The past year brought ice, snow, a massive fire and more COVID cases to the Killeen area.
In many ways 2021 — like 2020 — was a rough year for many local residents. The pandemic lingered on, and a winter storm in February left many Texans, including thousands of Killeen residents, cold and without power for days.
Here is a look back at the top local stories the Herald covered in 2021:
Thousands of residents lost power or water — or both — in February when a historic winter storm blanketed the area with snow and then sheets of thick ice.
It began in the overnight hours of Feb. 14-15 when the Electric Reliability Council of Texas ordered that energy providers, such as Oncor, begin rolling blackouts. Initially, the blackouts were intended to be intermittent and last for short amounts of time.
Very quickly, however, the rolling blackouts became prolonged blackouts as ERCOT officials said the state flirted with a complete grid failure.
As a result, thousands of people hunkered down, trying to stay warm. Though no deaths were reported in the area, the state did report a significant amount of deaths as a result of the storm.
Due to loss of power at one of the water treatment facilities, other areas did not receive the same water pressure they are used to getting, causing loss of water for some residents.
The ice storm also caused significant damage to many local school district buildings in Killeen and Copperas Cove.
The lives of hundreds of people trying to escape the wrath of the historic winter storm were disrupted when a hotel where they were seeking refuge burst into flames.
During the height of February’s disastrous winter storm, on the evening of Feb. 19, the Hilton Garden Inn, 2704 O. W. Curry Drive in Killeen, erupted into flames. The effort to douse the flames was complicated by a lack of water pressure from the winter storm power outage.
Firefighters from seven agencies battled the fully engulfed building for hours before containing the fire in the early hours of Feb. 20. None of the occupants of the hotel’s 102 rooms were seriously injured in the blaze. However, Chico the chihuahua, a local family pet, was never recovered from the building.
According to the Killeen Fire Department’s report, it was determined the fire started in the attic but the cause of the fully occupied hotel fire was never concluded. Hotel owner Viu Le was seen in the attic hours before the fire started allegedly repairing a step on a ladder, according to the fire report.
In October, the city of Killeen issued a city-wide boil-water notice, effectively disrupting the way of life for many residents.
That day, the city of Killeen announced the notice after quarterly testing found six testing sites to be well under state-accepted chlorine residual levels.
The city of Killeen lifted its historic, 10-day-long, citywide boil-water notice after water samples cleared state inspection on Oct. 29, but how the city ended up in hot water in the first place is still a mystery.
City leaders — while stopping short of requesting an outside organization to do an in-depth investigation of exactly what happened with Killeen’s drinking water and how — have promised to do an “after-action plan” into the issue, which will be done by city staff.
Gauging the impact of a city of 150,000 people under a citywide boil-water order could be an in-depth study on its own, but for many in Killeen, the impact was felt immediately as residents were forced to change their daily habits, from making a cup of coffee to filling up the dog’s water bowl.
In addition to sending residents scrambling to buy up countless cases of bottled water at H-E-B and Walmart, and ushering in a temporary chlorine formula that had the drinking water smelling like bleach from Belton to Copperas Cove, the boil-water order shut down some businesses and affected hundreds of others, particularly restaurants and coffee shops.
The first case of the new omicron variant of the coronavirus was detected in Bell County on Dec. 17. Local health officials are expecting case counts to rise over the next few weeks.
A total of nearly 600 Bell County residents died of the coronavirus in 2021 as the pandemic continued to wreak havoc on everyday life.
According to data on Jan. 1, 2021, Bell County had reported 165 deaths. As of Wednesday, that total was 752.
Cases spiked toward the end of 2020 and into 2021, with the highest daily total of active cases being 730 on Jan. 5.
Later, around July and August, the delta variant began to spread through the Central Texas area, providing another spike and causing Bell County Judge David Blackburn to warn of a “backslide.”
The coronavirus vaccine began slowly becoming distributed early in the year, eventually having more widespread availability.
According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, a total of around 42.5% of individuals 5 and older are fully vaccinated. Among the population of residents 65 and older, however, the numbers are much higher with almost 75% of those being fully vaccinated.
Killeen Mall shooting
During the peak of the Christmas shopping season, shots rang out and sent people running or sheltering in place at the Killeen Mall. Police are still investigating the shooting that injured one man. As of last week, police had not announced an arrest in the case.
The suspect, police said, is described as a 6-foot tall, medium build, white male last seen wearing a white beanie, a white mask, white gloves, and dark colored clothing.
The shooting happened at 7:17 p.m. on Dec. 7 inside the Finish Line store, a sports shoe and apparel retailer. Police said security footage indicates that an unidentified male walked into the store and shot several several times at a person at the store. Those who came to aid the male said he was an employee of the store, other news outlets reported.
In surveillance video footage from neighboring Pro Image Sports taken on Dec. 7, 10 gunshots can be heard as shoppers and employees take cover in the back of the store.
Finish Line reopened around a week after the shooting.
On April 27, the Killeen City Council voted to ban the Killeen Police Department’s use of no-knock entries for warrants.
The council voted 6-1 to ban them, with then-Councilman Steve Harris, who said the item should go to the voters, providing the only dissenting vote.
The purpose of police no-knock raids had been to catch a criminal when they least expect it.
The practice had come under scrutiny after two people have died in Killeen raids.
Marvin Guy, 56, is in Bell County Jail, accused of fatally shooting KPD Detective Charles “Chuck” Dinwiddie during a pre-dawn no-knock narcotics raid on Guy’s west Killeen residence. Dinwiddie and three other officers were shot on May 9, 2014, and Dinwiddie died in a hospital two days later.
Nearly five years after the police raid on Guy’s residence, 40-year-old James Scott Reed, was killed by a single bullet during a no-knock narcotics raid at his home on Feb. 27, 2019. The family has alleged that at least 22 rounds were fired by KPD SWAT team members during the raid and that while Reed was armed, he did not fire his handgun.
The Killeen City Council had multiple discussions about the practice before making the vote.
A Killeen police officer did not face criminal charges after fatally shooting and unarmed man.
On Jan. 10, KPD Officer Reynaldo Contreras responded to a 911 call for 52-year-old Patrick Lynn Warren Sr. The caller told dispatchers that he was having a prolonged mental health episode and, earlier that day, had become aggressive, according to the Texas Rangers’ investigation report.
She requested the same mental health deputy who had responded the previous day, but the call was forwarded to KPD because no mental health deputies were on duty at the time.
Within minutes of arriving on scene and entering the house, Contreras had cleared one of the radio channels and requested backup officers. He testified that during the situation, he feared for his life.
Read more about this story and details from Texas Department of Public Safety and Contreras at https://bit.ly/3FfRvsU.
Killeen has been fighting an uphill climb with getting its roads fixed.
The straw that appeared to break the camel’s back was the double-whammy of both the COVID-19 pandemic and Winter Storm Uri, which resulted in a repeated freezing and thawing of Killeen’s roads, allowing water to seep into the asphalt and expand outward multiple times.
This process ravaged many of Killeen’s streets, resulting in as much as $40 million in repairs, according to City Manager Kent Cagle, on top of $120 million in reconstruction efforts that Cagle had already said would need to be addressed before the winter storms added to the burden.
The city of Killeen has 539 centerline miles (2,191 lane miles) of paved roadways with a total replacement value of $840.4 million, according to the 2017 Transmap survey, and the total cost of replacement, $160 million, equates to approximately 20% of the city’s roadways.
Killeen Mayor Jose Segarra has said multiple times that the current state of Killeen’s roads is a direct result of previous City Councils “kicking the can down the road.”
Vanessa Guillen findings
Army leaders confirmed earlier this year that slain Spc. Vanessa Guillen was sexually harassed by a supervisor in her unit, the 3rd Cavalry Regiment at Fort Hood.
A lengthy investigation directed by Gen. Michael X. Garrett, commander of U.S. Army Forces Command, revealed that Guillen was harassed by a supervisor in a unit orderly room and in the field during training in 2019, about nine or 10 months before her disappearance.
Investigators, however, did not find a connection between the sexual harassment and her subsequent disappearance and death.
Guillen was brutally murdered in April 2020, and her remains were not found until late June and positively identified in early July.
Low homicide Case clearance
With only a few days left before the new year, it appears that the city of Killeen will finish with fewer homicides than it did a year ago.
So far, as of Saturday, there have been 18 criminal homicides in Killeen, compared to 26 criminal homicides in 2020 (there were 31 total, with five being deemed justified). In 2019, the city had 16 criminal homicides. In 2018, there were seven, and in 2017, there were 18.
The Killeen Police Department could also end the year with a lower clearance rate on its criminal homicides this year than the past few years.
A clearance rate includes cases the department passes off to the district attorney for prosecution, or are cleared by “extraordinary means,” such as the death of the primary suspect, according to the FBI.
This year, of the 18 criminal homicides, police have made an arrest in four of them, as of Wednesday. With two apparent homicide-suicide cases, that would bring the total to six clearances, or around 33.3%.
Read more about this story — published when there were 17 homicides — at https://bit.ly/30C4ExE.
Austin shooter arrested in Killeen
Federal and local law enforcement agencies arrested the Killeen teen wanted in connection with the deadly June 12 Austin Sixth-Street shooting.
De’Ondre “Dre” Jermirris White, 19, was arrested and taken to the Killeen City Jail on June 24.
Authorities have said the shooting on Austin’s Sixth Street arose following an argument between two groups of Killeen teenagers. Douglas John Kantor, 25, a tourist from New York, was killed by gunfire and 14 others were wounded.
Austin Interim Police Chief Joseph Chacon said in June that investigators identified White as the shooter and a warrant for murder had been issued for his arrest.
Central Texas cities face new state and national representation after the Texas Legislature tackled redistricting in a special session.
After being singled out in various statewide media outlets for its doughnut shape, the proposed state House map for Bell County passed and was signed by Gov. Greg Abbott.
District 55, which is represented by Rep. Hugh Shine, R-Temple, will encompass part of Killeen and all of Harker Heights, Nolanville, Belton and Temple.
District 54, which is represented by Rep. Brad Buckley, R-Salado, will encompass part of Killeen and all of the rest of Bell County, including Bell County’s portion of Fort Hood.
Deputy superintendent resigns
A former Killeen ISD deputy superintendent resigned under pressure after the district discovered he allegedly falsified his doctoral transcript, according to documents obtained by the Herald.
Documents responsive to a Herald state open records request show former Deputy Superintendent Eric Penrod resigned after the district allegedly uncovered he falsified his doctoral transcript during an internal review of the KISD Human Resources department.
Penrod worked for KISD from 2019 to 2021, during which time he “provided support for operations throughout the district in his role to include Business Services, Human Resources, School Safety, Student Services, Athletics, and Facilities Services,” according to a July 1 KISD news release about his resignation. Prior to KISD, Penrod was the superintendent of Gatesville ISD.
Killeen ARPA money
Not long after receiving $29.1 million in federal funding through the American Rescue Plan Act in March, the city of Killeen allocated a majority of it.
The American Rescue Plan Act is a national debt-relief fund passed by Congress in March. In total, Killeen received more than $29 million in funds for use on anything COVID-19 related which includes rent relief, salary relief including overtime and community development.
Some of the funding allocations include around $2.5 million to the Killeen-Fort Hood Regional Airport, around $750,000 to the Boys and Girls Club and $1.1 million to the Hill Country Transit District.
To read more about this and how the city allocated the funds, go to https://bit.ly/3p6zFmG.
Killeen ADA improvements
Earlier this year, the Department of Justice found more than 440 Americans with Disabilities Act violations throughout the city of Killeen’s buildings, parks and operations, according to an analysis of a recently signed federal agreement with the city which thousands of disabled veterans call home.
The DOJ agreement with Killeen, signed June 29, provides three- to 36-month timelines in which the city must make about 444 necessary improvements to better the lives of people with disabilities living in Killeen. Read the full agreement here: https://bit.ly/3r3YX4b.
The Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, is a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in several areas, including employment, transportation, public accommodations, communications and access to state and local government programs and services.
Vet cemetery deputy director resigns
The deputy director of the Texas State Veterans Cemeteries is resigning after the Texas General Land Office’s chief investment officer called the veteran cemeteries “money losing programs.”
Eric Brown, a retired Air Force master sergeant, has been running the state’s four veteran cemeteries since 2013. He announced his resignation Nov. 10, and his last day in office was Nov. 30.
The statement by CIO Rusty Martin, who is not a veteran, was the final show of disrespect in what has been an ongoing struggle for funding from the Texas GLO’s finance office, Brown said.
Not long after the Herald reported this story, Martin was relieved of his job.
KISD mass exodus
A total of 1,061 employees — 39% of whom were teachers — left the Killeen Independent School District between March 2020 and February 2021. March 2020 was the month Gov. Greg Abbott temporarily forced the closure of all Texas school districts.
A November survey by Horace Mann Educators Corporation, a financial services company, found 27% of K-12 educators are considering leaving the profession or taking a leave of absence due to the threat of COVID-19. Read the full report here: https://bit.ly/3jNOnuo.
Killeen Educators Association president Rick Beaulé and Texas State Teachers Association (TSTA) spokesman Clay Robison say more resignations will come if Abbott continues to fail to prioritize the health and safety of education professionals.
Of the 1,061 KISD employees who separated from the district during this time period, according to the data, 332 were teacher resignations, and 82 were teacher retirements.
United Airlines leaving
Amidst a year of recovering ridership, the Killeen-Fort Hood Regional Airport was dealt a stinging blow by United Airlines, which has made the decision to “suspend services” to Killeen, as well as seven other regional airports, by Jan. 4.
The move comes just four years after Delta Airlines pulled out of Killeen.
According to a news release, the airline cited pandemic-related shortages, including limited regional aircraft availability, as well as limited pilots and crews nationwide, as the reasons for the suspension.
United Airlines currently provides approximately 100 seats per day to Killeen, with three daily flights to Houston. Ticket prices were also competitive, with round trips often dropping as low as $127.
According to city officials, the Killeen-Fort Hood Regional Airport and United Airlines have had a 20-year partnership, during which time the two have worked to develop the airport and increase passenger counts.
The decision for United Airlines to leave some small airports drew the ire of Texas Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz and Congressmen Pete Sessions, John Carter and Roger Williams.
Bus driver shortage
Several bus drivers in the Killeen Independent School District came forward in March to discuss overcrowding and a then-growing bus driver shortage.
Local school bus drivers alleged at the time that KISD forced bus drivers to drive overcrowded buses — some squeezing three students to a seat during a pandemic — as the district grapples with a 100-plus driver shortage.
Employees say the district’s lack of competitive pay, overcrowded working conditions, and general disrespect for transportation workers has led to the shortage of drivers.
New bank opens
After months of effort, the new First National Bank Texas corporate headquarters, located at 901 East Central Texas Expressway, is open for business. It is still in the process of moving out of its old headquarters in downtown Killeen.
Beginning with a soft opening in November, the bank received customers that scurried silently across the bank’s tiled surface. Included at the new location is a wood replica cutout of the bank’s first location, as well as a similar cutout of the bank’s downtown location, located at 507 N. Gray Street, which is closing down.
A gleaming structure that stands starkly against the minimalist ‘80s architectural design that makes up much of Killeen’s skyline, the new location takes up five stories and 47,653 square feet.
While the first floor is dedicated to full banking services, the additional four floors will be reserved for executive office space.
In total, the project has taken $15 million in investments, including furnishing and installation of a generator, bank officials said.
Hydrilla menacing area lake
An invasive, underwater weed is overtaking Stillhouse Hollow Lake and troubling area fishermen with no tangible solution in sight.
Bob Maindelle, owner of Holding the Line Guide Service, said the weed called hydrilla, regarded as one of the most invasive plants in the world, has “hit an all-time high” at Stillhouse Hollow Lake.
Hydrilla, according to the Texas Invasive Species Institute, was originally sold and imported as an aquarium plant in the 1950s. Since then, it’s spread to almost every state in the country.
The plant is identified by its small, bright green, pointed leaves with serrated edges arranged in whorls of three to eight with stems capable of growing up to 30 feet long.
If left unchecked, hydrilla can harm water quality, providing a safe-haven for blue green algae to thrive. Blue green algae was linked to the sudden deaths of multiple dogs at Belton Lake this summer. The fluorescent toxic algae was seen growing at the edge of a hydrilla patch near the bank of Cedar Gap Park on Stillhouse Hollow Lake Wednesday.
Students and professors say little warning was given prior to the closure of a for-profit college in Killeen and other cities in October.
According to students of the Killeen campus, an email was sent out at 3:58 p.m. on Oct. 8 informing students that Vista College’s Killeen campus closed due to financial circumstances.
The college, with locations in Texas, Arkansas and New Mexico, specializes in healthcare, business, and technology trade certificates and associate degrees, according to the website. The for-profit college also has Texas campuses in Beaumont, Longview, College Station, El Paso which were all closed as of Oct. 8.
The University of Mary Hardin-Baylor football team won the Division III national championship. The Crusaders beat North Central of Illinois in the Stagg Bowl in Canton, Ohio, on Dec. 17 by a score of 57-24.
The win is the second national title for the Crusaders, who previously won the Stagg Bowl in 2018.
With the win, UMHB finished its season with an unblemished 15-0 record.