Best Of :: People & Places
There are dozens of ways to measure a police officer's performance. How many cases closed, how many tickets written — or, as in the case of our winner for Best Cop, Houston Police Officer Julia Christina Oliver, the more intangible quality of personal courage. Oliver has been with HPD for more than 25 years, serving 23 of them as a male officer. After quietly starting hormone therapy as part of male-to-female gender reassignment, Oliver was thrust into the national spotlight when her situation became public. HPD brass were uniformly supportive, but her fellow officers and the public had more varied reactions, from uninterested to overtly hostile. Oliver, however, remained professional, dedicated to protecting the citizens of Houston and even managing to keep her sense of humor intact.
When Hurricane Ike was destroying lives and property in Galveston, one man thought to himself, A-ha! I can use this! And that man was Jacob Calle, although he is probably better known as Hurricane Bear. That's because he donned a bear costume with a pink bowtie and moonwalked along a Galveston beach while TV news crews were surveying the damage. It got him on CNN and in The Wall Street Journal. He sold T-shirts from his Web site and made himself available for parties — but he also included a link to the Red Cross's Web site, so people could donate. It's an interesting idea, and we're eagerly awaiting the appearance of Hurricane Platypus.
Heading up the public-health department for the third-largest county in the U.S. is never going to be an easy task, but Harris County brings its own special challenges, like hurricanes and, this year, its seeming to be Ground Zero for the swine-flu pandemic/panic (take your pick). Herminia Palacio handles these duties with competence and class — during Ike, she and staff members were at TranStar headquarters full-time; during Katrina she supervised operations at the Dome, an experience she still is asked to lecture about to public-health organizations nationwide. And when the swine flu hit, she worked closely with cities and school districts in her jurisdiction to keep things a lot calmer than they might have been. She's loved by her staff, and she keeps them up-to-date by ensuring they have the opportunity to get the latest training. Handling public-health issues in Harris County demands a calm and capable leader; luckily, we have one.
The idea of "best cemetery" may sound a bit grim, but there's nothing gloomy about Glenwood. It's just as much of a tranquil park and beautiful place to visit as it is a spot to bury loved ones. Built in what was then rural Houston in 1871, Glenwood's graves sit nestled amongst some of the city's only lush, rolling hills, which lead down to Buffalo Bayou off of Washington Avenue. Visitors can slowly drive along the winding roads throughout the cemetery underneath cascading trees and get a glimpse of where local and international luminaries are interred. Such notables include DeWitt Harris, for whom Harris County is named, former Texas governor William Hobby, Hollywood actress Gene Tierney Lee and billionaire eccentric Howard Hughes.
What Houstonian isn't proud of this beautiful, expansive, multifaceted park? Located on a former military camp where soldiers trained for battle in World War I, the park is dedicated to those soldiers' honor. Today, the park has something for just about everyone — an 18-hole golf course, 2.93-mile jogging trail, mountain bike paths, tennis, soccer, baseball, croquet, volleyball and a playground for kids. There's even a fitness center, with daily or monthly memberships that won't hurt your wallet. Or you can just chill in the Picnic Loop and people-watch.
Okay, you've committed a crime. Quick, check your shirt: Is the collar white? If so, there's only one attorney in town to contact: Joel Androphy. You may have seen him on TV as a legal expert both locally and nationally, but ironically enough, a lot of his most important work goes unnoticed. He specializes in whistleblower lawsuits, and while those suits often bring bad-behaving corporations to heel — and give help to people brave enough to take them on — they are usually settled with confidentiality agreements that prevent media coverage. And they are civil cases, so even though he's mostly known from criminal stuff, Androphy easily qualifies as a top-rank civil attorney. Besides whistleblowers, he is an expert on all types of corporate crime; he's honest, tough and knows how to get things done. If you've stabbed your crack dealer because he shorted you two rocks, Androphy's probably not your man, but if you find yourself in a courtroom because of things that happened in a classier setting, he's who you need to see.
Too many community newspapers like to portray the places they cover as they would like them to be rather than as they really are. Not so The Seabreeze News. Publisher Gator Miller and Editor Steve Hoyland are muckrakers in the classical sense, and most issues feature investigative reporting of vital import to "Sunny San Leon," their two-fisted little "quaint drinking village with a serious fishing problem." In June, the paper broke the story about neighboring Texas City's secret plan to saddle the small unincorporated town with a huge sewage treatment plant; the month before that, the paper probed into the affairs of a local developer. But it's not all Woodward and Bernstein in the Seabreeze. There are plentiful fishing reports, humorous nuggets buried in the classifieds, and a police blotter complete with plenty of mug shots and smart-ass asides. And then there's "Dear Steve from Sunny San Leon," Hoyland's curmudgeonly Dear Abby-style mail-in column that has the potential to cause the spontaneous combustion of anyone with a shred of political correctness to them.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals — the Supreme Court for criminal cases in the state — is not exactly made up of flaming liberals, as anyone who's tried to get a conviction overturned has learned. You wouldn't think the judges would take kindly to a bunch of out-of-state hippie longhairs coming down to the peaceful Texas burg of Crawford in order to prevent their pal George W. Bush from enjoying the clearing of brush via the fascist/socialist method of freedom of speech. Not to mention these impolite scum were protesting what is probably the most God-fearing, Bible-thumping war since the Crusades. So it came as a bit of a surprise — and a pleasant one at that — when a 5-4 majority of the court threw out the convictions of two protestors. The Texas ACLU called it a "monumental victory for the First Amendment." It was a shocker, to be sure. Maybe there's hope for the TCCA yet.
As of this writing, Stanford hasn't been convicted of any crime, but he's been charged with a whopper: namely, presiding over an $8 billion Ponzi scheme, making him Houston's own Bernie Madoff. The eccentric Stanford didn't spend much time in Houston, preferring the empire he built for himself in the Caribbean island-nation of Antigua, where he was cozy with the government. But when the feds raided The Stanford Group's office on Westheimer, Sir Allen was nowhere to be found. He surfaced a few days later in Virginia, claiming to be unaware that he was the target of a nationwide federal manhunt. We don't know how things will turn out — Stanford has pleaded not guilty, and maybe this just boils down to a misunderstanding. A big, fat, gigantic, multibillion-dollar misunderstanding. We're just glad we had all our money in Franklin Mint Elvis Presley dinner plates; fewer things in this world are as reliable.
Brian Wice is a shrinking wallflower who all but refuses to blow his own horn. It can sometimes take up to 2.6 seconds for him to leap at yet another opportunity to expound on the law before a camera, whether it's his regular gig at Channel 2 or any network that needs instant analysis. He's the Sound-Bite King. But anyone who laughs at his self-promotion forgets one key thing: The guy's a damn fine lawyer. Just in the past year or so, he's impressively won appeals for Susan Wright, the husband-killer whose trial included one prosecutor tying another to a bed and pretending to stab him 200 times; he's gotten Galveston County's only Death Row inmate a reprieve; and he forced the lifting of a gag order that resulted in the quick settlement of the Ashley Benton teen-gang murder case. His practice is strictly on the appellate level, so you have to get yourself convicted of a heinous crime first, but if you think your trial lawyer or the judge screwed up, Wice is the guy you need to turn to.
Longtime Republican control of basically all countywide offices resulted in a lot of stagnation, good-ol'-boy indifference and a resistance to change. (Note: This would have happened under longtime Democratic control, too.) Nowhere was it worse than in the Harris County Sheriff's Office, a place entirely distrusted by many minority residents. Harassment by officers, a jail where inmates tended to die under mysterious circumstances and a leadership that reacted über-defensively to the slightest criticism had left the department in rough shape. Former city councilman (and former Houston cop) Adrian Garcia took over the office in January and has been a breath of fresh air. When sheriff's deputies were accused of harassing a Sikh family, he went to a Sikh temple to talk about it. He's still in the phase where he can blame problems on predecessors — we'll see how he reacts to criticism when it's clearly aimed at him — but Garcia has made an impressive start in a department that sorely needed it.
Sadly, the Best Firefighter title is bestowed posthumously on Houston firefighters James Harlow and Damien Hobbs. The two men died while fighting a blaze last April. Harlow, a 30-year veteran of the department, had been captain of Fire Station 26 for three years. Hobbs, an Iraq war veteran, had begun active duty with the fire department less than 30 days before his death. The veteran and the rookie, tied together by tragedy, represent the commitment of every HFD firefighter — to save others, no matter what the cost.