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Texas Judge Denies Request To End Same-Sex Marriage

By Deanna Boyd, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

FORT WORTH, Texas — Brooke Powell and Cori Jo Long walked into a Tarrant County courthouse Friday morning with the same goal in mind — to end their marriage.

But the women, married in June 2010 in New Hampshire, had different ways in which they hoped to achieve that.

Powell had petitioned for state District Judge William Harris to declare her marriage to Long “void” under the grounds that Texas does not recognize same-sex marriages.

“Your honor, my client is not here today to change the law or to be a crusader,” Susan Smith, Powell’s attorney, told the judge. “All she’s trying to do is to use the laws that are currently available to her through the Texas Family Code to answer the question, is she married and, if so, how does she exit that marriage?”

Long, however, wanted Harris to grant the couple a divorce, affording her all the benefits granted to other divorced couples such as spousal support and division of the couple’s property.

“I would just like for my marriage to be recognized as a marriage and be able to be divorced as any divorced couple,” Long later told reporters. ” … It happened.”

In the end, Harris denied both women’s requests, stating that he had no jurisdiction to make such rulings in a state where the law doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages. The case marked the first time in Tarrant County that a same-sex couple had sought to dissolve their marriage through the court system. Long lives in North Richland Hills and Powell lives in Fort Worth.

Smith called the judge’s ruling “disappointing” but said she understands the court’s dilemma given the existence of the Texas Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits same-sex marriages in Texas.

“But there’s also statutory provisions in the Texas Family Code that should give same sex couples the ability to dissolve their relationships,” Smith contends.

Sonya Carrillo, Long’s attorney, said the judge’s decision came as no surprise.

“The way the law is written right now, his decision was not unexpected,” Carrillo said. “We do plan to take it up to the court of appeals.”

A federal judge declared Texas’ ban on same-sex marriages unconstitutional in February but allowed it to remain in effect during the appeal process.

In making her case for the judge to void the marriage, Smith argued that Texas courts had previously voided bigamist marriages — unions also not recognized by the state — and that those rulings that were later upheld in appellate courts.

She pointed out that while her client does not support the current laws in Texas regarding same-sex marriages, Powell is willing to use the laws in place to quickly end her marriage.

“She cannot wait for the Texas legislators to step in and change the laws for same-sex marriages. She cannot wait for the Texas Supreme Court to come and hand down an opinion in cases which have been pending for five years and six years with no resolution,” Smith said. “She cannot wait on the United States Supreme Court to hand down an opinion allowing same-sex couples the right to divorce.”

Carrillo argued that the court has the exclusive jurisdiction over the couple’s marriage and in denying jurisdiction, leaves Long with no other avenue to get a divorce.

“She’s effectively going to have to remain married forever, which may be some kind of cruel and unusual punishment,” Carrillo said.

Carrillo said she believes refusing Long a divorce, and thus a chance to someday remarry, is also a violation of her constitutional rights.

“Everyone in this courtroom knows that the right to marry is a fundamental constitutionally protected right,” Carrillo said. “By denying her a divorce and by the state of Texas not allowing her to be able to get a divorce by any means, is effectively barring her from ever being able to remarry anyone ever. Man, woman. Anyone.”

In making his decision, William acknowledged that the law would likely progress to one day accommodate Long’s request for a divorce, but said, “My job, my oath as a state district judge is to uphold the Constitution of the state of Texas and to enforce the laws that the legislature has lawfully enacted as representatives of the people.”

He said it did not believe it was proper, nor legally permissible, for him to “legislate from the judicial bench.”

Powell did not speak to reporters following the hearing.

“No couple going through a divorce or a dissolution proceeding really wants this much publicity. This is a very private matter,” her attorney explained. “She’s disappointed that she cannot conclude her relationship, but where there’s a will, there’s a way and we will see what we can do about all that.”

Long said she somewhat considers her fight for a divorce a crusade for equal rights.

“It’s very personal but, yes, it is based on equality too,” Long said.

Carrillo said her client cannot simply return to New Hampshire for a divorce because of residency requirements.

“She would have to move all the way back there and live probably for six months to a year before she could obtain a divorce in New Hampshire,” he said.

So, for now, both parties will regroup and plan their next moves. They also will wait to see if the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit will uphold the federal judge’s ruling in San Antonio that banning same-sex marriage in Texas is unconstitutional.

“If they agree with the San Antonio case, then Texas will be bound by that law and this will be no more,” Carrillo said. “We’ll be able to marry and divorce same sex couples.”

Photo: Bill & Heather Jones via Flickr

Lawsuit Filed After Toddler Was Allegedly Duct Taped To Nap Mat At Texas Daycare

By Deanna Boyd, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

FORT WORTH, Texas — Parents of a toddler who was allegedly duct taped to his nap mat by a daycare co-owner in Willow Park, west of Fort Worth, filed suit Tuesday against the Heart2Heart Montessori Academy.

Kristi and Brad Galbraith allege that Heart2Heart was negligent in properly carrying out its responsibilities and supervising employees, resulting in injury and pain to their 2 1/2 year-old son, in their suit, filed in Parker County.

The allegations surfaced June 17 after an employee, Hannah Tidwell, called Kristi Galbraith advising her that her son and another boy had been forcefully secured by duct tape to their napping mats by one of the facility’s owners, Pamela Decker.

“When she contacted me, the first thing she said was, ‘I wanted you to know we called CPS (Child Protective Services) today.’ Of course, I felt sick to my stomach, probably wailed out loud in the car,” Kristi Galbraith said in a phone interview Tuesday. “I asked her ‘What do you mean? What happened?’ Then she proceeded to tell me what actually happened to our son that day.”

Tidwell then sent Kristi Galbraith three photographs that she had snapped of the boy, secured to the mat with the thick, silver tape.

She told the Galbraiths that when she confronted Decker about her actions, Decker responded: “Do not say anything about this. I know this (is) illegal but felt it was necessary.”

The allegations sparked investigations by the state’s Child Care Licensing and Willow Park police. Both investigations remained open as of Tuesday, officials said.

“We have interviewed all the parents involved. We have begun interviewing some of the employees and former employees,” said Willow Police Chief Brad Johnson said. “We hope to wrap this up in the next couple of weeks and present it to the district attorney’s office. It probably will be presented to the grand jury without any arrest on our end. That’s the plan as it stands today.”

Heart2Heart remains open.

The lawsuit names Heart2Heart, its management company, Decker, and Decker’s daughter, Ashlea J. Pena, who is co-owner of the facility. The suit seeks between $200,000 and $1 million in monetary relief.

Jeff Rasansky, the Galbraiths’ attorney, called the alleged behavior an “unconscionable breach of faith that parents place in child care providers” and said the lawsuit was necessary to ensure the incident is properly investigated “so that no other child is ever treated this way.”

“Unfortunately, I think it happens a lot more often than we care to think.” Rasansky said. “Parents have to take a leap of faith in leaving their kids at daycare centers and are always going to believe that folks are going to take care of their kids the same way they’d take of their own and often times may not trust their instincts or gut.”

Heart2Heart owners did not immediately respond to a phone message left at the business Tuesday seeking comment.

The lawsuit states that in her talks with the Galbraiths, Tidwell told the parents that Decker had previously used duct tape on another little girl.

Tidwell said she had witnessed other “abusive behavior” at the facility, including the locking of a child in a room alone for an extended time, withholding water from children, and limiting the children to two water breaks per day so the staff did not need to change as many diapers, according to the lawsuit.

She told the Galbraiths that in addition to contacting them, she had quit her job and notified CPS.

The lawsuit states the parents went to the daycare center together and confronted Decker about the accusation. Decker neither admitted nor denied the accusation and “appeared to shrug off the accusation as implausible.”

“It was only after the Galbraiths advised her that they had copies of photographs of their son duct taped to the nap mat that Ms. Decker became visibly shaken; not distraught with what she had done but rather distressed that she had been caught,” the lawsuit states.

Then, stuttering and mumbling, Decker repeatedly apologized to the Galbraiths, saying that she should not have done this, the lawsuit alleges.

The Gailbraiths immediately pulled their son from the school and alerted other parents. Within days, they were served with a “cease and desist” letter from the academy’s attorneys, threatening “serious penalties and damages” if the couple continued “making false statements,” according to the lawsuit.

A day after the confrontation with Decker, the lawsuit states that Decker called another parent, Lorrie Almquist, saying she wanted to update her on what was occurring at the school.

A day earlier, Almquist had received two emails from Decker — one requesting that she, too, order a weighted blanket for her son and the other, informing her that Tidwell was making false accusations against the school and was no longer an employee.

In the phone call, Decker asked Almquist if she had talked to any parents or the “father of the other little boy.”

Almquist, unaware of what Decker was referring to, said no.

“Ms. Decker advised Ms. Almquist that Ms. Tidwell was pregnant and hormonal and saying crazy things about the school,” the lawsuit states.

Decker went on to admit to Almquist that while she was walking through a classroom, Decker noticed that Almquist’s son and another little boy were not lying down and napping and “that she got frustrated.”

“Ms. Decker then told Ms. Almquist that she did something ‘incredibly stupid and one of the dumbest things she had ever done’ and decided to duct tape her son and the other little boy to their nap mats. Decker apologized to Ms. Almquist and advised her that other parents ‘were freaking out’ and that the dad of the other little boy had sent out a ‘big email,'” the lawsuit alleges. “Ms. Decker told Ms. Almquist that ‘this whole thing has been blown out of proportion.'”

Daycare owners held a June 19 meeting with parents to address rumors and accusations going around and inform them about the investigation by Child Care Licensing.

Decker spoke briefly during the meeting, according to the lawsuit, telling parents she would be “100 percent honest” and tell them the truth.

She then recounted for parents her repeated attempts to get “the little boy that the father is so upset about” to lay down at nap time and the “very foolish decision” she made after he would not. She told the parents she got duct tape from the facility’s kitchen, asked the boy to lie down, then pulled the blanket over him and placed a strip of the tape across the blanket.

“He was quiet. He never cried. He never complained. He was not in any anguish. … He was not harmed in any way, emotionally, physically, at all,” Decker allegedly told the parents, according to the lawsuit.

“It was stupid. It was inappropriate. … I can’t change it and I’m sorry for that,” Decker told parents, according to the lawsuit.

In a news release, Rasansky’s law firm states that the daycare has since implemented changes, including the installation of cameras and regular liquid breaks for the children and that, according to the school, Decker is no longer working at the daycare.

Photo via WikiCommons

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Ex-Boyfriend Arrested In Fort Worth Killings

By Deanna Boyd, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

FORT WORTH, Texas — An ex-boyfriend of a 21-year-old woman found slain along with her mother and aunt inside their south Fort Worth home Tuesday morning has been arrested in connection with the triple slaying.

Cedric D. McGinnis Jr., 22, confessed to the slayings and told detectives where evidence from the crime could be found, according to a news release from Fort Worth police Wednesday morning.

He had earlier in the day posted a message about his ex-girlfriend’s death on his Facebook page, sending love to her and her family and remarking that it was always the innocent ones “that get (expletive) over.”

The bodies of his ex-girlfriend, April Serrano, her mother, 48-year-old Cynthia Serrano, and her aunt, Kathy DeLeon, were discovered by Cynthia Serrano’s husband as he arrived home Tuesday morning after working a night shift.

April Serrano was found dead on the floor in the living room with a gunshot wound to the head.

Kathy DeLeon, 35, was found on the living room couch, also shot in the head. Cynthia Serrano, 48, was located in a bed in the master bedroom with stab wounds to the upper torso, according to police.

All were pronounced dead on the scene.

McGinnis had posted a message about his ex-girlfriend’s death on his Facebook page Tuesday late afternoon.

“R.I.P April Marie Serrano mane. Its always the innocent ones that get (expletive) over. Gone but never forgotten. RNS #lovetothefamily #lovetoher,” it read.

Homicide detectives later located McGinnis after learning that he had been April Serrano’s former boyfriend.

At a press conference Wednesday morning, homicide Sergeant Joe Loughman said McGinnis voluntarily came to the police station late Tuesday but would not speak to detectives about his involvement in the slayings.

“We took him back to a location. We were about to leave and we saw some things that…. we were interested in,” Loughman said. “”We asked Mr. McGinnis if he would come back and talk with us a second time. He agreed once again to come up here voluntarily.”

This time, Loughman said, McGinnis admitted his involvement in the slayings.

He was arrested on a capital murder warrant at his family’s home, police said.

He was being held in jail Wednesday with bail set at $1.25 million.

Photo: Andy Davy via Flickr

Twitter Storm Erupts Between Texas Councilman, Weather Channel

By Deanna Boyd, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

FORT WORTH, Texas — A storm is raging on Twitter after outgoing Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns asked The Weather Channel to show pictures of Fort Worth, not Dallas, when displaying the local weather on its app.

Their reply: “Sorry to see you go. Good luck on ending bullying.”

A flood of tweets soon followed, with some people announcing they’d be deleting their Weather Channel apps and others calling on the cable network to apologize.

Burns, the first openly gay council member who gained international acclaim in 2010 after delivering a moving anti-bullying speech — called “It Gets Better” — during a council meeting, offered the station a chance to come out of the downpour.

“Let’s help kids instead of snark?” he tweeted to the network, asking it to donate $100,000 to the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network and The Trevor Project. He added that he would donate $1,000.

By 10 a.m., the cable network had tweeted an apology to Burns and later reiterated its regrets in a statement.

“This morning one of our team members used sarcasm in an unfortunate and unacceptable way on our Twitter account. It was not our intention to offend and we are sorry that we did,” it states. “We have since apologized to Councilman Burns and want to restate that sincere apology and assure him that this tweet does not represent our views. In fact, this is the opposite of how we want to interact with our fans, as we value their input on any occasion. We are taking the necessary steps to be sure something like this does not occur again.”

Burns said photographs of Dallas have been routinely been posted with Fort Worth weather since The Weather Channel app was updated a few weeks ago. He said he and others have previously asked the network to change the pictures but to no avail.

“I finally got frustrated this morning and sent out the text that you saw and kind of blew up from there,” Burns said.

He called the network’s response “disappointing.”

“I thought about it for just a second: Were they actually being honest in this?” Burns said. “Nope. That was not an earnest tweet. That was a jab.”

“It’s unfortunate that they had such a bone-headed response,” he said. “It goes to show that you have to be careful with social media and not be snarky.”

David Blumenthal, a spokesman for The Weather Channel, said Monday that the network is working to provide more city-specific photos on its app.

“We recognize the need to make the photos more local and the team is working on that now with the goal of delivering every user a locally relevant, weather specific photo on their home screen,” he said in an email.

AFP Photo/Leon Neal

Texas Woman Says Missing Drone ‘Freaked Me Out’

By Deanna Boyd, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

MANSFIELD, Texas — Karen Meister’s suspicions soared sky-high Monday after she arrived at her Mansfield home and found a flier on her front door about a missing drone.

“It looks like a lost-dog flier, but instead of a picture of a cute little puppy, it has a picture of a four-armed drone with a video camera on the bottom of it,” said Meister, 52. “It just freaked me out.”

Fearing someone was spying on her, Meister contacted officials — from the police to the mayor’s office to her state representative — to find out the legalities of using a drone in a neighborhood.

She also gave a piece of her mind to the drone’s owner in an exchange of text messages Tuesday.

Meister: “I did not find your ‘toy.’ But am quite disturbed that you think it is lost in my yard. Can assure you that if such object IS indeed found on my property … it would be destroyed. How dare you.”

Drone’s owner: “We were flying in the neighborhood and saw it land in that area. Every house with a back yard facing country club received a flyer. And I also use this 3,000 dollar piece of equipment for work. I simply would like it back and would be more than happy to give a reward. I’m sorry to bother you.”

Meister: “So the police say it’s OK for you to fly your drone and video my yard and in my windows … waiting on what mayor and state rep says. I cannot imagine what business you have doing this, but yet … I AM BOTHERED … perving in backyards. Shame on you. Have your boss or parent call me.”

Drone’s owner: “I would be more than happy to have my parent contact you. I fly way above houses. There was a prop failure and it (fell). I have no intention of ‘perving’ backyards. I have quotes from FAA regs authorizing use in the manner I am using it. If you would like footage from a previous flight or project so you may see EXACTLY how far from the houses I am that can be provided.”

That same day, the drone owner’s father — a Dallas police officer — called Meister to assure her that his son is not a “perv” but rather a Mansfield High School senior doing video projects with the hope of getting into Texas A&M University.

Chris Shephard, the 18-year-old aspiring filmmaker, told the Star-Telegram that he had saved up for months to buy the drone and attached a GoPro camera to it so he could make films. He said he uplinked the camera to a television and was showing friends how it worked Sunday when he lost it in a residential area off Country Club Drive in northeast Mansfield.

“I think a propeller came loose or something,” he said. “It just pretty much fell out of the sky.”

Shephard said he and his friends searched for the drone for about two hours. He then made fliers with a note asking people to check their back yards and distributed them to 20 or 30 houses.

Shephard said he saw a missed call from Meister on his cell phone Monday and was hoping she had found the drone. When she lashed out at him the next day via text message, he said, he couldn’t be mad.

“I kind of figured out what she thought was going on,” Shephard said. “I just had a picture of it and asked people to check their back yards. I could tell where somebody might be thinking I was hovering over their back yard.

“I still didn’t know if she had it or not,” he said. “I was more worried that she was going to destroy it.”

He still hasn’t found the drone.

Shephard said he did research when buying the drone to make sure he obeyed the law.

Under Federal Aviation Administration guidelines, model aircraft should fly below 400 feet above the ground and maintain a sufficient distance from populated areas and full-scale aircraft.

“I know I wasn’t doing anything illegal,” Shephard said. “I’m sure it’s not good for the drone community to have it thrown out there that people are looking through windows.”

Meister, who acknowledges that she doesn’t even use Facebook and jokes that she’s a dinosaur, said she feels bad for calling the teen a “perv” but thinks her concern was justified.

“I don’t know how to feel about it. I want kids to do well and follow their passions and dreams,” Meister said. “On the other hand, I’m like, ‘This is weird.’”

She said she ended her conversation with the teen’s father on amicable terms.

“I thanked him and told him I’m satisfied with his explanation. Please pass my apologies to his son. I’m proud of them for raising a smart kid,” Meister said. “But on the other hand, you’ve got to realize people are not going to be very pleased with these things dropping down.”

AFP Photo/Saul Loeb