On alert for COVID-19 outbreak, Travis County makes 'extraordinary effort' to thin out jail population
Betty Lewis was already nervous about the new coronavirus outbreak when she got a phone call from the Travis County jail in mid-March.
Her son, 53-year-old Bryan, was sitting in jail on a misdemeanor after being accused of threatening to beat up someone during an argument five months earlier.
Not an insurmountable situation under normal circumstances, but Lewis was terrified that her son was locked up while the contagious new coronavirus was virtually clawing at the jailhouse doors.
"People were already dying [around the world], so that was a great fear," she said. "All you know is that your family member is enclosed with this situation that we have, and that's not a good thing."
In late March, Bryan joined the growing numbers of Travis County inmates released from the jail thanks to efforts by judges and county officials to reduce the inmate population and slow spread of the disease through the jail system.
Those moves have resulted in nearly 600 inmates released since Feb. 25 in Travis County, said Kristen Dark, public information officer for the Travis County Sheriff's Office.
The jail system, composed of the Travis County Correctional Complex in Del Valle and the Travis County Jail downtown, has a capacity of 2,975, she said.
Some 26 inmates were in quarantine on Wednesday morning, many of whom are there because they refused to answer screening questions on intake, Dark said.
There were 63 newly booked inmates in single-cell isolation for 10-14 days as part of a new program begun this week to separate all new arrestees with or without symptoms to prevent new cases, she said.
There have been no confirmed COVID-19 cases in either jail, as of Wednesday morning, Dark said.
Dark said the decline in population is a result of the "extraordinary effort" by jail officials, attorneys, judges and police that includes:
- Isolating every new accused offender booked into the jails
- Daily health screenings of employees, police, vendors and inmates coming into the jails
- Virtual video courtrooms created to speed up the adjudication of some cases and avoid coronavirus-related delays
- Banning in-person visits
- Prioritizing the adjudication or bonds of cases in which inmates are still in jail
- Quarantining of inmates being watched for virus symptoms
- Lowered bonds for low-risk people accused of nonviolent crimes, both misdemeanors and low-level felonies
- Fewer arrests on the street for nonviolent crimes
- Automatic release with no bail (personal bonds) for newly arrested people who come through Central Booking on certain nonviolent crimes, instead of routing them to a jail cell to wait for trial
- Daily review of felony cases by the prosecutors to determine if any of them are a good fit for bond or plea deals.
"Everybody is doing their part to avoid having COVID-19 coming into our jail," Dark said.
Human rights is certainly part of the equation when making these moves, but even more than that is the concern that an epidemic inside the jail will translate into explosive numbers outside the jail, said Claire Carter, Bryan's attorney.
In addition to the inmates currently in the Travis County system, the jail has nearly 1,000 staffers.
"They're going home to families, or they might be going to the grocery store on the way home, filling up their cars with gas," Carter said. "All the things the public is being told to be careful of."
Bryan, whose last name is not being used over fears his housing situation could be compromised, was released after using a pilot video-court program—designed in response to the outbreak—that allowed him to enter his plea of no contest within days of his arrest, Carter said. He was sentenced to time served and allowed to go home.
In other cases, personal recognizance bonds are automatic for people arrested on nonviolent charges after Travis County judges ordered them in late March.
That order only affects people who are arrested into Central Booking, not those already moving through the legal system. The latter cases are still decided on an individual basis. People doing time for convictions are not included in early release programs.
An executive order by Gov. Greg Abbott on Sunday forbade the courts to release on personal bonds any accused offender—nonviolent or otherwise—who had been convicted in the past of a violent crime or the threat of violence.
The order, handed down in response to programs such those in Travis County, also included any inmate currently charged with similar crimes. It also stipulates that the order doesn't hinder any judge's ability to make individual decisions based on health or medical issues.
Some judges in Travis and other counties objected to the order, saying it hinders their ability to make case-by-case decisions, and vowed to continue to make those decisions regardless of Abbott's order.
Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore said in an interview Monday the order will change at least one thing: Travis County court officials will have to remove arrested people from the automatic personal bond program if there is any violence or threat of violence in their histories.
But otherwise, Moore, who said she spent hours on the phone Monday with judges and county officials discussing the order, said she doesn't anticipate the order will substantially change how Travis County is already handling accused offenders.
She also said that the jail population, at this point, is about as low as it can get, but that it's hard to say what will happen with the numbers going forward.
"We'll see how the judges step up and handle it, and if the jail dockets increase," she said. "Right now, it's too soon to tell."
Texas Longhorns linebacker Jake Ehlingers' death this spring was the result of an accidental drug overdose, according to a statement by the late student's family.
According to the statement, the 20-year-old University of Texas student and Westlake High grad overdosed on pills believed to be Xanax laced with Fentanyl, an often-deadly combo that has resulted in thousands of accidental fatalities nationwide.
Ehlinger was found dead off campus May 6 in a tragedy that shook the Austin and UT community, as well as Ehlinger's family, including his brother, former UT quarterback Sam Ehlinger, who now plays for the NFL's Indianapolis Colts.
An honorable mention All-State player and district defensive MVP while in high school, Ehlinger followed in his brother's footsteps and continued his football career as a walk-on at UT. He was also a sophomore in finance, a member of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity and a member of the Texas Silver Spurs, a student organization that cares for beloved mascot Bevo the Longhorn.
Counterfeit Xanax pills have caused an increasing number of fatalities in the area with 1,000 deaths related to synthetic opioids in the state in 2020. Drug dealers have begun stuffing fentanyl, an opiod that the DEA said can be up to 60 times more deadly than heroin, into pills resembling the prescription anti-anxiety medication and selling them to unwitting customers.
"The spread of counterfeit pills is an ongoing and significant issue throughout our country, particularly in schools, colleges and universities," the the Ehlinger family said in a statement. "As our family continues to process Jake's death, we felt it was important to share these details with the hope that Jake will not have died in vain. We pray that sharing Jake's story will help shed light on this problem and prevent other families from also tragically losing a loved one."
To combat the surge of deaths, Austin police now have access to a supply of Narcan, a drug that can combat the effects of an opiod overdose. Though it's not mandatory, APD officers can now check out supplies of the drug when responding to calls. The department had almost completed training on the drug by June, according to a KXAN report.
"You can talk to a number of families that have had family members die because of opioid overdoses and if this was an option to help their loved one or save their loved one, I'm sure that every single one of them would tell you that it was incredibly important that we now have this incredible tool in our tool belt," Assistant Chief Scott Perry said in the report.
Ehlinger is remembered by his brother, Sam, his mother Jena, his sister Morgen and the University of Texas community. Ehlinger's father, Ross, died of an apparent heart attack while swimming in a triathlon in 2013.
"(Jake) was his dad's little buddy, and they shared an unbreakable bond," Jake's obituary read. "His father's spirit was alive and well in every part of Jake's life. Tragic life circumstances created a unique opportunity for Sam and Jake to uplift and empower each other. They were each other's biggest fans. Their mother, Jena, as well as their sister, Morgen, were the loves of Jake's life. Everyone will miss his giant hugs, but no one more than Jena and Morgen."
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Eight of the world's best Brazilian jiu-jitsu athletes flew into Austin in September to be in the new hub for the sport. But after over a decade of fighting together, they'll no longer be under the same name.
The legendary Danaher Death Squad, which started in 2007 and was led by black belt John Danaher, made a highly-publicized split in late July while in Puerto Rico, with Danaher, legend Gordon Ryan and teammate Gary Tonon announcing the aptly-titled "New Wave Jiu Jitsu" as their new studio to open soon in Austin.
Missing from the new roster were former teammates Craig Jones, Ethan Crelinstein, Nick Rodriguez and even Ryan's younger brother, Nicky Ryan. The new crew announced that day that they would also be forming a new studio with the tongue-in-cheek title "B Team Jiu Jitsu."
Jiu jitsu greats Craig Jones (left) and Gordon Ryan have opened rival studios in Austin.
Both teams chose to move to Austin, a hotbed for the sport that the B Team's Seth Belisle said is becoming a "mecca for jiu-jitsu." With plenty of renowned studios, jiu-jitsu enthusiasts like Joe Rogan coming into town and the presence of Flo Grappling, the sport's premier media outlet, Belisle said there's now "more jiu-jitsu here than anywhere in the world."
While Belisle, an Austin native, handles the business side for the crew, the team's coaching is headed by Jones, a leopard-print wearing Aussie who has been known to sport assless chaps and places importance on the lighter side of things (the studio advertises that they train "Mexican ground karate," a name they created for jiu-jitsu).
Rumors abound about the famed fighters' breakup, including money issues in the Ryan family or a well-rehearsed PR stunt, but Jones told Austonia that the split of the Death Squad simply comes down to personal differences between the fighters.
"It wasn't an amicable breakup at all," Jones said. "What Gordan represents is quite controversial... I would say there would be no line he wouldn't cross to promote a grappling match. So in that sense, we're sort of focused on a different, more positive sort of vibe."
B Team and New Wave alike are opening at a critical time for jiu-jitsu, as the sport slowly becomes a household name. Now, top fighters can make a living from their sport while still maintaining a much lower profile than MMA fighters or boxers.
That name recognition and B Team's positive attitude drew in droves of new trainees, with many opting to move to Austin solely to train at B Team.
"Jiu-jitsu is a relatively new sport," Belisle said. "If you love basketball, it's impossible for you to say, 'I'm going to go play with LeBron James and learn from him this weekend... in jiu-jitsu, that's possible. You have access to the stars of the sport because it hasn't really blown up yet. It's something special."
After an open house that saw over 150 athletes show up, the team realized they needed to become more exclusive. Now, the studio trains only the "Olympians" of the sport, something that sets them apart from other local studios. They also frequently bring in celebrities of the sport for training sessions, including famed female fighter Ffion Eira Davies.
"We're obviously a new gym, but we're probably some of the best guys in the world," Jones said.
Meanwhile, New Wave is training at the famed Renzo Gracie Studio, Danaher's former trainer, as they wait for a new studio.
Will the world's two best teams soon have showdowns in the Texas capital?
While it's unclear whether or not things will get personal (no brother vs. brother matchup is on the horizon), trainees under each studio went head-to-head for the first time Wednesday as New Wave's Gordon Ryan announced his first match out of semi-retirement. Ryan, often lauded as the best grappler in the world, forced UFC fighter Phillip Rowe to submit four times in the 15-minute friendly exhibition match at Austin's Palmer Events Center.
But Rowe, who was first a jiu-jitsu athlete before switching to UFC, said he didn't know about the beef and was just looking to train under his favorite athletes, Jones and Rodriguez.
He competed for a few reasons—including a break from UFC and a chance to give BJJ a bigger name—but he mostly came into town for the fun of it. Ryan and Rowe talked often prior to the meet, with Rowe gifting Ryan a Bumpboxx, or decorated boombox, in honor of Ryans' father. The respect was mutual—Ryan shouted out Rowe after the match for coming out with a broken hand and the death of some loved ones a week prior.
The match was the first indirect competition between the two gyms. Jones said they won't be training with the goal of fighting any of their former New Wave compadres.
"I don't know what's going to happen ultimately," Jones said. "Because obviously, we're not friendly as it is right now, but I mean. I wouldn't go so far as to train someone that was going to compete against them directly."
But with B Team fighters like Nick Rodriguez expressing their interest in fighting in the future and both gyms training for the WNO Championships in 2022, it's almost inevitable that the former teammates will find themselves on either side of the mat sooner or later.
"'I'd be lying if I said that every day since I started jiu-jitsu my goal is to beat Gordon. I'd be lying if I was saying that isn't true," Rodriguez told the Jason Chambers podcast. "My goal is to be the best grappler in the world and nothing less. That's an old teammate that I have to go through to knock him out and get to the top, then that's fine with me."
Atop one of Austin's signature rolling hilltops, 1501 Ridgecrest Drive is similar to one of the plush palaces that one might find in Calabasas. For $10.9 million, the home has four bedrooms, four-and-a-half bathrooms and caps at 10,498 square feet.
Park in the massive, fully air-conditioned garage before walking in, where you'll have eight full spaces to park your collection of cars. If you're not a collector, the garage makes an excellent studio space.
The wide-open living spaces will draw your eyes to the two-story ceilings, glass catwalk, integrated fireplace and wall of floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the pool.
Though the house was built in 2011, it doesn't show its age. Sleek, clean lines lead seamlessly from the formal living area to an elite open-plan kitchen. Separated by a 25-foot waterfall island that can seat at least eight people, the kitchen is fitted with only the finest Miele and Subzero appliances. The custom cabinets are just as pricey as the rest of the place, finished with custom high-gloss Aston Martin (you read that right) paint.
Upstairs in the sprawling master's suite, there are enough amenities to never have to set foot outside again. Armani tile floors, space for living and a walk-in showcase closet lead into the resort-style bathroom, where you'll find dual vanities, a walk-in shower and a lounging bathtub.
The bedroom is a quick elevator trip away from the "party" room, complete with a bar, wine room and movie theater, only the best for entertaining. If your guests are staying over, rest assured they'll be comfortable with the kitchenette, washer and dryer and spa-like bath in their suite.
Though summer has passed, you can still enjoy the grand lap pool's unobstructed Hill Country views, many private lounging areas, grill a homemade snack at the outdoor kitchen or shoot some hoops at the newly-added court.
The listing is held by Compass' Gary Dolch.
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