Happy New Year and thanks to readers for bearing with us while we took a few weeks off. I was working on several stories to begin the new year, and we’ll get to those. But, that was before the machete attack on the young man near Auditorium Shores. So that will be our topic today, with some context added.
Most people have probably heard by now about the attack which occurred on Tuesday January 9 around 10 AM. It is a blessing that this nineteen year-old, Seth Gott, survived. He may not have if not for other people in the area who managed to divert the machete wielding man away from the victim, at great risk to themselves. Gott was also aided by people in the area who helped him until EMS arrived.
According to a Go Fund Me page set up to help with medical expenses, Gott “recently moved to Austin from Louisiana and is currently a student at Austin Community College studying biology. (The Statesman wrote that he has been here since 2018. So his arrival time in Austin is not certain.)” He evidently enjoyed visiting the hike and bike trail around Lady Bird Lake. In a photograph of him provided to the Statesman by his mom, Gott is standing along the south shore on Christmas day with downtown in the background.
The young man seems to have an incredible spirit about it all. According to a summary from Fox7 Austin, Gott’s mother, Dusty Colquitt said he is in “good spirits,” but “still has several surgeries ahead of him.” Fox7 added that, “The attack nearly cut off his left hand, smashed his right hand, and left deep cuts on his face, head and legs.” His mother also thanked everyone who expressed love and support. CBS Austin reported that she even expressed hope that the attacker “will be able to get the help that he needs.”
We wish Gott the best on his recovery and on the rest of his life. It should concern all of us that he was attacked like that in the middle of town in what has, until recent years, been considered a safe place for people to enjoy the outdoors and Lady Bird Lake. The area is also an iconic part of Austin, and a beloved symbol of Austin to residents and visitors.
It seems important to note that this is not the first time in recent years that something like this has happened in this area. That has led to speculation, at least on social media, as to how the incident might have been prevented or what decisions may have led to this.
Some have pointed out that the Parks Police may have been able to stop the attack if they had not been eliminated after Council defunded, or drastically cut, the police budget and police force in 2020. In my memory, however, Parks Police were never a major presence on the hike and bike trails. People have also pointed to the shortage of police as a potential cause. The police shortage is a very real crisis, but, even if police were patrolling, it doesn’t mean they would have been able to keep the recent machete attack from happening.
What is more plausible, in my view, as far as public policy that possibly contributed to this incident happening, is the Council’s lifting of the camping ordinance, or camping ban, in June 2019. That pretty clearly contributed to a decline in safety in the river/lake area.
Then, a year after repealing the camping ban, the Council’s voted unanimously to:
- cut the police budget;
- eliminate 100 vacant positions (that APD was trying to fill); and
- not hold cadet classes to train new officers for over a year.
This made it more difficult for the police to address the decline in public safety in the area — assuming they would have.
Before continuing, I want to be clear here that I am in no way saying that all homeless or even a large percentage commit violent acts. There is, however, a large population of mentally ill people within the homeless population and a criminal element. The 2019 Council (with the exception of Kathie Tovo and Alison Alter who voted no) repealed the camping ban without putting in place a serious plan to deal with the mentally ill or criminal element.
Also, it is possible that not all the perpetrators discussed below were homeless, although clearly several were. Nonetheless, I still believe the Council’s vote to repeal the camping ordinance contributed to a much less safe atmosphere in the area.
It is not clear if the person who committed the recent machete attack was homeless or not. The Statesman reported that he has an address listed in Kyle, but also that he “could not tell officers where he lived, where he worked or his phone number” and he “regularly changed his answers about how he got to the park.”
A Series of Tragedies and Near Tragedies
Regardless of the perpetrator’s housing status, a wave of knife attacks, and other attacks, started soon after the 2019 Council vote to lift the camping ban.
In fact, just two months after the Council repealed the camping ban there was an incident along the hike and bike trail similar to the recent attack. That occurred a little bit further west of where the recent tragedy occurred. According to a Statesman report at the time: “Police were called to the trail near the 1200 block of W. Cesar Chavez Street around 8:46 a.m. [on August 21, 2019] after reports of a man with a long beard and no shirt chasing another man while holding a knife, according to an arrest warrant affidavit.”
The man being chased was able to get away from the assailant. Someone evidently called the police and the man being chased then managed to flag police down when they arrived “and told them the attacker was down by the water.” Police then “found the man. . . in a gazebo adjacent to the trail.” According to the arrest affidavit, continued the Statesman, the man “was camping out of the gazebo.”
The jogger told police that while jogging he decided to go down by the water near the gazebo. He encountered the camper there, who, in this Statesman’s description, “held the knife in his hand, pointing the blade downward, and told the jogger to get out of the area.” Consequently, the jogger “left the gazebo and walked to the opposite side of the trail to keep his distance.” The camper, however, “left the gazebo and began chasing the jogger with the knife, according to the report (arrest affidavit).”
The Statesman also summarized the report of a witness who “told police the jogger ran north across Cesar Chavez Street in heavy traffic to get away,” and added that if the jogger had “not done that,” then the assailant “may have caught him.” “The document said police have previously identified” the knife wielding man “as someone with mental health issues.” Police “found a knife matching the description the jogger gave in a Tupperware bin with cooking spices,” said the Statesman.
Then in early September 2019 a young woman was attacked, although not with a knife, by a homeless man as she crossed the street at 6th and Brazos, while on the way to work.
This is slightly further from Lady Bird Lake than the other incidents discussed here, but is a direct result of the Council’s vote. The woman told CBS Austin that she was walking to her car, on a route she takes every day to and from work, when the man appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, and knocked her to the ground. “He hit me on the side of the face and knocked me off my feet and onto my back,” the woman told Brittany Ford of CBS Austin.
The man’s sister, Janet McIntosh, saw the TV report and contacted Ford. She told the reporter that her brother has mental health and drug addiction problems and had been living voluntarily in a group home. Then, she said, he saw a news report that the City Council was allowing camping in downtown Austin. The sister reported that her brother said, “’I’m going to live in downtown Austin, you can camp out anywhere you want to in Austin.’”
Fighting back tears, the sister told reporter Ford, “When I saw this young lady it broke my heart that my brother had for no reason, unprovoked, attacked her.”
McIntosh added that there were other people like her brother who would choose “to leave their homes because now they can.” She warned prophetically that there are “going to be more victims.” She also called for the Council to increase mental health funding, including housing opportunities.
Brian Manley, Police Chief at the time, told CBS Austin that the Department was seeing more incidents like this one.
A month later, in October 2019, a 59-year-old local resident, Mark Dolan, was jogging on the Congress Avenue bridge when he heard women behind him screaming. He turned around and saw a man punch one of the women. The women were friends now living in different states who chose Austin for a reunion. One of them later told KXAN that the assailant just walked into the group and started punching one of her friends.
Dolan also described the scene to KXAN: ‘“She was up against the rail and she just screamed, and so that’s when I ran back.”’ He managed to get the women away from the attacker and urged them to go to a nearby hotel. He then started heading toward the hotel himself, ‘“not realizing he (the assailant) was following me.”’
The man jumped on Dolan from behind. Dolan fought back, but had lost his balance when hit from behind. He was like a “raging maniac,” said Dolan. According to KXAN, Dolan was hospitalized and “received seven stitches on different parts of his head and suffered from severe bruising on his ear and face.”
KXAN also reported that the woman who got attacked was “suffering from minor shock from the trauma.”
That was in October 2019. In January 2020, an even worse tragedy occurred just five blocks to the South; and less than half a mile from where Seth Gott was recently attacked. The 2020 tragedy occurred when a man got into a disturbance at a coffee shop at 505 S. Congress. Police were called and showed up, but he eluded them and ran into the nearby Freebird’s World Burrito restaurant where he stabbed the manager to death.
Then, in January 2020 there was a stabbing in the parking lot of Vince Young Steakhouse in the 300 block of San Jacinto; apparently resulting from a fight between two homeless men.
The next year, after a petition drive by Save Austin Now, Austin voters reinstated the camping ban in a May 1, 2021 election. Activists and some people experiencing homelessness camped out in protest at City Hall. There, according to media reports, campers established an armed security force with appointed guards sporting bullet proof vests, walkie talkies and armed with big knifes or machetes. KXAN reporter Jacqulyn Powell reported that while she was talking to a woman outside her tent, a different man calling himself security approached them and asked the woman if she wanted Powell to leave. Powell got to complete her interview.
Then, in August of 2023, a security guard at the Austin Proper Hotel, 600 West 2nd Street, was attacked by a homeless man wielding a machete. CBS Austin, working from an arrest affidavit, described it like this:
“It happened just after 7 p.m. on Aug. 21. According to the document, officers working downtown responded to a call at the hotel, located at 600 W 2nd Street, and found the suspect, later identified as Justin Bergin, nearby. He was rolling a large suitcase with a machete in the front pouch.
Another officer went inside and found the victim lying on the floor. The Austin Police Association (APA), which is the local police union, said a bystander was trying to help a security guard who had been slashed in the forearm.
He was losing blood quickly and was beginning to lose consciousness. The officer applied a tourniquet and stabilized him until Austin-Travis County EMS medics could arrive.
The affidavit states that Dell Seton medical staff said the machete ‘had gone down his wrist to the bone, severing the ulnar nerve and the radial artery.’ Photos of his injury showed that the wound ‘[exposed] the intricate network of muscle tendons and even a glimpse of the underlying bone.’”
Meanwhile at City Hall
These are all tragic incidents and most of them could have had even worse outcomes. I cannot say for certain that these incidents are tied to the Council’s policies on homelessness and police staffing. I can say, as an almost 50-year Austin resident, that the area around Lady Bird Lake was much safer in earlier years. People were able to enjoy the natural beauty and the recreational amenities with little, if any, fear.
City Hall, in the foreground, viewed from Auditorium Shores.
Photo by Adela Mancías. Photo at top also by Adela Mancías.
Ironically City Hall is right in the heart of the area I am describing. Perhaps the Council should concentrate a little bit more on the area where their offices are located. Also, Council Members sometimes attribute the crime problem to the easy availability of guns; which to me is clearly a valid point, but also a way to put the problem off on Republicans — and blame the problem on an area over which Council Members have no control.
Guns, however, are clearly not the only problem. Among other things, it seems clear that the Mayor and Council need to start paying more attention to machete and knife crimes.
On the other hand, Republicans deserve some blame for the machete situation as well. As KXAN reported during the City Hall encampment in 2021, the Texas Legislature in 2017 made it legal to publicly carry “bowie knives, swords and machetes,” throwing out an earlier law that limited publicly displayed knives to five and a half inches.
Zo Says Walks on the Lake are “In”
It doesn’t appear that all elected officials at City Hall are seeing the same problem. For instance the day after this year’s machete attack, Council Member Zo Qadri, in whose District the crime occurred, took to X with a list of “District 9’s Ins and Outs for 2024.” Under “In” Qadri listed “Walks on Town Lake (see below).”
Although numerous posters on X pointed out to Qadri that someone had been stabbed on the trail only the day before, he never made any response, at least not on X where he posted his list.
The Independent emailed Qadri and asked if we had missed something, like a statement from his office or a follow-up posting. He replied, “We sent this statement out to news outlets after the horrific attack: ‘I was horrified to hear about the random and unprovoked attack on an Austinite near Auditorium Shores earlier this morning. I am grateful to Austin Police Department and ATCEMS for providing critical life-saving care to the victim and wish the victim a full recovery. I continue to work with APD to ensure that public safety is always a priority, and that Austinites feel safe and secure in our community.”’
We responded by asking when he sent out this statement and asked for a dated copy of the statement. Qadri replied, “It was sent out January 9th. It was sent individually to outlets and reporters per request.” He did not provide a dated copy and did not respond to a question about why he still recommended “Walks on Town Lake” in an unqualified way on X the next day.
Walking the Goat
Mayor Kirk Watson also went on a walk around Lady Bird Lake last month, a well publicized one. Media tagged along because the Mayor was accompanied by a goat, on a leash. According to KXAN, the goat is part of the Trail Conservancy’s maintenance plan for the land around Lady Bird Lake. They eat invasive plants, including poison ivy. That sounds like a good thing, but a reporter for CBS Austin was more focused on the most recent violence on E. 6th Street.
As Jessica Taylor of CBS Austin reported in her story about Watson’s walk with the goat, “Over the weekend, one person was killed and three bystanders were injured due to an officer-involved shooting on 6th Street after a man allegedly pulled a gun on officers.
The night prior, a woman brought a loaded gun into a bar. The public is asking questions about public safety and the Safer 6th Street Initiative, but many city leaders are staying quiet.” Among the quiet she counted the Mayor.
As Watson was talking to the media about the invasive-plant eating goat, a KXAN reporter, in a sort of Washington D.C. style, asked, ‘”Do you have a minute for a safety question?”
Watson replied, ‘”I’m here for the goats. I’m here for the goats. Can we just do that.”’ Watson also said, “No, we’re not doing that. We’re taking trail questions.”
To be fair, the Mayor does tend to focus more on policing and public safety than some of his colleagues, but the cluelessness in this situation is hard to ignore.
Afterward CBS Austin contacted the Mayor’s office for comment on E. 6th Street violence. His office issued a statement from him reading, “We are constantly and consistently looking at ways to improve safety downtown and throughout the City. The prevalence of guns complicates those efforts.”
CBS Austin also reported that they “reached out to many of the city council members for comment, including District 9’s city council member Zo Qadri, who represents the downtown neighborhoods. His team did not respond to our requests for comment.”
Council Member Mackenzie Kelly did respond and her detailed response, as summarized by CBS Austin, along with Taylor’s full report, can be found here.
Casar Goes YIMBY on Police Patrols
The ideological architect (when he was a Council Member) of both the camping ban repeal and the police officer shortage, Congressman Greg Casar, has been in the news lately regarding APD. On December 15 Casar wrote to the US Justice Department asking for an investigation of APD for, among other things, “”excessive and lethal use of force … particularly against communities of color and those with mental health conditions.” That will play out on its own accord, but Casar made more headlines a few days later when numerous media outlets reported that he had requested extra police patrols around his house in Austin. Per protocol, he sent that request to the Capitol Police who forwarded it to APD.
Dennis Farris, head of the Austin Retired Police Officers Association (ARPOA) said Casar should get the protection he needs, but added that the Congressman’s request was “hypocritical.” The ARPOA account on X made similar points and concluded, “Sure seems like he wants the police in his neighborhood just not yours.”
In closing I want to acknowledge that I found some, but not all, of the examples of violence I cite above in an X post from Todd Jeffries of KLBJ-AM. I also got an additional example from Rachel E. Berry who responded to Jeffries’ tweet and reminded him about the attack at the Austin Prosper Hotel. I added a few examples that I had reported on before. I know it might alienate some local lefties that I used Jeffries as a source, since he is conservative and a Republican. His examples, however, are accurate and backed up by media reports.
Also, I want to make clear that I didn’t mention Jeffries as a source just because I’m worried about a Republican nailing me for plagiarism, like I’m the President of Harvard or something. I mention Jeffries for two reasons. First, citing sources is the appropriate thing to do. Second, I think that improving the public safety situation is going to take Austinites of all political persuasions demanding that the Mayor and Council prioritize protecting the public over governing by radical ideology.
Once again I may be worrying and/or irritating some of my left wing friends. But, I look at it like this. Republicans, Democrats and Independents are all free to walk or run on the trail. No one, regardless of their political persuasion wants to get stabbed while doing so; and no one wants any of their family or friends to get stabbed. And, I think the overwhelming majority of people don’t want anyone to get stabbed at any time. So how about we all work together on making the trail and the whole city safer, while still holding police accountable?
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