Three headstones found this week on adjoining properties on West Hickory Street and North State Boulevard brought a halt to development of an apartment building due to concerns bodies may have been buried there.
“The stones were just sitting there,” said Brad Abell, an employee of Circle M Metals, a Dallas company that specializes in demolitions. “I’m religious, so I was not going to disturb a gravesite.”
For several days, Circle M Metals had been razing three houses built in the mid-20th century at that corner near the University of North Texas when it was nearing the end of its work. Abell said he found a headstone on Monday at the edge of the property line next to another home and another on the fence line separating that property and the three others that had been demolished.
That is when he called off the work and contacted the developer — Golden Star Rock Investments of Frisco — and the Denton Police Department.
“I found a homeless man in the back room of the second house on the property,” Abell said. “He threatened me with a pipe and invoked his Fourth Amendment rights. I called the police.”
Denton officials said the land is being cleared for the construction of a 27-unit, three-story apartment building for student housing.
Randy Hunt, president of Historic Denton, said the demolished homes at 2024 (A.J. Robinson), 2026 (Claud McDaniel) and 2030 (J. Harold and Shirley Farmer) W. Hickory St., were built in 1946 and 1948. They were part of a historical survey the Texas Historical Commission qualified as a National Register District, Hunt said.
Two of the headstones found were for Shelby Howard Williams (1882-1931) and Lora Elisabeth Lindsey Whitwell (1864-1911). Hunt said Whitwell was buried at Midline Cemetery in Trophy Club. Williams was buried at Oakwood Cemetery. But the original headstones had typos engraved, and Hunt believes that after new headstones were created, relatives or others removed the old ones.
“But even without bodies here, those headstones definitely belong to someone,” Abell said.
Denton City Council District 3 member Jesse Davis visited the site on Tuesday. He said he suspected no bodies had been buried on the property.
“I find it kind of unlikely that graves would have been built around there without some record being kept,” he said. “These things do happen. I have seen where people have used gravestones in their landscaping.”
Denton officials said local ordinances do not address the discovery of possible burial sites by developers. Instead, such discoveries are generally regulated at the state level.
The Denton County administrative judge doesn’t expect county courts to conduct jury trials before March 2021, a full year since the Supreme Court of Texas initially halted jury trials because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Denton County judiciary expanded in-person nonessential hearings in June, and the state’s highest court has continued to renew guidance advising courts to not hold jury trials. The Justice of the Peace Courts started rehearing eviction cases in late May, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention moratorium on evictions is scheduled to expire on New Year’s Eve unless extended by legislation on President Donald Trump’s desk.
Despite challenges, cases are moving forward through dispositions outside of jury trials, especially in the civil court’s realm, but the cases that do require jury trials have been left in limbo since March as more cases continue to be filed.
“It’s extremely frustrating,” said Tim Powers, a Denton County criminal defense attorney. “I think [the administrative judge] and Denton County elected officials have done a very good job, but it’s frustrating and understandably so. This isn’t anyone’s fault. Lots of people are wanting closure, and we’re not able to get it. It’s just like they say: Justice delayed is justice denied.”
Administrative Judge Brody Shanklin said the county’s been fortunate to have hearings through video, but they still leave something to be desired.
“You miss being able to view the person and have a better judge of the person,” Shanklin said.
For cases that haven’t gone through the courts with a plea bargain or dismissal, jury trials are the way to go, but Shanklin said he’s doubtful there will be any in February.
“We do not have any jury trials that have been requested, which basically means no trials in the month of January,” Shanklin said. “It’ll have to be decided fairly quickly within January if there will be any in February. Although I cannot rule it out, I say it’s doubtful unless the [COVID-19] numbers take a sharp decline and we get approval from [Denton County Public Health].”
Eviction cases have continued to be filed, heard and disposed since Denton County restarted hearings in May.
Relief has come to some Denton County residents through federal CARES Act funding and rental assistance, and those who meet the requirements for the CDC moratorium were able to avoid evictions. But not everyone has been so fortunate.
“Back in May, the Supreme Court [of Texas] opened it back up to where the justice courts could start hearing eviction cases,” said James DePiazza, justice of the peace for Precinct 2. “All the cases right now that the justice of the peace courts are doing are through Zoom. We’ve had very limited in-person hearings.”
For example, Denton County court records show Joe Holland, justice of the peace for Precinct 1, has 17 eviction cases scheduled for the last three days of the year. The cases include hearings, trials and dismissal dockets.
Felony trials, such as local trials for a 2019 hit-and-run attack and the 2019 New Year’s Eve slaying, are scheduled out a year in advance. Court records show as of Wednesday, the hit-and-run trial won’t take place until at least summer 2021 and two of the four men accused of killing Steven Daniels on Dec. 31, 2019, haven’t yet had announcement hearings.
“I have trials right now that have been waiting for two years because of the regular docket system and now they may wait almost four years,” Powers said. “People’s memories fade, people aren’t around [for jury trials] for numerous reasons.”
Powers said his firm has about double the normal caseload at the moment but said he’s fortunate to have five good attorneys.
“The situation is cases we have are just waiting for dispositions,” Powers said. “We just need to [hash] it [out] in the court and … in the necessary hearings.”
Unlike Shanklin, Powers said he doesn’t expect jury trials to happen until July 2021.
But through the first quarter of 2021, Shanklin said he doesn’t expect things to change.
“We won’t have significant changes until we have guidance from the [state] Supreme Court and the Office of Court Administration, dictated not only by the local health authority but probably statewide as well, for the number of hospitalizations and cases down,” Shanklin said. “As far as having large groups together, it’s not conducive to [public health] right now.”
There are 250 dogs on Scott Arnold’s U.S. Postal Service route, and every year, he gives each one a personalized Christmas stocking that has their name, dog treats and a note from Santa.
But for the first time in 25 years, Arnold thought he might skip it this year. He knew that the families in the 22101 ZIP code area of McLean, Virginia, would have understood. Arnold, 66, lost his adult son, Jason, in May of unknown causes, just days before his 37th birthday.
Arnold said that an outpouring of love and support from hundreds of his longtime customers helped fuel him through a difficult year. But he wondered whether he had the energy to make and deliver hundreds of stockings.
“It’s been an exhausting year and the holidays are especially difficult,” said Arnold, who has delivered mail for 38 years.
Then Arnold thought about how much his son had loved dogs, and he knew he had to continue the tradition he calls “Santa Paws.”
“I decided that doing the socks this year would be a good distraction from the sadness and would be a nice way to honor Jason and Cash,” said Arnold, explaining that his daughter’s black Lab Cash had died recently of cancer.
“The socks have meant a lot to people over the years,” he added.
So in November, Arnold bought more than 250 miniature Christmas stockings that were decorated with Santas and snowmen. He pulled out his red and green fabric paint, and sat down at his table to personalize each one carefully. “Rocky,” “Finnegan,” “Tesla,” he began, until he had written one for each pooch he has come to know and love in McLean, a Washington suburb.
This charming, yet time-consuming, tradition started in the late 1990s when he realized he’d been asking each dog on his route, “What are you going to get for Christmas?”
“That first year, I gave socks to 40 dogs, and it really caught fire,” Arnold said. “Now I have 250-plus. I know all of their names and they know mine, too. I think they know me better than their owners, sometimes.”
As he does every year, Arnold stuffed each stocking with dog treats, then added a few extras: photos of his dog, Milo, and his grandsons — Jackson, 8, and Luke, 6 — and a special Christmas newsletter.
“Another Pawliday season is upon us, though this one is quite different than any other,” Arnold wrote. “We will begin, as always, welcoming the new members of our ever-growing pack.”
After listing all of the new dogs in the neighborhood (Teddy, Daisy, Biscuit, Lula, etc.), he mentioned those that had moved away (Molly, Rosie, Zeus, Monte), then paid tribute to all of the dogs that had crossed the “Rainbow Bridge.”
“A really rough year,” Arnold wrote after listing 18 names, including those of Luna, Max, Bubba and Saint. “Let’s offer a moment of bark-free silence in their memory.”
On the other side of the letter, he thanked the people on his route for their support and kindness during the worst year he could remember.
“The outpouring of caring and compassion from all was incredible and appreciated,” Arnold wrote. “It helped so much, and continues to help.”
When he began delivering the socks about two weeks ago, Arnold said, he discovered it was good therapy.
“I’m so glad that I didn’t deprive the families and their dogs,” he said. “They look forward to the socks every year. We’re all feeling overwhelmed because of the pandemic and this was something positive I could do.”
The customers on his route are grateful to have a canine-loving carrier deliver their packages at Christmastime and year-round.
“Scott is one of a kind,” said Ofelia Fernandez, 71. “If he has to deliver a package by your front door, he leaves a dog Milk-Bone on top of it.”
Michele Peterson, 62, said she never knew her mail carrier before she moved to Arnold’s delivery route.
“Scott immediately introduced himself to me and wanted to know our dogs’ names,” she said. “For all of my dogs over the years, he’s been their favorite person. If we’re out walking on the street, he’ll throw them some bones.”
Rahul Ravi said he was touched by the note Arnold left in the stockings this year along with treats for his dogs, Loki and Finnegan.
“It was a letter so poignant, it made my wife cry,” he said. Ravi was stunned that Arnold took the time to carry on his “Santa Paws” tradition after the death of his son.
“He decided to [make the stockings] anyway, because he remembered how much his son loved dogs,” he said. “He wanted to carry on bringing hope to families even in this horrible year.”
Once he finishes delivering the crush of last-minute Christmas parcels, Arnold said, he will relax on Christmas Day.
A time is approaching, he said, when he will consider retirement.
“As I get older, I hate the cold and working in the snow,” he said. “Will this year be the last? I don’t know. It’s a tough call. The people on my route are like family. And I guess it goes without saying — so are the dogs.”