By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
LRJ has in turn diversified its portfolio into far-flung holdings. The company owns condos in Port Arthur and also operates under the assumed business name of Texas Boat Docks, which offers "low maintenance, heavy framed aluminum swim docks, boat docks and gangways," the company Web site says, that will "hold up to the roughest of conditions "
Crall also keeps business running smoothly by consulting with a fourth business partner: God.
Pastor Ralph Crall is the leader of Fellowship of Grace church, a Baptist congregation with a flashy Web site and a weathered salmon-pink corrugated-metal sanctuary in Nederland, nestled between a goat pasture and a community of shotgun shacks and dirt streets a few miles outside Beaumont. One of Crall's recent sermons was titled "Building Character."
At a minimum, God seems to have blessed Crall with a divine capacity for unctuous public relations. Before pitching GoldStar's services or defending the company's decisions, Crall has at times led his audience in prayer, say two former employees.
GoldStar's celestial connections may help keep money in the fold, but they have done little to keep emergency workers faithful.
The problems begin for some emergency personnel as soon as they pick up the phone. Constable Rogers, for example, requested a helicopter for County Commissioner Joe Johnson, who was having a heart attack, but the GoldStar dispatcher cut him off. "She hung up on me," he says. "And he's lying on the couch, dying."
The chopper didn't show up for another half-hour, he says.
Assuming a GoldStar ambulance promptly arrives to pick up a patient, there's no guarantee that it will swiftly shuttle him to the hospital. Alexandra Marcotte, a first responder with the Pumpkin Evergreen Volunteer Fire Department, jumped out of bed early one morning in March and secured a landing zone for a GoldStar helicopter. A medic at the scene told her GoldStar was flying the patient to the Conroe hospital because the company's ground ambulance driver didn't know how to get there, she says.
A different GoldStar driver who picked up a patient a month later asked Marcotte for directions to the same hospital, delaying his departure by ten minutes.
The delay might have been preferable to the foul-up two weeks later, when Marcotte responded to the head-on collision involving the woman with smashed ribs. After the chopper malfunctioned, the ambulance transporting the woman took a wrong turn on its way to Conroe and ended up going on a 15-minute diversion through New Waverly, Marcotte says.
"They do not know where they are going," she told San Jacinto County commissioners at a recent meeting, "and I am concerned that is going to cost somebody their life or cause a serious injury."
A GoldStar spokesperson at the meeting explained that drivers need time to learn their way around because they are rotated to different counties.
The regimen of almost any paramedic is tough: 24-hour shifts, long drives and patients ranging from drunks to hypochondriacs. But working at GoldStar was worse, say veteran paramedics. The job meant being worn to the bone.
Kuehner, the former GoldStar paramedic, described a typical shift in Beaumont. He showed up at 7 a.m. and spent the whole day on his feet ferrying nonemergency patients -- such as people receiving kidney dialysis -- between different hospitals. This is a lucrative business, and it makes up a huge part of GoldStar's bread and butter, especially in Houston, where the company's ambulances focus exclusively on transfers, unless the fire department is short-staffed.
With the evening arrived the drunks, car wrecks and kitchen accidents. Kuehner ran emergencies into the night and stumbled back into the station in the early morning, where he tried to catch up on paperwork. But he wasn't done. At around 3 a.m. -- a few hours before his shift ended -- GoldStar sent him out again on a long transfer call to Houston. "You are dead on your feet," he says. "Your partner is trying to drive an ambulance and falling asleep. It's not a real safe situation."
The predicament was the product of GoldStar's greed, he says.
Kuehner says GoldStar's ambulances spent an unusual amount of time on profitable nonemergency transfer calls, wearing out medics and making them unavailable for emergency calls, which they are obligated to fill in Beaumont and other cities based on contracts with authorities. "We were not in standby mode in case of emergencies," he says. "We were doing the transfer stuff about 75 percent of the time."
The practice is common among for-profit ambulance companies and theoretically allows them to offer lower rates in bids for municipal contracts, but Kuehner adds that GoldStar pushed it to the extreme. "I think they were the worst at it," he says. "They really tried to get away with it."
GoldStar also squeezed employees for profits in other ways.
Before 2002, GoldStar used a pay system known in the industry as Chinese overtime. Employees sued GoldStar, claiming they had received $200 for a 24-hour shift, even though many worked several shifts amounting to more than 70 hours a week. Seven GoldStar employees filed suit in U.S. District Court in Beaumont that year and settled the case out of court. Workers said the deal included the right to overtime pay.