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UNT community celebrates graduation, proposal

While the end of a semester marks the start of winter break for most college students, it also signals the beginning of the rest of their lives for many others — graduation.

Eagles usually fly alone, but on graduation days Friday and Saturday, University of North Texas grads took off together as they said goodbye to another chapter in their life. More than 3,500 students were expected to walk the stage during ceremonies Friday and Saturday at UNT’s Coliseum and Murchison Performing Arts Center.

Loved ones scanned the rows and rows of seats for empty chairs. Meanwhile, their grads were waiting in the tunnels making sure they looked their best while they waited for their cue.

Emotions run high during graduations for loved ones and grads alike. Nora Mejia of Plano choked up and teared up as she spoke of how proud she is of her son, Alberto Josue Mejia, for graduating. She spoke with a hand on her heart.

“It’s pretty exciting and I’m so proud of him,” Nora Mejia said, bouncing back between English and Spanish. “All the sacrifices he’s made, he’s conquered and is graduating today. The whole family is proud.”

Icis Burgos had another thing to celebrate Saturday along with graduating — getting engaged. Her now-fiance proposed to her right before the graduation ceremony ended in front of thousands of people in the Coliseum.

Marlon Craddock said he had been planning this proposal for about two months.

“First I wasn’t sure it would come together, but I prayed about it,” Craddock said.

Burgos was the last student to walk the stage and head back to her seat. She said someone pulled her aside and told her she’d won a raffle to be the last person to walk the stage, so she went along with it, not knowing what was about to happen.

At the center of the aisle, Craddock came up to her with a microphone in hand and told Burgos she was “the best thing that’s ever happened to [him].”

The proposal brought out the loudest applause from attendees as they congratulated the happy couple.

Outside, grads took pictures and celebrated with their families. Sororities and fraternities like Alpha Kappa Alpha sang and chanted around the new alums.

Twins Jasmine and Jaylne Bell both graduated during Saturday’s ceremony at noon.

“It’s a blessing,” Jaylne said.

Time for truth

PILOT POINT — Truths told only as whispers were spoken aloud Saturday morning as people gathered to remember the victims of racial terrorism and the scars Denton County holds from that legacy.

Volunteers with the Denton County Community Remembrance Project organized a soil collection ceremony that opened the doors to the truth-telling, which tumbled out in personal recollections, prayers, poetry and song.

The Rev. John White, a longtime resident of Pilot Point, helped scoop the first soil collected at the bottoms of the Trinity River’s Elm Fork Saturday morning before the full public gathering began.

The location, near the old iron bridge on the Greenbelt Corridor, represented people hung from Denton County bridges and elsewhere. More than a dozen lynchings have been documented in Denton County from 1860 to 1922. Historians believe other lynchings and many more incidents of racial terror and violence went undocumented for a much longer period.

Volunteers formed a circle and held hands as White remembered his grandmother’s story about dark times in the early 1920s.

“They were going back to Alabama because of the hangings,” White said.

Historians traced some of Denton County’s earliest black settlers to that state. Many freed slaves left Chambers County, Alabama, after the Civil War. They got off the railroad at the end of the line in Denton County. For a time, Pilot Point was home to the largest cotton gin in the nation. Near Pilot Point, the new settlers founded the St. John’s community, which has since been lost.

Saturday’s ceremony commemorated two men lynched on Dec. 14, 1922. What little is known about the incident was reported in newspapers. The pair were arrested and left unguarded overnight in a Pilot Point jail.

A note was left in the jail telling “negroes” to “leave town.” The Ku Klux Klan initiated 300 new members from Denton County a few months before the lynching. At the Klan’s peak in Texas, historians believe one of every three Texas men was a member.

Volunteer and longtime Denton County resident Beth Leggieri said being involved in the project has helped her family genealogy research make more sense. She came across a brief memoir written by an uncle who was a fighter pilot in World War II. He was taken to a Klan rally as a child. The fire and violence changed his life, she said.

“He moved to California to raise his family there,” she said.

Cecelia Harris, another longtime resident of Pilot Point, placed flowers and inspirational stones on the ground where soil was collected outside the old jail and calaboose.

With a stone inscribed with the word “believe,” Harris said she thought that in order to go through what they went through, the two men had to believe. And with a stone that read “dream,” she alluded to the work and sacrifice of Martin Luther King Jr.

“We’ve had many nightmares, but we still dream,” Harris said.

In addition to placing soil from the site where the men were likely taken, Pilot Point city officials placed bits of the decaying walls of the calaboose — currently wedged between a city water tank and pump house — into the collection jars.

The siblings of Lermont Stowers-Jones, a Denton teen who recently died at the foot of the Old Alton Bridge, carried the three jars nearly filled with sacred ground to their penultimate destination: a commemoration at the Pilot Point First United Methodist Church.

There, University of North Texas voice professor Jennifer Lane led more than 100-plus attendees in singing “Amazing Grace.” Event co-organizer Shaun Treat illuminated the bits of Texas history that never made it into the textbook before turning the bulk of the program over to three speakers and a jazz quartet to highlight the themes of justice, peace and healing.

The Rev. John Ross, pastor of First Baptist Church of Pilot Point, tapped the Book of Genesis to remind attendees how God first illustrated justice: by creating the land and the sea and that neither should overtake the other.

Then he reminded everyone how difficult justice can be for humans.

“Every man believes in justice until he has to pay the price,” Ross said. “Only justice is the remedy for injustice.”

Alfredo Sanchez, speaking on behalf of the League of United Latin American Citizens, invited the crowd to create peace by observing a moment of silence for those lives lost. Denton City Council member Gerard Hudspeth and Pilot Point City Council member Pearlie Mae Simpson both shared personal stories to reflect how individuals and communities can move toward healing.

Hudspeth recalled the time that he and his brother were nearly home from a family reunion in South Texas when they were pulled over. Because they would not consent to a search of their car, the two men were taken to jail. Hudspeth said the experience, together with the counsel of his father who watched the scene unfold in the car behind him, taught him to be patient with ignorance.

“I can’t chase it myself,” Hudspeth said. “But I can bring those experiences to the table.”

Simpson grew up in a segregated Denton County and struggled to finish her college studies as one of the first black students to attend Texas Woman’s University. When she first ran for City Council, officials tried to tell her that she had lost, but she knew she had won.

“I loved Pilot Point,” she said. “We asked for a recount. I sat on City Council for 16 years, probably because nobody would run against me for a while.”

“This is my story,” she added. “I want younger people to know, just do it right. You’ve got to do it the right way.”

The final destination for one jar of sacred soil remains in Pilot Point, while another will stay with the Denton County Office of History and Culture. County Judge Andy Eads said the county’s jar would be displayed at the Courthouse-on-the-Square Museum and other county buildings to educate the public.

“We must not forget the horrendous events of the past,” Eads said.

The third jar will travel back to Alabama for display in the Legacy Museum. The Denton County Remembrance Project is part of a nationwide movement guided by the Equal Justice Initiative, which created the museum and the companion National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery.

Gabrielle Daniels, of EJI, told the crowd she has had the privilege of attending similar ceremonies around the country and noted that Billie Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit” has been incorporated many times.

In Denton County’s case, jazz saxophone legend Brad Leali and vocalist Katina Stone Butler were joined by UNT doctoral students Eric Hitt on double bass and Greg Satterthwaite.

“There are very few songs that talk about what happened,” Daniels said. “It’s an important contribution at a time when a lot of people weren’t listening.”

Event co-organizer Linnie McAdams charged everyone attending to continue the conversation, whether at a church, a book club or with the project.

“Let us commit to learning how to live together,” McAdams said. “I am ready. How about you?”

Small but growing Aubrey serves those well beyond its borders

AUBREY — What’s the best part of living or working in Aubrey? No matter who you ask, the answer is the same: “It’s the people, by far,” says Library Director Kathy Ramsey.

“I think there’s this pocket of really good people, a little bubble in this part of the county that’s just great, great people,” she says. “They really want good things for themselves and their neighbors.”

This growing city — about 12 miles northeast of Denton at the junction of U.S. Highway 377 and FM428 — already extends its support and services well beyond its official borders. But its many caretakers are more than up for the challenge.

A big heart

“Aubrey is a dynamic small town with a big heart and room to grow,” says Mayor Janet Meyers. “Our best attribute is our people.”

She points out a few of the organizations that embody the city’s big heart: The Aubrey Historical Society was started in 2010 by volunteers who now operate a downtown museum chronicling community history. Keep Aubrey Beautiful provides free summer concerts, promotes recycling, picks up trash and puts on the long-running Peanut Festival every October. The Aubrey Education Foundation gives scholarships to teachers and graduating seniors. H.O.P.E., a food and clothing ministry, serves anyone in need every second Sunday.

Meyers also credits the passion and patience of the city of Aubrey staff, board and commission members.

Courtesy photo/Jordan Woodard  

The Aubrey library, which opened in 2006, hosts many community groups every week and is a great place to research jobs, genealogy or Denton County history.

“From library, fire and police to water and wastewater, this smart, funny and patient group of professionals has stuck with the city through thick and thin,” she said. “Their hard work makes all of our lives easier and safer.”

Outside the lines

While Ramsey, Meyers and City Administrator Mark Kaiser all speak to the challenges of Aubrey’s recent growth surge, they do so with an appreciation for how surrounding communities are working together, even when the exact lines are still a moving target.

“Trying to understand who we really are is a message we’ve been working on,” Kaiser says. “We’re not defined by a postal code or even school district boundaries, but instead a series of boundary agreements with our bordering jurisdictions, which include Denton, Pilot Point, Prosper, Little Elm, Krugerville, etc.”

While today’s Aubrey is officially about four square miles, its lines will one day include about 40 square miles as defined by those agreements. The generous city already provides services to much of that larger area — 40-plus square miles of coverage from police, possibly double that for fire, and all of Denton County is welcome to check out a library book.

In the past 10 years, the population has nearly doubled from 2,595 in 2010 to an expected 5,000 by 2020, according to Kaiser. And 2,200 of those residents have been added in the past five years. That rate of growth is expected to continue for another five years.

Though most growth has been residential, Kaiser says Aubrey’s expanding labor pool is also drawing interest from employers, including an out-of-state manufacturer that has recently expressed interest in the area. “Hopefully, this is the first of several facilities we’ll attract,” he says.

Kaiser is aware that “we’re a small piece of the growth of Denton County. We’re proud to be a part of Texas and Denton County, and we feel geographically blessed that we are being given the stewardship of this area. It’s our goal to work with everyone around us to provide that critical balance of culture and growth in a cost-effective and authentic way.”

Ponies and peanuts

Aubrey was founded in 1867. The name “Aubrey” was drawn out of a hat for the town’s post office application, replacing its original name, Onega.

In the 1940s, peanut crops began to replace cotton as a key part of Aubrey’s agricultural economy.

“When it came time to harvest the peanuts, the people of Aubrey and the surrounding communities traveled from field to field, working together,” according to a historical blog by Denton County History and Culture.

Aubrey’s peanut-drying mill still represents that heritage, and a new elementary school has even borrowed some of its architectural details as a nod to the city’s agricultural past. The Aubrey Peanut Festival in October, now in its 34th year, celebrates the continuing spirit of neighbors working together for the greater good. Appropriately, this year’s theme was “Love, Peace and Peanuts.”

“Our citizens, we’re all good country folk,” Kaiser says. “I grew up farming a lot of this area. ... I’ve seen it go from the two-lane farm-to-market country roads to what it is today.”

Starting in the 1980s, many peanut farms were sold to ranchers or horse facilities. “We are very conscientious that this has long been known as horse country, and we take great pride and want to preserve as much of that as possible,” Kaiser says.

Aubrey is home to racehorse breeders, horse trainers, therapy facilities, rodeo grounds and ranches that have been passed along for generations. A recent Texas Highways article dubs the area “a true equine mecca” and shares details of the hundreds of local horse facilities, including the 80-acre Tom McCutcheon Reining Horses ranch, which is part of a six-hour tourist bus tour of the “horse epicenter of the Lone Star State.”

Kaiser adds, “We want to find ways to support those operations and allow them to continue to grow and prosper and expand.”

Favorite places

“The Aubrey area is meeting the growth in a very thoughtful and supportive way,” says Ramsey, noting that the library first opened downtown in 1986 as a place for neighbors to gather.

Courtesy art/A.H. Robbins  

This drawing by A.H. Robbins shows the original library in Aubrey, which is now home to City Hall.

A new location opened in 2006, and today, the 14,000-square-foot library and community center holds daily events such as children’s book readings, yoga, senior citizens’ exercise classes, book clubs, therapy dog visits and even a Pokemon club. It is also, of course, popular with readers — with 200 new library cards issued in three months this summer.

“We are the library for everyone,” Ramsey says. “The nice thing is that, back in the ‘80s and then again in early 2000s, when they were planning this new library, nobody had an idea of city boundaries. The whole farming community came together to build a library, and they started the Aubrey Peanut Festival to support the library, with a pony auctioned off in one of the first festivals.”

The library ran the festival for 20 years then passed it to Keep Aubrey Beautiful.

Aubrey residents Matthew and Stephanie Joyce found the city five years ago when they moved from Missouri. Matthew appreciates the neighborly vibe of those they bump into at favorite restaurants such as World Famous Mom’s, Ernesto’s for Mexican flavor and Bebo’s and Kathy’s Café for barbecue and occasional live music.

“Complete strangers talk to you at dinner like family,” he says. “People will pull over and help you with a flat tire, and they’ll go out of their way to open doors for others.”

The Joyces and their two young kids are also big fans of Team Family Farms, an event venue that hosts fall activities such as a spooky trail, hay maze and pumpkin picking and offers year-round feed-the-animals field trips for the kids to help them keep in touch with rural farm culture.

If there weren’t enough reasons to love this endearing town, Meyers offers a reminder that Aubrey is about 15 minutes from a boat dock on either Ray Roberts Lake or Lewisville Lake.

“In the summer, it’s possible to come home from work, hook up the boat and spend time fishing or skiing before dark,” she says. “If you’d rather hike, ride horses or canoe, the Greenbelt is just six miles west. Aubrey is a great place to call home.”

Lost behind bars

Some died from suicide. Others had heart attacks or strokes. Families have disputed that jail health staff did enough to keep their loved ones alive. For the people who die while incarcerated, this record-keeping is about adding transparency to a segment of our community that is not well understood or thought about.

In close quarters, convicted and the accused live under the supervision and care of corrections officers and jail health staff. The Denton County Jail is required to investigate the circumstances of each person’s death while in custody. What do local and state authorities say happened in each of these cases?

The Denton Record-Chronicle used documents from the Denton County Sheriff’s Office and the Texas Attorney General’s Office to compile this database, which will continue to be updated.

We welcome your memories about each of these victims. If you spent time incarcerated with anybody here, got to know them, you are invited to write in to us. Even if you have a better photo than a jail mug shot to shot as we mark those who died in custody in the county’s jail, please send them in.

If you have additional information about any of these peoples’ deaths or information about other deaths inside the jail not listed, email the Record-Chronicle newsroom at drc@dentonrc.com or call 940-566-6860.

Amos Williams

The Denton County Sheriff’s Office said Williams was found hanging in a shower cell. The Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled his death a suicide. He was 40.

Williams was booked into the jail Aug. 8, 2002. He died Sept. 29, 2002.

Carl Scott

DSCO said Scott collapsed a day after he told authorities of having chest pain and cramps; he felt faint and could not breathe deeply. TCME said it had no record of Scott’s autopsy. A custodial death report from the sheriff’s office said Scott died from a gastric ulcer at a hospital. He was 56.

Scott was booked into the jail Jan. 24, 2000. He died Feb. 18, 2000.

Constantin Panduru

DSCO said Panduru was watching TV when he fell out of his chair and grabbed his throat. Authorities said jail medical staff tried to keep him alive with CPR. The medical examiner ruled he died at a hospital from cardiovascular issues and stroke. He was 47.

Panduru was booked into jail March 4, 1997. He died March 14, 1997.

Courtney Bourda

A deputy fired a bullet at Bourda’s head, killing him. The Denton County Sheriff’s Office said while on a trial break, Bourda tried to grab the deputy’s pistol. During a struggle, the deputy shot Bourda. He died instantly, at 23.

Bourda was booked into the jail June, 18, 2001. He was killed Nov. 6, 2001.

Duft Frizzelle

The sheriff’s office said Frizzelle died from a stroke. A medical examiner’s office spokeswoman said the agency does not have an autopsy on file for Frizzelle. He was 64.

DCSO’s custodial death report summary reads: “Date of custody is incorrect — date is unknown.” The report shows Oct. 27, 1985, as the day he died.

Grayson Johns

The sheriff’s office said Johns hanged himself with his shirt in a detox cell less than 10 hours after he was booked into the Denton County Jail, records show. He was 26.

Johns was booked into the jail Oct. 6, 1988. He died Oct. 7, 1988.

John Wright

DCSO said Wright fell while playing basketball with fellow inmates. Medical staff performed CPR and Wright was driven to a hospital by the fire department. He died of a heart attack, his custodial death report shows. He was 26.

Wright was booked into the jail July 30, 1989. He died Nov. 28, 1989.

Mark Matthys

DCSO listed few details on Matthys’ custodial death report. The only detail about the death found in the report is his manner of death, listed as hanging.

“Date of custody is unknown,” the report’s summary reads. He died Nov. 1, 1984, the sheriff’s office said.

Raul Sosa

DCSO said Sosa “became unresponsive” while in a shower. A TCME autopsy report said video footage from inside the jail does not clearly show Sosa having seizures, but ultimately authorities ruled Sosa died from seizure disorder. He was 30.

Sosa was booked into the jail Nov. 18, 1997. He died Nov. 20, 1997.

Todd Peters

DCSO said Peters escaped from the Denton County Jail. His custodial death report said an off-duty Trophy Club police officer found Peters a quarter-mile from the jail and pursued him. The sheriff’s office said Peters “resisted violently” and tried to grab an officer’s weapon. The officer shot Peters in the head. He was 23.

Peters was booked into the jail Jan. 11, 1993. He was killed Dec. 25, 1993.

Robert J. Redden

Redden was taken by wheelchair to an infirmary with complaints of chest pain, sweating and tingling arms, a DCSO custodial death report shows. He collapsed as staff monitored him with an EKG. Authorities drove him to a hospital, where he died from a blood clot, DCSO’s report shows.

Redden’s wife accused the jail of refusing to give him medical treatment. A sheriff’s investigator ruled that was not the case, the custodial death report indicates. TCME lists his cause of death as coronary artery thrombosis due to atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease. He was 50.

Redden was booked into the jail May 1, 2006. He died July 9, 2006.