Plus Five Years of Probation upon TDCJ Release
By Will Johnson
HOUSTON COUNTY – At approximately 4 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 28, 19-year-old Austin Catoe – along with several family members and friends – began to file into the 349th District Court courtroom.
Rumors of a possible plea bargain began to swirl around the case of the State of Texas vs. Austin Cline Catoe on Wednesday afternoon
, Sept. 27 and on Thursday, the rumors were proved true.
A status hearing had been scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 28, however, a deal had been struck which allowed Catoe to enter guilty pleas on two counts of intoxication manslaughter and one count of intoxication assault.
Catoe, from Latexo, was initially charged with two counts of intoxicated manslaughter, three counts of intoxicated aggravated assault and driving while intoxicated. The charges stemmed from a one-vehicle wreck in the early morning hours of June 26, 2016 which resulted in the deaths of two of the four vehicle occupants. At the time of the wreck, Catoe was identified as the driver.
At roughly 4:45 p.m., the prosecuting and defense attorneys walked into the courtroom followed by the families of the victims.
The prosecution was represented by Houston County’s County Attorney Daphne Session while Catoe was represented by Crockett-based attorney Jody Griffith. District Attorney Donna Kaspar had recused herself from prosecuting the case because of the potential of a conflict of interest. District Court Judge Pam Foster Fletcher was the presiding magistrate.
The judge explained the range of punishment in the two intoxication manslaughter cases was between two and 10 years of incarceration in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Institutions Division, along with a fine of up to $10,000.
After questioning if Catoe had made this decision freely and on his own, she explained because of the plea bargain, he could not appeal the sentence imposed unless certain stipulations applied.
Catoe was sentenced to 10 years for each manslaughter charge along with a $2,500 fine on both counts. He was also sentenced to five years of probation on the assault charge, which would begin on his first day of release from TDCJ. The two 10-year sentences will run concurrently. Because of enhancements on the charges, Catoe will not be eligible for parole until after five years.
A packed courtroom was on hand to hear Judge Fletcher announce a deal had been struck between the defense and the prosecution.
According to initial reports, Texas Department of Public Safety troopers were dispatched to a location four miles south of Kennard, at approximately 4 a.m. on June 26, 2016 in reference to a one-vehicle rollover wreck.
When the law enforcement officials arrived at the crash scene on FM 357, it was determined a 2016 Chevrolet pickup was headed northbound when it left the roadway, rolled over and struck several trees.
Catoe was identified as the driver of the vehicle and transported to Houston County Medical Center where he was treated and released.
Precinct One Justice of the Peace Clyde Black pronounced Mariaah Robin Lopez, 17, deceased at the scene of the wreck at 5 a.m. Brendan Lee Galloway, 22, was transported to Houston County Medical Center but was pronounced dead at approximately 6 a.m.
A fourth passenger in the vehicle, 19-year-old Haley Michelle Henry from Kennard, was transported to a Houston area hospital for further treatment.
A supplement to the Texas Peace Officer’s Crash Report (Cr-3) filed by Texas Department of Safety (DPS) Trooper Bryan J. Becton stated, “Unit 1 (vehicle driven by Catoe) was traveling northbound on FM 357. Unit 1 came to a curve in the road. Unit 1 was traveling at a high rate of speed. The driver (Catoe) was unable to negotiate the curve. Unit 1 traveled off the edge of the road, onto the grass. Unit 1 traveled across the grass, parallel with the road. The driver was unable to regain control, resulting in Unit 1 striking several trees and overturning.”
The crash report further stated, “As Unit 1 overturned, the three passengers were ejected, the driver was not. Besides speed being a contributing factor in the crash, evidence indicates alcohol may have been a factor as well. A blood specimen was obtained from the driver (Catoe) and sent to the DPS Laboratory, in Tyler. The results of the blood analysis revealed the driver had a blood alcohol content of 0.064, two hours after the crash occurred. The black box recorded Unit 1 to be traveling at a speed of 96 mph, five seconds before the air bags were deployed.”
Before the plea bargain was accepted, Judge Fletcher explained the law allowed for a victim of a crime – or if the victim is deceased – for family members or friends to give a victim’s impact statement.
Brendan Galloway’s mother went first.
“My heart was broken,” she began. “I cry every day. Our family unit is broken. Your family gets to see you, touch you and speak to you. I don’t. You took my son. I’m not saying you did this on purpose but this tragedy was preventable and no one prevented it.”
Galloway’s father spoke next.
“On the day of Brendan’s funeral, I looked at you right square in the eyes, asked you what happened and you lied to me. Without a picture, I have nothing. On June 26, 2016, I died just like my son did, but now I walk around like an empty shell. I have been threatened, bullied and harassed. My family never wanted this,” he said.
The mother of Mariaah Lopez closed out the impact statements.
“I’m trying to put the pieces of my life back together that you ripped from me. You killed my soul. And through all of this, you never once apologized,” she said. “You still have your family and now my little girl is in an urn.”
Will Johnson may be contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.