South of the Border

 

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Shorter University alum Jason Owens is chief of the Laredo Sector for the Border Patrol

A trip to Texas that began as a search for missing horses ended with a new perspective of why there’s no simple way to secure a large section of our southern border.

No. Simple. Way. At least not in the Lone Star State.

Make no mistake, the Border Patrol would love all the help it could get. Jason Owens made that clear to me.

“We have 170 miles of border with Mexico in the Laredo Sector alone,” explained the Rome, GA native, 43, who heads that sector for the Border Patrol. “Right now, we have zero border wall.”

And after hanging out with Jason and his fellow border agents, I can understand their frustration.

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Some of the 123 agents who died in the line of duty since 1904, more than any other federal agency

This was my first trip to the Southern Border. As a first-generation American whose parents are Canadian-born, I’ve had plenty of experience crossing the Northern Border to see relatives. But no one in Washington is talking about building a wall up there (although it might be worth it if the wall was tall enough to stop that dreaded Arctic Jet Stream from crossing over uninvited.)

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No, all wall talk points south. Four of our states make up that 2000-mile border. The biggest, with 1254 miles, is Texas. And it’s their unique section of the Mexican border that makes a wall so much more troublesome there.

You can’t build a wall down the middle of the Rio Grande.

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The Rio Grande in Eagle Pass, TX

On the day we spent with Owens and the Border Patrol in Laredo, the river was high and moving fast. But agents say a smuggler in a boat can still get people across in a matter of seconds, hand them off to someone waiting in the trees on the Texas side and hustle them to a safe house nearby. From there, an immigrant here illegally can easily blend into the community while waiting for a ride north. In the two border cities we visited, portions of the American side looked no different than their sister city on the Mexican side, even down to the Spanish language-only signs above the shops and restaurants.

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Laredo, TX

There’s no way to accurately track how many people illegally cross. There are no turnstiles for them or tickets collected. The government figures if more people are getting caught, more people are probably getting through. Makes no sense and perfect sense at the same time.

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Border Patrol agents discovered 59 illegal immigrants hiding in a tractor-trailer at a checkpoints miles away from the border

In 2000, as many as 1.6 million were caught on the Southwest border, which also includes California, Arizona and New Mexico. In Barack Obama’s last year in office, the number was 408,870. Last year, the number dropped to 303,916, but it’s starting to rise again. So President Trump is demanding Congress give him money to build a wall he promised during the campaign would be paid by Mexico. It’s clear Mexico won’t be doing that, at least not anytime soon. So that means any new wall will depend on the American taxpayer. And some unlucky American landowners.

Our hunt for horses originally took us to Eagle Pass, TX, a town of 50,000 that also borders the Rio Grande. It’s the first city in the United States to sue the federal government to stop the construction of a wall. Actually, better call it a fence. Fourteen-feet high. About two miles long. The city finally caved in 2010 and the $11 million dollar black metal structure is now supposed to serve as a deterrent for anyone crossing the river in that section.

So is it working?

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The Eagle Pass mayor told me even eight years later, he still can’t stand to look at it because of the money he says was wasted, and because of what it did to two jewels of his city.

Since the Rio Grande periodically floods, the Eagle Pass fence had to be built several hundred yards inland. That meant cutting off the city’s popular golf course and Shelby Park, a huge complex for soccer. Those places — and the entire river — are now on the wrong side of the barrier in Eagle Pass. The city maintains several gates in the fence which typically stay open around the clock. Golfers can get to the course that way, but having wide open gates sort of defeats the whole purpose of a barrier, doesn’t it?

It’s a lesson for what the rest of Texas faces should a wall ever be built along the entire border. Much of it is privately-owned land which the government will have to buy — or seize — to have a suitable place to start construction. And again, some of that land — and the entire river — will be on the wrong side.

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Retired US Customs officer David Stoller thinks walls won’t work in Texas

“You’d be giving it to Mexico saying okay, the river’s yours,” complained David Stoller, 60, as he drove me in his golf cart. David worked with U.S. Customs before retiring in Eagle Pass. He thinks a wall would work in the other states with no river border, but in his town David firmly believes their mini wall is a major waste of $11 million.

Bobby Martinez isn’t so sure. He runs the golf course and remembers the days before the fence when entire families of Mexicans would wander across the greens heading to a safe house somewhere in Eagle Pass. Now, he told me the biggest trouble he’s having are Mexican teenagers who cross the Rio Grande, grab one of his golf flags and scamper back over to laugh and claim victory.

Pranks. He says he can handle those.

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The $11 million fence in Eagle Pass, TX puts the town’s golf course on the Mexico side

Eagle Pass mayor Ramsey English Cantu told me the smarter move is to put more boots on the ground. But who’s filling those boots? Right now, the Border Patrol has about 20,000 agents, enough to place one every 1/10 of a mile along the entire border as long as no one ever sleeps, gets sick or wants a day off. They’re also having trouble keeping up with attrition, much less filling an additional 5500 slots requested by the President. The job is difficult, the screening process imperfect. Some new hires wound up actually working for the cartels.

Back in Laredo, we learned immigrants from Bangladesh are now flooding that sector. In 2016, they caught one. Since October, 2017 they’ve caught more than 200. Using Government Logic, that means more are likely getting through. No one has determined whether they’re seeking a better life or planning future mischief, but Laredo Border Patrol chief Owens admits he can’t figure out why they’re suddenly picking his city.

Could it be because they have no wall?

What’s the answer? I’m honestly not sure. After seeing the border up close, I am convinced of one thing, though. The answer won’t fit on a bumper sticker.

Eagle Pass fence

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The Art of Avoiding Fake News

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Each morning as I stumble to the kitchen, the first thing I grab is a water glass.

Coffee can wait; medical science says what your body really needs is water to recover from eight hours of dehydration. (Unless you’re Jack Bauer, who apparently never needed sleep in the first place.)

For some reason, I look for a particular glass to drink my water. Maybe it’s the shape, or the feel, or maybe it’s just habit. Makes no difference really as long as it gets the job done.

Which naturally made me start thinking about fake news.

Graduating from the prestigious Henry W. Grady School of Journalism in 1982, the term “fake news” had not yet made it into our country’s lexicon. (Unless you’re talking about the traditional April 1 parody edition of the Athens Observer. That was quality comedic writing, folks.)

Get something wrong in print or on TV, and legitimate news organizations get it quickly corrected. Sometimes reporters get reassigned or even fired. That’s not fake news. That’s a mistake. Humans make those.

But at this stage in my career, the term “fake news” is often used in an attempt to discredit a story that someone just doesn’t like. And some people go along with that because the story doesn’t fit their narrative. They want to believe the story is fake. They’re primed to be persuaded.

Two of my bigger investigations prove that out.

We exposed the truth behind a beloved animal shelter director who claimed to be saving unwanted dogs across the Southeast. She was secretly killing them and using the donation money to feed a gambling habit. Her family and supporters accused us of making it all up. Her defense attorney actually blamed us during the trial. After her conviction, she’s now serving 15 years in state prison.

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We exposed the truth behind a cop who claimed to be a Purple Heart honoree. His family and supporters accused us of making it all up. His defense attorney actually blamed us during the trial. After his conviction, the ex-cop is now a felon and had to give up all his firearms.

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Reporters have thick skins. We get called a lot of bad things. Still, it troubles me that some people are so quick to accuse us of making things up. Part of that may relate to how they drink their water.

When our Founding Fathers came up with one of the most brilliant yet still imperfect documents ever written – the United States Constitution – they realized they needed some independent group to keep an eye on this new government. They couldn’t rely on the people themselves; they would be disorganized and fractured. So they included specific protection for one private industry by name: the press.

Our patriotic duty is to keep an eye on government — our community — and report what we learn. Our country works best when we all know what’s going on. News is to our country like water is to our bodies. It keeps everything working at optimum capacity.

It makes no difference what container you use to get your news. Goblet. Frosted mug. Sippy cup. As long as the water is still water.

But start adding things because you don’t like the taste of water – sugar, syrup, whatever they put in energy drinks – and you’ve changed the essence of what you’re drinking. It’s no longer water. No longer news. You’re consuming flavored news. Not the real thing. Maybe even unhealthy.

But there’s another definition of fake news these days: stories planted with no basis of fact. I know people who share stories of ridiculous conspiracy theories (Parkland staged. Sandy Hook staged. Pizzagate definitely real) because they claim they want to “stimulate discussion.”

Hogwash.

Instead of water, these people prefer to drink the Kool-Aid. And as someone who values truth and facts, that bothers me greatly.

I watch a lot of news, starting with FOX 5 Atlanta. At some point each day I also try to check the websites for the major cable news channels, plus Breitbart, HuffPo, Al Jazeera and the Jerusalem Post. It’s part of my job to be as plugged in as possible. (Trust me. You don’t want to be the journalist at a party who’s less informed than the yoga instructor or the insurance agent.)

It’s unrealistic to expect everyone to be as big a news consumer. So here are my thoughts to help you avoid falling into the fake news trap.

  • If you only go to one major news website, take a minute and look at the headlines. Do any of them make you uncomfortable, challenge your notion of what’s going on? They should. If every story reinforces your view of the world, add another news site to your favorites list or Twitter feed.
  • I never forward or share a news story on social media unless I’ve actually read it to the end. Try this approach. You may find yourself fact checking more and sharing less.
  • Are stories you read clearly marked editorial or commentary when someone’s opinion is being expressed? Does the news site spend an unusual amount of space bashing other news sites? Time to expand your news choices.

If you refuse to watch/read Mainstream Media because someone told you it was biased, you would have missed the New York Times scoop that first revealed Hillary Clinton’s private email server. You also would have missed Politico’s 2013 Lie of the Year – Barack Obama’s promise that you could keep your doctor under the Affordable Care Act. Or that Obama prosecuted more whistle blowers under the Espionage Act than all the presidents before him. Or that the New York Times first revealed the “Clinton Cash” book that suggested questionable donations to the Clinton Foundation.

Be a patriotic American. Drink up as much news from as many different sources as you can find.

And stay thirsty my friend.
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My Winning Season

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Recently, I finally got around to reading the late Pat Conroy’s excellent book “My Losing Season,” how his senior year of playing basketball at The Citadel gave him the foundation for greater things, even though they lost more games than they won.

Sports can provide wonderful life lessons, no matter whether you win or lose. Or even if you never played the game.

My alma mater University of Georgia will soon play Notre Dame in football for only the second time in the school’s history. The first time? Ah, the first time. That wonderful first time. That was the exclamation point to a winning season all right, especially for a junior Grady College student who had a front row seat to UGA history, in charge of the most important morning sports section his hometown would ever see. A front row seat, as it also turned out, for the fading glory days of newspapers.

I’ve wanted to be a reporter since my father began passing me the Athens Banner-Herald each day after he got home from work and I got off the school bus. It would arrive in our mailbox around 4 PM, filled with AP stories about the Vietnam War, Nixon and Watergate, plus local stories covering student protests and the civil rights movement. Newspaper reporters got to see important things before anyone else, I realized. They truly were writers of the first draft of history.

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Some of my fellow sports writers from Athens. Sports editor Blake Giles (79), city editor Rick Parham (28) and my longtime friend Roger Whiddon with the backwards baseball cap and goofy grin helped launch my reporting career. Roger left us way too early. (Photo by Wingate Downs)

The summer before my sophomore year at UGA, my childhood friend Roger Whiddon helped me get my first paid job in journalism. My beat: covering Little League baseball for both Athens newspapers.

Don’t laugh. With the college students gone in the summer, Little League was the only sport around. So I made those 12-year-olds into print legends. Lead stories and sidebars every day. Big headlines and photos. I even picked my own all-star team. Some of my superstars included Robbie Kamerschen, now a successful Atlanta attorney, and David Perno, the future coach of UGA’s baseball team.

I would eventually parlay the prestigious job of Little League Editor into a year-round part-time sports writing job, mainly covering high school and college sports.

Banner-Herald Little League

The material wasn’t that important. The key was learning how to write under deadline, day after day, double-checking facts, writing with color and active verbs. Writing fast. The Athens Daily News was the morning paper. The Athens Banner-Herald came out in the afternoons. (The afternoon paper had already generated national attention when Pope John Paul II was chosen right before deadline, a rare non-Italian pope. The caption for the main photo read “Election of a non-Catholic cardinal to the papacy was signaled Monday.” Now THAT would be a miracle.)

UGA has always had a first-rate journalism school. Looking back, though, my most influential journalism teachers in those college years were sports editors Billy Harper and Blake Giles, managers like Hank Johnson and Rick Parham. My favorite journalism class would wind up being that smoke-filled upstairs newsroom late at night pushing deadline, the AP printers clacking away their reports in a not-so-soundproof room while the printing presses roared to life in the basement two stories below. I would ultimately learn how to use pica sticks and blue pencils, how to avoid “widows and orphans” while pasting up the slicks with hot wax, using percentage wheels for the superb photos shot by Wingate Downs and Karekin Goekjian, the pressman bringing up the first papers literally hot off the presses for us to look over, and then finally seeing my work show up on my parents’ kitchen table the next morning. Day after day after glorious day.

My winning season would actually start in January, 1980, one year before the Notre Dame game. The sports department was buzzing about a high school running back out of Johnson County who was thinking about going to UGA. A guy with a funny first name.

“Has anyone here ever interviewed Herschel Walker?” I asked Harper, my sports editor.

“Nope. You want to?”

“Can I?”

“Be my guest, son.”

Billy was not one for long conversations.

So after calling his coach to set up the interview, the next week I found myself driving south to Wrightsville in my 1968 Rambler to give our Athens readers their first sense of a man who would soon become the greatest college freshman tailback of all time.

I found the audio cassette of that interview the other day. I sound exactly like an 18-year-old Athens boy nervously conducting his first big interview with someone who was about the same age. Herschel? He sounds like Herschel. Here’s a portion:

Herschel would keep everyone guessing until Easter Sunday of 1980 when he finally signed his letter-of-intent with the University of Georgia.

By the time he walked onto campus that fall I was a junior, a fully-credentialed sports writer with passes to all the UGA home games. I still have them with all my other sports press passes crammed into an old AP teletype ribbon box.

The low man in the department didn’t get to cover the road games, so I missed Herschel’s debut against Bill Bates and Tennessee. Still, I got to witness his 283 yards against Vandy, 219 yards against South Carolina, 205 yards against Tech. Standing on the field as the seconds ticked down in that Vandy game I remember the student side screaming “Herschel!” The North Side screaming back “Walker!” It was the loudest I’d ever heard Sanford Stadium.

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Unfortunately, I never got a pass for the most important game that season. The Sugar Bowl.

My bosses taught me to get to the athletes in the locker room before those rude TV guys took over. They made sure I knew no cheering if you’re wearing a pass. And I learned some of the wildest tips can sometimes be true.

After the Georgia Tech victory we all raced back to the newsroom to get our stories filed for the next morning’s big Sunday edition. City editor Mel Epps took a call from someone urgently asking to speak to a sports editor. I won’t say who took the call, but after talking to the tipster for a while, he hung up and briefed us.

“Some guy says he’s got it on good authority that Vince Dooley’s going to resign and take the Auburn job.”

We all laughed. Right. That’s really going to happen now that UGA is 11-0 and would soon play for the national championship.

Turned out, it almost did happen. A Birmingham newspaper broke the news two days later. Dooley only changed his mind and decided to stay after he was promised the Athletic Director job at UGA.

To this day, I don’t laugh at those crazy-but-maybe-it’s-true tips until I check them out.

Since I was still low-man in the sports department, that meant I got left behind for the Sugar Bowl, too. Blake and Billy went along with my pal Roger and Linton Johnson, the prep editor and a fellow UGA student. (And as it turns out, another UGA student named Joan DeProspero would also make it to New Orleans after camping out all night on campus for Sugar Bowl tickets. I would meet her a year later and, in 1984, she’d change her name to Joan Travis.)

Instead of going to the Crescent City, I was assigned to put out the sports section, a 19-year-old college kid in charge of designing the layout, getting the copy filed and, perhaps most important of all, writing the headlines.

So on January 1, 1981, I watched the Sugar Bowl from 1 Press Place in Athens, squinting at a tiny television perched on top of the newsroom mailboxes. I watched Herschel separate his shoulder on one of his first carries, but still finish with 150 yards against a Notre Dame defense that hadn’t given up 100 yards to a running back all season. I watched Buck Belue miss on his first 11 pass attempts, but complete his final attempt on a 3rd and 7 to my fellow Cedar Shoals High School alum Amp Arnold. Buck needed 7 yards to keep the drive alive at the end of game. He got seven yards. Georgia beat Notre Dame 17-10.

Jan 2, 1981 Athens Daily News Front Page
This front page still hangs in some Athens sports bars. Time for some new headlines.

After the victory, we had to come up with a clever headline. I wasn’t in charge of the front page headline. I think it was Mel, who passed away last year, who wrote “Sugar as Sweet as Irish Stew.” That one has held up over the years.

I went the safer route. “The formula: 12-0 = No. 1” My other headlines on that page do not qualify as my proudest creative moments.

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The morning sports section after Georgia’s biggest victory.

Herschel would go on to play two more seasons before a millionaire named Donald Trump would steal him away for the USFL instead of playing his senior year. If he had stayed, Herschel would have set college career rushing records that could never, ever be broken. Sadly, that’s not fake news.

I went on to become sports editor of the rival Athens Observer my senior year. But it would be that Winning Season of 1980, with all that deadline writing pressure, that would help a guy who didn’t look old enough to vote somehow land his first TV reporting job.

My major was broadcast news. Even though I loved newspapers, I worried about their future. Even as a teenager, I could see trouble ahead for print.

Since then, the Athens Observer has closed its doors. So has the Athens Daily News. These days, the Athens Banner-Herald is the morning paper. Years ago they moved out of their familiar location at the corner of Broad and Thomas. Recently, corporate owner Morris Communications announced it had sold the Banner-Herald. At some point – probably soon I imagine – the newspaper will go all digital like many others across the country. Printing and delivery costs continue to go up while circulation numbers continue to fall. In fact, nationwide newspaper circulation numbers have dropped to 1940s levels. And we have a lot more people in this country now.

One day we’ll be telling the next generation about newspapers like our grandparents talked to us about milk delivered right to their doorstep each morning. And like us, it will be hard for them to imagine.

I’m one of the few in my neighborhood who still gets a newspaper delivered every day. I like the touch. Even the smell. The ability to scan large amounts of information using only my eyes and not my finger. Every so often, I get a whiff that takes me back to those teenage years when my journalism career was still unwritten. Scary, sure, but seemingly limitless.

Looking forward to seeing the newspaper that lands on my driveway September 10, 2017, the day after Georgia plays Notre Dame for the first time in 36 years.

Can’t wait to read the headlines.

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A Day in Immigration Court

As far as questions go, they don’t get much simpler.

When was Jose DeJesus Lara-Rostro going to have his deportation hearing?

The 26-year-old Lawrenceville man had come up in our investigation about immigrants busted multiple times for drunk driving, yet still allowed to stay in the country.

Lara-Rostro was on his third DUI before the Mexican-born high school dropout was finally detained by immigration authorities in 2015. He had already been convicted of drunk driving in 2012 and 2013. His last arrest happened after he led Lilburn police on a chase through their city late one night, running multiple red lights, eventually crashing in a ditch.

“He’s all over the road,” you can hear one deputy radioing dispatch. “If he doesn’t stop he’s going to kill somebody.”

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Lara-Rostro ran multiple red lights and eventually landed in a ditch after a late-night police chase.

I wasn’t sure whether Lara-Rostro was here legally. According to the court transcript, he claimed he was a resident alien. His family told me he was born in Mexico but here legally. Plus, he had a deportation hearing coming up that Friday. They didn’t know what time. They really didn’t want to talk to a reporter.

Turns out, they were just as helpful as the immigration folks.

“What time is Jose DeJesus Lara-Rostro’s deportation hearing?” I asked the public information officer for the Executive Office of Immigration Review. That’s the section of the Justice Department over the immigration courts.

The PIO said she couldn’t tell me without a signed privacy waiver from Jose DeJesus Lara-Rostro, a man I calmly pointed out happened to currently be in federal custody.

I had entered the sometimes maddening world of immigration courts, where privacy takes precedence over the public’s right to know.

If any of us is ever arrested and charged with a crime, the records are public. That includes the date and time of any court hearing.

But the immigration courts aren’t part of the judicial branch of government. They’re considered an administrative proceeding under the Department of Justice. And when you’re being administratively deported, you have automatic privacy rights, even if they don’t make a lot of sense.

I had Lara-Rostro’s immigration identification number from some other documents I’d obtained. With that, the PIO confirmed he had a deportation hearing that Friday. But she couldn’t tell me the time without that waiver.

When I got down to immigration court the next day, Lara-Rostro’s hearing was already over. Yet there was the time posted on the bulletin board where anyone could see if they walked in that day. 8:30 AM. So why couldn’t someone tell me that the day before?

Privacy.

What happened in the hearing? Was Lara-Rostro deported? Judge Michael Baird was friendly, but said he couldn’t tell me. Privacy. Neither could the public information officer unless I produced that signed waiver from Lara-Rostro.

In his controversial immigration executive order, President Trump said he would order agencies to exclude persons who are not United States citizens or lawful permanent residents from the protections of the Privacy Act. But that might not have helped in a case like Lara-Rostro who apparently had legal status to be here.

Luckily, as an investigative reporter I had other ways to get the information, ways the general public probably wouldn’t know about. More on that in a minute.

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You won’t find a sign for the Atlanta Immigration Court on Ted Turner Drive, but it’s familiar territory for immigrants in trouble.

Even with the privacy concerns, most deportation proceedings are open to the public. Cameras are not allowed. So a few days later I sat in on judge Baird’s master calendar. They take place in an unmarked dark brick building in downtown Atlanta near the city detention center. That makes sense since many of those held on immigration charges are housed there.

Judge Baird’s tiny courtroom was filled with detainees wearing orange jumpsuits with ACDC stenciled on the back. Others appeared via closed circuit television from ICE’s detention center in Irwin County. Most could only speak Spanish and used an interpreter who sat to the judge’s left. When a detainee answered “si” to a judge’s question the interpreter always said “that’s right” instead of “yes.” She said “that’s right” a lot. Few of the immigrants that morning disagreed with the evidence against them.

Maria Morales appeared by video. She was brought here illegally from Mexico as a seven-year-old, but the Obama administration had made her eligible for a work permit under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA. Now she was an adult, being deported because she had been convicted of family battery.

“I don’t know nobody in Mexico and I’ve been here my whole life,” she pleaded with the judge in English.

“You had DACA and you blew it,” judge Baird quietly responded. He gave her the choice of waiving her appeal and being deported now, or sitting in jail for another hearing. She took deportation.

“God bless you,” Morales said to the judge as she stepped away from the camera.

Many of the other detainees in Irwin County also chose deportation rather than remain behind bars in south Georgia.

The seven detainees sitting next to me in court were there for their first appearance, six of them women. Judge Baird explained their option to seek asylum or to get a lawyer, but stressed in immigration court you don’t get free legal representation if you can’t afford an attorney.

Most said they’d be back with a lawyer, but some said they had no money and asked to be sent home as soon as possible.

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Lara-Rostro had to be removed by stretcher after his third drunk driving arrest.

And what about Jose DeJesus Lara-Rostro, the man who was apparently here legally when he crashed his truck after committing his third DUI?

Through another source, I confirmed judge Baird also ordered him deported the same day of his hearing,  January 20, 2017.

A day that many other immigrants will probably not be celebrating, either.

You Gotta Have Heart

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Braves season ticket partners for 20 years. But would Bob Carr and I hang it up when our team leaves town?

There was a time, in the not too-distant-past, when your Atlanta Braves were the hot ticket in town.
“I have a great idea,” my buddy Bob Carr suggested in the winter of 1995 after the team had won its only World Series Championship. “We should scrape our money together and get season tickets next year. That way we’re guaranteed playoff tickets when the new stadium opens after the Olympics.”
So that’s what we did. And soon that new stadium will be replaced with a newer stadium. Somehow we now live in a world of disposable stadiums. Playing fields with an expiration date. A baseball stadium barely 20 years old with few great moments to remember.

Just a few.

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Olympic Stadium before it would be retrofitted for Braves home #2. We started buying season tickets the final year of home #1.

Bob is an Edward R. Murrow and Peabody Award-winning editor, the guy responsible for crafting so many cool I-Team stories throughout the 90s.
Like me, he grew up in Georgia, subsisting on bad Braves baseball for decades. He’s my equal when it comes to remembering the low tides of our team. (Ozzie Virgil? Sugar Bear Blanks? The echoes of Chief Noc-A-Homa bouncing around an empty ballpark?)

Bob left FOX 5 in 1999 to start his own company, Carr Productions.

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My two daughters pose at the Braves Museum at Turner Field shortly after it opened in 1997. Can you guess which one grew up to be a Braves fanatic?

But by then, the two of us had planted deep roots along Aisle 410 of Turner Field. First it was four seats, then as our children got older and families less available, we moved over to Aisle 412 and reduced it to two seats per game. Through the years, we always had multiple friends buy into our 82-game season ticket consortium, taking eight, 10, 12 games at a time. At a discounted price of around $10-15/ticket, it’s always been the best sports deal in town. Our wives, both teachers, deserve their own Hall of Fame. Each realizes her husband is beyond salvation.

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Prepping for our preseason draft party in 2008 when the Braves actually sent you real tickets.

Our preseason ticket draft party at Bob’s house each March is legendary, even better than our postseason ticket draft. That’s right. Postseason. There was a time after the Braves clinched the postseason each year when I had to carefully consider which playoff game I should bid on first: Game 1 of the NLDS? Game 3 of the NLCS? Game 5 of the World Series? Would we clinch the whole thing by then? (Questions I seriously asked myself in 1996. Never again.)

Bob and his dad John always wound up with the lion’s share of regular season games since Bob lived only minutes from the Braves stadium. It all worked out.

Not anymore.

 

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The new $1.2 billion home of the Atlanta Braves

Like many Braves season ticket holders, we face a difficult decision. Transfer our season tickets to Stadium #3 in Cobb County in 2017? Or wrap up our 20-year run right now?

(My colleague Dale Russell even featured me and Bob in his two-part series about how hard it might be to get to the new stadium. Of course, the true test won’t come until next spring.)

As the Braves finish their final game this weekend at Turner Field, it’s easy to list what this stadium has failed to deliver:

  • No World Series game victories. We’re 0-2 at the Ted.
  • No dramatic playoff-clinching victories, unless you count Andrew Jones walking with the bases loaded in 1999 to get the Braves to their last World Series. Not exactly a Sid Bream moment.
  • No proper send-off for Hall of Fame manager Bobby Cox. We lost 3-2 to the Giants, who would go on to win the World Series that year.

But the more I think about it, I did share some key moments from our seats along the third base line. Not Chipper’s errant throw that cost us his final, trash-tossing, Outfield Fly Rule game. (Chipper never should have started.) No, I’m talking about moments that, when it comes down to it, have little to do with championships.

  • My teenage daughter carefully driving to pick me up at work and going to the game, the rule always being if the Braves lost, she’d have to drive us home.
  • That same daughter being chosen to run out on the field years later to replace first base during one game. We lost. This time I drove us home, still smiling the whole way.
  • Taking my dad, who suffers from Parkinson’s, to games we knew we’d probably lose but didn’t care.
  • Chatting with our longtime usher Jeanette Lockhart about her health, her asking about my daughter’s college plans and, years later, my daughter’s wedding plans. (Jeanette retired last year. We miss her dearly.)
  • All of us trying to sing God Bless America as loud (and deep) as Timothy Miller.
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    Bob and one of our season ticket partners Jay Davis with longtime Braves usher Jeanette Lockhart before she retired in 2014.

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    I didn’t have to tell Katie that Freddie Freeman was responsible for some of that dirt.

Will SunTrust Park give me moments as great as those? It’s tough to say. I’m in a different phase of my life now. Not exactly the bottom of the ninth, but definitely close to making a call to the bullpen. My baseball-obsessed daughter is married, my sports pals too spread out to count on for regular company. How can I handle a dozen games at a stadium so much farther from work? (But actually a few miles closer to my house.)

Logical, well-thought out questions. Of course, lifelong Braves fans follow logic as well as Pascual Perez could follow directions.

“I have a great idea,” I told Bob last winter. “Let’s just try it for one season at SunTrust. And we’ll see.”

So on March 31, 2017, you will find me and Bob somewhere down the third base line in a baseball stadium built across the street from a city called Smyrna.
But this Sunday, when the Braves finally say goodbye to their second home, you will find me and Bob one last time on Aisle 412, Row 3, seats 1 and 2.

Feel free to drop by and help us remember.

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Bob and his dad John on their final game together at the Ted this week against the Phillies. John says he has no desire to go to Stadium #3. We’re on our own.

The Joy of Running

Yes, a picture is still worth a thousand words, but please don’t assume the following words with the following pictures:

Agony. Regret. Insanity.

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Try words like Healing. Victory. Fun.

Jog along with me for a bit and I’ll explain.

Running does not run in my family. I took it up in college when my first journalism boss, Athens Daily News sports editor Billy Harper, encouraged me to sign up for the Peachtree Road Race. That was in 1982. My roommate Mark Karwisch and I drove to Atlanta, crashed at our friend Lou Barnett’s house off LaVista, and made it to the starting line on time, one of 25,000 runners back then who struggled into Piedmont Park July 4. I wore the t-shirt for a year and then used it as a rag to wash my car. Yeah, yeah, no car is worth that much.

 

I quit running once I got my diploma and moved away from Athens. It took eleven more years before I would run my second Peachtree, and only after some life-altering news.

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In 1991, WAGA assigned me to cover the soldiers returning to Fort Stewart after Desert Storm. We worked long hours, doing live reports from morning until late at night. I was tired, but for some reason I also couldn’t quench my thirst. No matter how much water I drank, I still needed more. It also meant making constant trips to the nearest bathroom. Once I even poured two Cokes into the Holiday Inn ice bucket and walked around drinking out of that while we edited our stories. It became ridiculous. The next week I went to my doctor and learned the reason: Type 1 Diabetes.

 

Like running, diabetes also does not run in my family. We think it came from a virus that weakened my immune system, slowly killing my pancreas. At 29 years old, this was a stunner. It meant changing my diet, learning how to inject myself with insulin multiple times a day, and figuring out the crazy see-saw world of high and low blood sugars. I found a great endocrinologist, Dr. David Arkin, who casually mentioned regular exercise could help control diabetes. Exercise. As in running. Motivation can come in the strangest of ways.

 

The doctor was right. Running in my neighborhood was painful at first, but slowly I managed to again go one mile without stopping, then two miles, then five miles. My schedule changed at work and I was able to take the day off July 4, 1993, finishing my second Peachtree. It was a blast. It got even better when my wife asked, “how can I get a t-shirt?” Well, honey, you have to run the race.

 

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The oldest Peachtree running picture I own, circa 1994

Not only has she finished 21 Peachtrees, she’s made it a true party. We invite our running friends to get hotel rooms with us at Embassy Suites near the starting line. We have a party the night before the race, feast on Maggiano’s after the race, and stay for more food and fireworks in the Lenox Mall parking lot. I tell people we have an eating marathon with a 10K in the middle. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution even profiled our merry group a few years ago.

 

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The Travis Peachtree Group before the 2015 race

This year we expect at least 100 people with 45 hotel rooms reserved. Every year I tell my wife it’s gotten too big. Every year it always works out. And none of this fun would likely have happened without that terrible news I got in 1991. We didn’t just turn lemons into lemonade. We turned them into a celebration.

 

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We believe in post-race carbo loading
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My running buddy in Boulder after finishing the SECOND largest 10K

These days, my wife and I also run marathons. We’ve run in Paris and Scotland, New York and Chicago. Running gave us one more thing to enjoy together, especially now that our girls have grown up and moved away. Twenty-five years after getting some terrible news, my disease is under control. It’s never perfect, but when they run their tests my doctors shake their heads and smile. Running has truly been a blessing. And trust me, despite the pictures you see here, it really is fun.

My wife’s running pictures always look like she’s the grand marshal of some parade, always so happy.

My running pictures always look like the Agony of Defeat. I figure if you’re going to run a race, run it as hard as I can. That philosophy doesn’t just apply to running. It works with anything you set out to do.

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This year, the Atlanta Track Club has invited the local TV stations and newspapers to compete in a Peachtree Road Race Media Challenge. Eight of us will line up between the B and C groups and run our own little race. I can’t make any predictions on who will win, but I can predict this fact: when the photographers snap those official race pictures, you will not see me smiling. At least, not on the outside.

Riding in an elevator with O.J. Simpson

We laughed so hard. Who wouldn’t?

O.J. was hilarious.

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My brothers David and Joey joined me in NYC. Pretty sure Dad took the picture.

It was Labor Day Weekend 1989. My two brothers, my Dad and I planned a guys’ weekend in New York City. At the time, I was working for WMC-TV in Memphis, TN, one of the strongest NBC affiliates in the country. I promised the guys I’d make sure we scored tickets to see David Letterman while we were in the Big Apple. Next to Saturday Night Live, Dave was the cool show to see in NYC. And back then he was on NBC.

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The show taped in the late afternoon. Dad was at a conference and planned to meet us at our seats. So the three Travis brothers walked into 30 Rockefeller Plaza, presented our tickets to the NBC staff and were directed to a waiting VIP elevator. As the doors started to close we heard someone yell “hold it!” I grabbed the door and the Juice jumped on board.

Me, my two brothers, the elevator operator and a panting O.J. all taking a ride together.

“You run here all the way from the airport?” I offered, remembering his iconic Hertz rental car commercials. He laughed. We laughed. Heck, even the elevator operator probably laughed.

What a great guy.

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Just nine months earlier, O.J. had beat the crap out of his wife. According to the police report, a badly bruised Nicole Brown Simpson ran up to police yelling “He’s going to kill me! He’s going to kill me!” Four months later, and just five months before I would find myself yukking it up with him on a New York elevator, O.J. would plead no contest to a charge of spousal abuse. He got 120 hours community service. This was news I did not know until 1994. If I had known it in 1989, my question on the elevator might have taken a different tone. Or maybe I wouldn’t have said a word. Probably that second option.

This was before selfies. Before Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and TMZ. But didn’t our hero David Letterman have to know the ugly baggage his guest was carrying?

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David, Dad and Joey in the Letterman studio after O.J. appeared as a guest.

On that Brush With Greatness Day in 1989, the elevator door opened and O.J. rushed off. “See you soon,” I said. And we did. Thanks to the NBC affiliate connection, our seats were great. We clapped hard when O.J. came out. “I can’t believe you talked to him,” one brother whispered. “I can’t believe we rode in the elevator with him,” said the other.

Man was O.J. funny. Of course he was. This was Nordberg from the Naked Gun films. It was his new image. Funny ex-athlete. Self-deprecating. Approachable. Harmless.

Dave asked him if he’d ever gotten any speeding tickets, a question no doubt suggested by O.J. in advance. O.J. spent a few minutes describing how he was taking his Ferrari Testarossa for a drive in Southern California and got it up to 170 before blowing by a cop.

“Even before he turned on his lights I stopped and about 10 minutes later he pulled up.”

We laughed so hard. Dave did, too. He demanded O.J. surrender his license to him that very moment. You can watch it all here:

 

Five years later, O.J. would lead police on the opposite kind of chase, his friend Al Cowlings driving the two slowly through the L.A. suburbs. This chase lasted two hours and one minute before Cowlings finally pulled into O.J.’s estate and surrendered. On that day, it didn’t take the cops 10 minutes to catch up.

We left the Letterman 061214-OTHER-20-years-after-oj-car-chase-ahn-PI.vadapt.980.high.12show that night still pumped about our great luck. All of us are sports fanatics. We had spent time with one of the greats.

You’d think that might be a favorite story at Travis family reunions. Until 1994 it was. But even with the ESPN documentary “O.J.: Made in America” and the popular FX movie “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” we really don’t talk about that day much anymore.

I know this feeling from hundreds of investigations. Scam victims rarely like to revisit the moment a conman played them like a fool.