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Top 10 local stories of 2019

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The following are the Top 10 local stories in the News-Sun in 2019 as determined by the newspaper’s staff.

1) Three killed, four others shot at summer backyard party

Three young adults were shot and killed at a backyard party in Hobbs in late-August, and no one has yet been charged with their murders.

Khalil Carter, 18, and Kristal Avena, 24, both of Hobbs, and Lamar Lee-Kane Jr., 22, of Washington, D.C., all succumbed to their gunshot wounds at the Aug. 24 party.

When officers arrived at the home in the 1700 block of East Bond Street, they found the three young adults dead in the backyard. Police also located a truck about a mile from the home, carrying three people with gunshot wounds.

Michael Major, 21, of Florida, Rontrell Hills, 23, of Louisiana, and Jasmine Stansell, 20, of Amarillo, had also been shot in the backyard of the party at the home of Luis and Esmeralda Garcia.

Officers later learned a fourth person, Turon Windham, 20, of Chicago, had been taken to a local hospital with a gunshot wound to the face. Police said Windham was the first person shot at the party. Lee-Kane, Windham, Hills and Stansell were or had been student-athletes at the University of the Southwest.

The party’s DJ, 19-year-old Bishop Henderson III, of Hobbs, is the only person charged in connection with the mass shooting. Henderson, who prosecutors said has a substantial juvenile history that includes a conviction for commercial burglary and a charge of taking a stolen handgun to school, faces trial in district court in April on a charge of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon in connection to the shooting of Windham.

In late-August, Hobbs police predicted additional charges, although no new charges have emerged. Police have said the investigation is complicated and that witnesses have been uncooperative.

A witness from Chicago at Henderson’s preliminary hearing in September testified she was raised not to talk with police. The national champion track star at New Mexico Junior College also testified she saw Henderson shooting a gun in the air at the party.

The prosecutor said Henderson initially denied bringing a gun to the party, but when confronted with video evidence, he reportedly changed his story and admitted he had brought a handgun to the party. Police reported he told them he “didn’t mean to shoot anyone.” Police later recovered a handgun they said Henderson hid in a safe at his home.

Henderson’s defense attorney said the backyard shooting began as a drive-by shooting. Evidence backing up the defense theory included ballistics testimony from police, which determined that shots were fired at the East Bond Street home from a nearby alley, striking a fence at least twice.

Hobbs police had visited the backyard party of 50 to 60 party-goers about an hour before the shootings when responding to a noise complaint.

Carter had recently graduated from Hobbs High School and was looking forward to college. The lead detective testified at Henderson’s preliminary hearing that Carter had a loaded handgun in his waistband when he was fatally shot, but there were no indications it had been fired.

Avena was a mother of a 4-year-old girl and was studying for her test to be a pharmacy technician while working at a Walgreen’s in Hobbs.

Lee-Kane was on the 2018-19 USW basketball team and was majoring in sports management.

Witnesses said said the summer party was largely populated with USW and NMJC students. USW established a memorial fund for USW victims and their families.

Tiffanie Carolina, Carter’s mother, has protested in the Hobbs Police Department lobby in hopes of getting answers.

HPD Capt. Shane Blevins told the News-Sun in early December law enforcement is still waiting for lab results. Blevins said the lack of cooperation from witnesses and a long time processing evidence have been factors affecting the length of the investigation.

A possible motive for the mass shooting has yet to be presented by police or prosecutors. Authorities have asked anyone with information to call Hobbs poli ce at 575-397-9265 or Lea County Crime Stoppers at 575-393-8005.

2) Safety corridor created on Highway 128

Continued oilfield-related crashes on New Mexico Highway 128, including a fiery head-on vehicle crash July 11 about 3 miles east of Jal that claimed the lives of five oilfield workers, in October resulted in the highway’s designation as a safety corridor.

Fines for speeding and other moving violations have been doubled in the 45-mile safety corridor that extends from near the Texas state line to mile marker 5, just past the Lucid Energy Group’s Red Hills Gas Processing Plant.

The New Mexico Department of Transportation said motorists would notice increased law enforcement presence from state police and Lea and Eddy and county sheriff’s deputies in the safety corridor.

In July, the New Mexico Department of Public Safety announced that state police were beginning joint highway patrols with Lea County sheriff’s deputies, following two fatal crashes in Lea County in July that claimed the lives of eight people.

NMDOT said several infrastructure improvement projects under development, including an acceleration/deceleration lane on Highway 128 at mile marker 30, west of Jal in Lea County.

In October, NMDOT announced a six- to eight-year plan to reconstruct Highway 128, U.S. Highway 285 and N.M. Highway 31 from two-laned roads into four-lane highways to meet the demands of oilfield traffic.

During a five-week concentrated effort of law enforcement in southern Lea County that ended in September, police issued 2,342 citations. Data provided by Operation Arrive Alive showed 2,260 traffic stops, 1,087 vehicle inspections, 52 drivers put out of service, 198 vehicles put out of service, 20 non-injury crashes, 16 crashes with injuries and zero fatalities during the five weeks. In addition, there were 29 arrests, including 26 misdemeanors, one felony and two DWIs.

On any given day, there are around 6,000 vehicles on Highway 128 west of Jal, according to an NMDOT traffic study in August. More than 4,000 of those were driving over the speed limit, some in excess of 100 mph.

There were nine fatal crashes in 2018, and at least eight in 2019, on the 60-mile highway that extends from New Mexico 31 east of Loving to the Texas state line.

3)  Lea County advances to No. 2 oil-producing county

Various sources showed in July that Lea County hit the No. 2 spot in the nation in January in oil production.

According to County Finance Director Chip Low and Assistant County Manager Corey Needham, working the research together, Lea County produced 14.6 million barrels of oil in January.

Lea was second only to McKenzie County, N.D., which produced 17.3 million barrels the same month. At the same time, Lea County had more than twice the number of operating rigs as McKenzie County, 49-23. Lea County produces over half the state’s oil.

A review of data for January 2019 from the U.S. Energy Information Administration indicated no appreciable change in the oil production rankings of states, leaving New Mexico in the No. 3 slot achieved in 2018. North Dakota still produces almost twice as much oil as New Mexico, but Texas produces more than three times as much as North Dakota.

The Economic Development Corporation of Lea County said Lea County oil production roughly tripled in the last five years.

Weld County, Colo., slipped into third place in January 2019 with 13.7 million barrels produced. Other high producers were Midland County, Texas, 12.5 million barrels; Beachey Point County, Alaska, 11 million barrels; Eddy County, 10 million barrels; and Kern County, Calif., 9.9 million barrels.

A newly formed group of 18 major oil and gas companies with plays in the Permian Basin, the Permian Strategic Partnership, said the Permian Basin is an oil-producing superpower, becoming one of the most strategically important oil-producing regions in the world, and leading the way to American energy independence.

The coalition says total oil production in the region is expected to more than double in the coming years due to advances in technology and improved operating efficiencies, creating tens of thousands of local jobs and generating billions in state and local tax revenues. The energy companies said while the oil and gas industry is inherently cyclical, they are convinced the Permian Basin is different from the boom-and-bust cycles of the past.

4) New hospital coming to Hobbs

Lubbock-based Covenant Health System announced in August it will build a $52 million hospital in Hobbs, with expectations to reduce patient trips to Lubbock for many medical services.

Covenant CEO Richard Parks and Lovington-based Nor-Lea Hospital CEO David Shaw announced plans for the 105,000-square foot, three-story, 32-bed facility. The new hospital is expected to employ 200-250 people.

Expected to open for patients in about two years, Covenant officials were still working on a location in Hobbs.

Parks said a large number of beds at Covenant Health in Lubbock, about 15 out of every 100 patients admitted, are occupied by eastern New Mexico residents. He said the new hospital will have a full emergency department and will specialize in women’s services, including obstetrics.

The new hospital will be managed under the Covenant umbrella, which includes facilities in Plainview and Levelland, Texas; but will maintain a working relationship with Nor-Lea, the CEOs explained.

Data examined by Covenant officials indicated about half of the patients in the Hobbs area travel to get health care elsewhere.

Covenant has been involved in Hobbs health care for years including supporting Nor-Lea Hospital District’s opening of the Hobbs Medical Clinic in December 2015 and the Covenant Children’s Pediatric Clinic in October 2016, both on Dal Paso Street.

Lea Regional Medical Center, providing hospital services in Hobbs since 1974, issued a statement saying LRMC remains committed to the community, even as new providers enter the market.

5) ExxonMobil announces $55B investment

ExxonMobil officials announced in May the company would invest $55 billion in Lea and Eddy counties.

Company officials said a new study commissioned by the multinational oil and gas corporation estimated its development of Permian Basin resources in New Mexico will generate $64 billion in net economic benefits for the state and local communities over the next 40 years, creating thousands of new jobs and providing increased funding for education, health and human services and infrastructure improvements.

The Irving, Texas-based company said the Permian Basin is the “engine of America’s energy renaissance” and New Mexico residents would see direct economic benefits and opportunities from its planned investments.

State government, about a third of which is funded by oil and natural gas proceeds, will receive an estimated $62 billion in net fiscal benefits, $44 billion of which will come from new leases and royalties, according to the research.

About $8.5 billion will come from state oil and gas severance taxes, said the study which was conducted for ExxonMobil by Impact Data Source. The research findings assume an oil price of $40 per barrel.

From an employment perspective, ExxonMobil’s activities will generate an average of 4,100 direct job opportunities for New Mexicans per year for the next 40 years, the study estimates. Over the next 40 years, the company’s operations are expected to generate a total of about $29 billion in new wages, salaries and benefits.

As part of ExxonMobil’s Permian Basin growth, the company said it plans to expand its operations to produce more than 1 million oil-equivalent barrels per day as early as 2024. The company said significant growth will require about $55 billion in capital expenditures in Lea and Eddy counties.

6) Burglars busted during ‘quickie’

A Hobbs man and Odessa woman were arrested in late-February after they were allegedly caught in the throes of passion after breaking into a Hobbs home.

David Josiah Hines, 21, of Hobbs, and Kimberly Cave, 27, of Odessa, were allegedly caught inside the Hobbs home they had broken into when the homeowners arrived. Cave reportedly said the couple entered the house “to have a quickie.”

When Hobbs police officers arrived, the two were caught and arrested on charges of burglary of a dwelling, a third-degree felony, and criminal damage to property, a fourth-degree felony.

Police were called to the home in the 1800 block of Orchid Drive after a homeowner said he entered his home and saw a shirtless man and a woman running out of a bedroom window.

Police said Hines and Cave were found in a nearby vacant house and were identified by the homeowners as the burglars.

Police said Hines and Cave left Hines’ dog in the homeowner’s bedroom.

Cave reportedly told police she and Hines were in the house for about 15 minutes when they noticed people outside. Cave said she and Hines got dressed, ran out the back window and hid in the vacant house.

In March, prosecutors dismissed the felony residential burglary charge against Cave. The felony burglary and criminal damage charges against Hines were dismissed in June.

7) $30 million school bond approved

 More than three-fourths of Hobbs schools voters in November approved a $30 million general obligation bond for a new Southern Heights Elementary School and to partially pay for a career technical education facility on the Hobbs High School campus.

Planners are moving forward with a new vocational school in Hobbs, as well as a new elementary school on the city’s south-side.

Voters voted 1,363 to 401 in favor of the $30 million bond, or about 77% in favor.

The new CTE building and a replacement school for 69-year-old Southern Heights Elementary are both scheduled to open in August 2022.

The $46 million CTE project is supported capital partners, which are investing around $30 million.

Those partners include the City of Hobbs ($10 million), the Permian Strategic Partnership ($10 million) JF Maddox Foundation ($10 million) and Lea County ($900,000). The project also received $337,000 in additional funding from the New Mexico Legislature.

The construction of a new $30 million Southern Heights Elementary School is supported by $15.4 million from the New Mexico Public School Facility Authority, which will pay 56% of the school’s construction costs.

Once completed and in use on a different spot on the school grounds, the 69-year-old school will be torn down.

8) 2-year-old found dead in car

 A 2-year-old girl died Sept. 17 after being left inside her babysitter’s vehicle at City Hall for several hours.

Police said the babysitter, Tammie Brooks, 41, of Hobbs, left Zariah Hasheme in a hot car for more than five hours while she worked at the offices at the Hobbs City Hall annex.

Police said Brooks was supposed to drop the child off at daycare, but forgot that the baby was in the car.

The 2-year-old girl had been left in the back seat of a car for more than 5 hours before a woman discovered her dead while strapped in a car seat. Temperatures in Hobbs reached into the upper-80s that afternoon. Police said the child was in full rigor mortis when police found her.

Police said Brooks made the horrifying discovery after she turned around to look in the back seat of her car while making an afternoon deposit at a bank drive-through window.

Brooks was charged with abandonment or abuse of a child resulting in death, a first-degree felony punishable by up to 18 years in prison and a $15,000 fine. The trial is scheduled in district court in July.

9) Flights to Denver announced

 United Airlines and the Economic Development Corporation of Hobbs in August announced new direct flights to and from Denver, beginning in October.

United Airlines said its nonstop flights to Denver International Airport into Hobbs will be operated as United Express service six-days per week. United also continues two, daily nonstop flights between Hobbs and Houston George Bush Intercontinental Airport.

The inaugural United Express Airlines flight to Denver was Oct. 27, when local leaders flew to Denver from the Lea County Regional Airport. The first direct flight from Denver International Airport to Hobbs was earlier Oct. 27.

Flights from Hobbs are scheduled to depart at 4:20 p.m., while flights from Denver are scheduled to arrive in Hobbs at 12:35 p.m.

10) Teen shot during banana hijinks

 Teenage hijinks nearly turned deadly early April 28 when a 17-year-old boy shot at another car, striking a teenage driver three times.

Teenagers said the shooting was in retaliation for a banana being thrown at their car. A 15-year-old Hobbs boy was struck by bullets three times. The shooting occurred just hours after the annual prom at Hobbs High School and involved several HHS students.

Kevin Isaiah Hernandez, 17, of Hobbs, was charged with shooting at or from a motor vehicle involving great bodily harm, a second-degree felony, and aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, a third-degree felony.

According to police reports, the shooting occurred shortly before 5 a.m. Sunday at the intersection of North Grimes Street and Paseo Corto.

Four teenage boys who were passengers in the car being driven by the 15-year-old shooting victim reportedly told police they stopped at a convenience store on North Grimes Street to buy bananas to throw at cars.

While the boys were heading southbound on Grimes Street, one of the boys apparently threw a banana at a northbound car, which swerved, turned around and chased the other car.

A district court jury in September deliberated for about half an hour before finding Hernandez, now 18, guilty of all charges — a second-degree felony charge of shooting at or from a motor vehicle, a third-degree felony count of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, and a special verdict that Hernandez used a firearm in the commission of the

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