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Pedestrian fatalities and new businesses dominate 2017 news

Texas Department of Public Safety troopers reconstruct the scene of an Independence Day traffic incident at the intersection of Yett and Main streets in Marble Falls that left an off-duty Comal County Sheriff’s Office corrections officer dead. The story was the most-viewed article in 2017. Staff photo by Connie Swinney


From pedestrian fatalities and a street brawl to an extensive grocery store ground-breaking and a sizable municipal airport drug seizure, the top news stories of 2017 were notable in both scope and impact on the lives of residents across the Highland Lakes.

As compiled from, the most-viewed stories of the year that captured readers’ interest follow:

20. The public got a peek at what a proposed hotel/conference center might look like after city officials unveiled the proposed design in March.

A series of renderings, provided by Seaux Pierce Architecture, showed what the multimillion-dollar project might become. The plan released in March 2017 included a 151-room hotel over a 130,000-square-foot and five-story structure.

At the time, city leaders had hoped for a summer of 2017 ground breaking, but as of December 26, it hadn’t taken place.

The hotel/conference center which would be located on the shores of Lake Marble Falls at Lakeside Park is a public-private venture. At the time of the renderings being released, officials estimated the construction would costs between $26.5 million and $28.5 million. The city of Marble Falls through Marble Falls Economic Development Corporation bond funding had committed approximately $6.5 million toward construction of the project.

19. Investigators arrested and charged two high school students and one middle school student Jan. 24 in connection with several break-ins and property damage during a two-week period leading up to their arrests.

The suspects caused extensive damage Jan. 9 to a 5,200-square-foot space that formerly served as a cafeteria/auditorium on the old Burnet Elementary School campus.

On Jan. 21, officials discovered a second break-in and damage in the early morning hours at the same building.

At that time, suspects broke a window to enter, caused damage with a fire extinguisher, and stole several items, including motorcycle helmets that were stored there for the district’s scholarship garage sale fundraiser.

Prior to the arrest of the juvenile suspects, a third break-in was reported Jan. 23 at the Burnet High School campus, where thieves stole and/or damaged batting helmets and other baseball equipment and a number of TV monitors.

18. Federal authorities arrested an Austin man March 20 after he landed a plane carrying 230 pounds of hydroponic marijuana at the Llano Municipal Airport, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Wayne Douglas Brunet, 64, was charged with felony possession with intent to distribute marijuana.

Officials said the incident unfolded in the midst of an investigation by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Investigators said the pilot attempted to flee but was apprehended on the tarmac by agents with the Texas Department of Public Safety Air Unit and the Llano County Sheriff’s Office.

Officers seized several duffle bags full of the illegal drugs and about $6,000 in cash.

In June, Brunet pleaded guilty to drug charges, and in September, a federal judge sentenced him to 37 months in prison.

17. An 18-year-old Granite Shoals man died Oct. 19 in a crash while being pursued by police, according to a Texas Department of Public Safety report.

The incident occurred at about 3:30 a.m. that morning on Prairie Creek Road.

The report stated that Cruz Grimaldo Suarez was driving a 1998 Chevrolet pickup “traveling southbound … fleeing from police.”

A preliminary assessment of what happened indicated the vehicle “swerved left,” leading to a crash.

The vehicle rolled over and and collided with a tree.

16. A rodeo athlete injured July 15 during the Marble Falls Open/Pro Rodeo faced a tough road back after he reportedly landed on his head and twisted his neck when he flipped off a bucking horse.

Bill Herbert, a four-time Cowboy Professional Rodeo Association and three-time United Professional Rodeo Association saddle bronc champion, underwent surgery to fuse his C3 and C4 vertebra after he broke his neck in the fall.

Herbert is married to singer-songwriter Pauline Reese.

Reese has performed regularly across the Highland Lakes. The couple have two girls, Heidi and Henli. Herbert won the saddle bronc event in the Burnet, Llano, and Georgetown open/pro rodeos earlier this year and was listed as No. 2 in the CPRA’s saddle bronc rankings.

15. A Fredericksburg woman was sent to the hospital in critical condition after a head-on collision on U.S. 281 involving a church van she was driving back from a faith-based camp.

Jenny Loza was transporting seven youths at about noon June 9 between Burnet and Lampasas when a pickup truck “crossed over” into oncoming traffic and collided with the van, church officials reported.

Loza’s husband, Austin Loza, the church’s youth minister was driving a 25-passenger bus ahead of the van.

Both church vehicles were traveling southbound on U.S. 281.

The group was on its way back to Fredericksburg from the Latham Springs Baptist Encampment near Waco.

14. A street brawl that left a man dead Oct. 22 might have started with an argument and an alleged assault at a restaurant, according to a Marble Falls police report.

Police reported that at least one unknown suspect faces several charges in an incident that escalated into a street brawl involving knives, baseball bats, and pipes at about 12:30 a.m. that morning in the 500 block of Avenue S.

An argument initially began at a Marble Falls eatery leading to one customer allegedly assaulting another customer. But the incident, which grew to involve several people, didn’t stop there.

The two groups subsequently clashed at the Avenue S residence.

When police arrived, they found a deceased victim, identified as Fermin Rios-Padilla and believed to be in his mid-30s.

13. Crews broke ground on a new H-E-B Store.

The new H-E-B, which will be completed in February 2018 near the current one, located at 1503 RR 1431 West, will be 111,000 square feet, an increase by 35,000 square feet.

Other store features include curbside pickup, which allows customers to shop online and drive up to “pick up groceries;” a floral department that also delivers; a home decor department; a Texas Front Yard department that includes pottery, ceramics, plants, outdoor furniture, grills, and fire pits; an in-store chef with a staff to provide meal solutions and Simple Meals; and a pharmacy with a drive-through.

12. A man’s death after jumping from a bluff into Lake Buchanan prompted a cautionary note by water safety officials.

The incident happened at about 3:45 p.m. June 25 on the upper end of Lake Buchanan near the confluence of Fall Creek and the Colorado River.

Joshua Reid, 39, of Burnet County was on an outing with friends when it occurred.

The Buchanan Dam Volunteer Fire Department dive team recovered Reid’s body about two hours later in about 10-12 feet of water in the area where he went under.

The area of the lake where the incident occurred is straddled by 20- to 30-foot bluffs and known for its idyllic views and quaint waterfalls.

11. A state district judge on July 14 denied a request for early release from probation by a man who pleaded guilty in a 2002 Lake Buchanan hit-and-run boating incident that left an 18-year-old man dead and two others injured.

Travis Marburger entered the plea in January 2012 for failing to stop and render aid in a boat collision on Lake Buchanan about a decade earlier.

He was sentenced to 10 years probation and 100 days in county jail.

Marburger’s attorneys made the request to waive the rest of his probation time, citing their client’s “good behavior,” which a district judge denied.

After excavating part of Marburger’s Bertram property in December 2010, authorities discovered a bass boat and uncovered evidence that linked it to the 2002 hit-and-run.

10. Authorities arrested a man on suspicion of drunken driving after he struck and killed a pedestrian who was walking on U.S. 281 on July 30, according to a Marble Falls Police Department report.

The pedestrian, 36-year-old Jerrod Bradford Young of Mount Pleasant, was walking just after 10:45 p.m. in the inside southbound lane in the 3300 block of the highway within the Marble Falls city limits, the report stated. Jimmy Lerma, 49, of Marble Falls was driving a Chevrolet Suburban traveling south when the incident occurred.

A Burnet County grand jury eventually cleared Lerma of an intoxication manslaughter charge, but the defendant still faces a prison sentence for violating his probation due to alcohol detected in his system at the time of the incident, officials say.

9. Authorities were called to an apparent murder-suicide involving two women who died from gunshot wounds after one announced she wanted to end their relationship, according to a report by the Lampasas Police Department.

Deborah Chance, 47, and Millie Chance, 24, both died after the incident, which was reported at 11:49 a.m. April 13 in the 700 block of North Avenue in Lampasas.

Millie Chance, a former Burnet County Jail employee, was airlifted to Baylor Scott and White-Temple with critical injuries and was pronounced dead a couple of days later.

In June, county and state officials closed the Lake LBJ Motel in Kingsland after an investigation revealed a number of ‘health and safety concerns.’ Staff photo by Daniel Clifton

8. An investigation by several Burnet County law enforcement agencies as well as the state fire marshal led authorities to shutter a Kingsland motel after officials cited a number of health and safety concerns.

On June 5, the State Fire Marshal’s Office, the Burnet County Sheriff’s Office, and Burnet County authorities investigated and inspected the Lake LBJ Motel, 13813 RR 1431.

Officials had filed “numerous complaints” to the State Fire Marshal’s Office in regard to the motel.

Several agencies inspected about 23 rooms and the remaining tenants of the motel were ordered to evacuate.

7. Investigators sifted through clues after a suspect was shot and killed during an attempted burglary May 25 at an eatery on the square, according to the Llano Police Department.

The incident happened at 12:50 a.m. May 25 at Stonewall’s Pizza, Wings & Things, 109 W. Main St. adjacent to the Llano County Courthouse.

When police arrived, suspect Robert Sutton, 29, of Llano had suffered a single gunshot wound and was transported to Baylor Scott and White Hospital, where he died.

Authorities said they took a second suspect, Jonathan Tuma, 19, of Tow into custody and charged him with burglary.

Another suspect, 25-year-old Ashton Hutchison was charged about four days later with burglary of a habitation in connection with the incident.

The unidentified shooter, believed to be inside the building, was not charged by police.

6. On Jan. 21, the city of Horseshoe Bay, the Texas Rangers, and the Texas Rangers Association Foundation honored the actions of the late Texas Ranger Stanley Keith Guffey in a fatal kidnapping scenario.

Three decades ago, Guffey and Texas Ranger John Aycock volunteered to hide in the back of a Lincoln Town Car provided by law enforcement to a kidnapper who had already killed a woman.

That man, Brent Albert Beeler, was on parole and wanted in connection with a forgery case.

He held captive 2-year-old Kara Leigh-Ann Whitehead, the daughter of local ranchers Bill and Leigh Whitehead, and the family’s maid, 22-year-old Denise Johnson.

Beeler barricaded himself inside a house, killed Johnson, and then demanded the car along with $30,000.

In the situation that followed, Guffey would lose his life while law enforcement was able to rescue the 2-year-old girl.

5. Authorities investigated a crash involving a recreational vehicle that overturned on April 24 at the railroad tracks on U.S. 281 north of the city limits.

According to officials at the scene, an RV towing a sport-utility vehicle at about 11:30 a.m. was traveling south on the highway when it left the roadway and flipped at the tracks.

Much of the crash was contained to the west side of the roadway, so first responders reduced the four-lane highway to two lanes to keep traffic moving.

The occupants of the RV had non-incapacitating injuries.

4. A Burnet woman was indicted May 2 on charges of criminally negligent homicide and two counts of abandoning/endangering a child (criminal negligence) in connection with a 2015 one-vehicle rollover that killed a 2-year-old boy and injured a second child passenger.

A Burnet County grand jury handed down the indictments against Alyssa Raye Burnam, 26, according to court documents filed in the Burnet County District Clerk’s Office.

The indictments state that Burnam failed to properly secure the children in their seats and maintain control of the vehicle.

The one-vehicle rollover involving Burnam and the children happened at 2:43 p.m. July 26, 2015, on CR 116 in Hoover’s Valley, according to a Texas DPS report.

According to court documents, authorities in November dismissed one of the charges of abandoning/endangering a child and the criminal negligent homicide charge.

3. Two women died Oct. 2 as a result of a collision on an accident-plagued stretch of Texas 29.

The collision was reported at 7:41 a.m. that day at the intersection of CR 304, almost 5 miles east of Burnet.

According to the Texas Department of Public Safety report, 56-year-old Pamela Stewart of Bertram was stopped in the westbound lane in a 2015 Ford Focus waiting to turn onto CR 304.

A 2013 Dodge Ram pickup, driven by 56-year-old Mark Salley of Leander, was traveling westbound in the same lane when he collided with the back of the Focus.

The pickup then collided with an eastbound 2013 Ford Escape driven by 52-year-old Dena Kolb of Burnet. Kolb and Stewart died as a result of the crash.

2. Investigators closed a massage parlor and arrested two female suspects on prostitution charges after underage clients reported they were touched “sexually” while receiving a massage, according to a Marble Falls Police Department report. The incidents involved Enjoy Parlor, located in a strip mall in the 1100 block of U.S 281. Police arrested and charged two Marble Falls women during the investigation, but officials later declined to prosecute.

However, both women were turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.

Texas Department of Public Safety troopers reconstruct the scene of an Independence Day traffic incident at the intersection of Yett and Main streets in Marble Falls that left an off-duty Comal County Sheriff’s Office corrections officer dead. The story was the most-viewed article in 2017. Staff photo by Connie Swinney

1. A 60-year-old Spring Branch woman died after a pickup truck struck her at about 10:50 p.m. July 4, 2017, in Marble Falls.

The Marble Falls Police Department reported that Cynthia Lee Young was hit by a 2013 Dodge pickup in the intersection of Yett and Main streets.

Young, a Comal County Sheriff’s Office corrections officer, was transported by helicopter to Dell Seton Medical Center at the University of Texas in Austin, where she later died from her injuries. Police said the driver, 33-year-old Thomas Pfeifer Jr. of Cottonwood Shores, fled the scene, but witnesses identified him to police. He later turned himself in to police.

In September, a Burnet County grand jury indicted the man on charges relating to the incident.