The goofy, the bad & the weird
El Paso Scene’s 12th annual Gecko Awards honor 2019’s strangest, dumbest and most outrageous news items
By Lisa Kay Tate
Geckos of the Year: Immigration issues put El Paso in national media spotlight
The national news spotlight definitely shone on the Sun City in 2019, but most of the media attention was unwelcome, if not tragic. Saddest of all, a 21-year-old racist drove across Texas to gun down dozens of El Pasoans at an Eastside Walmart, nearly all of them Hispanic, killing 22.
That murderous rampage was loosely tied to another cause of intense media focus, the refugee crisis, where again El Paso made the national news day after day. The politics of immigration also figured into another nationwide story centered on native son Beto O’Rourke, the former congressman turned presidential candidate.
As a new year begins, El Paso Scene turns its annual focus on some of the sillier, weirder, and face palm-inducing look at the human condition, all gathered from local and national news sources, with our 2019 Gecko Awards.
The Gecko of the Year goes to the refugee crisis, as thousands of Central Americans trekked across Mexico to seek asylum in the United States, and making El Paso Ground Zero in the fierce political debate over immigration policy and border defense, including the controversial extension of the border wall. While the crisis remains a major humanitarian and political issue, it also has triggered a variety of day-to-day news items in El Paso that deserved Gecko recognition:
• Dueling factions clashed in February as Trump visited El Paso for a rally at El Paso County Coliseum advocating for a wall, while Beto O’Rourke staged his own counter-rally across the street at the same time.
• A California artist built a “Teeter-Totter” made to fit through the steel slats of the wall.
• Protestors took over the Border Patrol Museum, harassed guests and vandalized images of fallen officers.
• Politicians from both parties came to El Paso to argue over holding conditions for migrants, funding and border security, which at one point led to a government shutdown. President Trump announced considering moving illegal immigrants to sanctuary cities. U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez came to the border Tornillo facility and a photo of her crying at a fence led to social media debate over whether she was actually within view of the detainees.
• A makeshift detention camp occupied a downtown parking lot near the Paso del Norte bridge for months.
• A civilian group, United Constitutional Patriots, began patrolling the border near Sunland Park, detaining more than 300 undocumented immigrants.
• Deming, N.M. declared a state of emergency in May due to the number of immigrants being released into the city.
• The tension between Trump and El Paso Mayor Dee Margo continued as Trump called the mayor a “RINO” (Republican In Name Only).
• El Paso County sued Trump to stop his plan to use emergency powers to spend billions on the wall.
• A group of private citizens called “We Build The Wall” took it upon themselves to get things moving by constructing a 20-foot-tall fence along the mountainside on the edge of Sunland Park.
• Another group calling themselves the “Border Patriots” interrupted U. S. Rep, Veronica Escobar’s monthly town hall meeting by yelling “Protect our borders” and “America first” after they learned they wouldn’t be allowed to ask any questions.
• The wife of a Clint school board trustee was barred from school property until she apologized to a student for allegedly yanking a Mexican flag from his hand and telling him to “go back to Mexico.”
• Some agents at an El Paso detention center came under investigation for making a Honduran immigrant hold up a sign in Spanish that read “I Like Men.”
• On the internatonal bridges, wait times were the longest in 10 years.
El Paso also jumped into the national spotlight when Beto O’Rourke surged in the polls after announcing he would join the crowded field of Democratic candidates challenging Trump. Despite his well publicized campaign, his popularity plummeted once the primary debates began. By fall he dropped out of the 2020 race. Some of the weird news stories gathered surrounding Beto’s ill-fated presidential adventure in 2019:
• A “Baby Trump” balloon scheduled to fly at his rally in February was cancelled due to wind.
• Altar candles were sold with images of political figures including him, Nancy Pelosi and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
• After his “born to run” Vanity Fair comment he later had to clarify “No one is born to be President of the United States of America—least of all me.”
• His campaign website began selling shirts with his comment, “Hell yes we’re going to take your AR-15!”
• When his second-quarter fundraiser dropped significantly, his campaign’s digital director said “Sometimes you’re up, sometimes you’re down. Sometimes you’re Hootie and sometimes you’re a Blowfish.”
• He took a detour from the campaign trail to address a “family crisis” of finding a missing turtle named Gus.
• He live-streamed his haircut, and let the world know “we’re cutting out some of this ear hair you get when you get older.” But after quitting the campaign, he started growing a beard.
UTEP Football for the third year in a row earned a Gecko of the Year honorable mention. The Miners began their 2019 season edging out Houston Baptist 36-34, but unfortunately the Huskies were the only non-FBS team on the UTEP schedule. With only one win during the two previous seasons (earning the bottom ranking both years among all 130 FBS teams), UTEP still had hopes of securing a two-win season going into the final games of the 2019 season against fellow bottom-ranked teams NMSU and Rice. The Miners caved, losing 35-44 and 16-30 respectively, and ended up 1-11 with a final ranking as the 3rd worst team in FBS.
The UTEP Miners managed to escape the utter humiliation of a three-peat as the country’s worst FBS team thanks to the 1-11 UMass Minutemen and the one team that UMass defeated, the 0-12 Akron Zips. The Zips not only clinched the bottom ranking but also earned the title of the most apt team name ever.
Here’s the rest of the best of the worst, weirdest and often funniest news to make area headlines in 2019:
Help not wanted
Financial website WalletHub listed both El Paso and Las Cruces among “worst cities to look for a job,” placing El Paso at 133 on the list, and Las Cruces at 181 out of 182 cities ranked.
Literal ambulance chasing
A 27-year-old man from Seminole led police on a pursuit in Northwest El Paso after stealing an ambulance and driving it with the emergency lights on.
Bumping the bashing
Speaking Rock Entertainment Center cancelled a concert by rock band Filter over safety concerns raised by statements made by singer Richard Patrick posted on social media. Patrick said the band was planning to hang an American flag upside down as a backdrop, adding “Get here later and it will be packed!! A Lot of Trump bashing! Does anyone know Beto?? Bring Beto!”
Hey man, nice shot
A man was arrested for possession of a firearm when he accidentally shot himself in the thigh area with a handgun he had tucked in his sweatpants.
Making a glass of yourself
A robber running away from a Las Cruces Pizza Hut ran into the glass door so hard that he left DNA on the glass. Police swabbed the door and caught the suspect as a result.
From shoplifting to kidjacking
A 5-year-old Las Cruces girl was in the backseat of a car when it was stolen from her parents’ home. The girl was back and safe after police searched for only one hour. The thief, who had just been arrested two days earlier for shoplifting in a pharmacy, faced felony charges.
The medical money pit
William Beaumont Army Medical Center complex in east El Paso became the most expensive United States military hospital project currently under construction, after being three years late and more than $629 million over budget.
He went to the dogs
Humane Society of El Paso executive director Jeffery Luke Westerman was indicted by an Ohio grand jury on 19 counts of fraud and theft, including soliciting more then $700,000 from Ohio residents for “investment purposes.”
While this dog died a hero
As federal agents were searching for illegal firearms at the Northeast El Paso home, the 62-year-old suspect opened fire, killing the K-9 “Agent Bulder,” the dog working with the ATF force. Agents returned fire, killing the shooter.
Criminals and dogs don’t mix
Three robbery suspects were also accused of picking up a stray dog and throwing it out of their at high speed into oncoming traffic. Police said no remains were found but they believe the dog was killed.
What commission reviews that?
Mayor Dee Margo accused the city’s Ethics Review Commission of violating state public meeting laws when five current and three former members co-authored a newspaper column.
When music band Fungi Mungle’s “Wonder Woman” trailer was stolen in the middle of the night, it was found abandoned in the front yard of a far East El Paso home … painted purple. Singer Joey Mungle thanked the “good people of El Paso and the disco gods” for finding the trailer and said “by the grace of God, somebody loved Prince enough to paint it purple for us.” A vehicle seen making off with the van initially was a purple Ford.
Dad must be so proud
Two El Paso brothers were arrested in connection with a viral video of them shooting guns outside of a car while driving on the freeway. One brother said they were just doing it to “celebrate their father’s birthday” like they do in Mexico.
He can’t handle the truth
After a Fort Bliss soldier received national attention for his account of helping an injured man in a traffic accident in Sweetwater, Texas using “a pen and hoodie,” Fort Bliss later released a statement saying the soldier’s story contained several “factual inaccuracies.”
Where’s the fire?
Sunland Parks fire chief was charged with embezzling more than $5,000 from the city, when he used a city vehicle to travel to his personal property in East Texas.
‘Til death do you part
El Paso Police sought help in the investigation of the death of the wife of 70-year-old Oklahoma man who said she died in an El Paso hotel room. This was after the man was found driving in Arizona with his deceased, naked wife in the passenger seat.
Vitamin shop deficiency
An Anthony, N.M man was arrested and charged with 69 counts of forgery after his employer accused him of embezzling over $640,000 from the vitamin shop where he worked, and spending it on girlfriends, trips and his friends.
You may now deadlift the bride
A Las Cruces couple’s wedding at Crunch Fitness logged more than 15,800 views on Facebook.
According to police records, YISD superintendent Xavier De La Torre head-butted another El Paso County school district leader in a fight outside a San Antonio Whataburger. He and other trustees denied they knew anything about the altercation.
Local meddling on Facebook
A Facebook post, created by a campaign volunteer for City Council member Cassandra Hernandez, said “Cassandra Hernandez for Mayor of El Paso, Texas” but was quickly taken down. Nevertheless, city officials ruled that she had effectively resigned her seat on council and ordered a special election. Hernandez said the whole thing was a mistake, but still had to enter the race to keep her seat and won.
U-Haul hauling butt
Police arrested a 35-year-old El Paso man wanted on warrants after leading police in 40-minute chase in his U-Haul truck before crashing into another driver.
Maybe they needed money for gas
Three robbery suspects were arrested after trying to rob a local 7-Eleven store, when their getaway car was out of gas and wouldn’t start.
We wish you a cheesy Christmas
Louie Salazar won $100 for beating out three other coworkers in a gingerbread house contest, designing a house made with real Chico’s Tacos, entitled “Yellow Snow, Yellow Snow, Yellow Snow.”
You might be a “Redneck Woman”…
Country singer Gretchen Wilson, while in Las Cruces to perform for the Country Music Festival, complained on her Twitter account she was removed from her Hotel Encanto “for no reason” and people should “band together to put Hotel Encanto out of business” despite the hotel dispatchers receiving numerous noise complaints coming from her room.
…or you might be a diva
Rapper Cardi B had to reschedule her much anticipated El Paso concert as well as others because, according the TMZ reports, she was recovering from some complications from her recent liposuction and breast augmentation.
Taking a bite into crime
During a road rage incident in March in Sunland Park, after one vehicle cut another off, both drivers pulled over and, according to court records, began a verbal confrontation. That evolved into “chest-bumping,” shoving, headlocks and choke holds, punch throwing, and eventually one man biting off the tip of the other man’s finger.
He needed a mental inspection
A 60-year-old El Paso man was arrested for shooting an auto shop owner because his car had failed state inspection.
Police referred a 12-year-old Alamogordo girl to Juvenile Protection and Parole for DWI when she and friends, all minors, went on a joyride on U.S. 54/70 in the family car. She tried to flee the police and nearly hit an Otero County Sheriff’s Office deputy before being caught.
A video at an El Paso Cracker Barrel went viral with more than 50,000 views showing a heated argument between a bilingual woman and a man who had interrupted her conversation with her mom, telling her to “speak English.”
No longer on tap
El Paso businessman William “Billy” Abraham, whose court battles were often in the local news, found himself banned from his favorite watering hole, The Tap, as he started becoming “very aggressive” towards the woman who had been operating the bar since 1956.
It’s not a contest
A 42-year-old El Paso man was arrested for suspicion of driving while intoxicated after having four previous drunk driving convictions, And on Super Bowl Sunday, one 44-year-old El Paso man was arrested with his seventh DWI. Both incidents happened on Zaragosa.
What a web we weave …
One Crime Stoppers Crime of the Week involved a heavyset man in a Spider-Man mask who broke into a Canutillo apartment complex and stole several items, including a Nintendo Switch Game system.
The Hollywood connection
Just a year after he was hired, UTEP’s assistant basketball coach Lamont Smith resigned after he was implicated in the college admissions bribery scandal that also involved Hollywood actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin.
An award-winning El Paso chess team faced being banned for life by the U.S Chess Federation on allegations the coach told team members to throw matches and lower their scores so they could become compete in what’s called “under” sections.
Sun City spy
El Paso got a brief mention in reports of a 39-year old U.S. Air Force counterintelligence specialist who was being charged with revealing classified information to the Tehran government. According to the FBI wanted poster, he was born in El Paso.
A lesson in lying
During her election bid to EPISD’s District 7 seat, Mickey Loweree claimed she had taught at Burnet Elementary School. However, there were no records she ever taught at the school and several of the school’s faculty members and former teachers said she had only served as a PTA volunteer and playground monitor.
And finally, more baloney
U.S. Customs and Border Protection agricultural specialists seized 154 pounds of black market bologna at a port of entry tucked in the rear seat of the truck. The driver tried to cover it up by saying he was carrying “rolls of frozen ham.”
Copyright 2020 by Cristo Rey Communications