies Justin Murray and Shawn Murray (no relation). “We never quit,” Stone says. “We looked every day.”

Shawn Murray accompanied Stone on the night of Aug. 2 to check out a trail a property owner had discovered on his land. They’d arranged to meet the landowner at 11, but at 10:30 Stone got a call from Murray, who’d gone out early. “You could hear the excitement in his voice,” Stone recalls. “He said, ‘I think I found his tent.’”

They drove out to the property, and Stone and Murray followed a well-worn trail until a fainter one, no more discernable than a deer trail, branched off. Stone guesses they followed that one three-quarters of a mile, though in the dense forest it felt like much farther. At last, Stone says, they reached an orange tent. Stone and Murray yelled to announce their presence, told Holliman to come out with his hands up, and heard nothing. Murray found the tent zipper and, bracing himself for confrontation, opened the door to find… another zipper. “That really got your heart going,” Stone says. “You hate not knowing the unknown.”

He undid the inner zipper as well, and found only weapons and supplies, he says. There was no sign of Holliman. It was a big break in the case, Stone figured, but also another night of fruitless searching for the man. Then Murray whispered that he’d found another trail, and led the way down the path, which forced the men into a narrow tunnel cut through the underbrush. At the far end, Stone could see a camouflage cargo net. Ducking through the thicket, Stone told Murray to watch out for traps. Then, from up ahead, came a noise—maybe a cough, Stone recalls—and the two flipped on their flashlights, sprinted forward and split up to get around the net, Murray to the right and Stone to the left.

On the other side, Stone faced another tent, this one with its door open but its mosquito mesh still zipped. Shining his light through the scrim, Stone found himself face-to-face with Holliman, who held a knife in one hand, with a pistol on the plastic tub beside him.

“You could see his knuckles get white, he was grippin’ that knife real tight,” Stone says. “The look in his eyes, he was thinking, ‘Do I want to die here tonight or do I want to try it?’”

Stone says he and Murray yelled at Holliman to drop the knife. After a long moment, Murray broke the standstill by starting to cut through a side of the tent. Holliman heard the noise and turned, Stone says, and Murray tackled him. At that point, Holliman’s dehydration seemed to take hold and his strength gave out and the teo men carried Holliman out of the woods.

Holliman, who hasn’t been free since that night, was indicted on 13 burglary charges, plus seven more for being a felon in possession of guns and a silencer. His trial began this month in Nacogdoches, but on Monday Holliman cut it short, accepting a plea deal and a 25-year prison sentence.

In the run-up to the trial, Holliman’s lawyer, John Boundy, got to see the wealth of evidence that investigators had amassed: 43 discs containing documents, photos and video, with interviews of burglary victims and conversations with Holliman. Boundy recalled one three-and-a-half-hour video in which Holliman explained the “metaphysical spirituality” he developed during his time alone, and the alter ego named Seth who guided his journey—likely inspired by the new-age author Jane Roberts’ Seth Material, some volumes of which were found in Holliman’s camp.

Key to the defense Boundy had planned was a series of photographs of Holliman on the floor in a trailer he was accused of robbing. Each photo features a different assortment of guns and outdoor gear, but Holliman, who is apparently asleep in the photos, never moves. “The camera angle, the distance from the camera to the subject and the location of the property around him—all of those change,” Boundy says. “The only thing that’s the same is that he’s comatose or unconscious in that unnatural position.” Boundy’s conclusion: Somebody else took the photos.

His defense cast Holliman as a forest-dwelling protector of the town, up against people far more dangerous than himself, one of whom had invited Holliman into the trailer. Boundy says a recent raid on a hidden marijuana farm in the county, and other illicit growers still on the loose, figured into the questions he addressed to witnesses.

“My theory was, yeah, maybe my guy was a ghost in the woods, but there’s other ghosts worse than him,” Boundy says.

Selling that story posed challenges. Boundy compares it to the scene from The Terminator in which Kyle Reese struggles to convince Los Angeles cops of his mission from the future. “The story he tells is so perfect because there’s not a shred of physical evidence because of the nature of the story.”

Holliman was in the midst of his trial on Monday when he accepted a plea deal. He pleaded guilty to a single burglary charge and was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Boundy says Holliman could be eligible for early release after five years.

Among all the evidence gathered on Holliman during months of investigation, there’s still no sign of the money and jewelry that disappeared from homes in Melrose two years ago. If it’s hidden or buried, Constable Stone figures it’ll stay that way for a long time.

But what haunts Stone about the case is the empty tent he and Murray found the night they captured Holliman. Looking back, he realizes how exposed he and Murray had been, how easily, in the dark, on Holliman’s turf, the tables could’ve turned. “He could’ve very, very easily come out of the tunnel on us,” Stone says. “The whole time he was behind us, and we didn’t know.”

transgender widow with late husband
Courtesy of Nikki Araguz Loyd
Transgender widow Nikki Araguz Loyd, shown with her late husband Thomas Araguz III on their wedding day in 2008, is still fighting to have their marriage recognized by the state of Texas. Araguz Loyd hopes the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in favor of same-sex marriage last week will finally resolve her case, which is currently on appeal to the Texas Supreme Court.

 

Five years ago this Friday, Capt. Thomas Araguz III of the Wharton Volunteer Fire Department died fighting a massive blaze at an egg farm in Boling.

Araguz’s wife, Nikki Araguz Loyd, was on a business trip and learned of her husband’s death from another firefighter’s wife on social media. When Araguz Loyd returned to Wharton—60 miles southwest of Houston—on the morning of July 4, 2010, Thomas Araguz’s family prevented her from seeing her stepchildren.

A day after Thomas Araguz’s funeral, his mother—Simona Longoria—filed a lawsuit against Araguz Loyd, seeking to deny her firefighter death benefits. The lawsuit, which was later joined by Thomas Araguz’s first wife, Heather Delgado, alleged that because Araguz Loyd, who’s transgender, was born male, the couple’s 2008 marriage was void under Texas’ same-sex marriage bans.

The case, Delgado v. Araguz, vaulted Araguz Loyd into the national spotlight, and led to a lengthy court battle that has invoked both transgender rights and marriage equality. The case is currently on appeal to the Texas Supreme Court. However, now that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, Araguz Loyd hopes it will soon be decided in her favor.

“I don’t care to have to fight about my gender identity, about what point did I become a woman versus a man, or was I ever even a man? It completely moots it all,” Araguz Loyd, 40, told the Observer this week. “Essentially, with the ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court, they have nothing. Whether I’m male or female, it’s OK to get married.”

After a state district judge in Wharton granted summary judgment to Longoria and Delgado in 2011, Araguz Loyd appealed to the 13th District Court of Appeals, which overturned the decision in 2014 and remanded the case for trial. The appeals court’s decision was seen as a victory for transgender rights, because it also effectively overturned a 1999 ruling saying sex is determined at birth and can’t be changed.

Longoria and Delgado appealed, but Araguz Loyd said if the Texas Supreme Court doesn’t soon deny their petition for review and remand the case to the trial court, her attorney will file a motion requesting that it do so.

“I’ll celebrate when I have finality, when I know that my fight is truly over, because while we do have marriage equality, there is still pending litigation disputing the validity of the marriage of a trans person based on it being a same-sex marriage, so we don’t completely have marriage equality in Texas yet, but we will,” said Araguz Loyd, who has since remarried.

Araguz Loyd began living as a woman when she was a teenager and underwent gender reassignment surgery shortly after marrying Thomas Araguz. She obtained a marriage license in Wharton County using her Texas driver’s license, which identifies her as female. Her birth certificate, from California, also states that she is female.

Araguz Loyd’s attorney, Alene Levy, said the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges should apply retroactively to Araguz’s case. Levy pointed to the fact that both same-sex marriage cases decided by the high court in the last two years involved plaintiffs whose spouses were deceased.

“We don’t agree that it’s a same-sex marriage … but that was the only objection that was ever raised to her marriage, and since that objection has been resolved basically, we would expect the court to deny the petition,” Levy said. “I do not, however, assume that the other side won’t make some argument.”

Kevin Parker, an attorney for Longoria and Delgado, confirmed he plans to keep fighting and still hopes the Texas Supreme Court will hear the case.

“There’s the issue regarding whether the U.S. Supreme Court decision can affect a marriage, if it existed at all, that ended years before the decision came out,” Parker said. “There’s definitely a potential effect to the U.S. Supreme Court decision, and it does mean we have a higher hill to climb, but it’s still going to go on until the Texas Supreme Court says otherwise.”

360x243-kumiko-the-treasure-hunter
Courtesy of Amplify
Rinko Kikuchi in Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.
Rinko Kikuchi — Kumiko the Treasure Hunter
Courtesy of Amplify
Rinko Kikuchi in Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.

In November 2001, a Japanese office worker named Takako Konishi flew from Tokyo to Minneapolis, traveled west to North Dakota and then back into Minnesota, and then committed suicide in a field outside the small Minnesota town of Detroit Lakes. As a result of a strange series of miscommunications, misunderstandings and early-Internet urban-legend-making, rumors started swirling that Konishi had traveled to the region in search of the buried ransom money from the 1996 Joel and Ethan Coen crime drama Fargo. That movie begins, after all, with the words “This is a true story.” Who wouldn’t want to believe that a troubled woman might have read them and decided to search for the treasure, and then killed herself when she failed to find it?

Austin filmmakers — Zellner Brothers
Courtesy of Amplify
Austin filmmakers David and Nathan Zellner.

It turns out the legend of Takako Konishi was no more true than the stories of Jerry Lundegaard and Marge Gunderson. Konishi was just depressed about losing her job, and had returned to the site of a romantic trip she had taken with a former lover, where she found her memories too much to bear. The Coen brothers, for their part, had simply made a fictional movie. Still, the sad, strange, conflated tale stuck with Austin filmmakers David and Nathan Zellner, and over the next decade served as the steady inspiration for Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, the Zellners’ new meditation on loneliness and blind hope.

It’s a movie that even further blurs the line between Konishi’s reality and Fargo’s fiction, a “based on a true story” yarn about a woman who mistakes the story unfolding in a movie for truth, and a meta-experimentation that somehow manages to also be one of the more heartfelt films I’ve seen in years.

Sitting down to watch Kumiko, which becomes available on Blu-ray June 30, I had no doubt the Zellner brothers could handle the quirkiness and self-reflexivity of the premise. For almost 20 years, over the span of 15 short and feature-length films, the Austinites have been telling bizarre stories, each more conceptually daring and flamboyant than the last, from the cautionary tale of Flotsam/Jetsam and the Adult Swimready stoner madness of the Fiddlestixx trilogy (starring a monkey) to the feature Goliath, which is about a man searching obsessively for his cat. I was uncertain, however, about their ability to capture the sadness at the heart of a story about a lonely woman searching for meaning and hope, especially when that story has a suicide at its center. The Zellners are great idea guys, but in their movies emotion has always taken a back seat to avant-garde lightheartedness and whimsy.

Kumiko, I’m happy to say, is a work of full maturity and artistry, the kind of movie they’ve always hinted they were capable of making. Their protagonist (played with near-silent brilliance by Rinko Kikuchi) is a loner and underachiever plagued by ever-present melancholy. Already past the age when most office working women in Japan have gotten married and started families, Kumiko toils wordlessly and without emotion at her dead-end job, surrounded by younger women she doesn’t understand and repeatedly chastised by a boss who doesn’t understand her. When she discovers an old VHS copy of Fargo in a seaside cave, Kumiko finally sees a way into, and out of, her life. So with nothing but a treasure map she’s drawn on cloth and her boss’s credit card, she heads off to America—like a Spanish conquistador “hunting for riches in the Americas,” she says—on a quest of solitude, silence and, probably, insanity.

In Kumiko, the Zellners have found their muse. Gone are the flashy freak-outs of their earlier films, replaced by an unhurried character study that gets only more compelling and emotional the further Kumiko drifts from the real world into the world of her mind. The movie’s point isn’t the strangeness and fertility of the filmmakers’ imaginations, but the depth of their protagonist’s humanity. Her madness is far more important than theirs. All those familiar Zellner touches—the extended silences, the deadpan reactions, the fascination with eccentricity—are here employed in service of something meaningful. No longer simply gestures without heart, they now speak to the loneliness and despair, and even hope, of their unmoored heroine. The result is so much more moving than anything the filmmakers have managed before. In making a movie about a woman who wishes her life were more like a movie, David and Nathan Zellner have at long last found a way to make a movie that’s more like life.

Stephen Graham Jones
Stephen Graham Jones
250x361-stephen-jones
Courtesy of Stephen Graham Jones
This year’s guest judge is Stephen Graham Jones, author of 15 novels and six story collections.

Although all four runners-up in the 2014 Texas Observer short story contest wrote about, or from, Texas, the winning story took us outside of the Lone Star State entirely for the first time in the contest’s history. Not only out of Texas, but out of the United States. China is the setting of Ling Ma’s “Fuzhou Nighttime Feeling,” chosen as the contest’s best entry by guest judge Elizabeth McCracken.

This year’s challenge to writers is two-fold: bring the trophy back home, or take it even further afield.

2015 guest judge Stephen Graham Jones says he’s looking for a story with “a fast start and a real ending, and a voice that makes me want to hear more, keep turning the pages.”

Jones is the author of 15 novels and six story collections in a range of genres from literary fiction to horror. A member of the Blackfeet tribe, he grew up in a place “too small to even have a post office,” and in 2012 published Growing Up Dead in Texas, a novel about that place (Greenwood, Texas) that offers a dazzling mix of fiction, memoir and reportage about a devastating cotton fire. If we could recommend one book by which to get a sense of Jones’ style, Growing Up Dead in Texas is the one.

The prize for winning this year’s contest is a check for $1,000, publication in our annual October Books Issue and subsequent publication online. Past winners include Brian Allen Carr, who has since published six books; Ashley Hope Perez, whose 2013 winner, “3:17,” is an excerpt from her upcoming novel, Out of Darkness; and Ma, who recently won the Graywolf SLS Prize for best novel excerpt from an emerging writer.

As many as four finalists also will be published online, and up to 25 honorable mentions will have their names and story titles published.

So bring us your fast starts and your real endings, writers. Make the pages turn.

Click here for contest rules and to submit your entry.

 

Activists chant and yell in the Capitol rotunda as the House debates new abortion restrictions.
Patrick Michels
Pro-choice activists in orange chant and dance in the Capitol rotunda in June 2013 in protest of House Bill 2.

For the second time in less than a year, the U.S. Supreme Court has temporarily blocked two major components of Texas’ omnibus abortion law that would have forced all but nine abortion clinics in the state to close.

Now, the 19 remaining abortion clinics in Texas, including Whole Woman’s Health in McAllen, will stay open as plaintiffs in the legal challenge against House Bill 2 ask the high court to hear the case. Plaintiffs have 90 days to file a petition with the Supreme Court, and attorneys say they plan to do so this summer.

Whole Woman’s Health and other independent abortion providers are challenging the law’s requirements that physicians obtain admitting privileges at nearby hospitals and that clinics meet hospital-like ambulatory surgical center standards. The Supreme Court stepped in last fall to block those provisions as plaintiffs appealed the Fifth Circuit’s original decision to uphold the law.

“We’re relieved that the high court has, once again, prevented anti-choice politicians from pushing safe and affordable abortion care entirely out of reach for Texas women,” Amy Hagstrom Miller with Whole Woman’s Health said in a statement. “With today’s ruling, we remain hopeful that the justice system too will stand with Texas woman and Whole Woman’s Health.”

On June 9, a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that the law does not create an undue burden for Texas women, despite the fact that it would have closed all but nine abortion facilities statewide, leaving more than 900,000 Texas women living 150 miles or farther from a clinic. The panel also agreed that the Legislature’s intent was “to protect the health and safety of women,” not to erode abortion access, as plaintiffs argued.

In response to the 5th Circuit opinion, plaintiffs asked the Supreme Court on June 19 to step in.

Plaintiffs argue that the appellate court has largely ignored practical and economic barriers that Texans may face when forced to travel for abortions, such as child care, an inability to take time off work, transportation costs and the threat of arrest and deportation in the case of undocumented women. Internal border checkpoints, such as the Falfurrias checkpoint north of McAllen, pose insurmountable barriers to undocumented women living in the Rio Grande Valley who need to travel to San Antonio. Abortion rights advocates fear such women will turn to “unsafe, illegal” methods to induce their own abortions, said Paula Saldaña, a community health worker who has worked in the Rio Grande Valley for 20 years.

Losing the last abortion clinic in the lower Rio Grande Valley would take away “a safe, legal place to be able to obtain [abortion] services if they need them,” she said. “[Women] are going to put their lives at risk. They’re going to find a way.”

In her years as a health care educator, Saldaña has heard stories about women traveling to Mexico for injections to induce miscarriages, and others turning to herbal remedies.

“This [abortion services] should be accessible in my community,” Saldaña said. “We’re going to continue to fight.”

According to legal experts, the high court’s decision today to block the law from taking full effect means it will likely agree to hear the case against House Bill 2 in its next term, which begins this fall.

In a statement after today’s decision, Gov. Greg Abbott maintained that the law is designed to “to fight for higher-quality healthcare standards for women while protecting our most vulnerable—the unborn, and I’m confident the Supreme Court will ultimately uphold this law.”

Attorneys for abortion providers are hopeful that the high court will opt to review the law.

“This case presents a very, very dramatic impact in the type of restrictions on access to abortion clinics that we’ve seen over the last few years,” said Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights. “If this case is not taken by the Supreme Court, it’s going to allow continuation of the closure of clinics.”

Austin moontower
“Moonlight Towers,” were built in the late 19th century to cast crime-deterrent swaths of light across a then-gas-lit downtown.

I don’t know when you last found yourself appreciating the particular sights, sounds and smells of the stretch of Waller Creek that runs between Sixth and Eighth streets in downtown Austin, but if you’re like me, the answer is probably close to never.

Until, that is, this spring, when I was compelled by a bunch of hip media-types from San Francisco and New York City not only to venture into the urban drainage of Waller Creek but to peek into nooks and crannies I’d passed by without heed for years.

I was looking for a serial killer. Specifically, the man dubbed by the writer William Sydney Porter (who was better known as O. Henry, and who lived just blocks from Waller Creek) the “Servant Girl Annihilator,” a man who killed seven Austin women—five of them black women—and one man in 1884 and 1885.

My quest was part of a self-guided walking tour produced by Radiolab, the New York-based public radio program beloved by science nerds, and Detour, a walking tour app that uses GPS technology to guide iPhone-equipped listeners through San Francisco and now, for the first time, Austin.

Ellen Horne, executive producer at Radiolab, told me that her folks and the Detour crew decided to “meet in the middle” here in Austin and produce a show for March’s SXSW crowds. They swiftly stumbled upon the story of what many historians have called America’s—and maybe the world’s—first serial killer.

“I’m still haunted by this story,” Horne told me in a phone interview. So, I think, is just about everyone who delves into the dark history of these murders, which so frightened 19th-century Austinites that their legacy lives on even today with the city’s signature “moonlight towers,” erected to cast crime-deterrent swaths of light across a then-gas-lit downtown.

The tour begins in a downtown hat shop, where listeners are encouraged to take in the smells of old colognes. It then meanders along Waller Creek, into St. David’s Episcopal Church and its labyrinth, through the Driskill Hotel, into the parking garage that now stands at one of the murder sites, and concludes—I won’t give too much away—in a spot with a stunning panoramic view of downtown.

The murders were gruesome. Black women, mostly domestic servants, were mutilated, raped and killed by a still-unidentified assailant. An 11-year-old black girl also fell victim to the “annihilator,” as did a black man who was in a relationship with one of the victims.

But it wasn’t until two white women were brutally murdered in their homes that the city’s newspapers began to really take notice. Some things haven’t changed much in 130 years.

“The murders of the black victims are heinously under-covered” in the historical record, Horne told me. “That’s a real regret of ours.”

As a result, the tour skims lightly over an exploration of race relations in 1885-era Austin—a particular disappointment in light of Austin’s continuing unwillingness to grapple with its history of racism, the intentional ouster of its black community to the East Side in the early 20th century, and the current gentrification of that same area.

Atmospherically, though, the tour is a remarkable bit of time travel, accompanied at one especially moving point by a song from Austin’s own Shakey Graves that imagines the youngest victim’s revenge on her killer.

I’m powerfully skeptical of outsiders who attempt to tell Texas stories, but I have to give credit to the meticulous Radiolab research team; they spent weeks here testing and editing their story, which is narrated—at times perhaps overly folksily—by an actress playing a ghost of Austin past.

Horne admits they approached the project with some “naïveté,” but they managed to produce not just an intriguing murder mystery, but an aural snapshot of a time well before Austin became the cultural and tech hub it is today.

“We really wanted to make this a story about the year and not the murders,” said Horne, who made the editorial decision not to play into the sensational and sexual gore fantasies that, as she put it, often accompany “obsession with serial killers.”

And while historians have some idea of who the “annihilator” may have been—a black man named Nathan Elgin who was shot by police in 1886—Radiolab keeps the tour’s ending ambiguous, having come to believe that the murders were not the work of just one person.

“The thought that it wasn’t one serial killer is much scarier,” Horne said.

But even without resolution, the tour leaves a lasting impression with listeners who, I think, will see the city very differently after they’ve looked at it with century-old eyes.